Matts-Åke Belin has a job title that might sound a little foreign to an American ear, but one that’s very important in his home country of Sweden: traffic safety strategist. He holds that position with the Swedish Transport Administration, where he has been one of the key architects of the policy known as Vision Zero. Since approved by the Swedish parliament in October 1997, Vision Zero has permeated the nation’s approach to transportation, dictating that the government manage the nation’s streets and roads with the ultimate goal of preventing fatalities and serious injuries.
It’s a radical vision that has made Sweden an international leader in the area of road safety. When Vision Zero first launched, Sweden recorded seven traffic fatalities per 100,000 people; today, despite a significant increase in traffic volume, that number is fewer than three. To compare, the number of road fatalities in the United States is 11.6 per 100,000.
Recently Belin was in New York to speak at a Vision Zero symposium organized by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. New York City, under the Bill de Blasio administration, has adopted a policy it calls Vision Zero, although it is not strictly adherent to the Swedish approach. I sat down with Belin to discuss cultural differences between Sweden and the United States, the inevitability of human error on the street, the responsibility of the road engineer for safety, and the loneliness of the New York pedestrian. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What were the main barriers that had to be overcome in initially adopting Sweden’s Vision Zero strategy?
I would say that the main problems that we had in the beginning were not really political, they were more on the expert side. The largest resistance we got to the idea about Vision Zero was from those political economists that have built their whole career on cost-benefit analysis. For them it is very difficult to buy into “zero.” Because in their economic models, you have costs and benefits, and although they might not say it explicitly, the idea is that there is an optimum number of fatalities. A price that you have to pay for transport.
The problem is the whole transport sector is quite influenced by the whole utilitarianist mindset. Now we’re bringing in the idea that it’s not acceptable to be killed or seriously injured when you’re transporting. It’s more a civil-rights thing that you bring into the policy.
The other group that had trouble with Vision Zero was our friends, our expert friends. Because most of the people in the safety community had invested in the idea that safety work is about changing human behavior. Vision Zero says instead that people make mistakes, they have a certain tolerance for external violence, let’s create a system for the humans instead of trying to adjust the humans to the system.
How much does the acceptance of Vision Zero have to do with the Swedish culture?
Of course, Sweden has a long tradition of working with safety. So Vision Zero is also based on a historical context. If you take Volvo for example — by the way, they have also adopted Vision Zero — they always had safety as one of their core values. So somehow it seems to be in our whole society.
In many other nations, that’s not the case.
There’s a kind of paradox. I lived in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006. I remember I went to the library there, and I found a book that an American author had written about Sweden. And that guy, he was a little bit frustrated. He saw all these systems that we have in our society, for example when it comes to health care and social security and so on, it seems he was against these. There was some sense that if you take care too much about people in your society they will be a little bit spoiled, or whatever. That you have to fight.
On the other hand, Sweden has some of the most important companies in the world. They are doing lots of things in the world. Ericsson and Volvo—there are plenty of companies, actually. It’s a small country and we are out there. He came to the conclusion that it seems the social security system and that sort of thing actually creates risk-takers. Because you know that if something happens and you make mistakes in business or whatever, you will at least have food on your table.
We have that somehow built into living in our society.
And how does that play out in the transportation realm?
If we can create a system where people are safe, why shouldn’t we? Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about? So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead. And we have the knowledge to do that.
We Yanks don’t need no stinking Vision Zero. Long live bicycle safety, American Style…