Liveblog: Four ways Vision Zero advocates changed the politics of traffic calming in NYC

Last Friday, Transportation Alternatives held a one-day symposium on Vision Zero in New York City, bringing in transportation advocates and practitioners from around the country, including representatives from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia as well as transportation planners and engineers from the Nutter administration. As Vision Zero will be a topic in Philadelphia’s 2015 campaigns for Mayor and City Council, I went up to sit in on some panels in hopes of bringing back some helpful lessons from the safety advocacy push in NYC’s 2013 Mayoral race. Here are four of the conditions advocates thought were important to their success.

1. Create an advocacy ecosystem.

Even as a well-established professional advocacy organization, Transportation Alternatives couldn’t have changed the politics all by themselves without the support of other organizations. Families for Safe Streets (a group of families who lost friends or family members in traffic collisions,) Streetsblog NYC (an advocacy journalism site covering the campaign with a focus on streets and transportation politics), and StreetsPAC (a political action committee that leveraged money and livable streets voters to secure support for Vision Zero from candidates) all played unique and interdependent roles in the effort. Families for Safe Streets grounded the message in powerful human stories. Streetsblog covered daily developments in the campaign for a niche audience, educating the movement about candidates’ positions. And StreetsPAC was able to transcend the legal constraints on 501c3 and 501c4 organizations’ advocacy capacity, by endorsing and raising money for favored candidates.

2.  Keep the focus on people

This point is worth highlighting more explicitly. Ellen Foote, Amy Tam, and Hsi-Pei Liao of Families for Safe Streets all stressed the idea that Vision Zero has to be grounded in humanity.  As representatives of families who lost loved ones to traffic fatalities, FFSS members were particularly effective in providing an authoritative voice for the perspective that safety for pedestrians should trump driver convenience. “Let’s say they want to make a street design where it would take away a parking spot, and you might get resistance from the community board,” said Liao “We could probably come in and assist in that matter, to say ‘is the convenience of that one extra parking spot really worth a child’s life?’”

3. Make big asks to anchor the debate

One early Vision Zero policy win was lowering New York’s speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour. As in Pennsylvania, the city couldn’t change its speed limit without permission from the state legislature in Albany, where the political terrain was tougher due to the need to convince lawmakers from more drivable suburban districts. Transportation Alternatives started out with a maximalist position, asking for a 10 mph reduction at first, before eventually bargaining to 25 mph – the same as Philly’s current speed limit. In politics, it’s important to ask for more than you think you can achieve at the beginning of the process, knowing that concessions will be made, rather than asking only for what you think is possible right at the outlet.

4. Try to find unlikely advocates

Politicians need signals that people besides the usual suspects are changing their minds, and recruiting people as advocates who don’t fit the typical profile is a great way to send that signal. Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, a former taxi driver, was an especially effective advocate for a lower speed limit precisely because people are used to fast and aggressive cab drivers, and expect them to oppose efforts to slow down cars. Rodriguez’s strong support provided a strong validator of Vision Zero for his colleagues.

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