Happy New Year! We’re back from our holiday break with a report from CityLab’s Laura Bliss on America’s attempts to import a Swedish innovation: the road-safety strategy known as “Vision Zero.” Today, she reports on the mixed results. — Matt Peterson
What to Know: The Blurry Future of Vision Zero
By Laura Bliss
What we’re watching: It’s been five years since New York City committed to "Vision Zero," a plan intended to completely eliminate pedestrian traffic fatalities. They've pledged to do so by 2024. Other American cities have made similarly ambitious plans in the following years. Since Sweden first adopted a national plan in 1997 to prioritize human safety when building roads (and focus less on car-oriented objectives, like reducing congestion), road casualties in the country have fallen by about two-thirds. To thank for Sweden’s ultra-safe streets: lower speed limits, stronger drunk-driving laws, and heavy investments in more guardrails, roundabouts, fortified bike lanes, and marked crosswalks. But the United States, well known for its love of the automobile, has been slower on the “mindset shift” from car- to people-centered street planning that Vision Zero represents, according to advocates.
What to know: Results have been mixed in America. Los Angeles leaders have been fielding criticisms that their Vision Zero efforts have failed, after traffic deaths dropped by just 3 percent in 2017, far short of a 20 percent goal. Washington, D.C., is losing so much ground on its street-safety objectives that Mayor Muriel Bowser called for a “reset” in October. One bright spot is in New York City, which released preliminary data this week showing that traffic deaths in 2018 had fallen to the lowest point in more than a century. But despite the ongoing and noticeable transformation of New York City streets—including miles of new bike lanes, anti-vehicle bollards along sidewalks and plazas, and thousands of new pedestrian-first signal timers—pedestrian fatalities still ticked up last year.
What gives? Digital distractions are often fingered as the culprit for America’s rising road deaths. But bigger factors seem to be leaving road users vulnerable to lethal collisions. For one thing, there are more cars on the road in many of America’s big cities, thanks to cheap gas, low unemployment, and the popularity of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. For another, law-enforcement efforts appear to be moving backwards in some places, including L.A., which recently raised speed limits so that police could issue more tickets. And community activists can be incredibly effective at blocking street redesigns when precious parking spots are on the line. (In a word, NIMBYs.)
What’s next: Barring a big economic downturn, there’s not much reason to expect a major decline in the number of cars on American roads. The public-safety promise of autonomous vehicles is likely decades away. And several cities now have only a few years left on self-imposed Vision Zero deadlines to produce dramatically different results. Perhaps widespread adoption of e-scooters will make a dent. Or congestion pricing, a proposal that’s been floated in New York and L.A. to toll vehicles entering busy areas. Or radical plans to pedestrian-ize swaths of downtown, keeping cars out entirely, as more European cities are moving to do. This year, I’ll be watching urban America’s continuing experiment with Vision Zero for signs of success and empty promises alike.
What to Expect
Notes on the news to come
Religion and Values
For centuries, millions of Coptic Christians in Egypt have followed the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, putting Christmas on January 7. But in an effort to promote global Christian unity, Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has advocated aligning their liturgical calendar with the Vatican’s. Any change won’t come easy. A group calling themselves the “Faith Protectors” emerged online, equating Tawadros’s attempts to reconcile with the Catholic Church with heresy. In July, two monks linked to the group assassinated a Coptic bishop for supporting the effort. Still, it wouldn’t be the first new tradition for the community. Fir trees don’t grow in the Nile Valley, but one resident there told Religion News Service that importing one had helped community members after other acts of violence. “We needed joy after the bitter grief we lived, and the beautiful lights and adornments of Christmas trees helped us.”
As the mass slaughter led by President Assad in Syria approaches its eighth anniversary, the UN has tasked a new special envoy with resolving the brutal conflict. Geir Pedersen, who until last month was Norway’s ambassador to China, begins his first day on January 7. He has extensive diplomatic experience. Pedersen’s predecessor, Staffan de Mistura, was also a “diplomat’s diplomat,” David Kenner wrote in The Atlantic in November, but de Mistura's resignation capped off four years of failing to broker peace. Supporters say at least he tried; detractors claim he ignored reality. Now Pedersen has accepted this Herculean challenge—one he will almost certainly fail to meet.
By the time American and Chinese officials meet to discuss trade on Monday, nearly half of the two countries’ 90-day tariff truce will have run out. That doesn’t leave much time to negotiate the overhaul of the vast economic relationship that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer says he’s after. If a breakthrough isn’t reached, the trade tensions risk being prolonged, just like the U.S. government shutdown. There are only weak political incentives for the top leaders on either side to walk away from their commitments to their constituencies. For officials like Lighthizer, who believe that China has been ripping off American companies for years, prolonged trade friction may be an acceptable outcome.
Politics and Policy
Next week, the Irish Family Planning Association will join some 165 clinics newly offering abortion procedures, which became legal in Ireland at the beginning of the month after 158 years of prohibition. The new law legalizing abortion requires a three-day “cooling off” period for women seeking abortions and prohibits the procedure after 12 weeks of pregnancy, except in exceptional circumstances. Some abortion-rights activists have criticized the health minister for the restrictions, while abortion opponents view the new laws as too lenient. And people in both camps—particularly medical professionals—have questioned the speediness of the rollout of new regulations. But as of 2019, Malta, Vatican City, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic are the only nations to prohibit abortion entirely.
Advocates rejoiced when an amendment restoring voting rights to 1.4 million former felons in Florida passed in November. But although legal analysts interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel say the law will come into effect automatically on January 8, incoming Florida Governor Ron DeSantis disagrees. He claims that the amendment requires further implementing legislation, which cannot be passed before March. That date would mean that civic-minded former felons would continue to be disqualified from voting in some upcoming municipal elections. The stakes are high for ex-felons. Some may register on the eighth anyway, but, as the Sentinel notes, falsely claiming to have one’s voting rights restored is itself a criminal offense.
25 Years Ago
“At the beginning of the war Connolly had ostensibly been neutral. Across the front of his union's headquarters, at Liberty Hall in Dublin, was a banner reading WE SERVE NEITHER KING NOR KAISER BUT IRELAND. But as the war went on, the causes of the Kaiser and Ireland began to coalesce. In October of 1915 the Workers' Republic identified Imperial Germany as (according to Austen Morgan) ‘a nation resisting dependency.’ By December of the same year the message was clearer and louder. Constance Markievicz presented a marching song to Connolly's Irish Citizen Army: ‘The Germans Are Winning the War, Me Boys.’” — Conor Cruise O’Brien, January 1994
Items this week by Andrew Henry, Gabby Deutch, Matt Peterson, Parker Richards, and Karen Yuan. Illustrations by Matt Chinworth.
Updates on your Masthead membership
One thing you should know: Debt collectors have monetized rage, Charles Duhigg writes in his cover story on American anger. A source told him, “The idea was, once you get [debtors] angry and aroused, you need to deliver catharsis, a sense of relief. That’s going to make them more likely to pay up.” Duhigg will take member questions on the forums about his reporting. [Discuss the story or post a question.]
Where you can dive in: Why are young Americans having less sex? The Masthead’s multipart investigation, “The Fight for Love and Pleasure,” extends Kate Julian’s reporting in “The Sex Recession.” [Read the exclusive report.]
What’s coming: Saudi Arabia certainly has a hold on America’s political imagination, but what about its economy? On Monday, a historian of Saudi oil will tell us how the country’s oil weapon has changed since the days of the Arab oil embargo.
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