Bringing Vision Zero (Pedestrian Deaths) to San Antonio

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Myrtle Street in Brooklyn is now a pedestrian street. Photo by Kevin Barton.

Myrtle Street in Brooklyn is now a pedestrian street. Photo by Kevin Barton.

The New York City Vision Zero goal is simple and precise: to end traffic deaths and injuries on city streets. This is not a mere sound bite in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his Vision Zero initiative before he took office and is moving the transportation safety work started by his predecessors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Polly Trottenberg, the current New York City Transportation Commissioner, was an opening speaker at the inaugural Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in mid-November where she restated her commitment to safety for all transportation modes, including walking and cycling.

New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg

New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg

“One life lost is one too many,” she said.

The symposium, organized by Transportation Alternatives, brought together 300 government and non-government participants from dozens of cities across the U.S. and the world. Transportation Alternatives is a grassroots organization that has worked for decades to improve cycling and walking safety in New York City. It reached a major milestone in 2013 when the city adopted the Vision Zero Action Plan. The 10-year plan sets a high bar through better street design and changing road user behavior. The details are as complex and comprehensive as you might expect for a plan that will create sweeping cultural and engineering changes to the nation’s largest city, but it is built on two fundamental principles: Reduce the chance of collisions and reduce injury by reducing speed.

The myths about New York City transportation safety defy the facts. A popular myth is that New York streets are dangerous, but the fact is their streets are far safer than San Antonio’s streets. In 2012, there were 268 deaths from traffic violence in New York City. Of those, 127 pedestrians and cyclists were killed. During the same period, San Antonio traffic fatalities per capita were 297% that of New York City, and pedestrian/cyclist fatalities per capita were 176% greater that of New York City, according to 2012 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers.

Narrow streets and wide sidewalks in Brooklyn, New York encourage more pedestrian activity and slower drivers. Photo by Kevin Barton.

Narrow streets and wide sidewalks in Brooklyn, New York, encourage more pedestrian activity and slower drivers. Photo by Kevin Barton.

New York City outperforms San Antonio, and almost every other city in the nation, in traffic safety. Yet, the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers share San Antonio’s culture of indifference to traffic deaths. However, a growing group of transportation safety activists throughout New York City steadily chipped away at that indifference and in the past 24 months made powerful breakthroughs. First was the adoption of Vision Zero, followed by establishment of Families for Safe Streets. Families for Safe Streets is a coalition of families who lost a child, parent, or spouse in a pedestrian or cycling collision with an automobile. Families for Safe Streets was a powerful, watershed organization, but one that no one wants membership in.

A pedestrian island in the middle of a busy street in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.

A pedestrian island in the middle of a busy street in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.

The establishment of Families for Safe Streets was a pivotal step. Their tragic stories, their conviction to ending this culture of indifference compelled the state legislature to pass a bill permitting New York City to set a city-wide default 25-mph speed limit. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a taxi trade association, has joined as partners. Major arterials are being converted to 25-mph speed zones. Streets and intersections throughout the city are being redesigned to reduce chaos, instill discipline, and convert automobile lanes to dedicated cycling and pedestrian uses.

New York City is not the only U.S. city to adopt Vision Zero policies. San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles have all adopted Vision Zero policies. San Antonio could be the next. The Vision Zero for Cities Symposium shared the strategies behind New York City’s successes. Four themes emerged:

  1. The critical role of community activists
  2. Engineering and designing for safety
  3. Changing culture
  4. Elected officials must champion safety as the absolute top transportation priority

Changing the culture of indifference was the undisputed greatest challenge, but committed governments and committed activists have proven successful in other campaigns, including seatbelt use and changing DUI laws and enforcement.

The culture of indifference is reflected in our transportation priorities. Citizens and communities exchange safety for perceived convenience. State, federal, and local governments prioritize level of service over safety.

Without branding the concept, the U.S. military proves Vision Zero is attainable. Anything less is merely an acceptance of less. As was emphasized during the symposium, culture is the difference between success and failure, not engineering or design limitations.

A quiet Sunday morning in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.

