How the bill for Vision Zero could contain many, many zeroes


Such a simple goal and yet it’s possible that it can only be achieved through a complex and collective effort on the part of policymakers, infrastructure owners, carmakers and the public.

In the US, as elsewhere, the path to zero fatalities will be different in each city that has embarked on it but, in all cases, it requires an agreement from many stakeholders to focus on road safety.

Of the many factors in play, the design of roadway infrastructure and the speed of vehicles are, arguably, the most influential. Improved facilities for pedestrians and cyclists will be essential to their safe coexistence with motor vehicles and the need to reduce the speed of traffic persists even if cars have collision avoidance capability.

Naturally, this will require expenditure on sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, as well as education, regulation and enforcement. Moreover, a significant decrease in the number and severity of collisions will demand some sacrifices from motorists and trucks to move more slowly, albeit more efficiently. As easy it is to understand the benefits of a concerted effort to save lives, it’s harder to imagine who will pay to such a long-term, broad based initiative.

Margot Ocañas, the pedestrian coordinator of the Active Transportation Division at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) sees Vision Zero not as a generator of new safety projects and programmes but more a force reshaping the organisation towards a focused goal. As such, she does not see it as adding cost but as re-aligning departments and prioritising existing funding.

Ocañasexplains that Los Angeles uses collision data and injury data to map a High-Injury Network that her department analyses to create a fine-grained understanding of where accidents occur, what populations are most vulnerable, and the anatomy of collisions. The data map can pinpoint if left-hand turns, at specific types of intersections are the most dangerous for cyclists, or pedestrians, or certain populations using those modes.

This data-centred approach establishes a foundation for strategic decisions by the LADOT about what actions to take, what kinds of new data to look at, how to analyse it, and what projects and programmes need to be funded first. By directing data to a broad goal, the city can make decisions across a number of departments.

Infrastructure improvements

It can prioritise, for example, an infrastructure improvement, versus enforcement or education, to solve a problem at an intersection. The path to safer roadways is, therefore, a more focused organisation with a clear policy objective and more targeted decision-making.

Ocañas said: “Instead of being a new program or project, Vision Zero is a catalyst for more coordination between departments, and the High-Injury Network is the touchstone. It’s led to culture change, and a re-engineering of the decision-making process.”

Sarah Jepson, manager for Active Transportation for the regional planning body, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), explains how her agency prioritises safety for all users of roads under the umbrella of “complete communities” initiatives that address jobs, housing, safety and health. Road safety for all is seen as integral to these larger issues and so there aren’t specific Vision Zero projects. The goal is equitable, across-the-board safety for all modes, free-of what Jepson describes as the finger pointing or blaming of users of any one mode, such as cyclists.

Jepson believes that funding could be a challenge for implementing and sustaining the infrastructure and programmes that support a Vision Zero goal over the long-term. For example, most cities rely on competitive grants to fund pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and education programs but there are currently few means for maintaining them and developing them.  Competitive grants are not a stable revenue stream, so a sharpening of focus on safety might ultimately require consistent financing, perhaps  through local sales tax, or new usage-based sources at the State level.

Jepson said: “California is looking to transition away from the gas tax to pay for building and maintaining infrastructure to other sources of revenue such as a user fee based on how many miles people drive.”

Since Vision Zero serves as connective tissue in SCAG’s regional planning, linking several policy areas, it’s a force shaping the state’s infrastructure over the long term and demands new thinking about funding sources. Maybe that’s where the private sector can help?

Virginia based ITS consultant David Pickeral says that infrastructure-funding challenges in California are similar all over the US, and that Vision Zero needs to be only minimally supported by new sources of transportation funding. Tolling of road users, along the lines of what Jepson describes as under consideration for California, should really only need to cover 20% of the cost of Vision Zero. Most, say 80%, of the cost “should” come from the private sector, through offering the public improved products and services in autonomous and connected vehicles that improve safety. Better safety should not cost consumers more than what they are already paying. In fact, according to the 2020 Report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wants costs for mobility to decrease while safety increases.

Technology driver

Although Vision Zero is most significantly achieved through physical infrastructure and lower speeds for cars and trucks, there is still an important contribution to be made by technology through ITS, collision avoidance, analytics, and traffic management. Vision Zero is a good marketing opportunity for telecoms, carmakers and their Tier 1 OEM suppliers to offer new products and conduct R&D.

Pickeral said: “Inventions like the telegraph or the trans-continental railway were conduits for safety. Safety created a pipeline for the market for a variety of new products. It’s a great platform on which to build new systems and customer-adoption models. Right now, it’s the most logical way to achieve market acceptance, and realise the benefits of connected vehicles.”

Pickeral, who once defended accident cases as an attorney, argues companies should by now already see an opportunity in contributing to the goal of Vision Zero. If they don’t yet they will soon become aware of the marketing advantages.  Beyond pure PR, he adds that the liability reduction for private sector entities in all segments of the transportation value chain, which face billions in legal costs every year from lawsuits due to accidents, let alone having to pay damages or settlements to crash victims or their families, would benefit in proportion to the human cost from death, pain and suffering accidents cause to the travelling public: a win-win for the companies.

Pickeral added: “If the private sector focused on the right opportunities, it would leave the public sector only needing to pay for a relatively small share of the cost of Vision Zero, and private sector investment would finance the rest. Safety improvements would be the reason for consumers to initially accept a number of technological and mobility products and innovations.”

It’s conceivable that the telecom and data analytics industries, beyond selling consumers and cities products and services, should also help out with the most significant aspect of road safety – physical infrastructure.

For a variety of reasons, including the perceived need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, a move away from taxing fuel as our main source of funding infrastructure is to be expected. In a transport system that runs on moving and analysing data as much as energy, telecoms and analytics companies could be called upon, as with energy companies, to support the physical infrastructure on which we all depend.

Many believe Vision Zero is helping the public sector achieve efficiencies while offering the private sector new markets.

In this future transport ‘nirvana’,  they also contend that no matter how great the ability of autonomous vehicles of the future to avoid collisions, the crucial infrastructure elements to achieve Vision Zero are safer sidewalks, cycle ways and intersections – all of which potentially paid for by the connected vehicle industry. 

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