Good riddance to Vision Zero: We need a new lexicon

A while back at Treehugger, Lloyd Alter wrote a piece about abandoning Vision Zero. I’ve been writing about Vision Zero for a few years now and I instinctively recoiled at the suggestion. Vision Zero is a fantastic philosophy. It takes a serous look at the state of streets and prioritizes life and well-being over the ability to drive fast and unfettered. It’s exactly what so many North American cities need.

But reading through that post, you know, he’s absolutely right. In North America, Vision Zero has been an absolute failure. The term has been co-opted and corrupted by various organizations, jurisdictions and politicians. New York City has officially adopted it, and in response to any bicyclist death, their reaction is to head out and ticket bicyclists.

Toronto has adopted it, too, supposedly. Nonetheless, the city won’t take street safety seriously. In Ottawa, we won’t even go that far. We have a policy of “Towards Zero”, which takes some of the language of Vision Zero, waters it down and then we don’t even bother implementing that.

Throughout the continent, Vision Zero is, at best, meaningless. At its worst, it’s a cudgel–it’s cover for increased “enforcement”, which basically means it’s being used to justify targeted harassment of marginalized communities.

Alter suggest we go further–a throwback to the Dutch activism of the 1960s and 70s–Stop the murderStop killing children…these have more emotional impact than the opaque-sounding “Vision Zero”. It’s probably time we move on from the Vision Zero mantra, sadly. We need a movement, a rallying-cree that’s less cerebral; something that will grab people, that will make them uncomfortable about their complicity in street deaths.


This got me thinking about some of the other words we “urbanists” tend to use. Maybe it’s time that we move on from these, too.

Complete Streets: You know me. You know I love Complete Streets. Like Vision Zero, it’s a great concept with clear, practical applications. It’s simple to understand (prioritize the needs and safety of the most vulnerable street users over the needs of the least vulnerable), but also dives deep into what we need to actually do.

And, again, it has been rendered meaningless by politicians, organizations and governments. Ottawa likes to talk about its Complete Streets policy, but our policy is a bastardization (we balance the needs of all street users) and we even fail at that (see: Elgin Street).

Here’s Ottawa’s dirty little secret that no one at City Hall is willing to say: We have no Complete Streets, despite our claims. Churchill and Main Street are held up as our Complete Streets, but, when you get right down to it, they’re not.

Ignore the fact that they don’t have real connections and Chruchill even dumps bicyclists into traffic mid-block. Neither one prioritizes the needs of the most vulnerable. Both of them prioritize the needs of drivers over everyone else. On both streets, the cycle track and sidewalk have to weave back and forth because of parking. They could wider, but for that parking. On Churchill, there’s often no room for transit users to wait at bus stops without creating conflict.

Sure, these may seem like quibbles, but the fact that we can’t even get one Complete Street right–and then we further bastardize the term applying it to Elgin–demonstrates that “Complete Streets” is just cover for more car-centric planning.

Walkability: Another great concept, but, again, it’s been watered-down and bastardized. Suburban neighbourhoods without easy access to amenities–or sidewalks–get high walkability scores because they’re near a path. We talk about walkability, but we never apply it to raised sidewalks, better light-timing for pedestrians or just making sure that we don’t have puddles forming at every crosswalk.

But the real issue is that “walkability” is inherently exclusionary language. Yes, I know that when we say it, we’re including people with mobility aids, but, technically, if I say “walkability”, that doesn’t account for people in wheelchairs, for example. (This applies to the term “pedestrian”, as well.) I’ve got no suggestion to replace it (maybe the “10-minute neighbourhood”, but that seems too specific and not specific enough).

I don’t know what can replace it, but it would behoove urbanists to find better, more inclusive language.

Urban Village: This is one that really never made sense. It was more a buzzword for developers than a serious term used by urbanists, and, yet, it persists. It was bandied about when talking about the Lansdowne redevelopment, and I tend to think Lansdowne truly personifies what an “Urban Village”, think more Upper Canada Village and less Greenwich Village. Urban Theme Park is probably more accurate. For this one, we can ditch the term and the concept.

Urban: Yes, the word at he very root of so much we talk about. In an Ottawa context, there’s little wrong with this word, but it’s not all about Ottawa. A week or two ago, I saw a comment on Twitter mocking/attacking/critiquing an Urban Outfitters ad. It was one of those big window-sized stickers that cover up a storefront during renovations. It read something like, “Wanted: Urban Explorers”.

People on Twitter mocked this, describing it as some sort of David Attenborough-esque expedition into the wilds of downtown. It was presented as the Gentrifier-Colonizer settling in poor urban neighbourhoods, forcing out those who already live there.

Here’s the thing: the concept of urban exploration is a marvelous thing. I want people out of their cars, malls and private homes, and I want them out seeing city life, experiencing it first hand. There are cool parts to the city that you won’t see if you’re just driving by or even riding the bus. There are alleyways and shops tucked away. There are remote parks and shortcuts that make it easier to get around. So, yes, go out and explore your damned city! Become an Urban Explorer! (Like, I get that that’s cheesy, but cheesy isn’t that bad.)

I checked the bio of the person who made the initial tweet. She’s from Chicago. “Urban” can have different connotations in different contexts, and as it relates to Chicago, it can be synonymous with crime and poverty and people of colour.

(There’s a scene in the U.S. office where the Michael Scott character introduces someone to Stanley, who’s black. He refers to Stanley as being urban, to which Stanley points out that he grew up on a farm, or something. This is how the term urban is abused: urban = black = poor = decaying.)

Now, in Ottawa, I’d say that urban has a much different context. We hear about the urban councillors and urban wards, and there can often be remarks made about elitism or wealth or privilege (and these comments can be justified). Urban, in Ottawa, is something different…and in urbanist discussions, it’s definitely something different.

But that doesn’t mean the word doesn’t have negative connotations. Maybe we really just need to be talking about city life when we’re talking about urbanity. Maybe that’ll strip it of its baggage and allow us just to discuss making the city a better, safer more prosperous place for everyone.

Who am I kidding. We’ll just corrupt whatever new terms we com up with and we’ll be doing this whole exercise again in a few years.

Nonetheless, I think I’m abandoning Vision Zero. It’s too corrupted. It gives too much cover to disingenuous politicians and planners. And it just isn’t blunt enough.

Stop The Killing.

One thought on “Good riddance to Vision Zero: We need a new lexicon

  1. Pingback: Urbanism isn’t winning, but it’s getting stronger in Ottawa | Steps from the Canal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s