How Vision Zero is Making American Streets Safer, Healthier, and More Equitable

In a 2017 study, Harvard researchers found that walking could decrease the risk of early death among older women by 70 percent. The 17,000 participants were all women in their early 70s. Considering the results were based on one brisk walk per week, the benefit of walking for the masses looks promising.

In addition to possibly extending life expectancy as in the case of this cohort of Harvard research subjects, other studies have demonstrated numerous health benefits of walking for both mind and body. Among the physical benefits, high up on the list are matters of the heart.

Walking can mitigate cardiac risk factors such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, vascular stiffness and inflammation, and peripheral artery disease. And as for the mind, walking has been found to support individuals coping with stress, depression, and even dementia.

The Mayo Clinic weighs in on the benefits of walking to prevent or manage conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Mayo Clinic staff also assert that a daily brisk walk can help individuals maintain a healthy weight, improve mood, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve balance and coordination. They even provide a visual of proper walking technique for maximum benefit.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) concurs, adding to the list the benefit of walking to improve sleep. Though the ACS states that to improve health by walking, the more the better, they also emphasize the health benefits of even five minutes of physical activity.

As a moderate-intensity activity, 150 minutes of walking per week is recommended for adults. For those not there yet, individuals are encouraged to work up to it as maintaining a healthy weight and getting the type of regular physical activity walking provides can reduce cancer risk. The good thing is, when it comes to physical activity, every bit counts.

However, the ACS leads this discussion with the simple assertion that, “All you need is a good pair of shoes and a safe place to walk” which begs the question: Where is it safe to walk?

Traffic Safety is a Public Health Issue

So here we face a catch-22. Walking is good for our health on many levels, and the CDC acknowledges that physical inactivity contributes greatly to many of the chronic health conditions faced by people in the United States. However, the CDC also reports that many Americans view walking and other forms of active transportation as “unsafe due to heavy traffic and a scarcity of sidewalks, crosswalks, and bicycle facilities.”

More than 40,000 people are killed annually on American streets by vehicles. That is 100 people per day. And traffic fatalities are not just an issue in urban environments. In 2018, 45 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths occurred in rural areas. The states with the highest number of traffic deaths? The Dakotas (first and third highest) and Vermont (second).

As for deaths by type of road user, Hawaii had the highest number of pedestrian deaths in 2018 (36 percent) followed by Washington, DC (25 percent), which also had the highest number of bicyclist fatalities at 10 percent.

Traffic Safety is a Human Rights Issue

Vision Zero is a collaborative campaign to create an environment of healthy, equitable mobility for all. Vision Zero does not consider traffic injuries and fatalities “accidents” because, with a paradigm shift, they believe them to be preventable.

And by healthy mobility for all, they mean anyone using the streets, including people walking, bicycling, using wheelchairs, taking public transit, or using other means of active transportation.

This new vision for safety shifts from the traditional approach, in which traffic deaths are viewed as inevitable and a matter of individual responsibility, to a “Vision Zero” approach, in which traffic fatalities can be prevented through systemic change.

The Vision Zero Priorities

The Vision Zero Network’s main priorities are threefold: managing speed, centering equity, and engaging communities.

In 2016, 10 early-adopters formed the Vision Zero Focus Cities program to collaborate with other leaders committed to advancing the practice of traffic safety nationwide. These include Austin; Boston; Chicago; Washington, DC; Fort Lauderdale; Los Angeles; New York City; Portland (OR); San Francisco; and Seattle.

Leaders of these early-adopter cities identified the following components of a strong Vision Zero commitment:

  • Political commitment
  • Community engagement
  • Multidisciplinary leadership
  • Action plan
  • Cooperation and collaboration
  • Systems-based approach
  • Data-driven
  • Transparency
  • Equity

Over 40 cities around the nation have now met the criteria to become Vision Zero communities. This involves:

  1. A clear goal for eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries
  2. A public commitment by the city Mayor
  3. A Vision Zero strategy set or committed to within a clear time frame
  4. The coordination of leadership among the mayor’s office, transportation, and public health departments
  5. An established Vision Zero Task Force

In this expert interview with Vision Zero standing committee chair, Gerard Soffian, we learn more about what it takes to create safer streets so that there truly can be mobility equity for all.

