Washington, D.C., like other cities around the world, is trying to eliminate traffic deaths through a program called Vision Zero. Inspired by Sweden, this has been a model project in many ways, but the lack of positive results is testing its proponents.
Effecting change per se is my topic here, rather than the specific alterations that D.C. et al. have wrought as part of Vision Zero. Nonetheless, some background is meet. In the 1990s, Sweden set a goal – actually an expectation – that transportation wouldn’t ‘kill or seriously injure‘ people, and it set out to shape its infrastructure and laws around this aim, giving it priority over, say, the time that cars spend in traffic. In practice, this can mean speed bumps, pedestrian crossings with signals, relatively slow speed limits, and effective enforcement of laws – among many other changes.
Sweden, interestingly enough, hasn’t come close to meeting its target of zero serious injuries or deaths. Such success would be amazing, but Sweden actually missed its interim goal of a 50 percent reduction in a decade … by about a decade. Nonetheless, that reduction must have been impressive enough to inspire many copycats. And D.C., for one, hasn’t simply adopted a meaningless slogan; it continues to make substantive changes as part of Vision Zero and to evaluate their impact in order to inform future efforts.
As described thus far, Vision Zero is how policy should work: set a clear goal, study how to achieve it, implement a promising program, periodically evaluate the results, and … And here’s the rub: What if Vision Zero doesn’t work in D.C.? At what point is it wise to stop making adjustments to a program and instead adopt a different one?
For example, a recent article in the Washington Post reveals that traffic deaths in D.C. actually have increased over Vision Zero’s first two years – not exactly a blip of time. Some other polities have had unimpressive results, as well. It would be helpful to know the rate of serious injuries, too, but, assuming that it’s consonant with that of fatalities, it seems reasonable to begin contemplating fundamental alternatives, rather than the tweaks that D.C. appears to be prepared to consider.
A thoroughly planned program might have predefined triggers for declaring failure or at least for engaging in a thorough reconsideration of the program’s bases. What if D.C. had created a sunset provision from the outset, stipulating that Vision Zero would have to justify its continuation if it couldn’t show X benefits within Y years? This would reduce the likelihood of unproductive inertia and foster a continued commitment to progress rather than to a program.