What Complete Streets Planning and Swiss Cheese Have in Common

New report lays out a strategy for reducing global traffic deaths.

(Credit: World Resources Institute and Global Road Safety First)

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As “Vision Zero” becomes a household term in the U.S. — and the policymakers implementing it start to see results — traffic fatalities remain the 10th leading cause of death worldwide. The vast majority of those deaths (a whopping 90 percent) occur in low- and middle-income countries, and because many of those countries are just now beginning to ramp up their transportation infrastructure, the problem, if unaddressed, will only get worse.

Those are the findings of a new paper from the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Global Road Safety First (GRSF). The paper compares the many names of a research-backed approach to planning that it terms “Safe System” (otherwise known and as “Vision Zero” in Sweden, Mexico and the U.S., “Sustainable Safety” in the Netherlands and “Safer Journeys” in New Zealand) and explains their underlying commonalities using a metaphoric tower of Swiss cheese.

From the report:

A system has several layers of defenses, barriers, and safeguards. In an ideal world, each layer would be intact; in practice, they are more like slices of Swiss cheese with many holes (areas of weakness) … When this thinking is applied to road safety, the layers include the actions of road users, the choice of travel mode, the active and passive safety systems of the vehicles, the management of travel speed, the features of the road and roadside, and post-crash response, among others. If holes align across layers, the system becomes more dependent on the actions of individual road users and therefore more vulnerable to human error, increasing the risk of a serious or fatal traffic crash. An approach that takes all the components of the system and their interactions into account is likely to decrease the number of holes and increase the number of layers, reducing the chance of the holes aligning.

But that tower strategy is applied more often in high-income countries where the problem is less pronounced. For example, pedestrians and bicyclists account for about 43 percent of total fatalities in Africa, according to the World Health Organization, and in some areas, the number is much higher. Between 2010 and 2015, pedestrians made up 88 percent of total fatalities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The reasons appear simple on the surface — vehicles travel fast, few sidewalks and crosswalks exist — but they’re underlined by funding priorities that mimic the worst eras of U.S.’ planning.

(Credit: World Resources Institute and Global Road Safety First)

For example, some funds are available for the countries struggling most with traffic fatalities from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the African Development Bank, among others. But the report suggests that the issue centers more on a lack of policy-making to set goals around safety and guide funds away from high-speed throughways and toward slower streets that can accommodate everyone. That problem is especially pronounced in countries with destabilized governments, where pedestrian fatalities are probably not the first concern for either leaders or residents.

But certain countries, Mexico in particular, have been able to craft Vision Zero policies despite federal challenges.

“A vertically coordinated approach across multiple levels of government can help overcome institutional weaknesses or limits to capacity,” the authors write. “For example, despite limited federal control over urban streets, Mexico reversed an upward trend in road fatalities between 2009 and 2012 by implementing an evidence-based action plan for road safety that targeted the highest-risk groups.”

Overall, the research does a good job of calling out the global problem and identifying one or two promising examples. But obviously, the challenges facing the countries with the highest rates of pedestrian deaths often involve poverty and political instability — and those are challenges that need to be addressed before the Swiss cheese theory will do any good.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: bike safetypedestrian safetyvision zero

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