From Vision to Action: Latin American & Caribbean Cities Ready for Paradigm Shift in Road Safety

Vision Zero has become a familiar term in urban mobility planning and road safety around the world. After starting in Sweden in the 1990s and being applied in Europe and the UK, the road safety strategy has recently increased in application at the city and state level. This is because the evidence to support it is clear. Countries and cities that have taken a Safe System approach to road safety – accepting that people make mistakes and striving to create a mobility system where these mistakes don’t cost human lives – have reduced their traffic fatalities faster and by a greater degree than countries that have stuck with the traditional road safety approach, which places blame on the individual, focuses on a limited range of education and enforcement strategies, and tends to plateau in effectiveness over time.

While cities across Europe and now over 40 cities in the U.S. have adopted Vision Zero, a rapid uptake is needed in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each year, more than 100,000 people lose their lives in traffic crashes in the region. Traffic crashes are the number one cause of death for children aged 5-14 and the second greatest cause of death for people aged 15-44. It is estimated that road crashes in several Latin American countries have also led to economic losses ranging from 1.5 to 3.9% of national GDP. This could well be an underestimation; research on other regions has found that halving traffic deaths could add 7 to 22% to GDP per capita. The huge toll taken by road crashes on rapidly motorizing countries has demonstrated that road safety is not a luxury but a necessity for social and economic development.

Today, cities across Latin America and the Caribbean are facing a critical opportunity to raise ambition on lowering road deaths. With their vibrant energy and new generations of road safety experts, transport engineers and urban planners, they are ripe for a paradigm shift – ready to take on these stark road safety challenges and surge past the hurdles that too often prevent full adoption of Vision Zero.

Latin American Cities Already Laying the Groundwork

Many cities in the region have made significant progress in making their streets safer and setting new standards, particularly three pioneering Vision Zero cities: Bogotá, Colombia; São Paulo, Brazil; and Fortaleza, Brazil. In Bogotá, Colombia, lowering speeds on the city’s five arterial roads – where 25% of the city’s traffic deaths occurred – is estimated to have saved over 60 lives in only six months (November 2018-May 2019), compared to the average number of fatalities from the previous four years.

In Brazil, both São Paulo and Fortaleza have used road design improvements and speed reduction measures particularly around schools and hospitals to make these areas safer for all users. São Paulo’s safety improvements in one busy corridor led to a 68% reduction in fatalities in just one year, and in 2019 the city launched a road safety plan with the ambitious target of cutting traffic fatalities in half by 2028. Fortaleza recently finalized a road safety action plan and has already reduced traffic fatalities by 44% between 2011 and 2018, nearing the 50% reduction by 2020 goal set by the UN in 2011 for the Decade of Action for Road Safety.

Why More Action Is Needed

But as with any policy innovation, seeing Vision Zero through from high-level strategy to on-the-ground implementation has remained a struggle. Despite the Vision Zero approach becoming a global phenomenon, strong commitments to the strategy are often not followed by equally strong action and implementation based on Safe System principles. Challenges arise when administrations change and road safety becomes a point of political contention, or when funding and/or capacity does not align with political rhetoric. This challenge has also been experienced in the U.S., where many Vision Zero cities – Los Angeles, for example – have struggled to follow through on their commitments.

The Vision Zero Challenge

This is where the Vision Zero Challenge comes in. Designed by a network of road safety-focused partners and led by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, this challenge aims to support cities in overcoming the barriers to full Vision Zero implementation. The inaugural Vision Zero Challenge 2020-2021 will focus on cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, striving to collaborate across a network of practitioners and funders to push for a paradigm change and expose city leaders to the tangible actions needed in their context to implement Vision Zero correctly and swiftly; build momentum in cities’ Vision Zero strategies to bridge the gap between commitment and implementation; and spur road safety action on the ground while building up awareness globally. The Challenge’s hashtag, #Vision2Action, represents the goal of moving beyond the Vision Zero branding to scale up systemic action for safer streets.

Latin American and Caribbean cities have the opportunity now to leapfrog over the traditional user-oriented road safety approach and tackle the issue from the systemic perspective that defines Vision Zero. It’s an opportunity they’re ready for.

Learn more about the Vision Zero Challenge here.

Anna Bray Sharpin is a Transportation Associate for Health and Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Claudia Adriazola-Steil is Deputy Director of Urban Mobility and Director of Health and Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Alejandro Schwedhelm is Urban Mobility Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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