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Is Vision Zero an Attainable Goal? Should It Be?

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This blog has frequently discussed Vision Zero, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy to eliminate pedestrian deaths in New York City. The program is working, but it raises questions as well, the biggest one being: How realistic is it to expect that no pedestrians will be killed on the streets of New York?

The Daily News has been both hopeful and critical of the program, and the paper recently reported on the history of pedestrian accidents in the city to provide some perspective. Historical facts in the piece include:

  • The first person killed by a car – an electric taxi – was Henry Hale Bliss, who was killed when he was knocked down after leaving a streetcar in 1899 on what would later become Central Park West at 74th Street. The cab driver was charged with manslaughter, but was acquitted because the knock-down was found to be accidental rather than intentional.
  • New York City began to track traffic deaths in 1910. At that time, half of the 471 deaths reported were caused by horse-drawn vehicles and only a quarter were the result of auto crashes. Only two years later, cars caused the majority of traffic deaths.
  • Children were overrepresented in traffic deaths in 1912. Because there were no playgrounds, children played in the streets.
  • By the 1920s, traffic deaths had tripled as the population grew and cars became available to ordinary people, thanks to Henry Ford and the development of mass production manufacturing techniques.
  • Except for a slight increase in the 1960s, traffic deaths in New York have declined overall ever since the late 1920s.
  • Even though the population has doubled, traffic deaths in New York City have declined by half since 1910.

Vision Zero, a program introduced in 1997 in Sweden, became the mayor’s centerpiece in 2014. The goal of zero pedestrian deaths is based on the belief that “no level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable.”

The Daily News article noted that there are too many murders, assaults and workplace deaths, yet they continue. It also stated, “Chance turns innocent mistakes deadly fast.”

The article concludes with a caution: Eliminating risk targets every person as a “potential enemy of the people. Who is going to be the person to violate the sanctity of the goal of zero pedestrian deaths?”

In short, the author believes that Vision Zero is not only unattainable, but is a bad idea to begin with. Do you agree?