Op-Ed. Simon Norton on Vision Zero

USA NYC Vsiion zero photo larger.png

In response to: Archives. Vision Zero: The Accident Is Not the Problem

I have some questions about the whole concept, or have I misunderstood it ?

To me road safety is a distributional issue, whereby pedestrians, cyclists and bus users are asked to accept inconveniences to facilitate movement by motorists. True, the inconvenience of having to wait at crossings is several orders of magnitude less than that of being killed or seriously injured by a vehicle, but that doesn’t mean that it is an acceptable price to pay in return for the recognition that people in charge of vehicles cannot be relied on to stick to the principles of safe driving.

In the UK, at signalled intersections, vehicles have priority over pedestrians even when the latter are crossing a side street with little traffic; pedestrian crossing facilities are normally provided in a short pedestrian phase. One result is that, rather than wait ages at every crossing, pedestrians cross against the lights, which fortunately is not against the law in the UK. But I have long preferred the US system (also I believe used in most European countries) whereby at signalled intersections pedestrians crossing a street have priority over vehicles turning into that street. But we seem to be told that this is unsafe. So what should we go for instead ?

Again, roundabouts at intersections are lauded because they reduce the speed of vehicles — but their safe operation depends on vehicles occupying a specific lane so they are often felt as unsafe by cyclists who may travel in the space between lanes. Furthermore, they often force pedestrians to make considerable detours because crossings have to be set back from the intersection to allow vehicles that have left the roundabout space to stop.

There are also problems with the whole concept of speed reduction, whether enforced by traffic calming or not. For motorists it is generally a minor inconvenience as normally it will only affect the beginning and end of any journey, the rest being undertaken on main highways. But
buses may travel most of their distance in town centres or residential areas, so that speed reduction can significantly increase journey time, which not only makes the journey less attractive (especially in comparison with driving along a main road) but also increase costs, as more vehicles and drivers are required to cover a route. In the UK, where there has been an increasing assumption that buses should cover their costs through the farebox, this can be disastrous.

In my home city of Cambridge the development of a 20mph scheme in part of the city has led to the loss of service to other areas on the same bus route. A pair of villages now have no off-peak service at all, while the main road closest to my home has had its service cut from 15 buses an hour, serving a variety of destinations including the two most important off centre ones, the railway station and the hospital, to 3 buses an hour serving a much more limited mix of destinations excluding the station and hospital. My nearest stop for the remaining 12 buses is now the other side of a large gyratory system requiring up to 4 signalled crossings to reach the bus stop, and outside the 20mph zone so if one doesn’t wait for the lights one has to keep a watchful eye open for vehicles whizzing round. Safer it isn’t.

To find out more about this issue, see http://www.cambsbettertransport.org.uk/newsletter114 and the link therein to Newsletter 111. Other changes to the bus network mean that some of the detailed comment no longer applies, but the principle still remains. Download an online map of Cambridge to follow the arguments properly.

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About the author:

Simon Phillips Norton  is a mathematician in Cambridge, England, who works on finitesimple groups. He constructed the Harada–Norton group, and in 1979 together withJohn Conwayproved there is a connection between the Monster group and the j-function in number theory. They dubbed tsimon-nortonhis monstrous moonshine and made some conjectures later proved by Richard Borcherds. Norton was one of the authors of the ATLAS of Finite Groups. He also made several early discoveries in Conway’s Game of Life,[2] and invented the game Snort. Norton is the subject of the biography The Genius In My Basement, written by his Cambridge tenant,Alexander Masters.

Since leaving academics, Norton has become a keen observer of and commentator on public transportation, and he believes he can make it more efficient. When the Deregulation of the Buses Act came into force under Margaret Thatcher, this mundane piece of legislation caused him profound distress. Bus routes were opened to competitive tender and Simon, appalled by the destruction of what he saw as vital public transport services, found a new focus for his intellectual passion. (Source: Frances Hubbard, Daily Mail article of 10 September.)

His fascination with public transport had begun 20 years earlier when he was taking his first degree. On a visit to London University, he came across cache of London Transport publicity leaflets that triggered a devotion that has never waned. Proof of his commitment is the  £10,000 a year he provides to fund the Transport Campaigner of The Year Award. In 2008, it was won by a member of the environmental group Plane Stupid, who proceeded to superglue himself to Gordon Brown’s sleeve when he collected the prize.

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is a public entrepreneur specializing in the field of sustainability and social justice. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest work focuses on the subject of equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions -- and in the process, find practical solutions to urgent climate, mobility, life quality and job creation issues. More at: http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7

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