This blog post was written by Ribeka Toda, a Student Professional Worker in the Vision Zero LA office and a Master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning at UCLA.
Vision Zero is an international effort. Since it was first introduced in Sweden in 1997, the Vision Zero initiative has been adopted by cities and countries across the world. While the programs vary in their processes, policies, and plans in order to reflect the local context and needs, the objective is the same – to eliminate fatalities on roadways.
As a graduate student in urban and regional planning at UCLA, roadway safety has been a personal and professional interest of mine. I’ve had the opportunity to work on roadway safety projects outside of school as a Student Professional Worker with the LADOT Vision Zero team. For this summer, I wanted to gain some perspective on international approaches to roadway safety so I decided to go to Mexico City to work on pedestrian safety projects. I am currently interning for Laboratorio para la Ciudad, a creative department within the Mexico City government focused on innovative planning projects, specifically working on their Vision Zero program called Programa Integral de Seguridad Vial (PISVI).
With a population of 8.8 million people in 573 square miles, Mexico City is the largest city in Mexico and has over twice the population of the City of Los Angeles (the entire Mexico City metropolitan area has more than 20 million residents). While Mexico City is significantly more densely populated than LA, I have found these two megacities to be rather similar in their size, urban design, and culture. Like LA, Mexico City strives to be multimodal in its transportation planning and offers various forms of transit such as subway, trolleys, bus rapid transit, and microbuses, as well as pedestrian and bicycle facilities and even a bike share program called Ecobici. Though most people are pedestrians, the walking experience can make one feel vulnerable when confronted with aggressive cars that drive as though they own the street and rarely grant right-of-way to crossing pedestrians.
PISVI was published in May 2017 and is still in its initial stages. It is the result of two years of collaboration between various departments of the city government, NGOs, and members of the public. Now the real work of saving lives begins, and the Laboratorio has their work cut out for them. Of the 10 priority actions that were identified in the PISVI, the third is the development of an information system and the monitoring of roadway safety. This is the current area of focus for the PISVI team, as the largest and most immediate problem facing the program is the availability of data, or lack thereof.
When I came to work for the Laboratorio, I thought that I would be analyzing safety data, something that I have enjoyed and am comfortable doing after years of working as a transportation engineering consultant. However, I have suddenly found myself in the middle of a political battle for open data, as I attend meetings and review reports strategizing how to obtain the data we need in order to plan for a safer city. The problem with roadway safety data in Mexico City is twofold: first, when a crash happens, police may not arrive, and if they do, they may document little to no information regarding the crash; second, this imperfect information is included in a database that is tightly guarded by the government entities that have access to it and are hesitant to share with the PISVI team. In addition, there are other sources that have data – academics, insurance companies, hospitals, and others – but those databases are equally inaccessible, despite the fact that Laboratorio is part of a public agency. We even joke that the media may have a better database of roadway safety than we do, given the almost daily coverage of crashes across the city, often accompanied by gruesome photos that would not be published by the media in the US. The fact is, we have incomplete data from various sources that provide inconsistent information, with the annual number of roadway fatalities ranging from 200 as cited by one source to over 1,000 from another source.
I have to admit that while the data that we work with in LA may not be perfect, I have taken for granted the fact that we have easy access to such a plethora of information from various sources, from geocoded information regarding crashes to public health data, transit data, socio-economic data, and so much more. It has never occurred to me that Vision Zero could be attempted without data, because how would we know where we have problems if we don’t have data?
I am looking forward to seeing the progress that we achieve here at Laboratorio over the course of this summer. I have presented information from Los Angeles as an example of what can be achieved with access to good data. After all, the high-injury network would not have been developed if we had not discovered that 64 percent of the fatal and serious injury crashes in LA occurred on just 6 percent of city streets. Data is such a powerful tool, as it provides insight into the what, where, when, and even how of crashes, which can then help us identify countermeasures that are specific and effective. I am heartened by the amazing people that I have met working on the PISVI in Mexico City. Despite the political challenges facing this initiative, the people working on the PISVI are incredibly passionate, bright, and determined to create a safer city for chilangos (residents of Mexico City), just like the wonderful team at LA Vision Zero. The past few weeks in Mexico City have been an invaluable learning experience for me and I’m excited for all the learning ahead and to return to Los Angeles with more knowledge and experiences as we continue toward a safer city, and ultimately, a safer world.