The story of how the traffic safety program known as Vision Zero jumped from Sweden, where it originated, to the United States, starts with beer.
The main tenet of Vision Zero is that all traffic deaths are preventable, and none are acceptable. That appealed to Steve Hindy, a founder of Brooklyn Brewery, who often traveled to Sweden and Denmark (which also adopted the strategy) on business. Hindy and his wife, Ellen Foote, a public school principal, started pushing for better traffic safety measures in New York City after their son, Sam, died in a bicycle crash on the Manhattan Bridge in 2007.
On his trips, Hindy noticed how streets in Stockholm and Copenhagen were engineered to give cyclists and pedestrians as much a priority on the streets as cars. That seemed to foster respect among drivers for the other roadway users, too.
“You don’t have to be a transportation enthusiast to see you’re in a different place with different priorities than most cities in America,” says Hindy.
On one 2009 trip to Sweden, Hindy and Foote met with Matts-Åke Belin, one of the top administrators of Sweden’s Vision Zero program. Hindy was so impressed with the idea that he wrote an article about it for the newsletter for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group in New York. The organization then released a report in 2011 about the idea -- which then led to advocacy, polling, lobbying and eventually adoption by New York City.
Since then, traffic deaths in the city have declined for three straight years, and now nearly two dozen other U.S. cities have formally adopted the approach as well.
But Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, worries that the core tenets of Vision Zero will be “watered down” as the approach becomes more popular. Many of the key elements of shaping Vision Zero were already in place well before New York actually launched the program. It’s worth considering how the U.S. version of Vision Zero came into being, says White, to understand what distinguishes Vision Zero from “run-of-the-mill safety efforts.”
A movement grounded in public health
One of the mantras in the Vision Zero movement is that there are no traffic "accidents," only "crashes." That comes straight from public health literature, says Charles DiMaggio, an epidemiologist who studies the safety of child pedestrians and the director of injury research at the New York University School of Medicine.
“It’s the idea that there’s nothing inevitable or accidental about these kinds of events," he says.
Traffic safety and public health are a “natural fit” for each other, says DiMaggio, but that doesn’t mean transportation engineers and public health experts have always communicated well.
“I recall some of my early meetings in the 1990s where I would sit in the room with transportation engineers. They would say, ‘An epidemiologist? There’s nothing wrong with our skin,’” he says. “No one was quite sure what an epidemiologist was.”
In New York City, that changed when Mayor Michael Bloomberg came into office in 2002. He often used public health approaches to shape policy, such as his efforts to ban smoking, reduce gun violence and tax sugary drinks.
Lorna Thorpe, who led the epidemiology division of the city Department of Public Health for five years during Bloomberg’s tenure, says the discipline’s focus on data helped resolve many contentious issues. For example, advocates like Transportation Alternatives had long pushed for more bike lanes and other cyclist-friendly infrastructure in the city, but the conversations were antagonistic. Then, at the advocates’ request, the public health department conducted a review of every cyclist death in the city over the previous decade. The effort involved representatives from the public health, transportation, parks, police and fire departments.
“The key was that we had the decisionmakers at the table, and they were analyzing the data with us," says Thorpe. "That changes things. If the health department had issued this report without parks, police and transportation with us, it wouldn’t have had an impact.”
Because the review was a joint effort, the city was able to move forward on a plan for 250 miles of bike lanes.
“That was a watershed moment," she says.
The backlash against bikes
At first, Bloomberg's building boom of bike lanes didn’t sit well with many New Yorkers. Local tabloids called it a “War on Cars.” Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner at the time, would later write, “The bike backlash of early 2011 were the toughest months I’ve ever endured professionally.”
Congressman Anthony Weiner, who was preparing to run to replace Bloomberg, vowed to get rid of the new lanes.
“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” he said at a party, according to The New York Times. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”
It was amid all that criticism that Transportation Alternatives published a report in June 2011 that brought the term “Vision Zero” into U.S. public policy debates.
It noted that more New Yorkers were killed by traffic than by guns, and that traffic crashes were the most common form of injury-related deaths for children under 14. The report explained how the changes in street design that New York had been rolling out – like bike lanes, pedestrian islands and curb extensions -- improved safety for all road users.
Noah Budnick, the policy director for Transportation Alternatives at the time, says he worried at first about establishing the goal of taking traffic deaths down to zero. Would the group be taken seriously? But given all the other changes to New York City streets, the time seemed ripe to change how people think about public space and roads.
Again, relying on lessons from public health helped make the case. Budnick saw the situation with traffic deaths was similar to earlier efforts by cities to eliminate cholera and yellow fever outbreaks.
“Then they built sewers, and people stopped dying,” says Budnick. “If you build infrastructure like protected bike lanes, then people stop dying.”
People care about safety. Polling conducted by Transportation Alternatives in the runup to the 2013 mayoral election found that safety was the top reason why voters would support changes to their roadways. So advocates organized their efforts around safety.
That's what “turned it into a movement," says White. "It was not just about bike lanes or public pedestrian space. It was a life-or-death issue."
Other arguments about bike lanes -- that they reduced pollution, improved health or gave New York an amenity found in other world-class cities -- didn't seem to matter as much to voters.
Shortly before Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014, a string of pedestrian deaths brought the issue even more to the forefront. Citing an “epidemic” of traffic crashes, the new mayor announced his Vision Zero plan standing in the Queens schoolyard near where an 8-year-old boy had recently been hit by a truck and killed.
A few months later, Families for Safe Streets, a group of people who had lost relatives in traffic crashes, formed. The organization continues to push politicians to focus on traffic safety. It was instrumental, for example, in convincing state lawmakers in Albany to allow New York City to lower its citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph.
Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery was part of those efforts.
He remembers a crucial moment when members of the group met with Sheldon Silver, who was then the long-serving speaker of the state Assembly. Hindy didn’t expect to get far. He knew Silver, and he knew that Silver could be “incredibly uncommunicative.”
“Going into the meeting, I was thinking, oh my God, these people are going to be so disappointed,” says Hindy.
But things changed after several mothers told stories of losing their children. Silver got up and walked around to the front of his desk, where he told the group how his own mother was killed by a car when she was 81 years old crossing a street in Miami.
“Then he told us he was going to get behind the bill. It never would have gone anywhere without his support,” says Hindy. The bill was signed into law in 2014. “It’s the most telling testament of what the power of these stories is.”