By MATT FLEGENHEIMERMAY 12, 2014
STOCKHOLM — Across this Scandinavian capital of graceful cyclists and speed-regulating shrubbery, cabbies who drive Volvos and pedestrians who look over their shoulders before jaywalking, a simple figure rules:
Zero. It is the number of people permitted to die in Swedish traffic, according to national law.
For nearly two decades, every rising barrier and reduced speed limit has been tailored to this seemingly impossible goal, of eradicating traffic deaths and serious injuries, and its guiding premise: Every inch of street space must anticipate, and accommodate, human error.
While roadway deaths have not been eliminated, the country’s rate of fatalities has been whittled down to an international low. Now its approach faces perhaps its stiffest test: the streets of New York City.
In a bid to reverse generations of roadway unruliness, Mayor Bill de Blasio has put the strategy, known as Vision Zero, at the forefront of his transportation and policing agendas, targeting 2024 as the first year with no traffic deaths.
But in a city of 800 languages, nearly 14,000 taxis and 8.4 million potential traffic rants, street safety promises to be a complicated import.
Surface similarities between New York and its European counterpart, like bike lanes, pedestrian islands and a well-developed transit system, tend to wither on closer examination.
Pillars of the Swedish model include the reduction of default speed limits and the expansion of automated enforcement. Each requires the approval of state lawmakers in New York, who have yet to embrace the ideas widely.
Roundabouts, a major traffic tool in Sweden, are difficult to imagine on the high-density streets of Manhattan, transportation experts say. The term does not appear in the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero Action Plan, released in February.
In New York, the addition of planters and lawn chairs along pedestrian plazas drew snickers. In Sweden, potted vegetation is a traffic tool, placed on local roads to slow down drivers on straightaways.
In Stockholm, when the rare car horn sounds, the drone borders on polite, more of a gentle suggestion than a throbbing demand.
While Sweden’s population — more than 9.5 million — is only slightly larger than New York’s, the country has imposed sweeping reforms involving road construction, pedestrian protections and other policies with relatively little conflict. The Swedish Parliament adopted Vision Zero in 1997 as the national foundation for all road safety operations, heeding the calls of transportation planners who warned that the country’s traffic strategy was ill equipped for the next century.
The result has been a sort of social contract between state and citizen: If residents follow the most basic traffic laws, engineers can design roads to guard against all fatalities.
“You should be able to make mistakes,” said Lars Darin, a senior official with the Swedish Transport Administration, “without being punished by death.”
Last year, 264 people were killed, less than half the number in 1997. The fatality rate in Stockholm, 1.1 deaths per 100,000, is less than one-third of New York City’s rate. The national rate, 2.7 deaths per 100,000, is the lowest in the world, according to transportation officials.
The Swedish reputation for prudence seems to have seeped into the lexicon. Those raised in the Vision Zero age use the phrase “typical Swede” as something of a playful insult.
“It’s like you’re too safe, you’re too afraid of everything,” Johanna Brundin, 20, said of the term, as a group of cyclists swept past her along the city’s Djurgarden waterfront. “I like being a Swede.”
On many city streets, the speed limit has dipped below 20 miles per hour. In suburban areas, median barriers have proliferated, separating two-way traffic on high-speed corridors.
Officials say the barriers and roundabouts have in fact increased the potential for crashes, vehicle damage and minor injuries for some users. The trade-off: The sight of serious crashes at these locations has all but disappeared.
In a departure from most American traffic safety approaches, including New York City’s, Swedish authorities have generally dismissed the effects of education or enforcement on pedestrian safety. They were critical of the blitz of jaywalking tickets during Mr. de Blasio’s early months in office and efforts by the New York Police Department to distribute cards with safety tips in areas with a recent history of fatal crashes.
“Design around the human as we are,” said Claes Tingvall, the director of traffic safety at the Swedish Transport Administration and a godfather of the Vision Zero plan.
