In January 2020, Shane Turner attended the Transportation Research Board (TRB) 99th Annual Meeting in Washington DC, USA. Here is Shane's latest blog about his learnings and experience at this conference.
I have been fortunate to be able to attend the TRB conference every few years, and since 2017 I have observed a significant increase in the interest in adopting Vision Zero and the safe system approach in the United States. This was very evident in the number of people that attended a podium session I chaired about the adoption of the safe system approach and safe system tools for New Zealand and Australia - the large meeting room was overflowing.
While Vision Zero principles were initially developed in Sweden, their application in Australia and New Zealand are arguably more applicable to the US due to the similar design of our cities, and our reliance on private motor vehicles. Australia and New Zealand have made steady progress toward Vision Zero and this is of interest internationally. Australian authorities, who have up to twenty years’ experience implementing the safe system approach, have embedded this approach across the transport sector. However, as outlined by Jennifer Oxley (Monash) during our podium session, Australia still faces many challenges in implementing the safe system approach, particularly in urban areas where there are competing interests.
New Zealand and Australia face similar challenges to the US in making our cities more walkable and cyclable. We can learn from what each country, state and city is doing to rebalance the transport network to make them safer for vulnerable road users such as cyclists, micro-mobility users and pedestrians, especially the elderly and the disabled. New Zealand has alot in common with the US and Australia in moving towards a safe system, and there is great value to be had in attending international conferences to share our challenges and knowledge.
One of the biggest challenges raised at the Meeting is promoting safer speeds, which often means lower speed limits. While there is opposition to speed limit changes in most countries, opposition is particularly strong in the US. Even in the face of strong evidence of substantial reductions in deaths and serious injuries, it seems difficult to sell the benefits of reduced speed limits to US politicians and the public. There are many advocates in the US promoting safer roads and yet many of their cities are car-dominated with high speed roads.
While Australia and New Zealand have some way to go, we have made considerable progress in introducing lower speeds in many urban areas. Much of this is due to increasing political support for lower speed limits. This demonstrates how a broader understanding of the safe system approach and Vision Zero among the public and politicians leads to safer speeds.
So how can we be more successful in gaining support for and adopting safer speeds?
As discussed in my previous blog on speed management, there are no shortcuts. It is very important to effectively engage with local communities and provide clear information around the safe system approach and evidence around the crash risks. An effective engagement approach enables road authorities to understand and design safer roads by implementing infrastructure improvements, including placemaking and lower speed limits.
Many authorities that are hoping automation of vehicles will lower the road toll, but this alone won’t achieve Vision Zero. There will still be vulnerable people (pedestrians, scooters, bikes) interacting with motor vehicles, and when this occurs at speed the results are traumatic. A balanced approach of infrastructure improvement, speed management and technology are the best way forward.
Written by Dr Shane Turner, Technical Director, Road Safety