Meet the Expert: Gerard Soffian, P.E., Chair, Vision Zero Standing Committee

Gerard Soffian, P.E., is a transportation engineer and chair of the Vision Zero standing committee. He served as the deputy commissioner division of traffic operations for the New York City Department of Transportation for over 26 years.

Mr. Soffian is currently a senior engineer for the Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants. He also operates his own firm, GSoffian Engineering, PLLC and is an adjunct professor at the NYU Tandon Graduate School of Engineering.

What kind of shift in cultural attitudes is needed for the success of the Vision Zero initiative?

Cultural attitudes need to shift for transportation professionals, elected officials, and the general public.

Transportation professionals need to place roadway safety at highest priority for advancing an agency’s plans, programs, and projects. The competing needs of improving traffic flow, convenience, modal choice, and cost must be given secondary priority.

It should be noted that placing safety first does not necessarily mean that other mobility needs cannot also be met simultaneously.

What role does political accountability and policy-making play?

Elected officials need to be mindful that a commitment to transportation safety requires a longstanding obligation beyond the initial announcement and goal setting. The commitment to safety must include transparency in data reporting, ongoing monitoring of program effectiveness, and revisiting/revising plans on a regular basis.

Please describe an example of a “measurable strategy” that Vision Zero has identified as necessary for the prevention of traffic injury and death.

A measurable strategy could include the implementation of a specific amount or quantity of safety countermeasures such as miles of complete streets, priority bus lanes, [or] signals upgraded. Part of the strategy could include the identification and selection of priority transportation corridors, intersections, and underserved/disadvantaged communities.

Which of the factors that contribute to safe mobility (roadway design, speeds, enforcement, behaviors, technology, and policies) present the most challenge with regard to the goals of Vision Zero? What needs to happen to overcome this challenge?

Each of the factors noted is critical to safe mobility. The greatest challenge to meeting the goals of Vision Zero is acceptance by the general public that when in motion, it’s vital to be responsible for one’s personal choices. A cultural change is needed to lessen the attractiveness of higher speed, lessen competitiveness between motorists, and respect all users (e.g., bicyclists, pedestrians) of the roadway.

How has Vision Zero’s multidisciplinary approach contributed to its success?

Only through cooperation among multiple agencies and disciplines, at all levels of government, can safety goals be achieved. Also involving non-government organizations such as the entertainment, sports, and motor vehicle industries is useful. Advocacy groups are also essential.

The Last Word On Traffic Safety…For Now

To date, The Vision Zero Network, led by founder and executive director Leah Shahum and program director Jenn Fox, has:

  • Established expectations for a successful Vision Zero commitment
  • Shared policies and actions that support Vision Zero’s core principles (managing speed, centering equity, and inclusiveness)
  • Coordinated peer exchange opportunities among Vision Zero communities
  • Developed resources for Vision Zero leaders (eg. equity strategies for Vision Zero practitioners)
  • Met directly with city staff and community members in existing and emerging Vision Zero communities
  • Represented Vision Zero at the national level (e.g., as a steering group member of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Road to Zero” Coalition)
  • Partnered with national organizations to work on policy change on key traffic safety issues such as speed management

Along with the support of the advisory and standing committees and sponsorship of numerous foundations and companies, Vision Zero continues to work to advance safe mobility by:

  • Developing resources
  • Providing free informational webinars
  • Offering community one-on-one coaching
  • Giving community policy and advocacy support and training
  • Facilitating peer exchanges among Vision Zero staff

Let’s do our part and spread awareness of the need for safe streets to ensure the health and wellbeing of our neighbors, family members, and friends.

Cevia Yellin

Cevia Yellin


Cevia Yellin is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. She studied English and French literature as an undergraduate. After serving two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, she earned her master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cevia’s travels and experiences working with students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have contributed to her interest in the forces that shape identity. She grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, where her mom still lives in her childhood home.

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