Brewerytown: Philadelphia’s Vision Zero Plan Works To Make Transportation Safer

In Philadelphia, like most major cities, traffic accidents are a regular occurrence. Whether as pedestrians or those using bikes or cars, one is almost always at some risk when moving through the city.

“About 100 people are killed every year in traffic collisions in Philadelphia,” said Charlotte Castle, coordinator for Vision Zero, a plan the city has recently enacted. The Vision Zero plan is based around the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities in Philadelphia by 2030.

The idea for Vision Zero started in 1994 in Sweden. After experiencing success with the program, the plan began spreading to other European cities, such as Paris, which cut its death rates in half in about six years.

Eventually, the idea made its way to the United States, where it was adopted by cities like Chicago and Boston.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Philadelphia has the highest traffic deaths per capita in the country, followed by other large cities like Los Angeles and New York. In the other cities, a target year has not always been set as it was in Philadelphia, but Castle thinks it’s important.

“By setting the year goal I think it adds some urgency to the project,” she said. “It always keeps us looking ahead.”

The initiative came to Philadelphia at the end of 2016 when Mayor Kenney signed an executive order for Vision Zero, which is housed within the Streets Department‘s Complete Streets initiative.

“Complete Streets is about making sure that streets are safe for everyone, not just cars,” said Castle. “Designing streets for all of its users, but prioritizing those who are most vulnerable.”

In September, Vision Zero released its final action plan, including what it calls its “high injury network,” noting areas of the city and intersections that are the most dangerous for road users.

In Brewerytown, 25th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue as well as some of West Girard Avenue near Kelly Drive are listed on the network.

“There are a lot of problems in Brewerytown,” said Bob Previdi, policy coordinator of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “Traffic signals need to be looked at, stop signs need to be looked at, there could certainly be improvement.”

Previdi also feels there aren’t enough bike lanes in Brewerytown, as well as the city in general.

“The city needs to feel welcoming to cyclists,” said Previdi. “It’s not quite there yet.”

One aspect of the Vision Zero plan advocates for “active transportation,” which includes walking and biking. These methods are beneficial for a number of reasons, the plan states, including health, environmental and safety reasons.

Some feel the problem is that the plan favors bikers and pedestrians more than those with vehicles.

“If the plan is rooted in equity, then each group of road users should be favored equally,” said Dr. Justin Schorr, who teaches civil engineering at George Washington University. “If it is intended to protect bikers and pedestrians, then they should declare that is the intention.”

But, according to Castle, that is a misconception.

“We design the roads to be comfortable for everyone, but we have to be aware of those who are the most at risk,” said Castle. “And bikers and pedestrians are the most vulnerable.”

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One of the biggest factors in traffic deaths in Philadelphia is speeding. According to the Vision Zero website, about 53 percent of traffic deaths in the city are a result of aggressive driving, which could be speeding or a failure to yield.

“If you’re working in transportation, you’re always trying to balance speed and safety,” said Schorr. He went on to note if someone slows down any traffic anywhere in the system, such as adding a roundabout or a stop sign, it slows down the system as a whole.

There are a few ideas that Vision Zero is working to adopt, one of which is a speed camera on Roosevelt Boulevard, one of the most dangerous roads in Pennsylvania. The idea, said Castle, would be that the camera would be more efficient than law enforcement and cut down on any unease or nervousness that drivers might experience with physical law enforcement.

According to Castle, every September in the years moving forward will see the release of a report because public is important with a program such as Vision Zero. The report would detail what strategies the plan is committing to, how previous strategies have fared and other information of similar nature.

Before the plan was put into action, Castle and her colleagues went into neighborhoods that might know nothing about the plan in order to educate the city as much as possible.

“For us, Vision Zero is not about pushing any agenda or confusing people,” said Castle. “It’s about being human, and caring about the lives of those around us.”

The Future of Transportation:

The Vision Zero plan has the goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2030 and looks at the present state of the city. But preparing for the future, with changing neighborhoods and new technologies, is also important.

In Brewerytown, one of the areas of the city with the lowest amount of accidents, the neighborhood is steadily growing. That likely means there will be more drivers and bikers as the population increases.

“It’s important to know where people in the city are going,” said Schorr. “Brewerytown might be overlooked by the plan, but that might be because the problems haven’t even arisen yet.”

One of the other reasons Brewerytown may not have as many collisions is because authorities may not even know about them.

“We suspect that there is some under-reporting going on in that area,” said Bob Previdi, policy coordinator of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Previdi hopes by talking to some of the local hospitals, they could get a clearer sense of the data.

