Vision Zero: the Swedish road safety concept driving smart city policy
The Vision Zero concept remains a favourite of smart cities and smart traffic systems, as we cover them, and a go-to policy for politicians seeking change in traffic-related planning. Put simply, it describes a vision of a road system where zero lives are lost.
“We have a system that assumes drivers are always going to be on their best behaviour. On the contrary, our streets today actually encourage vehicle speed and driver inattention,” says Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation organisation owned by Google parent Alphabet.
Vision Zero comes from a “Swedish approach to road safety thinking”, conceived in 1994, where roadways keep us moving, but also keep us safe. In 1997, the Swedish givernment wrote it into policy, requiring road fatalities are reduced to zero – at some point in the future, which has changed down the years.
The idea has travelled well. It is mapped into just about every tech pilot geared towards the idea of an ‘intelligent transport system’ – that, in the end, intelligence and automation can be brought to bear in a connected traffic system to prevent traffic accidents.
Cities, more often than countries, have followed where Sweden has gone: Paris, Berlin, New York City, to name a few, have introduced equivalent policies, branded under the Vision Zero tag. Indeed, Bill de Blasio ordered Vision Zero policy within weeks of taking office in City Hall, blazing the trail for most other US cities – including Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco. and Seattle.
More recently, London has set out a strategy to take “bold action” and put Vision Zero “at the heart” of the conjoined traffic policies from City Hall, Transport for London, and the Metropolitan Police. “It is neither inevitable nor acceptable that anyone should be killed or seriously injured when travelling in London,” says London.
Its so-called ‘action plan’ includes safe speeds (“appropriate to busy streets”); safe streets (“forgiving of mistakes”, by redesigning traffic junctions); safe vehicles (specifically buses and lorries, reviewed and rated for visibility); safe beviours (involving “targeted enforcement, marketing campaigns, education programmes”); and post-collision response (“improving justice and care for victims”).
By 2041, all deaths and serious injuries will be eliminated from the city’s transport network, it says.
Most recently (August 2019), Sidewalk Labs, the Google sponsored smart city project on the quayside in Toronto, has started writing the concept into its ‘street design principles’. Andrew Miller, associate director of mobility at Sidewalk Labs, says in a blog post: “In an ideal world, every trip would have [safety]. There would be no collisions. But we don’t live in that ideal world.”
Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto Tomorrow plan builds on its original ‘street design principles’ to outline four Vizion Zero principles: to tailor streets for different modes; separate them by speed, incorporate flexibility into street space, and recapture streets for pediestrians, cyclists, and transit vehicles.
Its policies come down to good town planning, rather than technological development. At Queens Quay, the main street along the eastern waterfront, Sidewalk Labs is segregating traffic lanes: a dedicated lane for streetcars; a five-metre wide cycle path, allowing for flow in both directions; shorter crossing segments.
But technology is being brought to bear as well, of course, in the shape of LED lights, digital signs, and mobile street furniture (planters on wheenls, anyone?).
LEDs will be embedded in the pavement, giving pedestrians cues on when to cross. These will be cured-up, in turn, by the flow of traffic, as monitored by sensors in the road infrastructure. Cyclists can even synchronise their speed with “green waves” of LEDs at crossings, showing they are clear to proceed, to sail through the district without stopping. It sounds like clever stuff.
Sidewalks Labs is also proposing a “dynamic curb”, which is moveable, and not fixed in concrete – so it can switch between a road border and a extended pavement area. “The ability to dynamically reassign the border between road and sidewalk allows for active and ongoing repurposing of valuable urban public space,” says Miller.
“The result is that a section of street that would otherwise be dead and empty at off-peak hours can be given new life, without damaging the efficiency of the mobility network or compromising anyone’s safety.”
But we are getting away from the Vision Zero concept, and into smart urban feng-shui. “We’re proposing several approaches that would help people using the street get where they’re going safely,” says Miller.
What of the results? Let’s go back to the start, to Sweden. In the mid-1990s, when it devised the Vizion Zero concept, it set a 10-year target to reduce road accidents by 50 per cent within 10 years. The target was missed – it achieved a 13 per cent reduction in the period, to 2007 – but is on schedule for 2020, with Vision Zero set for 2050.