Vision Zero Cities: Road Violence is a Public Health Crisis that Needs Public Health Solutions

An East L.A. street scene. Photo: Oscar Ochoa
An East L.A. street scene. Photo: Oscar Ochoa

Starting on Wednesday in New York, Transportation Alternatives will host its annual “Vision Zero Cities” conference. In conjunction with the confab, Streetsblog is posting content from the annual journal published by TransAlt. We’ll roll them out over the course of the week. Meanwhile, click here for the full conference schedule and to register.

Madeline Brozen and John Yi
Madeline Brozen and John Yi

Traffic violence is one of the leading causes of death by unintentional injury and premature death in the United States, and Los Angeles is no outlier in this tragic trend. From 2010 to 2019, traffic violence was the third leading cause of premature death in Los Angeles County, behind heart disease and drug overdoses. This preventable loss of life demands a response, and finding answers requires understanding and genuinely engaging those most affected: Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles face the worst traffic violence outcomes, which have only worsened over the course of the pandemic. Solving this problem requires that Vision Zero investments provide resources to organizations and communities that take public health approaches, lifting up community members as experts. 

The geographic patterns of traffic violence are too alike across U.S. cities. A study of 60 unique street corridors where people walking was killed between 2001 and 2016 found striking similarities in how these roads were designed. Nearly two-thirds of these corridors fit a standard pattern: three or more lanes with speed limits over 30 mph and high traffic volumes. The neighborhood demographics are also similar, as many of these fast and wide urban arterial streets are located in neighborhoods with lower median household incomes and high proportions of people of color. 

Data from Los Angeles takes our understanding further and allows us to see the racial patterns in where fatal traffic violence occurs and who it affects the most. From 2013-2017, Black victims represented 16 percent of those killed in fatal crashes, while Black residents only make up eight percent of residents in the City. Black victims were over-represented in fatal traffic deaths across all modes – walking, bicycling, and driving. Latino victims were also overrepresented in fatalities while walking or bicycling, representing 55 percent of bicyclists killed and 50 percent of pedestrians killed to their 48 percent share of the overall population. Nearly 200 people per year lost their lives to traffic violence during this time, and one in four deaths was a Black or Latino pedestrian. 

The pandemic further worsened the traffic violence crisis for people of color. In 2020 and 2021, the average number of traffic deaths in Los Angeles rose by 50 percent to nearly 300 per year, and people of color bore the brunt of this violence. Nearly one in three deaths during these two years represented a Black or Latino pedestrian. The carnage is unjust and inequitable. Los Angeles and other U.S cities are in dire need of a solution to reverse course, and lackluster Vision Zero efforts, in their current configuration, are not working well enough. 

For too many cities, including Los Angeles, the effort to reduce traffic deaths is failing.. The challenge isn’t the lack of solutions; we know what it takes to design safer, more community-centered streets. What often is missing is the political will to quickly fund, implement, and follow through on these initiatives. We need to address traffic violence as the public health crisis as it is. We know how to engineer and design safe streets, but now we need to integrate them into human and community needs.

Lack of investment and political will are not new barriers to addressing transportation challenges, especially in communities of color. These inequities are the result of practices already baked into city and regional transportation systems. For example, in City transportation contracts, community engagement is critical in making sure street designs reflect actual community needs. However, these contracts are too often given to multinational corporate firms with little to no connection to the project community. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise when street designs are so out of sync with their surrounding community.

Research and practice agree that community engagement should be a central element in improving the broken infrastructure, going hand in hand with re-engineering for safety. Engagement requires community relationships and establishing trust and real resources to do so. Yet language, cultural, and legal status barriers further limit civic participation in infrastructure projects at community meetings and decision-making forums. While there may be a list of different reforms needed to fix this system, one need is apparent in LA’s broken transportation table: a forceful and meaningful voice of the community, especially from our immigrant and communities of color. 

Enter Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy nonprofit working primarily with immigrant and monolingual LA neighbors. They looked to public health, a field where public policies and programs are traditionally much closer and in sync with local communities, to learn how to empower residents to get involved in addressing the traffic violence crisis.

Inspired by the public health sector’s “Community Health Workers,” Los Angeles Walks created a Safe Street Promotor Educator program, in which promotor educators provide their peers and neighbors with hyper-local, culturally- and linguistically-competent expertise on accessing City resources and navigating City bureaucracies in their advocacy for pedestrian infrastructure (i.e.: navigable sidewalks, crosswalks, transit furniture). Through City contracts, “los promotores” support transportation projects and build their experience as professional consultants. By financially supporting these community experts as professionals, Los Angeles Walks is assuring better community engagement on agency contracts and developing a class of safe street professionals from the communities once marginalized by these agencies.

And the success is remarkable. Since 2019, Los Angeles Walks has trained two cohorts of promotores and is now entering its third year of workshops. During this time, they’ve secured several transportation contracts, of which $80,000 has gone back into the community through payments to promotor contractors. In addition to building career pathways, the promotores also have secured new infrastructure, including bus shelters, new sidewalks, and – most recently – LA’s second-ever crosswalk that includes a decorative art element designed by the community. Finally, these tools also help promotores pursue other professional opportunities like taking English classes or securing a GED, as a few promotores already have.

As mighty as Los Angeles Walks’ promotores are presently, the task at hand is bigger than they can address at their current scale. There are communities of color across this vast city with countless dangerous streets that need to be redesigned with community input and engagement at the center. The success of Vision Zero cannot rest on design or policy alone. More important are the community voices that must ring louder and carry these policies and designs into reality.

The public health sector’s approach to collaborating with communities can provide a model: just as Community Health Workers are trained and hired by public health agencies and hospital networks across the country, imagine a day when transportation agencies and bureaus create their own community-rooted engagement model. Safe street promotores could be at the ready to do grassroots outreach, build relationships, and listen to people regularly and not just when there’s a project that needs their input. They could be an entity that works to invest in people and places and provides opportunities for upward mobility. They would provide a department where staff work to build trust in government through community-centered investments, so parents don’t have to worry about their children getting home safely from school or the park. Vision Zero can save lives on our streets, but it must bring those most hurt to the forefront as trusted experts in remedying the problems. 

Madeline Brozen is a transportation researcher working on equity, access, and affordability issues and deputy director at the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies. The Lewis Center focuses on generating knowledge and action around issues of housing affordability, transportation equity, and access to opportunities, jobs, and the regional economy for Greater Los Angeles. John Yi is the Executive Director of Los Angeles Walks, a non-profit organization working to activate and mobilize historically disinvested communities in Los Angeles to transform their streets into safe, accessible, and vibrant environments for people to walk. 


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