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Summit Preview: Vision Zero

San Francisco is one of the best examples of how strong bike advocacy can move mountains. Well, maybe not move them exactly, but create a landscape of infrastructure and a culture of encouragement that can make one of the nation’s hilliest towns a haven for people on bikes. For nearly two decades, Leah Shahum has been leading that charge, building the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition into a bike movement innovator with the largest membership of any local organization.

But, for all the progress and accolades — including Gold Bicycle Friendly Community status for San Francisco — Shahum had a jarring realization in 2013. In the wake of a particularly fatal year for bicyclists and pedestrians, it became clear to her that the slow, piecemeal approach to create safer streets wasn’t moving nearly fast enough. It was time to redraw the lines of the debate, shift the cultural compass for the city, the public and advocates to no longer accept traffic deaths as tragedies out of their control.

So, at the start of 2014, in partnership with Walk SF, the SFBC launched a Vision Zero campaign, calling for a reduction of all traffic deaths to zero in 10 years.

Haven’t heard of Vision Zero? You will. It’s a Big Idea that’s gaining traction in cities across the U.S. — and a concept / campaign we’ll be exploring at the 2015 National Bike Summit. We’re delighted that Shahum, who recently left the SFBC to study Vision Zero successes in Europe, will join us to help explore the challenges and possibilities of this growing trend.

Shahum spoke with me this week about her impressive career, how San Francisco has embraced Vision Zero and plans for a national campaign to advance these policies. Read more below and register for the Summit today!   

I know you started as a volunteer 17 years ago and worked your way up through the ranks of the SFBC. What motivated you to get involved in bicycle advocacy — and what’s kept you inspired to make this a sustained career?

Photo of Shahum by Lisa Beth Anderson

It’s such a dynamic and growing movement. We all know that. We feel it. We see it on the streets. I feel extremely fortunate to have been involved for so long in a place like San Francisco and within the national movement. Honestly, I think it’s two things. First, the fact that it’s evolving so much — that some of the improvements we thought would be impossible 10 years ago are happening all over the country. So the excitement of seeing real change, and change we didn’t even think was feasible not so long ago, is so motivating. And, second, the community. It’s been so fulfilling to be able to help strengthen the community around these improvements. Biking and walking isn’t like a lot of other issues. There are so many important issues but this one around biking really touches people’s lives. There’s that sense of true community, which is something special. That’s kept me sustained probably longer than many other things could have. I honestly look back now and it really is a long time. It’s kind of amazing and I’m even a little bit shocked. But it was never hard to stay in it for those reasons.

So, Vision Zero — how did that concept come to resonate with you? What about it seemed applicable to your work in San Francisco?

It was a more tragic set of circumstances than I would have liked. 2013 was a particularly terrible year in San Francisco for traffic violence. Ther was a record high number of people dying on our streets with walking and biking. The number was very disturbing and upsetting and there were some faces that were really high profile. So these issues got a lot of attention in the media and with the public and with decision makers — and even among our advocates, it really jarred some of us. I know it did me. And I’ll never forget: I got back from the holidays on January 1 or 2 and read the news of, again, a really high number of people dying right around the new year, including a 6-year-old girl who was walking with her mother and hit by an Uber [car]. I remember clearly feeling moved that we’re not doing enough; we can’t keep moving at this pace.

I got back from the holidays and read the news of a 6-year-old girl who was walking with her mother and hit [and killed] by an Uber. I remember clearly feeling moved that we’re not doing enough, that we can’t keep moving at this pace.

I called Nicole Snyder of Walk SF, who we have a great relationship with, and pitched her on this idea. New York City and Transportation Alternatives, they were ahead on Vision Zero and already working on it. They got it into the mayoral forum in fall of 2013, so I’d been watching it. Because it was such a bad, bad year, I told Nicole: New York is doing it and they’re getting traction. Local politicians are signing on. It’s not a crazy idea. We need to do this — we need to raise the level of urgency and advocacy. Walk SF was very interested so on January 3 or 4 — despite the fact that everyone already had their workplans — I pulled the whole staff together and said, you guys are going to kill me but I’m throwing a giant new project in the mix. But everybody understood and got it really quickly, the need and urgency and potential for it.

