The concept is so simple, yet so radical: No one should ever die in a traffic crash. Not motorists. Not cyclists. Not pedestrians. No one.
That’s been the guiding principle at the New York City Department of Transportation since Polly Trottenberg became commissioner in 2014, and it has changed the landscape of the city. Engineers have added crosswalks, new traffic signals, bike lanes, speed bumps, traffic cameras, pedestrian islands and bollards that slow drivers down when making left turns. New York’s leadership has inspired dozens of other cities to commit to the same unflinching standards. And it has saved lives.
Traffic fatalities have dropped every year since New York rolled out its Vision Zero plan. America’s largest city is still a long way from achieving its goal of zero, but the 214 traffic deaths recorded in 2017 marked the lowest number since the city started keeping track of these fatalities in 1910. New York’s drop has come even as the number of traffic deaths nationally has been increasing. The city’s have fallen by 28 percent since 2013.
“What I found to be true in New York is that setting a bold goal really is transformative,” Trottenberg says. “It sounds corny. I’m not sure I would have believed it if I had not lived through it. But it motivates people. It coalesces political support. And once cities like New York and San Francisco step out onto that thin ice, you realize that’s where you need to be. How can you as a city not set that as a goal?”
New York still stands out as among the most effective of the three dozen U.S. cities that have adopted Vision Zero policies. There are several reasons for its success, says Trottenberg. The city had already started emphasizing traffic safety before it launched Vision Zero; Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed the program from the start of his administration in 2014; and New York City’s advocacy groups, led by Families for Safe Streets, are active, well-organized and credible when it comes to spelling out the toll of traffic crashes on victims and families.
Trottenberg has kept her agency’s focus on Vision Zero even as it tackles other enormous challenges. The city is looking to rebuild the triple-decker Brooklyn-Queens Expressway; preparing for the potentially chaotic 18-month closure of a subway line between Manhattan and Brooklyn; capping the number of ride-share vehicles allowed to operate in the city; and adjusting to rapid changes in technology and transportation services.
Trottenberg had a major effect on transportation nationally before coming to New York City. She was undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Obama administration. While there, she helped develop the agency’s TIGER grant programs, an unusual initiative that offered money to both states and cities as a way of promoting multimodal projects.
Still, Trottenberg counts New York’s rollout of Vision Zero as one of the top moments in her career. “We bucked the national trend and have seen fatalities go down every year for almost five years now,” she says. “It’s not just numbers. It’s family and friends, neighbors, co-workers and fellow New Yorkers. It’s some of the most challenging and rewarding work I’ve done.”
—Daniel C. Vock