A quiet Sunday morning in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Kevin Barton.

Activist groups worked for decades in New York City before elected officials stepped forward to champion Vision Zero. Today, San Antonio does not have the prominent and expansive transportation safety activist groups that have worked so long in New York City, but San Antonio does have something those groups struggled to find.

My wife is District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. She attended the Vision Zero for Cities Symposium and is committed to moving San Antonio to a Vision Zero policy to eliminate traffic deaths and injuries on San Antonio streets. Gonzales championed active transportation during her campaign, and has steadfastly encouraged cycling and walking since being elected. 

*Featured/top image: Myrtle Street in Brooklyn is now a pedestrian street. Photo by Kevin Barton.

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7 thoughts on “Bringing Vision Zero (Pedestrian Deaths) to San Antonio

  1. San Antonio has fat streets. NYC has narrow streets, so a driver’s peripheral vision of other users of the road is better. Plus, drivers naturally drive slower on roads that are skinnier. Roads that have wider lanes invite motorists to take advantage of it and speed.

  2. I moved back to SA in 2008 from California. I had to learn how to cross a street “Texas-style” — assume drivers think they have the right to mow you down, even when pedestrian has the right of way. I was horrified by how badly SA drivers are. Mostly it reveals ignorance of the laws, lack of good driving technique, and failure to pay attention to what’s going on in front of and behind their car. If I had a nickel for everytime I have to “play chicken” with an oncoming driver coming down the MIDDLE of a residential street, I’d have enough to buy a gallon of gas at last year’s prices.
    Specifically, I think SA drivers need to learn:
    (1) How to make a left turn properly — first, position your car even with the lane you are turning into (most drivers lazily start turning much to far before the turning lane) and, second, make a sharp 90-degree (or close to that) turn to avoid cutting into the on-coming lane you are turning into. (I had to learn here in SA that to make a right turn, I have to look that some idiot isn’t turning left and about to cut into MY lane.)
    (2) Right turn on red light means right turn AFTER STOPPING for the red light.
    (3) Right turners YIELD to pedestrians.
    (4) Even if you don’t see a car in the on-coming lane, you should drive as if an on-coming car could appear — which happens…a lot.
    Yeah, everyone complains about everyone else’s driving, but, I swear, people in SA drive as if they aren’t considering what’s going on more than 5 feet in front of the car.
    I think lots of the bad driving is exacerbated by cell phone use. Driving is a secondary activity now — phone, food, radio, coffee, etc. is the primary focus, it seems. NO! To be a licensed driver involves the assumption of RESPONSBILITY.
    Maybe a serious, instructional city-wide campaign to improve driving behavior in general, with an emphasis on pedestrian awareness, could make a difference. If folks drive better in general, then they will hopefully be more aware of pedestrians/cyclists. But I fear most people these days only care about something that affects them directly in the present moment. Yeah, I’m a grouchy codger. Get outta my way and stay in yer own damn lane!

  3. Maybe a dose of intellectual honesty here could see the fastest improvement in pedestrian vs. vehicle incidents… What are the incedent statistics if these issues are addressed:
    1) illegal pedestrian crossing or walking in the streets . (Options are education/enforcement)
    pedestrians crossing busy streets or going against the signals (night and day)… This seems to be a high percentage of the pedestrian deaths. This is a high occurrence event in SA.
    2) intoxicated motorists and pedestrians. A retired SA police officer shared that it was common knowledge that a significant percentage of drivers on the roads in Bexar County in the late evenings on weekends are driving under the influence… (e.g. blinking road signs on freeway ramps to prevent wrong way onto the freeway events indicate this is understood) or simply drive on N 410 on Fri-Sat after 11pm and see for yourself.
    -Speed of traffic… (common to see cars traveling at excessive mph on many main roads (not freeways) Add this third element and you have the perfect storm for exactly the outcome you are writing about.

    But until those things are aggressively addressed/resolved, this issue will remain

    After that… there are all sorts of things to deal with to fine tune getting to a “zero” goal…

    Protected ped and bike lanes

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