A mural in West Humboldt Park. Chicago has several times as many homicides per year as traffic deaths, which will complicate efforts to implement Vision Zero. Photo: John Greenfield
This article also ran in the Chicago Reader weekly newspaper.
In May 2012 the Chicago Department of Transportation released its “Chicago Forward” agenda, including the stated goal of eliminating all traffic deaths by 2022. That target was inspired by the international Vision Zero movement, which began in Sweden in 1997. It’s based on the notion that road fatalities and serious injuries aren’t simply unavoidable “accidents,” but rather outcomes that can be prevented through engineering, education, and enforcement.
In recent years the Vision Zero movement has spread to many major U.S. cities, most notably New York, where mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a hallmark of his administration. But it wasn’t until earlier this month that the Chicago announced a formal Vision Zero initiative, starting with a three-year interdepartmental action plan slated for release this fall. The deadline for reaching zero traffic deaths and serious injuries has been pushed back to 2026.
“Every day someone is injured or worse as the result of a car crash on Chicago’s streets—and that is simply unacceptable,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “These crashes are preventable, and that is why we are stepping up our efforts.”
Local transportation advocates like the Active Transportation Alliance applauded the news. After all, the city of New York has reported that between 2014 and 2015 there was a reduction in all traffic fatalities by 22 percent, with a 27 percent drop in pedestrian deaths (although this summer pedestrian fatalities spiked in NYC).
“Ghost bike” memorial to Hector Avalos, who was killed by a drunk driver near Douglas Park in 2013. Photo: Lorena Cupcake.
But it seems likely the devil will be in the details when it comes to ensuring Chicago’s safety program is a net positive for all residents, particularly those in low-to-moderate-income communities of color.
In these neighborhoods, increased traffic enforcement—especially ticketing for minor infractions a la the “broken windows theory” —may not necessarily be seen as a good thing. Significantly, several high-profile, police-involved deaths of African Americans across the country began with traffic enforcement stops.
Michael Brown was detained for walking in the street, Sandra Bland was arrested after failing to signal a lane change, and Philando Castile was pulled over partly due to a broken taillight. While behind the wheel, Castile had been stopped by police 46 times in 13 years, according to an NPR records analysis.
“One of the pillars of Vision Zero is increasing opportunities for police to apply their biases to street users, aka increased enforcement of traffic laws,” LA-based transportation consultant and anthropologist Adonia Lugo said last year in a widely shared blog post titled “Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero.” “White people may look to police as allies in making streets safer; people of color may not.”
Lugo also argued that that Vision Zero is an overly top-down approach, rather than one driven by the community, and yet another example of U.S. transportation advocates, who usually look to cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen for best practices, exhibiting “Eurocentric thinking.”
Transportation equity consultant Naomi Doerner echoed some of those concerns in a recent interview with Streetsblog USA. “If we’re going to be giving more investment to police enforcement, it has to be communities telling police how and where and what,” said the former head of the New Orleans advocacy group Bike Easy. “This particular Vision Zero analysis had not been done by the advocacy community. I think that a lot of that really does have to do with the fact that a lot of the organized bike and walk community are not comprised of people of color.”
And rolling out Vision Zero in Chicago will be complicated by the fact that our gun-violence epidemic is arguably a much more urgent issue than traffic deaths. New York had about 330 homicides and 230 traffic fatalities in 2015; Chicago, with less than a third of the population of New York, had 491 homicides last year but averaged only about 110 traffic fatalities per year between 2010 and 2014 (the latest year for which the Illinois Department of Transportation has released crash data).
There have already been more than 3,000 people shot in Chicago this year and over 500 homicides—more than New York and L.A. combined. As such, it’s likely that some residents may feel that channeling city resources into preventing traffic deaths rather than homicides is misguided.