One of the strong arguments for Vision Zero seems to tie to our theme at the Summit — Bikes+ — in that it lends itself to coalition building, to working in a tangible way with groups that are invested in the larger goal of streets safety if not specifically interested in, say, protected bike lanes. Has that been the case in San Francisco?

Everything we’ve done on Vision Zero has been in full partnership with Walk SF. It’s been really important for this to be walking and biking together. They’ve been fantastic partners.

Where we’ve had the most progress [beyond bike/ped groups] is in partnering with community groups — being able to partner in a meaningful way with neighborhood groups in underserved communities. These communities are where the majority of collisions and fatalities are happening. It’s not surprising that the Tenderloin, where we have predominantly gigantic arterials and lots of walking and biking, is also where people are killed. We certainly have tried in the past to partner proactively with them but it’s only been through the Vision Zero framework that it’s really taken hold and built true partnerships with them. In these communities, where there are so many pressing issues, it was sometimes hard to get mobility onto the radar. But because the situation got so bad and because of the positivity of Vision Zero [this campaign gained traction].

Vision Zero is proactive. It’s so exhausting, emotionally and physically, to always be reacting to fatalities — to be asking what happened at this intersection, who was in the wrong, what do we do? It’s awful. So it was powerful to be able to come right out in the beginning of last year and say, here’s the future we want. These deaths are preventable. Starting from a really positive level, a longer-term vision, folks could come together in a proactive way. Now we’re not just a flash in the pan. We care about the Tenderloin today and tomorrow and the next day and the next day whether there’s a fatality here or not. We showed a long-term commitment to partnership and advocacy in these neighborhoods to get the city to invest more in safety and funding in these communities.

Vision Zero is a really ambitious concept that isn’t just a policy but also a dramatic shift in our mindset about mobility and design and our public space. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in winning support for this?

For so long in this movement we’ve had to overcome certain [negative] attitudes about biking and we’ve worked really hard to highlight how wonderful biking is — the fun, the ease. We all know the challenges too, but we’ve been smart to really emphasize the positive. When you start to talk about safety, it’s the elephant in the room. That was a concern. But what changed that was it was so high on everyone’s radar already. It was out there.

The other thing about Vision Zero is it’s about all road users. That really appeals to me but it also has its challenges. In our world, we’ve sadly been seen and called out as a special interest minority, which can be demeaning and belittling and has sometimes kept us from being taken seriously. Vision Zero means we all have stake in traffic safety. If my aunt never does anything but drive, I care about her safety, too. How does that person feel tied into this movement, too, and how are we shaping our work and building support for the types of projects and policies we want to see in the context of everyone deserves to be safe, whether they drive or bike or walk.

But, if anything, it’s all been a lot better than I thought. The concerns I had early on, before a year ago, have not come to fruition. I don’t mean there haven’t been challenges but, overall, the positivity and forward motion of Vision Zero has far outweighed the negative in terms of our work and advocacy. It’s only been a year and we can’t point to any numbers yet, but there is a change in the way decision makers are thinking about this — and I truly don’t believe that would have happened without the Vision Zero lens or framework.

The SFBC has certainly been a leader in thinking about advocacy from an inclusive perspective, whether that’s research on the barrier for low-income women, pioneering a Family Biking curriculum, or hiring a phenomenal community organizer who we were so honored to have speak at our Future Bike event. One thing that we’ve really seen with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner is the deep and legitimate mistrust some communities around their treatment from police. Given the focus on enforcement with Vision Zero, is that something that’s come up in your conversations?

