March 10, 2021

Vision Zero Initiative Focuses On Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety

By Anne Levin

During a meeting of Princeton Council on February 24, Councilman David Cohen read letters from parents who have lost children to tragic road accidents.

One woman wrote of her 24-year-old daughter, killed by the driver of a sanitation truck while cycling to her job in Philadelphia as a French pastry chef. A letter from the father of three young boys wrote of the loss of all of them – one to a negligent driver, another to a reckless driver, and the third to a drunk driver.

These shocking testimonies were written in support of a proposal to make Princeton a “Vision Zero” community, part of an international network of towns and cities dedicated to a philosophy of traffic management that lessens or eliminates deaths and serious injuries on local roadways.

Council voted unanimously in favor of the initiative. The town is currently putting together a Vision Zero task force, and is seeking volunteers from the community to join municipal staff from key departments, Mayor Mark Freda, and advisers in developing a Vision Zero action plan.

The idea was first introduced to Council at a presentation last year. The crux of the program, Cohen said this week, is the fact that it is data-driven.

“So instead of saying theoretically that lowering speed limits or having more officers on the streets is safer, this actually identifies locations around town where you have the most crashes,” he said. “It explores what is causing them and what we can do to prevent them. And that’s different from other traffic safety approaches.”

The concept was introduced in Sweden in 1997. According to the Center for Active Design, Sweden has one of the lowest annual rates of road deaths in the world (three out of 100,000 as compared to 12.3 in the United States). In addition, fatalities [in Sweden] involving pedestrians have fallen almost 50 percent in the last five years.

Five years ago, the Vision Zero Network launched its Vision Zero Focus Cities program in the United States, to encourage collaboration among leaders with a goal of zero traffic deaths. Ten cities – Austin, Boston, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. – were designated. The idea has been gaining traction across the country since then.

Often, priorities for cities and towns are, first: getting people from one place to another as fast as possible, second: traffic volume, and finally: safety. “This really tries to turn that on its head and make safety most important,” said Cohen. “If you have to give up how many cars can get through an intersection in order to make things safer, then that’s an important change in priorities.”

The emphasis of Vision Zero is on pedestrians and bicyclists. Princeton has been the scene of fatal accidents involving both. In July 2019, a 68-year-old man was in the marked crosswalk from Princeton University’s campus across Washington Road to Prospect Avenue, and was hit by a truck. He died two days later. Four years earlier, a 25-year-old graduate student was struck and killed attempting to cross Washington Road at the well-marked crosswalk south of the traffic light at Ivy Lane.

“Vision Zero is a policy and planning tool that starts from an assumption that traffic deaths and serious injuries are avoidable, that people will make mistakes, and that proper roadway design and regulations can help eliminate severe consequences,” reads call for volunteers on the municipal website. “In addition to representation from multiple municipal departments and advisory boards tasked with developing policy around public health and traffic safety, members of the public with a particular interest or expertise in roadway safety are encouraged to apply.”

Princeton is the third municipality in New Jersey to commit to creating a Vision Zero plan. Once the task force is formed, an action plan is targeted to be completed sometime this year.