Besides the movement of people in the city, imminent technological changes could also have an impact on the city.

“We have a car culture here in Philadelphia,” said John Nawn, who works as a transportation engineer with Fleischer Forensics. “Being a colonial city, we just aren’t equipped to handle this many cars.”

The future may include a number of possibilities in terms of transportation, including a city that would be vehicle-free or one populated by autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

“You would basically have to engineer the entire city around these autonomous cars,” said Schorr. It would drastically change the face of the city, but for Schorr, it’s decisions like this that the Vision Zero plan might not consider.

“I think the plan could be expanded to include more considerations for future technology,” Schorr said. Fundamental change in the transportation system could also cut down on accidents, which is Vision Zero’s ultimate goal.

“It takes the average person about 1.6 seconds to react to something in a car and hit the brake pedal,” said Nawn. “When we build a roadway, we are going for the 85th percentile, which is the people who take about 2.5 seconds to react.”

For Nawn, designing roadways is almost always engineering for human error, noting that automated systems in cars would relieve a lot of that human error. Collision warning systems have reaction times that are much faster than human counterparts, but perhaps vehicles wouldn’t even be necessary within the city limits.

“Should we shut down cities to all vehicular traffic?” asked Schorr. “That becomes a question.”

Nawn and Schorr both posed the idea of leaving vehicles at the outskirts of the city, with people getting around via bike, foot or public transportation within the city. Schorr cited his experiences on the highway in Washington D.C., where the metro goes right down the middle of the lanes while others are stuck in traffic.

“They do that so you look at it zooming past and think, ‘Hey, I should have taken the Metro today,’” said Schorr.

Although a fully public transportation system would have safety benefits, there would be trade-offs, he noted.

“When you start to get into a fully public system,” said Schorr. “You lose the freedom of just being able to get in a car and drive anywhere without anyone knowing where you’re going.”

That seems to be a trade-off that will need to be made eventually. As the Vision Zero plan moves forward, the hope is that there will be systemic change in transportation.

“If you think about campaigns such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” said Castle. “They target an individual group, whereas we are hoping to change the system as a whole to make it safer.”

– Text, images and video by Dan Bartels and Sami Rahman.


  1. The basic problem is that Philadelphia does NOT engineer roads for the desired speed range, and then wants automated cameras as a for-profit business partnership with the for-profit camera companies. There are MANY ways Philly could improve safety, but getting enforcement profits entirely out of the picture is a prerequisite. James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  2. This pertains to national news, as well as PA news.

    I have some comments on Vision Zero. Speed limits should be set to the 85th percentile free-flowing traffic speed, yellow lights made longer, and stop signs only used where needed. At intersections, time the yellow light to actual approach speeds and use realistic perception and reaction times. Right now, we have poor traffic engineering, coupled with predatory enforcement. Vision Zero will take this to a level we do not want to be at. Did you see the recent Inquirer report showing a whopping 97% error rate with some red-light cameras?

    The speed cameras being lobbied for are a total disaster. I urge you to check into how many errors these can make. They may produce false readings and may even cite the incorrect car. These are put into areas with absurdly low speed limits and tickets go out barely above the limit.

    With red-light cameras, the city should immediately discontinue their usage. In many areas nationwide, when the light is too short, people are cited a split-second after it changes, for stopping over the stop line, or a non-complete stop for a right-on-red turn. Who can defend this setup? The short yellows alone are a major problem, which yield most of the “violations.” Federal data also shows that non-complete stops for right turns almost never cause a crash, yet are the bulk of the tickets.

    All you need are speed limits set to the 85th percentile free-flowing traffic speed, longer yellows, decent length all-red intervals, and sensors to keep an all-red if someone enters late. No crashes! Can also sync lights and use sensors to change them and know where cars are.

    We then go on the stepped up normal police ticketing, which again is a problem. Every speed-timing device makes errors. Whether you lobby for fancier devices or use what you have, they still make errors. Same concerns as above with speed cameras, but a cop issues the tickets.

    Radar makes many errors, speed limits too low, and tickets barely over the speed limits.

    Then we have stop-arm cameras, bus illegal school bus passes are rare. Still, they make stop arm-extenders to block the lane.

    The lowering of speed limits was addressed above. Bad idea.

    In addition to the above ticketing safe drivers, the wrong drivers, etc., it is worse. Much of the above CAUSE crashes and lead to more congestion. It is easy to make numbers say what you want, but even right now, unbiased data shows that since red-light cameras were put in, crashes have gone up. You cannot deny this. Major media even reported it. If you adopt Vision Zero expect worse stats.