From our perspective, advocacy-wise, the enforcement issue — fair and equitable enforcement — was one of the toughest things I worked on at the Bicycle Coalition. For 15 years, that was the area with the least amount of progress. For the first 15 years, we were just not getting through to police; we were not getting the attention we needed and changing policies seemed like a no-win situation. Sadly, because it was such a bad year with a lot of attention [on fatalities] and the police ultimately acknowledged they’d done a poor job [on a specific, high-profile case of a bicyclist death] and apologized… that we got in the door. And we’ve made good progress with them. It’s not where it needs to be — we have miles and years to go — but Vision Zero gives us a positive way to move forward. The police department was actually the first department to approve Vision Zero. The chief pulled all his deputies in to a hearing on Vision Zero and we’ve seen some real changes in some policies and practices. Again, it’s not enough but they really are doing some things differently.

Nearly every community I’ve talked to has some challenges with their police departments, but it’s been helpful to spread the responsibility. People spend a lot of time in their silos, not seeing the interconnectedness of the issues. Vision Zero has been an effective way to break down siloes. In addition to being multi modal, Vision Zero is a responsibility of the whole city family. It’s not just the traffic engineers; they can’t fix all these problems. It’s important to show that, of course the police have a role to play, public health and policy makers and transportation engineers and advocates all have a role to play. Then, we’re in it together. There’s less finger pointing and more, what are we going to do together.

We’ve touched on this a bit already, but Vision Zero has really been highlighted as a game-changing concept — something bigger than bike lanes or complete streets. Have you had any moments, though it’s still early in the campaign for San Francisco, that indicated this is more than just the latest campaign de jour?

One of the things the police are doing differently is when they talk to the media they don’t call it a traffic accident — they’ve changed the language from accident to crash or collision. I’m sure it’s not 100%, but certainly at the higher levels they’re doing that, which is getting at that idea of culture change. Vision Zero isn’t introducing new concepts or new tools per se — we know speed and protected bikeways and enforcement based on troublesome behaviors and locations rather than a scattershot approach make a difference. It’s taking the pieces that exist and weaving them together. When you see the police chief catch himself and say crash rather than accident, when you hear the mayor talk about it in a different way, it’s a sign of progress.

We’ve heard that, in addition to your work with the German Marshall Fund studying Vision Zero success stories in Europe, you’re going to be leading a national effort around Vision Zero here in the U.S. What can you tell us about that at this point?

The idea is working to create a Vision Zero network. It’s not intended to be a new organization, but a project or campaign really focused on the near-term goal of helping U.S. cities achieve Vision Zero. I don’t know what cities it will be yet, but there are a handful that are serious about achieving Vision Zero. This would allow them to come together with various stakeholders — I’d imagine a representative from the police department, transportation department, public health department, some political arm like the mayor’s office and advocates — to understand what works and what doesn’t. We all have different experiences. San Francisco might be making some progress on enforcement that can help other cities try those things. Ditto with New York City: Their engineering changes are coming at a much faster pace than San Francisco, and their changing their speed limits is a great model for others. Cities like D.C. and Chicago may have success on safety cameras.

Everyone has their pocket of progress and rather than all these cities working alone in solos, we want them to be learning from each other, so we can quicken the pace of change, create a learning network that can push each other. Again, it will just be a handful of cities with the goal that these cities can help spur progress and share their learning with many more cities.  There’s also a higher-level goal here of needing to make sure Vision Zero is well defined and held to a certain standard. We want to help set a high and appropriate standard for what Vision Zero means and help communities to strive for that. We don’t want Vision Zero to become a catch phrase and used too loosely so it doesn’t have the depth of meaning and follow-through we need to have.

I don’t want to come across as a Vision Zero expert since it’s such a new concept. In San Francisco it’s just been a year now, so we may be ahead of the curve — but the curve is so tiny. What I’m really excited about is helping champion the conversation and move the conversation forward by bringing smart, motivated people together, and helping find the right people to help us answer the question of how to do this culture change thing right.

Hear much more from Shahum at the 2015 National Bike Summit — register today!