Sweden adopts Vision Zero for road safety

Sweden adopts Vision Zero for road safety

Swedes pride over the world’s lowest road fatality rate of 2.7 deaths per one lakh.

Across Stockholm, the Scandinavian capital of graceful cyclists and speed-regulating shrubbery, cabbies who drive Volvos and pedestrians who look over their shoulders before jaywalking, a simple figure rules: Zero. It is the number of people permitted to die in Swedish traffic, according to national law.

For nearly two decades, every rising barrier and reduced speed limit has been tailored to this seemingly impossible goal, of eradicating traffic deaths and serious injuries, and its guiding premise: Every inch of street space must anticipate, and accommodate, human error. While roadway deaths have not been eliminated, the country’s rate of fatalities has been whittled down to an international low. Now its approach faces perhaps its stiffest test: the streets of New York City.

In a bid to reverse generations of roadway unruliness, Mayor Bill de Blasio has put the strategy, known as Vision Zero, at the forefront of his transportation and policing agendas, targeting 2024 as the first year with no traffic deaths. But in a city of 800 languages, nearly 14,000 taxis and 8.4 million potential traffic rants, street safety promises to be a complicated import.

Surface similarities between New York and its European counterpart, like bike lanes, pedestrian islands and a well-developed transit system, tend to wither on closer examination. Pillars of the Swedish model include the reduction of default speed limits and the expansion of automated enforcement.

 Each requires the approval of state lawmakers in New York, who have yet to embrace the ideas widely.

Roundabouts, a major traffic tool in Sweden, are difficult to imagine on the high-density streets of Manhattan, transportation experts say. The term does not appear in the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero Action Plan, released in February. In New York, the addition of planters and lawn chairs along pedestrian plazas drew snickers. In Sweden, potted vegetation is a traffic tool, placed on local roads to slow down drivers on straightaways. In Stockholm, when the rare car horn sounds, the drone borders on polite, more of a gentle suggestion than a throbbing demand.

While Sweden’s population — more than 9.5 million — is only slightly larger than New York’s, the country has imposed sweeping reforms involving road construction, pedestrian protections and other policies with relatively little conflict. The Swedish Parliament adopted Vision Zero in 1997 as the national foundation for all road safety operations, heeding the calls of transportation planners who warned that the country’s traffic strategy was ill equipped for the next century. 

The result has been a sort of social contract between state and citizen: If residents follow the most basic traffic laws, engineers can design roads to guard against all fatalities. “You should be able to make mistakes,” said Lars Darin, a senior official with the Swedish Transport Administration, “without being punished by death.”Last year, 264 people were killed, less than half the number in 1997. The fatality rate in Stockholm, 1.1 deaths per 100,000, is less than one-third of New York City’s rate. The national rate, 2.7 deaths per 100,000, is the lowest in the world, according to transportation officials.

The Swedish reputation for prudence seems to have seeped into the lexicon. Those raised in the Vision Zero age use the phrase “typical Swede” as something of a playful insult. “It’s like you’re too safe, you’re too afraid of everything,” Johanna Brundin, 20, said of the term. “I like being a Swede.”

Disappearance of crashes

On many city streets, the speed limit has dipped below 20 miles per hour. In suburban areas, median barriers have proliferated, separating two-way traffic on high-speed corridors. Officials say the barriers and roundabouts have in fact increased the potential for crashes, vehicle damage and minor injuries for some users. The trade-off: The sight of serious crashes at these locations has all but disappeared.

“Design around the human as we are,” said Claes Tingvall, the director of traffic safety at the Swedish Transport Administration and a godfather of the Vision Zero plan. Though traffic deaths have fallen in many areas of the world, in large part because of improvements in emergency care and vehicle safety, places that have adopted Vision Zero-style programs have reported disproportionate success. According to the New York City plan, fatality rates in American states with Vision Zero policies, including Minnesota and Utah, fell at a pace more than 25 per cent quicker than the national rate.

In New York, amid a flurry of street adjustments under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, traffic deaths have decreased by about 26 percent since 2001. Last year, according to the city’s Transportation Department, 290 people were killed. The department has been in contact with the Swedes, holding phone briefings with Vision Zero experts and meeting in person with some who were visiting New York, though no one from the administration has traveled to Sweden to look at the strategy firsthand.

Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, emphasized that while her international peers were a useful resource, New York was “definitely not going to be Stockholm.” “You want to think carefully about culture change,” Ms Trottenberg said. “New York City is one of the more remarkable pedestrian cultures in the world.”

The city’s plan has called for improved precinct-level police enforcement of speeding rules, the widening of parking lanes and the placement of “black box” data recorders in taxicabs. Tingvall of the Swedish Transport Administration called the set of proposals “very impressive.” In recent weeks, the city has also unveiled a series of “arterial slow zones,” reducing the speed limit to 25 m.p.h. from 30 in designated areas, among other changes. Street overhauls that provoked significant community turmoil under Mr. Bloomberg, like the expansion of bike lanes, appear less politically divisive when framed in the context of public safety.

At the city’s urging, state lawmakers recently approved the addition of 120 speed cameras in New York City school zones, bringing the total to 140. Sweden has more than 1,100. Sweden has also installed a congestion-based toll plan, similar to the one championed unsuccessfully by Bloomberg, that has reduced traffic by 20 per cent in the target areas. Its safety effects are twofold, officials say: better cycling and walking conditions, with fewer cars on the road, and increased revenues to pay for road improvements.

At least some Swedish vigilance seems to predate Vision Zero. About 20 years ago, a now-defunct programme allowed some homeowners to decide where speed bumps would be installed. The result: a hump every 20 meters in some neighborhoods, and some very slow trips home. 

Others appreciate the country’s zeal for traffic safety only in hindsight. In 1998, Tingvall said, a driver who had survived after crashing into a newly constructed barrier sent the transport administration a cake. For Nicklas Carlson, 32, an anthropology student at Stockholm University, clarity arrived as he sat in the back seat of a New York taxi in 2009, after his cabby left the vehicle to shout at a rival on the road. Carlson marvelled. “This would never, ever happen in Sweden.”

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