New goal in Chicago: no traffic deaths in ten years

The city of Chicago recently set an ambitious goal: there should be no traffic deaths in ten years.

The city of Chicago’s transportation department, headed by commissioner Gabe Klein, has released a new “action agenda” called “Chicago Forward.” It contains a goal that, as far as I know, has never to date been explicitly embraced by a major United States city:

Eliminate all pedestrian, bicycle, and overall traffic crash fatalities within 10 years…

[T]he city will be taking a multifaceted approach to traffic safety that includes engineering local streets to reduce car speeds; improving pedestrian and bike facilities; education; better data collection and evaluation; and increasing enforcement. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is strongly behind such measures even when they are politically unpopular, as was the case with a controversial speed camera bill that the mayor pushed through the City Council last month…

The idea of aiming for zero traffic deaths may be novel in the United States, but in Sweden, it’s national policy. In 1997, the Swedish Parliament passed the Vision Zero Initiative, with the “ultimate target of no deaths or serious injuries on Sweden’s roads.” Currently, the plan calls for an interim goal of reducing deaths and injuries to 50 percent of 2007 figures by 2020.

Has it worked? Zero is still some ways off – 2050 is the target date now — but the absolute number of traffic fatalities in Sweden continues to fall even as traffic is on the rise. And compared to the United States, their numbers are impressive: In 2009, Sweden had 4.3 traffic deaths per 100,000 population, while the United States had 12.3 (the European Union average was 11 in 2007).

I will be curious to see how this all works. Transforming a major city like Chicago in a short amount of time is difficult. Like most American cities, Chicago has sacrificed much for the automobile and even with higher gas prices and more calls for walkable neighborhoods, making quick changes to the transportation grid will require a lot of work. Additionally, traffic safety has a lot of moving parts, such as safety standards for cars, over which Chicago has little control.

I like the comparison to the efforts in Sweden. However, what happens when the target date approaches and the number has not dropped to zero – does someone get blamed, fired, or what? This is a laudable goal but perhaps this could turn into another public war: the war on traffic deaths!

It is hard to argue with safety. However, I imagine someone will raise a question about the possible costs of these measures…what will this war on traffic deaths cost? I also imagine someone could argue that boosting Chicago’s walkability and general pedestrian friendliness would lead to a better quality of life (as well as higher housing values), possibly making Chicago more appealing to younger and older generations who want to live in more urban neighborhoods.

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