Saturday, May 7, 2016

Vision Zero or zero vision?

Vision Zero - two words that became increasingly popular here on the East Coast within the last couple of years. Everyone likes them as they promise so much. The problem is, everyone seems to understand a bit differently what they're supposed to represent:
  • For cyclists and pedestrians, Vision Zero is a hope that they won't be dying as often under the wheels of city buses, trucks and cars.
  • For drivers, it's a hope that those bloody cyclists will stay away from "their" streets and stop "slowing them down".
  • Finally, for politicians, it's a hope that popularity rankings will go up just by sending out a message: "See? We care!".
Now, what do you think? Which one of these was the original intention of Vision Zero? You would think that safety of those unprotected people, such as pedestrians and cyclists, would be taken seriously. Unfortunately, it seems that American approach to Vision Zero means simply zero vision - a total lack of any serious action that could truly reduce number of fatalities on streets of Boston or New York. Instead, we are getting more and more examples that our Vision Zero program means one thing - pretend to do anything or do it  as long as it doesn't inconvenience drivers. That's right - car is king and let's not forget about it.

These examples are plentiful.

A 29-year old Allison Warmuth was killed last weekend while traveling on a scooter with her friend. This time however, it wasn't a driver of an ordinary car who ran her over with his vehicle, but a Duck Tour operator. Duck Tours are popular in many American cities. These are amphibious vehicles adapted to move tourists on streets and rivers. While such business idea looks great on paper, Duck Tours have a less-than-perfect safety record. Many of these vehicles, Boston's included, are modified WWII-era amphibians that were designed for military use in a battlefield - not on congested city streets. Their drivers have a severely limited visibility from behind the wheel and they may be completely unaware of any foot or bicycle traffic in front of their vehicles. This was exactly the reason of the last weekend's collision.
(Photo by Jonathan Wiggs - Boston Globe)

You would think that such a massive vehicle with poor visibility should not be allowed on city streets. If Boston wanted to truly implement the original Vision Zero program, it should either ban all Duck Tours in the city or at least demand their major redesign, which would limit Duck Tours to operate smaller, street-friendly amphibians. Such solutions have been proposed but whether they are going to be taken seriously remains unknown.

Meanwhile, New York, a city that may not have Duck Tours but it does have NYPD and Woody Allen, works on its own version of Vision Zero. It seems that in NYC these two words have a very similar meaning as here in Boston. Last Thursday their Department of Transportation hosted an event where they were giving away official Vision Zero helmets! It's interesting how helmets are seen as the miracle cure to all traffic-related fatalities. NY's DoT seems to think "Just make them wear helmets and they will be safe". Unfortunately, examples of some countries (Hello, Australia!) where cycling helmets are mandatory show that nothing can be further from the truth. As the article on Brooklyn Spoke put it: "The media and police reflect the public's pro-helmet sentiment by implying that its role in any major crash is highly significant". Sad. Allison was wearing a helmet on her scooter. Did it help her from being crushed by a Duck Tour truck?

And how about Woody Allen? It turns out that he doesn't like bicycle lanes seeing them as "unacceptable" in his neighborhood. He and other citizens criticized the plan to add such infrastructure to several streets in the Upper East Side, despite presented with evidence that bike lanes calm traffic and thus make streets safer in general. This "not in my backyard" approach is often used by those who are afraid of the new. And while Allen is somewhat right that theses streets can't "accommodate a bike lane in a graceful way" (If by graceful he means keeping everything else as is - you would have to give up on something, such as car parking on one side), he's wrong at the same time that "every street has a good argument why it shouldn't have a lane". The only "street" that shouldn't have an adjacent, unprotected bike lane is an interstate highway.
Seems like Vision Zero is failing in New York not only because of some incapable governors or police but also the residents.
E 77 St in New York - one of those considered for bike lanes.

Now back to Boston. Our local radio station here, WBUR, ran a series on traffic congestion in the city. However, they seem to miss the point and fail for the obsolete metrics that answers the wrong question: "How many cars can we move on the street within one hour?", instead of using the correct one that focuses on the number of people an artery can move. 

Media can be an excellent aid of the Vision Zero campaign but when it fails to notice that city streets should be open for all people, not just drivers, it doesn't help reaching the original Vision Zero's goal - to reduce the number of fatalities in city traffic. For that, our streets will have to stop being high-speed highways and become less car-centric. We can't fit everyone's vehicle on Boston's streets but we can try to fit everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment