Setting Zero as a Goal Can Be a Useful Policy Fantasy

Politicians sometimes promise to eliminate problems like smoking or traffic deaths, but what does that mean for policy?
March 20, 2014 AT 6:00 PM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

The lazy curly-cues of white smoke would collect over the reporters' computer terminals and hover thickly behind the glass-walled office of my direct editors.

I can’t remember the exact policy then – this was the late 1980s at The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk – but reporters and editors did smoke in my newsroom in one of the suburban bureaus.

This went on for a while, and then word came down from on high we had to move all smoking outside. What a bunch of grouches and nannies, I thought. I didn’t generally smoke myself, but I didn’t see how it was hurting anyone. And it violated my romantic image of a newsroom.

Now, it’s hard to believe office workers, newsroom or otherwise, used to routinely light up and subject their colleagues to second-hand smoke. Nor that airplanes used to have smoking sections.

What has changed? I have changed, along with my culture.

People used to have a few drinks or many and get in cars and weave away, and people would grin about it. Now that is viewed as criminally negligent. People used to litter thoughtlessly.

What changes culture? Part of what changes culture is government.

Here I’m taking sides in a long-running argument about the agents of cultural change. Government sets laws and policies, and this is turn prompts or forces individuals and groups to change, and eventually you have President Obama sneaking out of his own White House to grab a smoke in the garden. When limiting certain behavior, as opposed to encouraging it which also occurs, government gradually tightens the circle, squeezing into no-man’s land certain actions.

New York City, with so many millions of people in one place, has long been a fertile target for behavior modification. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned smoking even in bars in 2003 and raised the price of cigarettes to over $10 a pack, many said the public-health focused billionaire had gone too far.

But the measures worked. Smoking rates dropped an unprecedented 11 percent between 2002 and 2003 alone. Now conservative cities and states have similar laws, including Savannah, Georgia and the entire state of North Carolina, where the tobacco industry still resides.

Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill De Blasio, while sharply criticizing his predecessor in some areas, has continued in Bloomberg’s spirit in announcing Vision Zero. De Blasio pledges to reduce the number of traffic deaths involving drivers, pedestrians and cycling – which in 2012 were about 290 a year - already down from 701 in 1990 – to zero. It’s an attention grabbing device, one that Sweden came up with in 1997, and Chicago embraced in 2012. A mere 264 people died in Sweden in traffic accidents in 2014, making it perhaps the safest place to drive in the world.

There is a cautionary note to be sounded on such goals. If a government truly embraced zero traffic deaths as a rigid goal, it could embrace policies that drastically limited behavior, such as requiring pedestrians to wear helmets, or cost absurd sums of money.

But if taken more as inspirational goals, policies like Vision Zero are highly effective in changing mindsets, which is after all where culture resides, even if the goal itself is a fantasy. As John Buntin explained well in Governing in March of 2013, vision-zero style campaigns were central to the drive to reduce deaths caused by bacterial infections from intravenous lines placed in hospital patients. They also were central to the drive by Alcoa, under the leadership of Paul O’Neill in the late 1980s and 1990s, to reduce work time lost to injury to zero .

A car causes a serious death or injury every two hours in New York City, says the city. This is an extraordinary level of carnage, even if it is also substantially less than in 1990. What more, there is evidence that a safer street is also a more livable one, a place where citizens walk, bicycle and play more.

Vision Zero style campaigns are useful in prompting policy makers and citizens to ask: how do we get there? Under De Blasio, this has already created an impressive cross department campaign that takes in everything from street design to taxi policies to traffic law enforcement, to driver, cyclists and pedestrian education.

So far though the campaign has not included something I believe is crucial to reducing traffic deaths, something sometimes called “strict liability.” Under this set of laws, generally in effect in Scandinavia and Western Europe, a driver who hits a pedestrian or cyclist is automatically at fault. (See my article about this in Governing.) This is so important because it makes those primarily responsible for killing people – drivers – more responsible for moderating their behavior.

Jon Orcutt, policy director for New York City’s Department of Transportation, said the department was aware of strict liability but had decided not to pursue it right now, because it would require a change in state law from the legislature in Albany. True, but shouldn’t it at least be on the table for discussion?

As with so many things, New York City attracts disproportionate attention. If Vision Zero dramatically reduces traffic deaths, and improves street life, then we will see other cities follow suit, be they large, medium or small. This has happened with smoking, where it’s now routine to see smokers congregating on sidewalks.

The success of such campaigns leads one to ask a natural follow-up: What’s next?

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