Lessons from London
London is the city most like New York City. It is an international city very similar to New York in its travel habits, population and industry. Technically, we even speak the same language. But when it comes to talking about transportation goals, though Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Ken Livingston and the London transportation agency are all fluent in the language of street safety and decreased car use, the New York City Department of Transportation has but a rudimentary understanding of the tongue. In London, Transport for London (TfL) has made great strides towards realizing its mayor’s progressive vision on a citywide scale. In New York City, the City DOT has only implemented strong traffic calming and safety measures on a tiny percentage of city streets and intersections.
A comparison of performance indicators and targets of the two transportation agencies suggest that the difference between New York and London is not one of Mayoral leadership or vision, but of implementation. To work towards realizing its mayor’s vision, London’s transportation agency has written and regularly updated thorough policy documents, devised clear outcome-based performance indicators and set date-bound targets—all designed to place safety and livability firmly in front of motorized traffic flow. In contrast, the New York City DOT’s performance indicators are all input-based, and targets nonexistent.
Mastering the Language of Safety and Decreased Car Use
Back in 1984, London actually had more pedestrian deaths than New York: 300 versus 293. Yet, by 1997, London had reduced its pedestrian fatalities to 150, compared to 249 here. And, most importantly, London did not stop there. In 2000, the city’s transportation officials seized the opportunity to further reduce pedestrian fatalities and injuries; responding to Mayor Ken Livingston’s strong mandate to make the city’s transportation system safe, fast, sustainable and accessible, the agency set goals for making Livingston’s vision a reality. In 2003, London’s pedestrian fatality total was 111 and motorized traffic delays in Central London are down 30%; congestion levels in the zone are now the lowest they have been since the agency began tracking congestion in the mid-1980s.
Meanwhile, though New York City enjoyed an historic low in pedestrian fatalities in 2003, the City DOT has yet to articulate targets for reducing or even maintaining this important improvement. Instead, the DOT’s performance indicators merely reflect maintaining the status quo; for example, the number of traffic signals repaired and tort cases commenced. And though the agency does track the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed, it does not set targets for reducing those numbers.
The City DOT should be proud of its role in reducing pedestrian fatalities in 2003, but it should not be satisfied. New York City still has a long way to go to make streets safer for walking and bicycling. The DOT should figure out how it helped reduce pedestrian fatalities in 2003, set targets for further reducing fatalities and injuries for both pedestrians and bicyclists, and implement a detailed action plan for reaching those targets. Tracking the number of signs replaced is not a meaningful indicator of the agency’s performance; the agency should not strive only to respond to public maintenance requests, but to pro-actively improve the transportation system.
“Move towards a bike and
pedestrian friendly environment to foster alternatives to motor vehicles.”
“You don’t want anything that
encourages people to drive.”
Vision Zero: Are Any Traffic Deaths Acceptable?
In New York City and across the United States the traditional approach to reducing traffic fatalities and injuries is to use legislation or education to change the behavior of the road user. It is the users of the roads and not the design of the roadway system that is to blame in the event of crashes. Yet this blame the victim mentality ignores the larger setting in which the crashes occur.
In October 1997, the Swedish parliament passed a national road safety bill based on what is known as Vision Zero, a goal that noone be killed or seriously injured within the road transportation system. Vision Zero rejects the prevailing approach to street design, which makes the cost of individual human error death or injury. Instead, Vision Zero explicitly states that the responsibility for street safety is shared by the system designers and the street user; it charges street, traffic and vehicle engineers to scrutinize speed, mobility and vehicle design in streetscapes to follow the principle that “… the speed limits within the road transport system should be determined by the technical standard of vehicles and roads so as not to exceed the level of violence that the human body can tolerate.”
Vision Zero is not so much a goal as a new, dynamic way of approaching street use. As the New York City DOT slowly begins to embrace traffic safety strategies of the 21st century, it should emulate London’s goal oriented transportation policy and keep a close eye on Sweden’s provocative Vision Zero.
Translating English: The Basic Vocabulary of Safer Streets and Fewer Cars
What if the City DOT made
efforts to realize Mayor Bloomberg’s vision by adopting London’s language of
safety and decreased car use? What if the DOT both set targets and articulated a
detailed plan for achieving these targets similar to London?