The Vision Zero Street Design Standard is a guide to planning, designing and building streets that can save lives. By showing how streets can be re-engineered to prevent dangerous driving and encourage multi-modal usage, it paves a practical way toward creating a city where crashes are preventable and deaths and serious injuries can be eliminated. These street design protocols were developed with the expertise of traffic engineers and urban planners, and are based on solutions already available in the New York City Department of Transportation’s Street Design Manual.
Today, we see Vision Zero spreading around the world. In the past two years in the U.S. alone, more than 15 cities have launched initiatives to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. This global trend provides a remarkable opportunity to build a legacy of safety into our road systems. The Vision Zero Street Design Standard is a tool to guide planners, elected officials, and advocates towards creating arterial roads in which safety is the norm. By incorporating the principles set forward in the Design Standard, cities can address engineering flaws that put pedestrians and cyclists at risk, without compromising movement by any mode.
In New York City, 239 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2015. The majority of these crashes happened on arterial roads and were caused by preventable driver behaviors such as speeding and failure to yield the right of way. These behaviors are too often enabled by street design that prioritizes driver speed and convenience, with the safety and experiences of cyclists and pedestrians being an afterthought. A standardized design is needed so that safety can be ensured by default, without relying on education campaigns that may not reach all drivers, or the presence of law enforcement. Once built, these streets are not subject to the shifting winds of politics, and require only standard maintenance to retain their effects.
Simply put, when safety is made part of the fabric of the street itself, behavior is forced to change - sometimes without drivers even having to think about it. This is the most sustainable and effective solution, and an absolute necessity for achieving Vision Zero goals. Without major changes in street design along the lines suggested by this Standard, New York City will not be able to eliminate deaths and serious injuries on its roads. A city with streets that encourage speeding, limit space for pedestrians, treat transit users like second-class citizens, and force bike riders into danger will not reach zero - in fact, it will be enabling dangerous behavior.
The good news is, these street redesigns are achievable. Just as most crashes are caused by completely preventable driver choices, our city streets have entirely fixable design flaws. Everything New York City needs to design safer streets is either already included in the DOT’s Street Design Manual, or is currently being piloted by the city.
Almost a decade ago, the City of New York began the piecemeal installation of elements of a Vision Zero Street. In these example locations, despite the incomplete nature of the street design, the potential for crash prevention is potent. Impressive strides have already been made using only a fraction of the possible solutions. For example:
It may be impossible to eliminate human error. However, in a Vision Zero city, errors do not need to result in a crash. By controlling speed and nudging drivers towards safer behavior, injuries and deaths can be avoided. In other words, street designs can protect road users from the consequences of human error, and critically, those changes are cast in concrete. For this reason, Transportation Alternatives recommends that the City of New York adopt the Vision Zero Street Design Standard as the universal standard for all arterial street design.
By employing the Vision Zero Street Design Standard, we cement a lasting legacy of safety into our streets. That legacy will encourage more people to walk and ride bikes, make bus service more efficient and enhance the mobility of the elderly and disabled. If the standard is applied universally, the number of preventable crashes will fall to zero, ending the present reality of inequitable streets, deadly in one borough and lifesaving in another.
Vision Zero Street embodies Vision Zero principles, and in all aspects should reduce motor vehicle traffic, increase accessibility and protect the most vulnerable users of the street. To qualify as a Vision Zero Street, a design must achieve three core functions:
These abstract ideas are rendered into a practical application in the 10 elements that make up a Vision Zero Street. Scroll down to learn about the different elements of these streets, how they work, and where you can find them in New York City.
There are 10 elements that make up a Vision Zero Street, all present in the NYC Department of Transportation Street Design Manual.
The City of New York currently applies these elements piecemeal, prioritizing the level of service for car and truck drivers in decisions about whether to include or omit these elements on streets. On some multi-neighborhood arterial streets, elements are installed in one community but not the next. Even contiguous blocks of the same streets will feature varying quality of design.
This lack of standardization is inequitable and endangers millions of New Yorkers. When road design constantly changes, it is difficult to normalize safe driving behavior or encourage more people to walk or bike. Furthermore, when safe streets appear as the rare exception rather than the rule, it feeds the perception that better design is unobtainable and impractical. This is not true: the Department of Transportation has a wealth of engineering resources in its Street Design Manual that are possible to implement and have been proven to reduce dangerous driving. Rather, it is a matter of funding. A doubling of the Department of Transportation’s capital budget would allow New York City to feasibly reconstruct all its dangerous arterial roads within 50 years.
New York City must also fundamentally shift how it views its streets and allocates space for different modes. A Vision Zero-worthy street will prioritize the highest-capacity modes of transportation, like walking, biking, and using public transit, over the single-occupancy car. Toronto has already codified this hierarchy, and New York City should also adopt such a model in order to normalize safe street design.
