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On The Road

Vision Zero: A 2020 Update

We check up on the progress of Vision Zero around the globe.

by Alex Kelly

Vision Zero is an international road safety framework, challenging transportation experts to build a safer infrastructure to prevent serious injuries and fatalities. Since its 1997 inception in Sweden, Vision Zero has been rolled out around the globe, with varied results­ — only one city in the world has achieved a Vision Zero. As we start a new decade, our team wanted to check in on this transportation trend; is a vision of zero still viable?

Success for Vision Zero

Support for Vision Zero has been sweeping at a national level. Federal transportation bodies in Canada, as well as the United States, have their own version of a committed road safety plan. While the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators and the Federal Highway Administration have used “Towards Zero” language to outline jurisdictional suggestions, they share the overall sentiment of Vision Zero — a reduction of serious injuries and fatalities. 

Canadian cities have embarked on Vision Zero with various levels of success — approximately 15 Canadian jurisdictions have implemented Vision Zero, or a similar approach, with even more considering the framework.

The greatest success for Vision Zero comes out of Oslo, Norway, which posted zero pedestrian or cyclist injuries in 2019. While the city recorded one driver fatality when a driver crashed into a fence, road safety advocates around the world are applauding Oslo’s achievement. However, Norway’s top road administrator remarked this is still one death too many, and the city remains committed to further improvements.

Obstacles to adoption 

While zero serious injuries and fatalities should be a no-brainer, the political commitment to Vision Zero can still be a hard sell. The large price tag of infrastructure changes, combined with the lofty nature of Vision Zero’s goal, can slow political acceptance. However, just the idea of Vision Zero allows for overdue conversations about the design of our roadways, forcing the question: How can we do better?

Jurisdictional issues can slow adoption as well. Sweden, the original Vision Zero country, manages its transportation issues at a national level — meaning sweeping adoptions of change across the country. In North America, much of transportation is governed at a municipal or provincial/state level. This means that the traffic systems may change from town to town, with small budgets for upgrades in each community.

The lack of continuity is only further complicated when departments, like police services, operate at a regional level. Potentially, a regional police department may have to enforce the law across municipalities that have very different Vision Zero strategies, making the idea seem logistically difficult to consider. 

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Finally, while Vision Zero focuses on changing the transportation system — rather than relying on humans to be perfect all the time — it still requires a major culture shift amongst all road users. North American cities prioritize to accommodate personal vehicle traffic, a major differentiator from European counterparts. Transit, cycling, and other transportation options need to be embraced to create change. 

Moving forward

Vision Zero has initiated important conversations about the state of our roads, but requires steadfast commitment to tackle issues head-on. Oslo’s success was due to sizeable, and often controversial, changes to the road system — including restricting cars in the city centre, while also increasing fees to enter and park within the system.

Prospective Vision Zero cities need to look inwards and adapt the framework to their specific context, rather than using Sweden or Norway’s successes as a one-size-fits-all solution. This is particularly important as new innovations  like ride-sharing and micro-mobility — refine and develop Vision Zero opportunities further.

While solving all transportation issues may seem daunting, municipalities may choose to initially focus on a certain demographic, like children or youth. Sometimes more politically palatable and financially viable, initiatives like Vision Zero for Youth are a non-partisan way to commit to changes with a sustainable strategy. 

Vision Zero can be a powerful framework to engage and energize the road safety community, presenting an exciting opportunity to innovate transportation and rethink our road systems. However, Vision Zero needs to be a long-term initiative, not just a campaign, where the ethical motivation is adapted for each municipality’s unique context.

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