AUSTIN—After one look at cars zooming through congested lanes and pedestrians crossing busy streets in Austin, the idea of zero traffic fatalities might seem impossible.
Yet that is exactly the goal of Vision Zero, a safety plan intended to eliminate all traffic related deaths. A subcommittee of the Pedestrian Advisory Council is pursuing the initiative.
Robert Anderson, staff liaison for the council, said that they want Austin City Council to create a task force that would implement the Vision Zero initiative because the traffic safety measures being taken now are not as effective as they could be.
“We are currently not doing everything right,” Anderson said, concerning safety efforts in Austin.
In 2012, 78 people were killed in traffic accidents in Austin, according to the City of Austin 2012 Traffic Fatality Report. Of these fatalities, 60 percent occurred on arterials and local streets. According to a report in the Austin American-Statesman, 26 pedestrians and three bicyclists were killed this same year. Media reports have called 2012 the “deadliest” year for cyclists and pedestrians in the city.
Anderson said that when the PAC was created last year, safety had been identified as a major concern of many people.
“We hope to create a culture where safety is front and center in people’s minds,” Anderson said.
The Vision Zero initiative originated in Sweden in 1997. According to a report by The Economist, road-related deaths in Sweden have been reduced by half since 2000. The program has since been implemented in various cities across the U.S., like New York City and Chicago.
Anderson said he hopes that the program here will be unique to Austin’s own traffic issues.
“We cannot be cutting and pasting from other cities,” Anderson said. He says they hope to focus the efforts on reducing incidents around festivals and entertainment areas, like Sixth Street.
The subcommittee presented the final details at a meeting last week to the full Pedestrian Advisory Council. The next step to bring Vision Zero to fruition is presenting the subcommittee’s recommendations to Austin City Council before the new council takes office in January.
“We don’t know what the next council is going to want to focus on,” Anderson said. “We feel like we have a pretty good chance of getting a task force created by the current council.”
They hope that a task force would be able to come up with tangible changes and plans to lower the death rate.
Nic Moe, the chair of the subcommittee, said they plan to present the recommendations on Nov. 20. He said that a firm timeline for the project has not been established, but the task force, if created, should provide their report toward the end of 2015.
“At that point, it will be at the discretion of council members to turn the task force’s recommendations into concrete action—hopefully sooner than later,” Moe said.
Funding for the project is currently as ambiguous as the timeline. The task force will require a place to meet, which Moe says will be provided by the City. All other monetary costs will depend on the specific recommendations of the task force.
While the project has faced criticism and questions for being too idealistic, the point of Vision Zero is to set a goal for communities to work toward, according to the Pedestrian Advisory Council’s letter to city council.
The letter also outlines how the project will connect existing efforts and encourage coordination among departments.
Anderson called Vision Zero a “multi-disciplinary effort” that needs the support of the police department, TxDot and city officials. So far, the fire department, the AARP, the Planning Development and Review Department and the Urban Transportation Commission have all written letters of support.
Another key to Vision Zero’s success will be engaging the community. Aside from researching statistics and trends, Anderson said this has been one of the most time consuming parts of the process.
One of the community groups supporting the project is Bike Austin, a group trying to promote the use of cycling for transportation and recreational purposes in the Central Texas area.
Carol Reifsnyder, interim executive director of Bike Austin, said so far they have only signed on to support Vision Zero but hope to continue working with the police department and the city officials to implement changes.
“In the end, our group hopes to generate public support and create a campaign to make sure the public knows the issues and is aware,” Reifsnyder said.
Anderson said he realizes there have been efforts and initiatives in the past to improve traffic safety and reduce fatalities.
“I’ll be totally honest with you, it’s a politically sensitive issue,” Anderson said. “People are really uncomfortable with the fact that their past efforts will be called out or identified as not being good enough.”
He says that he thinks the Vision Zero project will succeed where others haven’t, because past efforts have only looked at one law, one type of accident, or one “piece of the puzzle.”
“Vision Zero works holistically, whereas previous safety efforts just don’t.”