Vision Zero has become a meaningless response to continuing tragedy; we have to learn from the Dutch.
Vision Zero is a lovely concept; In Sweden, where it started, they believe that “Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society” – nothing matters more than human lives. It means that safety is prioritized over speed and drivers’ convenience.
In the last week, two children were killed in New York City and one in Toronto. Authorities in both cities insist that they believe in and are implementing Vision Zero. In New York, people have long been complaining about the road design where the kids were killed; in Toronto, instead of dropping a pile of Jersey barriers to slow traffic down where Duncan Xu was killed, they closed off a pedestrian walkway. In both cities, the authorities talk about the 3 E’s, Engineering, Education and Enforcement, but always manage to ignore the first, because true vision zero slows cars down and inconveniences drivers. In both cities, the mayors care more about drivers losing a minute of time than they do about dead children, or they would fix this problem.
While all this was happening, I saw a tweet that reminded me of what happened in the Netherlands in the seventies. Dutch cities, like Amsterdam, saw a huge decline in cycling, from 80 percent of the population to 20 percent between the fifties and the seventies. Meanwhile the number of people killed by cars climbed dramatically, to 3,300 deaths in 1971, including 400 children.
Being the early seventies, parents took to the streets in protest, and a grassroots campaign, Stop de Kindermoord (“stop the child murder”) took off. Renate van der Zee of the Guardian talks to organizer Maartje van Putten:
The 1970s were a great time for being angry in Holland: activism and civil disobedience were rampant. Stop de Kindermoord grew rapidly and its members held bicycle demonstrations, occupied accident blackspots, and organised special days during which streets were closed to allow children to play safely: “We put tables outside and held a huge dinner party in our street. And the funny thing was, the police were very helpful.”
Soon after that, a cyclists union was formed that pushed for safer bike infrastructure. Meanwhile, the oil embargo caused the energy crisis of the seventies, which gave good cover for campaigns to find alternatives to cars.
Gradually, Dutch politicians became aware of the many advantages of cycling, and their transport policies shifted – maybe the car wasn’t the mode of transport of the future after all. There was a constituency here, perhaps bigger and louder than the drivers. And years later, Dutch cities are safe for kids and for cyclists, because of grassroots activism and emotion. Instead of “vision zero” they did “stop the child murders.”
Emotion is powerful; the great salesman Zig Ziglar said it was the key to motivating people. He found that “people don’t buy for logical reasons. They buy for emotional reasons.” As a tool for selling safety, Vision Zero no longer has any emotional resonance, because it no longer has any real meaning in North America. “Stop murdering our kids” does.
A few years ago in Toronto, after a child was killed in a nice upper middle class neighbourhood, these signs started appearing all over the city. With typical Canadian politeness, they say “Children playing, please slow down.” This isn’t good enough anymore. It should be reprinted to say “Slow the f**k down right now and don’t murder our children.”
Instead of listening to the politicians, engineers and police and their 3Es and ten year plans that don’t inconvenience drivers, we should learn from the Dutch. We have to lose the devalued “vision zero” and simply “stop the murders.”
The parallels to the seventies in Europe are all there: we have our own oil and climate crisis, we have lost faith in our politicians who are pandering to car crowd. The only way we are going to get change is to do what the Dutch did: take back the streets. Forget Vision Zero, just Stop the Murders.