Insights

Vision Zero in Small Communities

When I think of Vision Zero or the Safe System Approach (SSA), I’m reminded of a familiar Washington, D.C. corner that was recently transformed. It’s a great example of Vision Zero in action – vehicle speeds are slowed by design, walkers and bikers have safe spaces, risk is proactively removed from the system and the chances of a severe crash are greatly diminished. Many early adopters of this approach were major metropolitan areas, so common Vision Zero examples often look like this complete street.

 
Common Vision Zero Example: An urban two-way street with buffered bike lanes, separated parking, narrow road widths, slow speeds and pedestrian crosswalks.

However, pictures like this often do not resonate with small or rural communities. I grew up in rural Massachusetts, which has a population of about 45,000. It’s a community without millions of walkers and bikers, vehicle transport is the predominant mode of travel and there are not hundreds of severe crashes every day. Through this upbringing and project work in similar locations, I have learned that without comparable examples of Vision Zero, many small communities feel this approach is not for them.

What practitioners are now realizing is Vision Zero and Safe System concepts come down to two things that are applicable everywhere: preventing transportation-related fatalities and serious injuries. Small communities are overcoming any preconceived notions that this initiative is only applicable to large cities and have started branding their efforts as Vision Zero.

So, what does this approach look like in a small community? It includes a planning process, identification of realistic priorities and solutions, multimodal considerations, excellent relationships and the ability to put resources into proactive approaches.

A Suitable Plan

In small communities, it’s still important to use a process to visualize safety priorities and develop a plan to track them. However, the planning efforts do not need to be costly or time-consuming. They simply:

1. Bring people together to talk about the safety issues

2. Understand the key challenges

3. Identify solutions

4. Work together to implement results

Small communities tend to have a small group dedicated to planning. A tight, agile team can be an advantage. They can identify key needs and implementation priorities quickly without a drawn-out planning process.

Safety Priorities and Solutions

Common elements in Vision Zero plans include high injury networks and active transportation solutions, but these may not resonate as well in small communities. Crash analysis may uncover safety concerns that are more in line with roadway departures, speed, impairment, unbelted drivers, young drivers and motorcyclists. These are all valid and important issues to include in a Vision Zero plan.

The safety solutions in small communities will likely also look different from those found in common Vision Zero plans. Focusing strategies where resources can be shared, work can be donated in-house and good ideas can be “borrowed” from other communities will get the job done. Other options include using free National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) materials, prioritizing low-cost countermeasures first, or asking stakeholders to volunteer at community events.


A visual of what Vision Zero can look like in smaller communities: slow speeds, narrow lanes and pedestrian infrastructure.

Multimodal Considerations

Small communities typically have fewer people walking, biking or riding scooters. However, these vulnerable road users are still a priority, so the conversation should focus on where people want to walk and bike to create safe spaces in those areas. These tend to be locations that are most important to the community: main streets, schools, trails, libraries and transit stops.