Though traffic deaths have fallen in many areas of the world, in large part because of improvements in emergency care and vehicle safety, places that have adopted Vision Zero-style programs have reported disproportionate success. According to the New York City plan, fatality rates in American states with Vision Zero policies, including Minnesota and Utah, fell at a pace more than 25 percent quicker than the national rate.
In New York, amid a flurry of street adjustments under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, traffic deaths have decreased by about 26 percent since 2001. Last year, according to the city’s Transportation Department, 290 people were killed. The department has been in contact with the Swedes, holding phone briefings with Vision Zero experts and meeting in person with some who were visiting New York, though no one from the administration has traveled to Sweden to look at the strategy firsthand.
Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, emphasized that while her international peers were a useful resource, New York was “definitely not going to be Stockholm.”
“You want to think carefully about culture change,” Ms. Trottenberg said. “New York City is one of the more remarkable pedestrian cultures in the world.”
The city’s plan has called for improved precinct-level police enforcement of speeding rules, the widening of parking lanes and the placement of “black box” data recorders in taxicabs. Mr. Tingvall of the Swedish Transport Administration called the set of proposals “very impressive.”
In recent weeks, the city has also unveiled a series of “arterial slow zones,” reducing the speed limit to 25 m.p.h. from 30 in designated areas, among other changes.
Street overhauls that provoked significant community turmoil under Mr. Bloomberg, like the expansion of bike lanes, appear less politically divisive when framed in the context of public safety.
At the city’s urging, state lawmakers recently approved the addition of 120 speed cameras in New York City school zones, bringing the total to 140. Sweden has more than 1,100.
Sweden has also installed a congestion-based toll plan, similar to the one championed unsuccessfully by Mr. Bloomberg, that has reduced traffic volumes by 20 percent in the target areas. Its safety effects are twofold, officials say: better cycling and walking conditions, with fewer cars on the road, and increased revenues to pay for major road improvements.
At least some Swedish vigilance seems to predate Vision Zero.
About 20 years ago, a now-defunct program allowed some homeowners to decide where speed bumps would be installed. The result: a hump every 20 meters in some neighborhoods, and some very slow trips home.
A veteran taxi driver, Nabil Bellar, 42, said he had never been asked to speed up.
“They say, ‘I have time, you don’t need to stress,’ ” he said of his typical passenger, as he waited outside Stockholm Central Station.
Others appreciate the country’s zeal for traffic safety only in hindsight. In 1998, Mr. Tingvall said, a driver who had survived after crashing into a newly constructed barrier sent the transport administration a cake.
For Nicklas Carlson, 32, an anthropology student at Stockholm University, clarity arrived as he sat in the back seat of a New York taxi in 2009, after his cabby left the vehicle to shout at a rival on the road.
“In broad daylight!” Mr. Carlson marveled. “This would never, ever happen in Sweden.”
- High-speed roads High speeds on multi-lane arteries like Eastern Parkway are a key culprit in many collisions. “Speeding is the No. 1 problem,” said Charles Komanoff, an organizer with the pedestrian-rights group Right of Way. Ms. Vanterpool said high-volume arterial roads account for only 10 percent of lane-miles in the city, but 50 percent of pedestrians’ deaths occur on them.
- Turning cars Studies show that cars turning on and off avenues and striking people in crosswalks are a major problem. The city has tried strategies to limit the danger. Eighth Avenue in Manhattan is one of several roadways that were re-engineered with bike and left-turn lanes.
- Wide boulevards Many of the most dangerous intersections are on wide streets like Queens Boulevard, where it takes a long time to cross and left turns create confusing traffic patterns, according to a 2008 city study. Seven pedestrians have died along Queens Boulevard since August 2011, and 256 have been injured.
- Double parking Commercial streets, like Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, can be dangerous even if the traffic is not fast-moving, engineers say. One reason: Double parking forces other vehicles to make repeated lane changes and reduces drivers’ vision.
- ‘Inexperienced drivers’ Around the high accident area at Third Avenue and 149th Street in the Bronx, one in three collisions with pedestrian or bicyclist injuries involved “inexperienced drivers,” a much higher rate than in the rest of the city.