Is Vision Zero finally on the right track?

Edmonton’s mayor, Don Iveson, last week called for a re-launch of the city’s Vision Zero road safety program.

“We need to start by recognizing that some users are more vulnerable than others,” he said, “and the more we draw people out into our streets and public spaces, the more we need to do to ensure they have a safe and inviting experience.”

It’s the toughest talk yet by a city official aimed at making Edmonton streets safer, while recognizing that pedestrians, cyclists and others need more protection from speeding, distracted and aggressive drivers.

If you are wondering ‘What’s Vision Zero?’ you have a very good excuse. City council approved more than $50 million for the first five years of the program (2016-2020), but only city hall aficionados and road safety advocates know much about it.

Vision Zero began in Europe and spread to Australia, where it has been reducing carnage on their roads by 30 per cent and more. Edmonton became the first Canadian city to adopt it in late 2015.

Simply put, it assumes that drivers are going to make mistakes causing collisions. Vision Zero uses engineering solutions to make roads safer and reduce most serious collisions. These include left-hand turning lanes, that stop all oncoming traffic, and narrower streets to slow traffic in areas where there is heavy pedestrian usage. Lower neighbourhood speed limits keep vehicles going slow enough to stop if someone runs into the road.

Vision Zero also calls for healthy doses of enforcement, education and citizen engagement to change entrenched driver attitudes.

So why haven’t you heard more about this remarkable program, underway for more than a year? Last year alone the city budget to promote and engage citizens on Vision Zero was $4.5 million. The same money is available in 2017 and for the next three years.

Now, let me be the first to say that Vision Zero is far from a failure. The city has installed dozens of protected left-hand turn lanes. It’s also placed new digital speed readout signs everywhere, to remind you when you are going too fast. And the city has done a lot to keep kids safe with the new lower school speed

There have been a few half-hearted attempts at a more public engagement. Remember the ill-fated bus shelter ads suggesting pedestrians wear fluorescent clothing to avoid getting hit? The few bus boards that have been put up lack any originality.

So what has gone wrong? Why is Vision Zero a “best kept secret?”

Jane and I have been wondering that for two years. That is when we first approached the city’s Office of Traffic Safety to offer our voices to their efforts to make the streets safe. We lost our son, David, in January 2014 when he was hit while crossing Whyte Avenue by a distracted driver. We felt our story could help change attitudes.

We spoke before Edmonton City Council in the fall of 2015 urging politicians to approve Vision Zero. It received unanimous support and budget dollars. Since then we have had about a dozen meetings with officials and politicians at all levels of city government. We are constantly receiving “strong assurances” that the city is committed, that an advocacy plan is “in the works.”

Mayor Iveson is the latest to issue such a promise and in the most public way yet. He was speaking to a Vision Zero advocacy conference in Sherwood Park, put on by ATS Traffic. It’s a private company positioning itself to help smaller communities –which lack the resources of bigger cities like Edmonton–launch their own Vision Zero programs.

One of the main messages at that conference was that communities need a strong advocacy program and high profile media attention to really sell Vision Zero to their citizens.

So, if the mayor is on-board with Vision Zero, that’s great. But the silence from the rest of council, and the city administration is deafening and troubling. It appears the politicians are not yet sure the voters are ready to accept tougher enforcement, slower speeds and that the car (more often truck or SUV) is no longer king.

Before Jane and I take the mayor’s word that the city is serious about fixing this broken program we need much more.

We want to see the kind of ad campaigns that have begun to change attitudes in Australia and elsewhere. We want to see city officials on the news and online publicly advocating for safer driving practices. We want a citizens advisory committee to hold the city’s feet to the fire on issues of road safety. And we want to see tough enforcement on the ever-present problems of speeding and distracted driving.

One year ago this month, Edmonton’s Office of Traffic Safety promoted Vision Zero in an employee publication. It would be a “giant leap” for traffic safety in Edmonton.

“This is no superficial billboard campaign,” the story proclaimed.

It’s time for Vision Zero to live up to that promise.