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Vision Zero Israel: An end to road carnage

As NYC aims to stop all traffic deaths with a new 25 mph limit, Israel is speeding in the wrong direction

A few days ago, New York City lowered its speed limit to 25 mph (40 kph), in the framework of its Vision Zero program aimed at eliminating road accident fatalities.

New York City has decided that the status quo is “unacceptable” and that traffic crashes should no longer be regarded as mere accidents but rather as “preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed.” For today’s New Yorkers, “[n]o level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable.”

New York’s Vision Zero program is inspired by the Swedish model, which has been in place for nearly two decades and has made Swedish roads the safest in the world. In Sweden safety is “prioritized over speed or convenience,” and low urban speed limits are the norm.

This revolution in the prioritization of human life is not limited to Sweden and New York. Paris is set to implement a speed maximum of 30 kph. Even Los Angeles is ready to shed its auto-centric image and adopt a “Great Streets” policy that looks toward “ending all pedestrian-related deaths.”

Could one imagine Israeli urban speed limits being lowered to the 30-40 kph range? Could one imagine the safety of Israeli pedestrians being prioritized to such a degree?

Here in Israel, no one is aspiring to zero road fatalities. The aspirations, such as they are, are in relative terms — relative to other countries and to past years in Israel. As in “[a] decrease of 10% in the number of pedestrian traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents” by 2020.

Nor are any sweeping speed-limit changes being contemplated. What is being contemplated, incredibly, is reducing noncompliance with posted speed limits to “acceptable” levels. Yes, you read that right. Our National Road Safety Plan 2020 specifies goals for “maximum percentages of vehicles exceeding the speed limit” — check out the table on page 7 of the plan. It’s quite an eye-opener. The maximum percentages aspired to are in the 30-40% range. It’s apparently okay for 30-40 percent of drivers in Israel to exceed the speed limit.

Israel has an entire government entity devoted to reducing road carnage — the Israel National Road Safety Authority. And progress has been made. Israeli traffic casualty statistics have improved greatly over the years — but the improvement appears to be restricted to drivers and passengers on high-speed roads, where infrastructure upgrades have made a difference. The situation for Israeli pedestrians has actually worsened slightly, as may be seen in the following figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics:

Casualties in Road Accidents, by Type of Injured

Bicycle riders Pedestrians Passengers Drivers
2010 311 2,981 9,534 15,258
2011 266 3,066 9,546 14,263
2012 268 3,049 8,346 12,241
2013 322 3,249 8,216 12,507

The degree to which Israeli cities disregard pedestrian safety and comfort can be seen in a number of recent news items. An article/video in Globes’ Real Estate section documents the danger to pedestrians (and, worse, the wheelchair bound) posed by a steep step up to the median of a busy thoroughfare in Bat Yam — this despite the recent investment in a major road upgrade.

Then there’s Jabotinsky Street in Petah Tikva — “Death Road”, where 21 people have lost their lives over the past five years. A decision has been made to close the public transit lanes in the middle of the roadway and move them to the side of the road. Will that solve the problem entirely? The real issue appears to be with the thoroughfare’s overall design: the roadway is simply too wide, and current signalling makes it impossible for pedestrians to get across it in a reasonable timeframe. Activists have documented the amount of time that it takes a pedestrian who waits for green lights to get from one side of Jabotinsky Street to the other.

Highway infrastructure improvements will get us only so far. City streets used by pedestrians need a people-oriented approach. Even urban arterials that carry large amounts of motorized traffic need to be designed with all users in mind, as I point out in a recent post about Jerusalem’s most dangerous thoroughfare, Derech Hevron. I note there that “cities around the world are increasingly rediscovering and reinforcing the diverse, mixed-use character of urban arterials and improving conditions for the pedestrians (and cyclists) who use them. Toronto, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon — these and other localities have developed a large and varied toolkit” for repairing these problematic thoroughfares.

A Vision Zero for Cities Symposium is taking place in New York as I write — November 13-15, 2014 — with at least 15 cities represented. Let us hope that someday — in the not too distant future — Israeli cities will join the Vision Zero bandwagon.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.