Guest Op-Ed: Atlanta Adopts Vision Zero. Now Comes the Hard Part: Implementation

This week the City of Atlanta joined the increasingly long list of American cities adopting Vision Zero policies. Atlanta faces an especially high burden of road traffic deaths. In 2019, 73 people were killed on Atlanta’s streets, and about half of those killed were pedestrians. That’s equivalent to a mortality rate of just over 14 deaths per 100,000 people[1]. That is an astounding number of people being killed on Atlanta’s roadways. For context, the mortality rate for road traffic injuries in the entire United States is about 11.8 per 100,000. In urban areas, that same rate is typically 3-10 deaths per 100,000. Atlanta’s mortality rate for pedestrians alone in 2019 was thus nearly double the average rate for most urban areas in the United States. With such a remarkably high burden of road deaths, Atlanta must go above and beyond what other cities have done to simply catch up with other American cities, let alone top performers around the world.

As more American cities have adopted Vision Zero programs, the traffic safety movement is going through some well-documented growing pains. The curve for traffic deaths has flattened after substantial reductions, and in some cases deaths in people walking and cycling are increasing.

Vision Zero is frequently cited as a Swedish transportation safety policy imported to the United States. This is only partially true. The name “Vision Zero” comes from Sweden. However, Sweden’s Vision Zero policy is one example of a larger movement within transportation towards policies that follow a “Safe Systems” framework. The Safe Systems approach argues that the responsibility for keeping people safe on roadways primarily lies with those that design and operate it. The shift to a system-level approach is a marked change from the user-centric approach prevalent in the United States.

In order to create an effective Vision Zero policy, Atlanta must learn from the mistakes other cities have made and improve upon them. The One Atlanta Strategic Transportation Plan does well to broadly outline core elements common to other Vision Zero programs: goals for crash reductions, aspirations to data-driven decision making, and emphasis on collaboration amongst different city departments and stakeholders. To simply become as safe as an average America city, Atlanta must act quickly, boldly, and go beyond what other cities have done.

One of the great successes of the Vision Zero movement in the United States is the emphasis on controlling vehicle speeds. Atlanta’s Vision Zero policy, like many others, will reduce the speed limit on neighborhood streets to 25 miles per hour. This is a welcome development and will save lives. When vehicles travel at higher speeds, there is a higher likelihood of injury when crashes occur. However, this is only the first step. If Atlanta intends to drastically reduce serious injuries and deaths on its streets, it must redefine for whom its system is designed.

Engineers create systems, explicitly and implicitly, with a particular user in mind. This is known as a “design-user” in engineering parlance. In transportation engineering, the design-user is typically the largest user, rather than the most vulnerable or frequent user. This results in overly large lane widths, slip-lanes, and other designs that present high risk for all but the largest of vehicles. Atlanta, while late to the Vision Zero movement, could lead by explicitly designating people walking or rolling as their design user. For too long, Atlanta has prioritized convenience over safety in its transportation system. By beginning with the principle that it will design a transportation system with the most vulnerable as its key users, Atlanta will start on a path to an effective Vision Zero program.

If Atlanta’s Vision Zero program is to be truly “World Class,” it must reconsider for whom the system is designed, and follow through with a radical transformation of the city’s streets. Recently, Atlanta has been big on promises for safe and sustainable transportation, but short on delivery. In 2015 and 2016, the city passed sales tax increases to fund an infrastructure improvements with overwhelming voter support, including large promises to transform the city’s sidewalks, cycle paths, and transit networks. Unfortunately, those programs were drastically scaled back from what was promised to voters. With large decreases in sales tax revenues expected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, municipal governments everywhere, including Atlanta, will be forced to make difficult decisions about what to fund. After passing a Vision Zero ordinance, Atlanta has a mandate to shift its focus from a system prioritizing vehicle throughput to one that puts safety at the forefront.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

[1]According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Atlanta’s population was 498,044 in 2018. 2019 estimates are not available at this time.


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