    I also must say that many of the crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians are caused by those people.

    Also, what you need to realize is that the city will drive people out of the city. The only people who will go there will be people seeking medical care. If you wish to ticket the elderly, then you are a cruel person, for sure. What about traffic diversion to lesser-used roads? OK, so you put a million cams on US 1, so that will drive cars into the side roads, which were not designed for this.

    I STRONGLY urge you to NOT adopt Vision Zero, to scrap the red-light camera program, and setup correct engineering in the city.

    Check out the National Motorists Association. Thanks.

  3. An explanation of Vision Zero is below. The street is not a playground; most of the bicyclists I see do not know how to ride in traffic: they don’t even know how to signal; a turn properly. You want pedestrian safety? 70% of pedestrian fatalities are the pedestrian’s own fault.
    This article promotes the anti-automobile agenda of the BCGP and those who know what is good for other people better than they do.
    Tom McCarey

    The Vision Zero Cult

    By Randal O’Toole

    The Vision Zero Initiative seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero–certainly a worthy goal. However, I looked throughout its web site and couldn’t find anything about how they propose to achieve that goal. Instead, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo along with a few poorly chosen statistics about how safe roads are in Sweden. The lack of specific recommendations combined with the misuse of data leads me to believe that this initiative is no better than a cult trying to get money out of gullible government officials with the promise that, if they pay enough, they’ll get a magic formula to safer streets.

    The statistic they most commonly use is number of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents. The problem with this is that this number is bound to be higher in countries where people drive the most. Considering that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, you could just as well argue that countries that have totally destroyed their fisheries due to overfishing have superior policies to ones that still have healthy fisheries. However, there are better ways of improving safety than destroying the utility of whatever it is that might be dangerous.

    Only by searching other web sites, including Wikipedia, do we learn Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl. In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile. We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.

    Yet there are better ways of making streets safer without reducing people’s mobility and income. The Vision Zero people brag that, since adopting the policy in 1997, fatality rates in Sweden have dramatically declined. Yet, in that same period, U.S. fatality rates per billion vehicle miles (a better measure than per 100,000 residents) declined by more than a third.

    Far from being some new Swedish discovery, safety has, in fact, been a high priority for traffic engineers ever since the profession began. Fatality rates in the United States fell by 50 percent between 1910 and 1922; another 50 percent by 1939; another 50 percent by 1958; another 50 percent by 1986; another 50 percent by 2008; and 15 percent more since then. There are many reasons for this steady decline, but slowing down traffic isn’t one of them. Instead, the reduction in fatalities is mainly attributable to safer road and automobile designs.

    There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3). Despite faster average speeds, one-way streets are safer than two-way, even for pedestrians.

    One of the biggest one-year declines in traffic fatalities in American history was in 2008, when fatalities fell by 10 percent. One of the most important factors in this decline was the 1.9 percent decline in driving due to the recession. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, this resulted in 10 percent fewer hours of congested traffic per day and 15 percent less fuel wasted in traffic. Less congestion meant faster traffic speeds and fewer fatalities. (The other big declines were in 1932 and 1942 for similar reasons: less driving, less congestion, faster speeds, fewer fatalities.)

    Contrary to the hoopla, even slowing down cars is not going to reduce traffic deaths to zero unless, of course, cities reduce speed limits to zero. But the real point of the “Vision Zero” name is not to set a realistic goal but to silence potential opponents: “If you are not for Vision Zero, you must want to see people die in traffic.” While there’s nothing wrong with seeking to make roads safer, there is something wrong with following a cult that treats its prescription as a religious dogma and demonizes anyone who disagrees.

    Despite the questionable assumptions, the Vision Zero cult has attracted a lot of followers. Portland has joined, of course. So has Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Officials in many of these cities spout off about the zero-fatality goal without mentioning that this goal is unattainable and the real effect of their policies will be to reduce people’s mobility.

    Let’s make roads safer. But let’s do it cost-effectively in a way that doesn’t reduce mobility.

  4. Speed causes a whopping 1.6% of crashes, see the link, so barely above ZERO:

    How many crashes are caused by low speed limits, speed cameras, and other silliness? There have been numerous well-defined cases like this. The cams have also cited totally innocent people. An Ohio judge even called speed cameras 3-card monte, so he was saying they are a scam.

    The Philly Inquirer reported that red-light camera areas have more crashes than before they went in. Hmm? More poor engineering and predatory ticketing? Now the FBI seems to be looking at the PPA too.

    Either people are ill-informed here, have ulterior motives, or are making money from all this somehow. It is crucial to tell BOTH sides of the issues here.

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