Safer roads are at the heart of liveable cities

19th April 2017

By José Viegas, Secretary-General, International Transport Forum

In November 2013, six cyclists were killed in car crashes in London within a space of only two weeks. The deaths shocked the public and led to a heated debate: Had the push for increasing the share of cycling been too aggressive? Had road infrastructure been sufficiently adapted? Were cyclists to blame themselves? Was there even a “war” going on between cyclists and motorists? While around 1,000 cyclists staged a “die-in” as a protest, the police despatched 2,500 officers to traffic hot spots. A BBC poll found that 20 percent of regular cyclists had stopped using their bicycle for their commute after the deaths.

The London experience illustrates a larger issue that many cities are grappling with. Urban crashes account for about two-thirds of serious traffic injuries in many European countries. Pedestrians and cyclists are 20 times more likely to be killed in a crash than car occupants over a given travel distance. Yet policies for more liveable and sustainable cities invariably involve increasing the share of walking and cycling and hence the number of those referred to by planners as “vulnerable road users”. Thus, the strategic political priorities give urban road safety a much broader relevance. Road safety in cities is no longer only about car crashes, it’s about quality of life.

Against this backdrop, a number of big cities have set ambitious targets for road safety. Global metropolises like New York and Vienna, for instance, have embraced “Vision Zero”, the notion that no-one should have to die in traffic. Such a policy sets a powerful marker for the political will to put humans at the centre of a city’s development. It also provides guidance for the practitioners, who can now create their to-do list by asking a simple question: What needs to happen to eradicate road deaths in our city? Instead of fixing problems piecemeal where they arise, an ambitious long-term vision for road safety enables holistic and results-focused interventions–an approach outlined in a recent, award-winning study by the International Transport Forum (ITF) on Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift in Road Safety.

Critics argue that “Vision Zero” is unrealistic. But examining around 1,000 towns and cities in 17 European countries, Dekra, a German safety consultancy, found that fully 20 percent of conurbations with more than 100,000 inhabitants had not registered a single road death for at least 12 consecutive months between 2009 and 2012. Sixteen municipalities had not had a road fatality over the entire period of four years. So some cities are clearly getting something right. What is their secret sauce? Unfortunately it is not easy to pinpoint what makes some cities successful and others less so, or what different approaches are being used to good effect. Greater transparency based on more and better data would help–after all, the differences in performance mean there is a singular opportunity for cities to learn from each other.

On country level, this mutual learning has happened for more than 25 years. In the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (known as IRTAD), 70 partners from 40 countries work under the auspices of ITF on improving crash data, sharpening their analysis and sharing good practices. The World Health Organization has called IRTAD the “model of multi-country co-operation” and its crash data has been hailed by the Global New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) as “simply the best in the world”. Replicating this approach for cities and creating a community of practice around urban road safety is a no-brainer.

In October 2016 ITF launched the “Safer City Streets” network with funding from the FIA Road Safety Programme. Within months the number of participating cities grew to 34. Of these, 20 are already providing data which is being analysed by the ITF and made available in a dedicated database, allowing member cities to benchmark themselves against peers. All cities that want to make their roads safer, and thus make their community more liveable and sustainable are invited to join the network.

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