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FAQ: What is Vision Zero? Understanding LA's plan to eliminate traffic fatalities

FILE: Pedestrians and bicyclists account for half of all traffic fatalities in Los Angeles, even though they are involved in only 14 percent of all crashes.
FILE: Pedestrians and bicyclists account for half of all traffic fatalities in Los Angeles, even though they are involved in only 14 percent of all crashes.
Keoni Cabral/Flickr Creative Commons

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive directive in 2015 launching Vision Zero with a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities in the city over 10 years.

Having an annual average of 6.27 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents, L.A. has the highest fatality rate of any major city in the country. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for children in the city.

During the first full year of Vision Zero in 2016, traffic fatalities rose by 43 percent in the city of L.A. They then fell by 6 percent during 2017. However, pedestrian fatalities continued to rise, increasing by a total of 80 percent during the first two years of the program.

What does Vision Zero mean?

Vision Zero refers to a dream for the future when there are no traffic deaths. The initiative was started in Sweden and has spread to cities throughout the world and at least 30 major U.S. cities.

The foundation of Vision Zero is the assumption that human errors are inevitable on roadways but resulting fatalities should not be.

Proponents often point to commercial air travel, for which fatalities are deemed unacceptable and stringent controls are put in place to avoid them at all cost. 

Vision Zero backers say a similar approach should be taken with road travel, with coordinated efforts at all levels of government to prioritize safety above all else. 

How does Vision Zero achieve these goals?

Vision Zero programs typically address safety through coordinated engineering, enforcement and education efforts.

Traditional road design models tend to facilitate faster movement of cars, but the Vision Zero philosophy calls for reordering the priorities to make roads as safe as possible, particularly for more vulnerable street users like cyclists and pedestrians.

Strategies to slow car traffic to speeds less likely to cause death and serious injury to pedestrians and bicyclists include wider sidewalks, reduced or narrowed car lanes, added bike lanes, bulb-outs of curb corners and improved signals.

Traffic enforcement efforts focus on infractions most likely to cause death and serious injury, such as speeding, running red lights and not yielding to pedestrians. Some places rely on automated speed and red light enforcement cameras.

Education campaigns aim to raise public awareness of the problem, reframe assumptions about traffic safety and gain support for changes.

How is Vision Zero implemented in L.A.?

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has collected data on traffic crashes in the city and identified a network of street segments with the highest share of serious and fatal crashes, which it calls the "High Injury Network."

These 6 percent of streets in L.A. account for two-thirds of all serious and fatal crashes. Officials say targeting improvements on these streets could significantly reduce fatalities. 

The department has been holding community meetings across the city to gather feedback on proposed road changes. But a wave of opposition to road diets, or car lane reductions, in Playa del Rey and Mar Vista have led many officials to back away from more ambitious road redesigns that have been a core component of successful Vision Zero programs elsewhere.

The contested lane reduction was not undertaken as part of Vision Zero, but rather a response to a wrongful death lawsuit in Playa del Rey. In Mar Vista, it was part of the Mayor's Great Streets program.

The city of L.A. is also working to remedy a situation that had left police unable to enforce speeding on two-thirds of city streets. Due to expired speed surveys, law enforcement officers were prohibited from using radar or lasers to measure vehicle speeds.

Since 2016, the city has put extra resources into updating the speed surveys and has tackled more than half of the backlog. But paradoxically, under state law, the speed surveys required raising the speed limit on many streets.

Some advocates have expressed concern that increased traffic enforcement under Vision Zero will unfairly target low-income communities of color, where dangerous corridors are disproportionately located.

How much money has L.A. invested in Vision Zero?

In the first year of the program, 2015-2016, the city allocated just $3 million, mostly for data analysis by the L.A. Department of Transportation.

The following year, with a new infusion of transportation funds from a voter-approved county initiative Measure M and a new state gas tax increase S.B. 1, the city allocated about $27 million to safety improvements and repairs to the dangerous roads.

The L.A. Department of Transportation has estimated it would take about $80 million to complete all the projects designated in the High Injury Network.

As a point of comparison, the city of New York, which has seen traffic fatalities steadily decrease since it launched its Vision Zero program in 2014, has allocated $1.6 billion over five years.