The Meaning of ‘Vision Zero’

Background Reading


AASHTO President Jon Cox before a congressional committee Tuesday. (Screen capture via Rep. Rick Larsen)

AASHTO President Jon Cox before a congressional
committee Tuesday.
(Screen capture via Rep. Rick Larsen)

Two perfect examples of the attitude Vision Zero is supposed to change

Vision Zero is maybe the hottest subject in American street advocacy right now, but there’s still quite a lot of disagreement about what exactly it means.

As Portland adopts an official policy to prevent all road deaths and safety advocates begin a push for state and other local governments to follow that lead, we’ve just gotten a couple very clear examples of what Vision Zero doesn’t mean.

One comes from a hearing Tuesday in Washington D.C. The other comes from a state engineer quoted yesterday in The Oregonian.

As reported by Streetsblog USA, the president of the country’s most influential road-design organization answered a question about the recent national uptick in the number of people dying on bikes or foot by saying that on rural roads in his home state of Wyoming, road design is not an issue.

“Behavior — driver behavior and cyclist behavior — was really 100 percent the issue, not the design of the pavement,” Jon Cox, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said in a congressional hearing.

Cox didn’t elaborate on any possible policy changes, rural or otherwise.

Then, yesterday on, Oregon Department of Transportation traffic engineering unit manager Doug Bish expressed a similar (though not identical) view while describing the agency’s safety efforts.

The state analyzes highways a tenth of a mile at a time and looks for places “where there is a higher number than normal of crashes going on.”

He said that fatal accidents, on their own, don’t necessarily indicate an engineering problem because many of them are the result of driver behavior rather than problems with roads or highways.

“If five crashes occur at a location,” he said, “there’s a stronger possibility that something is wrong rather than one crash where five people die.”

Obviously neither Cox or Bish is in favor of road deaths. But do they tolerate road deaths? Bish explicitly does. And neither Cox (a law enforcement officer by trade) or Bish (an engineer) seems to be open to the concept that roads designed for speed are a primary factor behind drivers’ unsafe behavior.

If they’d been pushed on the issue, Cox and Bish might have said that although safety improvements are important, allowing the overwhelming majority of cars to move quickly down a road is more important than preventing thousands of bad decisions from turning into fatalities every year across the country.

That argument might be valid. But it’s one that American politicians and engineering officials aren’t currently forced to make. If Vision Zero can accomplish anything, maybe it’s getting people to say this out loud — and decide for themselves whether they can live with the ongoing consequences.


I again point to the fact that despite their many decades of bicycle infrastructure improvement neither Copenhagen or Amsterdam has managed to achieve Vision Zero status. The concept by itself is rather meaningless in view of the fact that there are no recorded efforts of human endeavor that ever went off without a hitch.

And yes, like it or not the ‘human factor‘ is going to be with us perpetually. We will get better if we can develop collision-avoidance technology that makes it possible to at least expect the elimination of collisions. But braking alone is not going to keep two objects from colliding, especially if the surface is icy or wet or muddy.

ABS system only ‘guarantee‘ that the brakes are not continually applied if the vehicle starts to skid. So once again the human factor is still going to be a problem. If we want to avoid deaths on streets then we have to eliminate the possibility altogether than no one can collide with another.

In the case of cyclists running down pedestrians, there is sure no hope of anything technological that can intervene. Bicycles are nothing if not the most primitive of vehicles on the roadway. There is nothing to prevent an impaired cyclist from ‘amber gambling‘ with pedestrians in the crosswalk and hitting one who dies later of their injuries.

If we are going to ever reach Vision Zero then bicyclists are going to have to begin with themselves since in terms of the technological side of things (which I believe will be the most effective methodology for reaching zero motor vehicle collisions) they will always ‘lag behind‘.

There is never, I repeat never any reason that a bicyclist should ever hit and kill a pedestrian. But we do. And we are managing to hit and kill an increasing number of fellow cyclists. And yet we see virtually no outrage at that state of affairs.

We have to get our own house in order, first.

It Does Not Get More Straightforward Than A Pedestrian Crosswalk

Bicyclists are a bit like drug addicts who refuse to recognize that they have a problem. They are constantly pointing to the fellows sitting next to them drinking himself under the table and asking why are they allowed to behave in that manner and he is being subjected to an intervention for a bit of crack cocaine.

When a person who designs streets for a living admits that the problem is often human error it might behoove cyclists to picture the standard pedestrians crosswalk, to understand the problem.

Cyclists must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

Cyclists must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

The problem is straightforward. If you are a cyclist you stop and allow pedestrians to cross. And if you are ‘amber gambling‘ to beat a red light and strike a pedestrian, then shame on you.

So someone in the seemingly self-righteous Portland area give me one reason why the design of a simple crosswalk would ever result in pedestrian death by a cyclist! I really cannot think of a single instance in which the failure of a cyclist to yield the right-of-way would not be the cause of death.

So clearly there are probably few if any improvements to be made to the current crop of crosswalks. I would certainly welcome any that came along. But in the short term, it is the bicyclist community that has to accept responsibility.

But of course there are always those in the Urban Cycling Community who refuse to accept any personal blame for anything. It is always some rogue cyclist who has to shoulder the responsibility but never them for creating a culture in which the rogue cyclists behavior has become the norm.

On the other hand every time they open their mouths they condemn every motorist alive for being the problem for causing this or that collision. And yes, motorists like myself are personally and collectively guilty for not speaking out when we see reckless driving. That should be the same stance that cyclists take.

Condemn those who reflect badly on the community of cyclists. Change the culture from within!