We don’t have the official numbers yet, but based on the past few years, around 40,000 people were killed on American roads in 2019. That disturbing fact may feel inevitable at this point, but recent news out of Norway shows it’s not.
The country’s capital city of Oslo experienced zero roadway deaths in 2019. Not a single pedestrian, cyclist, driver or passenger lost their life. None.
Oslo has a population of 673,000, which is comparable to the populations of Denver or Portland, Ore. Like Oslo, Denver and Portland have adopted Vision Zero policies. Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy and equitable mobility for all.
But unlike Oslo, neither Denver or Portland have come close to achieving Vision Zero. In fact, in 2019, both cities had record-deadly years on their roads last year: Denver experienced its worst year in more than a decade (71 deaths); and Portland had its deadliest year since 1997 (49 deaths).
Unfortunately, these cities are not outliers. In the same week the Oslo story was reported, headlines from around the U.S. included: “More People Are Dying on New York City’s Streets. What Went Wrong?” (The New York Times), “LAPD focusing on 6 West Los Angeles intersections that have seen spike in violent car crashes” (ABC7 Los Angeles), and “Cyclist hit by car on Christmas Eve passes away, highlighting push for updated bike policy” (KSHB Kansas City).
While overall roadway deaths in the U.S. went down a little in 2018 (though “down” is hardly great news, with more than 36,000 people killed), pedestrian and cyclist deaths were at their highest levels since the early 90s. In all of Norway in 2019, only 110 people were killed on roads. Even when you account for population, one in 48,000 Norwegians are killed on the roads, versus one in every 8,300 in the U.S.
What’s happening in Norway isn’t an accident. Officials in Oslo have been working for years to make the city safer by lowering speed limits, increasing traffic calming measures, expanding bike networks, and even banning cars from certain areas. The ultimate goal? Reducing the number of cars on the road.
It wasn’t easy. Oslo’s center-city car ban faced significant backlash, especially from businesses. But despite the opposition, the car ban went into effect in early 2019, and so far, it’s been a success. The city lowered speed limits drastically and established “heart zones” around schools to protect kids. Additionally, Oslo increased tolls and eliminated parking. At the same time, it expanded public transportation service and frequency, and added 37 miles of new bike lanes, giving people better options to get around.
Oslo isn’t done. The city wants to keep traffic deaths at zero, double the number of trips people take by bike to 16 percent by 2025, and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.
What’s happening in those U.S. cities, you ask? Well, Denver is launching new bus lanes to improve public transportation service and has plans to add miles of new bike lanes. But the Mile High City has done little to address the dominance of car-use in the city, especially when it comes to parking.
Portland, although it has a reputation for being one of the top cycling cities in the country, still tends to prioritize cars above all other modes of transportation. Oregon’s big idea to fix traffic in Portland is unfortunately to spend hundreds of millions of dollars widening a highway, which will only bring more cars to the road. Sure, there are some bike and pedestrian safety measures tacked onto the project, but advocates argue that they are insufficient and that the freeway-widening piece creates a bike- and pedestrian-hostile environment.
Again, Denver and Portland are not unique among U.S. cities here. For decades, American policy-makers have put the car above all else, resulting in too much traffic, too much pollution and far too many deaths. But in 2019, Oslo proved that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Oslo didn’t get there overnight, and neither will American cities. But here are some good 2020 resolutions to move us closer. First, commit to Vision Zero. Second, make bold decisions necessary to make our roads safer, including lowering speed limits, making it more expensive to drive, and making it more expensive to park. Third, use the new revenue to improve public transportation. Fourth, start testing out car bans near schools, or in busy downtown areas. Fifth, figure out new ways to get people out of their cars by giving them better options to get around.
Let’s drive less and live more in 2020.