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New York City Looks to Stockholm for a Traffic Blueprint

May 20, 2014
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New York City Looks to Stockholm for a Traffic Blueprint
George Washington Bridge, NYC. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Forget Ikea. Better traffic rules could be the most important Swedish import.

As a city densely packed with 8.4 million people, New York City has gained one of the worst reputations for traffic and accidents. Bikes, taxis and commuters clamor for road space, creating bumper-to-bumper bottlenecks and hours upon hours of delays.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio is aiming to change the way in which New Yorkers approach road safety, looking to the country holding the world’s most renowned nation for street safety: Sweden.

Sweden, which is only slightly larger than New York City with 9.5 million people, has the lowest number of traffic deaths in the world with a national rate of 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times. In Stockholm, the Scandinavian nation’s capital, the rate is 1.1 deaths per 100,000 — a third of New York City’s rate.

Which is why de Blasio is looking to implement a similar blueprint in the Big Apple, announcing a $28.8 million dollar budget increase to the Department of Transportation for the administration’s Vision Zero Action Plan. Under the ambitious strategy, which is based on Sweden’s Visio Zero plan, de Blasio is aiming to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024.

The Swedish Parliament first implemented Vision Zero in 1997 with the hope of eventually reaching zero traffic deaths. The proposal was that if Swedes could follow the most basic traffic laws, engineers could design streets to prevent all traffic fatalities. Through reducing speed limits, road construction reform, pedestrian safety, incorporating more roundabouts and an increased used of automated enforcement, Sweden has cut the amount of traffic fatalities in half (264 deaths last year) since it began the policy in 1997.

“You should be able to make mistakes,” said Lars Darin, a senior official with the Swedish Transport Administration, “without being punished by death.”

Though some components of the Swedish model do not translate (for instance — roundabouts, which have been integral to reducing the number of fatal crashes in Sweden), city administration officials have been in close contact with European traffic authorities working through the action plan.

New York’s Vision Zero plan does call for an increase in local enforcement of speed limits, broader parking lanes as well as the use of “black box” data recorders in taxicabs. The New York Police Department has also rolled out “arterial slow zones,” which reduce the speed limit from 30 m.p.h to 25 m.p.h., while state lawmakers recently green-lighted an additional 120 speed cameras throughout the city’s school zones. New York City now boasts 140 speed cameras in comparison to Sweden’s more than 1,100.

While Swedish authorities acknowledge New York’s Vision Zero Plan as “impressive,” they disagree with the city’s more recent focus on distribution of jaywalking tickets as well as cards with safety tips and areas with a recent history of fatal crashes.

MORE: How an Innovative Parking Program May Cut Downtown Traffic by One Third

“Design around the human as we are,” said Claes Tingvall, the director of traffic safety at the Swedish Transport Administration and a godfather of the Vision Zero plan.

However, Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, pointed out the cultural difference with pedestrians between New York and Stockholm. “New York City is one of the more remarkable pedestrian cultures in the world,” she said.

Regardless, New York is pushing ahead with the Vision Zero plan, emphasizing that cities nationwide that have implemented similar strategies to Vision Zero have reported fatality rates falling at a pace of more than 25 percent than the national rate.

Changing the attitude of city streets from survival to safety is a necessity as New York drivers and cyclists move into the summer months.

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