I recently moved to downtown Philadelphia, where a car is optional if you work from home, and I thought about buying a bike. Everyone rides a bike in the city. Friends told me it’s dangerous and be careful. So it was with interest I read an article in The New York Times with the headline, “After 3 Cyclist Deaths, Mayor Vows Crackdown.”

It turns out that since 2014, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has set a goal, or more specifically a “vision,” that traffic deaths and injuries on city streets is, in his words, “not acceptable and… serious crashes will no longer (be regarded) as inevitable. We won’t accept this any longer.”

Preventable incidents –not accidents

In New York leading up to 2014, approximately 4,000 New Yorkers were seriously injured and more than 250 were killed each year in traffic crashes. On average, vehicles seriously injured or killed a New Yorker every two hours. As in workplaces with rising injury and fatality rates, senior leadership declared this status quo unacceptable. And as in workplaces, City of New York leaders vowed that traffic crashes must no longer be regarded as mere “accidents,” but preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed. Echoing workplace managers, city leadership said “the promise of Vision Zero will require constant input and feedback from citizens.” As every safety professional knows, the journey to zero requires engagement.

The Mayor says Vision Zero is working. The number of people killed in traffic fatalities fell from 299 in 2013 to 203 in 2018, the lowest level in more than a century. But as with any safety initiative, challenges and setbacks are inevitable.

The challenges

The number of people riding bikes in NYC has soared. About 400,000 bike rides take place in the city every day, up from about 180,000 bike rides in 2006, according to the city. Cycling has emerged as an alternative to New York’s uninviting subways and buses, especially in boroughs outside of Manhattan where access to public transit can be limited.

Along with the rise in cyclists, city streets are crowded with more trucks making deliveries due to the booming growth of Amazon and other online merchants. The city has 1,240 miles of bike lanes – and about 6,000 miles of streets. These factors are challenging.

The setbacks: the late June three cyclists were killed in little more than a week. Citywide, 100 people have been killed in traffic crashes so far this year – 11 more than in the same period last year. This includes 51 pedestrians, eight motorcyclists and 27 motor vehicle occupants.

What happens to any safety program when the vision of zero is suddenly disrupted by a spate of fatalities? Leadership reacts. Mayor de Blasio said in a televised interview, “We absolutely have an emergency on our hands. We’re going to do a full-court press to stop it.”

In industry, it is workers, in New York it is cyclists — in both cases people on the frontlines — who speak out. One cyclist in The Times article said, “Vision Zero is a theory.” How many workers do not believe zero is attainable – random acts will always happen? To the Mayor’s credit, he refers to his program as a “vision,” not a goal with a specific deadline.

Typical reactions

Still, when safety programs meet adversity, safety advocates complain, as they have in New York, that Vision Zero has stalled and leadership has lost its focus in seeing it through. Said one activist in The Times article: “Mayor de Blasio is in denial about his signature program faltering under his neglect.”

Also, predictably, when safety efforts hit turbulence, senior leaders publicly double down on their commitment. New York’s mayor is using language and tactics familiar to any safety professional. There will be a crackdown on discipline, ensuring that drivers (or in workplaces the employees) abide by the rules.

On New York streets, this means closer policing of human error – obeying speed limits, yielding to cyclists and pedestrians, and respecting bike lanes. It means more emphasis on enforcement. More street cameras. Higher penalties and sanctions for dangerous driving. Pursuing new laws and regulations to protect cyclists and target reckless drivers.

Safety advocates in New York, again, as in industry, want a more systems approach, an engineering controls approach. Only 480 miles of the city’s 6,000 miles of streets use barriers to separate riders from traffic. Of course barriers, like engineering controls, are more costly than handing out tickets.

Vision Zero calls for safety engineering improvement at 50 intersections and corridors, installing 250 speed bumps, enhancing street lighting at 1,000 intersections, installing traffic signals where needed for speed control, and double the number of programmable speed boards for intensive education and awareness.

Success stories

Vision Zero is not unique to New York City. Not surprisingly, the originator of Vision Zero is Sweden – one the world’s most progressive safety countries. Traffic fatalities have dropped 30 percent since 1997 in Sweden. Minnesota, Utah and Washington State introduced Vision Zero-style programs in the early 2000s. Traffic fatalities have fallen 43 percent in Minnesota, 48 percent in Utah, and 40 percent in Washington. Since 1997, fatality rates in Vision Zero states fell more than 25 percent faster than the nation.

As with many safety clampdown efforts, when senior leadership makes a highly public commitment in money and muscle, incident rates come down. And when setbacks occur, it will be senior leaders who are brought to task. One cyclist called out Mayor de Blasio, saying, “We really need (him) to step up and bring some sanity to our streets.”

Be it public safety or industrial safety, the onus is inevitably on senior leadership to step up.


—  Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,