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NYC adopted Vision Zero 10 years ago. Here's what's worked to lower traffic deaths

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than a hundred people are killed on U.S. roads every day, more than 40,000 people a year. So it seemed bold, if not crazy, when city leaders across the country began to set their sights on eliminating traffic fatalities completely. It has now been 10 years since U.S. cities began to adopt the approach known as Vision Zero. NPR's Joel Rose reports on what has worked and what hasn't.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Queens Boulevard in New York City used to be called the Boulevard of Death and with good reason.

LIZI RAHMAN: My son passed away 15 years ago.

ROSE: Lizi Rahman still puts silk flowers on the white-painted ghost bicycle that marks the spot where her son, Asif, was killed riding home from the school where he worked in 2008.

RAHMAN: I didn't understand why there was no bike lane on this vicious and dangerous and busy road.

ROSE: So Rahman tried to get changes, including a bike lane on Queens Boulevard, a 12-lane speedway where more than a hundred pedestrians had been killed. Rahman's efforts stalled for years. And then mayor Bill de Blasio rolled into office with an ambitious road safety agenda. A few years later, Rahman found herself celebrating a new bike lane on a redesigned Queens Boulevard.

RAHMAN: If my son were still alive, he would be riding, biking happily on this street. But he is not here. He gave his blood, his life, and it's not in vain.

ROSE: New York was the first U.S. city to officially adopt Vision Zero, a road safety approach from Europe that believes all roadway fatalities are preventable. The Vision Zero approach acknowledges that some crashes are going to happen. But it aims to make them less deadly by lowering speed limits and making automobile lanes narrower while adding protections for pedestrians and cyclists. Dozens of other U.S. cities have signed on to Vision Zero. Even the U.S. transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, considers himself a convert.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: The thing that really got my attention was seeing how many places had done it. And what that told me is that this can, in fact, be done.

ROSE: Still, a decade after Vision Zero arrived in the U.S., its goal seems more elusive than ever. There have been some successes, including Queens Boulevard. A few cities have seen a remarkable drop in roadway fatalities, but many others have not. Traffic deaths are still rising dramatically in much of the country, including Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, D.C. Nationwide, fatalities are up 30% since 2014. Even Vision Zero advocates concede the numbers are not great.

LEAH SHAHUM: We've not, anywhere in the U.S., truly committed to a real Vision Zero shift.

ROSE: Leah Shahum is the founder of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit in California that works to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Shahum says it's easy for cities to adopt Vision Zero as a slogan, but actually changing the status quo on the streets - that's hard.

SHAHUM: The main reason that communities are failing - there's not the will to make changes that are, in the end, probably going to slow people down driving, and there's probably going to be pushback.

ROSE: That pushback can take a couple of forms. Often, it's local residents who complain about losing parking spaces for a new bike lane or drivers who already have long commutes and don't want to make them longer.

SHAHUM: There's no reason we can't be making Vision Zero work in this country, but it's going to take a lot more than press releases and platitudes. It's going to mean really prioritizing safety over speed.

ROSE: Even when cities want to implement Vision Zero, they're often blocked by state rules.

JAY CROSSLEY: Vision Zero is working, but it's working uphill, where other policies in Texas are making it worse still.

ROSE: Jay Crossley is the director of Farm&City, a nonprofit in Austin that's focused on land use and transportation. He says Texas cities like Houston and Dallas are blocked from lowering their own speed limits, even though speeding is a huge factor in traffic fatalities in Texas and nationwide. Meanwhile, Crossley says the state is busy adding more lanes to major roads.

CROSSLEY: We're just throwing money into building concrete. And one of the regrettable outcomes is that focusing on speeding up travel is actually very dangerous.

ROSE: Speeding is not the only reason traffic fatalities are up. Drivers are more distracted. Cars are bigger and heavier and, therefore, more deadly for pedestrians and cyclists. Still, there are some bright spots. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg notes that traffic fatalities in the U.S. may have peaked. The numbers have been declining slightly for about a year. And the DOT has begun handing out billions of dollars in grants to redesign dangerous streets and intersections.

BUTTIGIEG: Just about every community knows where their trouble spots are. What they've been seeking is the support on how to address those trouble spots - to follow the data, follow the dots on these awful maps that show you where all the fatalities and injuries are.

ROSE: And there are a few places in the U.S. where Vision Zero does seem to be working.

STEVEN FULOP: You're in front of City Hall, and you see, you know, protected bike lanes.

ROSE: Steven Fulop is the mayor of Jersey City, N.J. He's describing a street that's been redesigned with tables for outdoor dining and a protected bike lane. For a full year, Jersey City had zero fatalities on streets that it controls. It's one of a handful of cities around the U.S. that can make that claim, along with neighboring Hoboken and Edina, Minn. Fulop says it takes a lot more than a press release.

FULOP: If you just do a resolution and say, we are supporting Vision Zero, you could expect no results from that. You got to really be dedicated to it. But if you are committed to it, you will save lives.

BARKHA PATEL: We would go out there and paint basically this curb extension that you see here.

ROSE: Barkha Patel is the director of infrastructure for Jersey City. She says the city adopted the tactics of what's called guerilla urbanism - redesigning intersections and extending the curb toward the middle of the street using just orange traffic cones and paint at first.

PATEL: It's the city itself saying, we have to be very, very flexible and nimble and treat our streets as living, breathing things that are not just static. We can't treat our transportation problems like things that require years and years of planning and millions of dollars.

ROSE: Sometimes there was opposition from local residents, Patel says. But it helped that people could see the changes in action immediately. Last year Jersey City saw a small uptick in fatalities, though only on streets that haven't been redesigned yet.

PATEL: We haven't gotten to every single high-injury street that we need to, but the streets where we have made improvements, we haven't seen any of the same types of crashes or any of the fatalities. And so when we have a year like this, it sort of helps ground us to say, we know what works.

ROSE: After 10 years of Vision Zero in the U.S., supporters say we do know more than ever about what works. But the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities still feels far away. Joel Rose, NPR News, Jersey City, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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