Inverted pyramid created by Transportation Alternatives, 2001.1
Consider the following 10 elements of a Vision Zero Street as parts of a whole: When redesigning a dangerous street, engineers should consider application of the Vision Zero Street Design Standard as a holistic package before considering the application of individual elements. Not every street will necessarily be suitable for all elements, but the decision to omit any of them must only be made if doing so would have no adverse impact on pedestrian or cyclist safety. In particular, space for car parking must never be allowed to take priority over street design elements that save lives.
Design sidewalks to meet full ADA compliance and enable pedestrian access by people of all abilities.
Install amenities like wayfinding, benches, bus stops and shelters, greenery and bioswales to enhance the public realm.
Install Class 1 Protected Bicycle Paths to reduce speeding and protect people on bicycles.
Reduce road lane width to 10 or 10.5 feet to reduce speeding - the driving behavior most likely to injure or kill.
Install pedestrian islands of at least five feet on all two-way multi-lane streets to provide safe harbors for people walking. Crosswalks leading to and from them should be high-visibility.
Expand sidewalks to offer no less than 8 feet of unobstructed width in order to encourage walking and reduce speeding.
Prioritize mass transit riders and efficient surface transit operations to encourage public transit use.
Give pedestrians exclusive crossing time to reduce turning conflicts. Consider hardened centerlines and slow-turn wedges to calm turning traffic.
Make commercial curb regulation business-friendly with dedicated unloading zones, which reduce double-parking and the disruption it causes.
The wide, multi-lane, one-way avenues typical to Manhattan, and their narrower counterparts in other boroughs, are suitable for a variety of street safety improvements. Long, straight one-way streets run the risk of becoming “speedways” without the appropriate traffic calming measures. This is one example of what a one-way arterial could look like if it included all elements of a complete street. Not every arterial road will look like this, but this is a starting point for how to envision better, safer design.
Two-way arterial roads can be found all across New York City, and at their widest they can resemble small highways in places. Street safety improvements must take into consideration the complexities of tra c turning in multiple directions, and avoid situations where busy roads become barriers to free pedestrian movement. Again, not every arterial road will look exactly like this, but it provides an example of what is possible when the safety of vulnerable road users is prioritized.
The proposed redesign of Atlantic Avenue falls well short of the Vision Zero street standard. While curb extensions, reconstructed medians, and changes to left turns are welcome pedestrian safety improvements, no dedicated facilities for cycling or public transit have been provided. Rebuilding crumbling sidewalks and medians are basic maintenance actions, not centerpieces of a flagship project. Opportunities have been missed to use the DOT Street Design Manual as a toolkit for addressing persistent safety issues. These small improvements are not enough to create a true “Vision Zero Great Street.”
The ongoing redesign of Queens Boulevard is more ambitious than most New York City projects, but it still misses opportunities to be a true example of Vision Zero design. The protected bike lane on a notoriously dangerous street is a major improvement, but pedestrian-friendly features are somewhat lacking, bus lanes are missing, and more could be done to reduce speeding by design.
The operational phase of the Fourth Avenue redesign has been a missed opportunity to make low-cost safety improvements to a dangerous road. Design flaws that encourage speeding and put pedestrians and cyclists at risk remain apparent. While plans for the capital phase are more promising, they are largely focused on cosmetic changes to medians, they fall short of being truly dedicated to Vision Zero principles, and they under-utilize options available in the Street Design Manual.
A large-scale program of street redesign would present New York City with its best opportunity to achieve its Vision Zero goals. Because unsafe driving is enabled by the design of so many streets as they currently stand, it will be impossible to significantly reduce the number of traffic injuries and deaths without a comprehensive shift in how City streets are both built and understood. A model of street usage that prioritizes high-capacity modes of transportation like walking, biking, and taking public transit over the private car is what must guide this fundamental transformation of the urban road network.
At present, the greatest obstacle to street redesign lies in the lack of resources at the New York City DOT. Reconstructing all of the City’s dangerous arterial roads within the Mayor’s Vision Zero time frame would require hundreds of millions of dollars more in capital funding per year above what is currently being spent. In addition, the DOT’s capacity would have to be expanded, particularly in the areas of planning, resurfacing, road marking, signaling, and outreach.
But the statistics show the investment is worth making: On arterial roads where even just a few of the elements of a Vision Zero Street have been implemented, the result has been dramatic increases in cyclist volume and substantial improvements in travel times alongside decreases in casualties - a clear sign that streets become safer when they are redesigned. The simple addition of a protected bike lane on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue led to a 58% reduction in injuries to all street users, while creative street engineering solutions elsewhere in the city have shown injury decreases of 21%-67%1. In addition, relatively inexpensive treatments can be quickly implemented through the DOT’s operating budget, significantly improving safety while those streets wait for a complete reconstruction. If the DOT had the resources to make Vision Zero-worthy streets the rule rather than the rare exception, then their safety impacts would be normalized and their benefits available to all New Yorkers. It is, simply put, a matter of life and death.