"Vision Zero," New York mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to eliminate traffic deaths in the city, is audacious but not unprecedented. Like almost all good social policies, the Swedes did it first. And we could learn a thing or two from them.
Sweden first introduced its own version of Vision Zero in 1997 as a plan to eliminate all deaths and serious injuries on the road by the year 2020. It's not quite at zero yet, but the number of traffic deaths has halved, dropping to a record low of 264 last year. Here are some lessons learned from Sweden as well as a few speculative ideas of our own.
In the 1990s, Sweden began turning roads with two wide lanes into three narrow ones. How did this actually make them safer? The middle lane became a designated passing lane that alternates between each side, separated by a cable barrier. (The photo above is a road in Germany, which doesn't happen have such a barrier).
With an entire lane and sections of the road dedicated to passing, drivers could signal their intentions much more easily. It's estimated that these redesigned roads have saved 145 lives in the first 10 years of Vision Zero's in Sweden. The Transportation Research Board has recommended 2+1 roads in the U.S., especially on rural two-lane highways.
Pedestrians may have the right of way in crosswalks, but cars turning left or right have physics on their side. It's these turns that make crosswalks dangerous. Ergo "pedestrian scrambles" or an intersection design where all traffic stops at once, allowing pedestrians to cross in all directions, including diagonally.
Other possible intersection modifications range from the small, like preprogrammed lights that give pedestrians a head start, to the big, such as building "neckdowns" into every city intersection and literally just giving more urban space for the pedestrian experience.
This is a no brainer, if you think about it. The human body can only withstand so much force from a speeding car, and that force is equivalent to a car going about 20 mph or 30 km/h. Vision Zero lays out a series of speed limits depending on the possible damage a car can do on a given road:
• Locations with possible conflicts between pedestrians and cars: 30 km/h (20mph)
• Intersections with possible side impacts between cars: 50 km/h (30 mph)
• Roads with possible frontal impacts between cars: 70 km/h (45 mph)
• Roads with no possibility of a side impact or frontal impact (only impact with the infrastructure): 100+ km/h (60 mph)
Bear with us for a minute, because Terreform's soft body cars do, admittedly, look pretty goofy. While the hard steel cages of our cars are pretty good for the person inside, protected by airbags, they are pretty terrible for everyone on the outside. What if, instead of driving in bubbles of steel, we could drive soft cars that respond to the environment—cars that, for example, can coordinate with each other to drive more safely in "flocks"? Not lugging around a heavy steel frame is also going to be great for your gas mileage.
Terreform's car obviously represents one kind of future driving utopia, and it requires us to rethink what a car is. But that is exactly what we need.
In the early days of the automobile, cars were a strange new killing machine. "Pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars. Mothers of children killed in the streets were given a special white star to honor their loss," writes Roman Mars of 99% Invisible in a blog post accompanying an episode about the invention of jaywalking.
That jaywalking had to be invented speaks to how our car culture is not immutable. It can be guided by traffic laws but also by high profile campaigns such as Vision Zero. If our attitudes can shift once, I believe they can shift again. Horrific car accidents are so common that they fade into the background of local news. But, someday, we will look back horrified at the carnage we deemed an acceptable consequence of driving.