Vision Zero and the Challenge of Culture Change

New measures supported by victims’ families and enacted by Mayor de Blasio aim to change cultural attitudes that accept traffic violence as an unavoidable fact of modern life. Photo: Stephen Miller

This is the first post in a two-part piece about how Vision Zero will have to change attitudes toward streets and driving in order to succeed.

City Council Member Mark Weprin’s Vision Zero moment came after watching video footage of the collision that killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in Flushing, Queens, last October.

The driver of an SUV struck and killed Liao while she was crossing the street with her grandmother. They had the walk signal. Allison was dutifully holding her grandmother’s hand. Then the driver, making a left turn, knocked her grandmother down and dragged Allison under the vehicle’s wheel well.

“It was so graphic,” Weprin said, “It could happen to anyone. Some driver not paying attention can just snuff out a life just like that.”

Weprin admits that until recently he thought livable streets advocates were “crazy.” But after meeting with the families of victims of traffic crashes and hearing firsthand the devastating impact of acts of carelessness on the city’s streets, the eastern Queens representative became a supporter of Vision Zero.

“Pedestrians have the right of way, you don’t need to beat them,” Weprin said, “We all need to be calmer, we need to get you there safely.”

This is the central message of Vision Zero, that the human suffering caused by traffic crashes should not be accepted as part of daily life in the city. We as a city have a moral obligation to eliminate traffic fatalities.

“A life lost is a life lost,” goes Mayor de Blasio’s introduction to the Vision Zero Action Plan. “And it is our collective responsibility to save every life we can, be it a life taken in a violent crime or in a crash with a motor vehicle.”

To realize its Vision Zero goal — to eliminate traffic deaths in 10 years — the de Blasio administration will have to reengineer streets and step up enforcement. More than that, it will have to foster culture change.

“One of my favorite lines comes from the former DOT commissioner from Massachusetts: ‘Culture eats policy for breakfast,'” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “Culture is much more. You can change policy overnight. You can’t change culture overnight.”

In New York, a city defined by its hectic pace and pervasive impatience, the biggest obstacle to preventing traffic deaths will be changing a system of values that prioritizes automobile traffic, accepts traffic crashes, and condones aggressive driving.

Laying the Groundwork

Mayor de Blasio set his Vision Zero agenda into motion just two weeks after his inauguration. “This will be a top-to-bottom effort to take on dangerous streets and dangerous driving,” de Blasio said at the time.

Pushing Vision Zero so high up the agenda was not without political risk. “When I first heard of Vision Zero, I have to admit I was skeptical,” said Howard Wolfson, a former deputy to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “I think the ground had been laid for it by many years of policy changes and policy success. But still, given the context this was a very ambitious program and an ambitious goal. Sometimes you have to shoot big, in order to capture people’s attention and make it clear what the stakes are.”

With Bloomberg’s support, former transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan made bold changes to the streetscape. She oversaw the transformation of street space into pedestrian plazas, the rapid expansion of the bike network, the first Select Bus Service routes, and the introduction of Citi Bike.

By redesigning streets and dedicating space for bikes, buses, and pedestrians, Sadik-Khan challenged the prevailing values, beliefs, and expectations concerning who and what streets are for. “Twelve years ago streets were viewed mostly as asphalt and concrete corridors for moving cars as quickly as possible,” said Sadik-Khan. “Pedestrians and bicyclists were tolerated at best.”

“In this city we have a particular legacy both of an American culture that, let’s be honest, was very auto-centric for a lot of decades,” said Trottenberg, “and in New York we had the unique history of Robert Moses.”

The problem is that streets designed with only automobile traffic in mind are inherently dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. Wide roadways encourage speeding and aggressive turns, the primary factors behind traffic fatalities. “You could see it in a street like Prospect Park West that looked like a runway and the message to drivers was, ‘Get ready for takeoff,'” said Sadik-Khan. “Our streets looked like the Wild West.”

Traffic was (and remains) among the city’s most prevalent threats to public safety, comparable to gun violence. But as the city moved to make streets safer, some public officials accused the administration of trying to “stigmatize car owners” by taking away parking (though very few spaces were actually removed) and narrowing lanes, giving more roadway space to bikes, pedestrians, and buses.

“I think people had this baggage, this cultural baggage, that streets are for cars,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. “They saw this happening and thought it was outrageous that space could be taken away from them.”

The city wasn’t trying to stigmatize drivers, but it was trying to get them to slow down and be more aware of pedestrians and bicyclists. The goal was to save lives.

“People saw all these bike lanes go in, like pedestrian plazas, and there was a dislocation in their minds,” said White. “Even though safety was a reason why Bloomberg and Janette were pushing for these things, more often these projects were perceived as part of a health or environmental rationale. The mayor was also known as the health mayor — banning smoking, sugary drinks, calorie counts, trans fats.”

Turning the Corner

By all measures, the changes implemented by Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg were successful. “At some point it became obvious that this was a popular policy, that people were using bike lanes, that Citi Bike was being used,” said Wolfson. “Then you had much less newspaper criticism.”

Proposals for new pedestrian plazas and bike lanes still draw detractors — New Yorkers have strong opinions about everything — but the backlash has quieted down. Commissioner Trottenberg gives credit to Sadik-Khan for “starting to not only reengineer streets but get the culture change going.”

That transition has continued during the first year of the de Blasio administration, and Vision Zero has been a powerful message, helping to frame successful efforts to lower the city’s speed limit and roll out a bigger speed camera program.

“He’s been using all the right language,” White said of de Blasio. “It’s unacceptable for this to happen, reckless driving is unacceptable. I think that has penetrated the public consciousness.”

The importance of advocacy by groups like Families For Safe Streets, who have shared their stories of personal loss with elected officials, cannot be overstated. Earlier this year the City Council passed a package of 11 bills to stiffen penalties on dangerous drivers and to ask Albany for the authority to lower the speed limit to 25 miles per hour.

Families For Safe Streets then went up to Albany, backed by Trottenberg and several members of the City Council, to push for a bill to lower the city’s default speed limit. At one point, it seemed the bill wouldn’t come to the floor for a vote — the usual Albany drama. But state legislators eventually got around to approving a 25 mph speed limit.

“It’s incredible to see the public coming together around safety, the public and government coming together on a shared vision,” says Sadik-Khan. “I see a great moment in Vision Zero… It has been years in the making, where the politics and the personal are united on this issue.”

Coming up in part two: culture change and NYPD.