Why it pays for cities to fight road deaths – and how they can get better at it

By Alexandre Santacreu, International Transport Forum

Every minute of every day, someone loses their life in a traffic crash on a city street. With cities growing rapidly and urban motor traffic also increasing dramatically in many cities, the situation is likely to get worse, not better in years to come.

More and more city authorities are realising that dangerous traffic conditions on their streets have a toll that goes beyond the human tragedy and economic loss caused by road deaths and crash injuries. Dangerous traffic makes people feel unsafe, and people who feel unsafe will refrain from doing normal things – letting their children walk to school or cycling to work, for instance.

Four pedestrians waiiting to cross traffic
Waiting to cross traffic (Flickr/Serakatie)

Thus,  a high level of urban road safety is more and more seen as a critical component of a liveable city.  It improves citizens’ quality of life, it increases choices, it opens up opportunities. Ultimately, safer city streets are about enhanced personal freedom.

Safer streets equal more liveable cities

This was recognised in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2016. There, governments agreed (in goal number 11) to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and as part of that committed to “improving road safety,… with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations”.

The link between the different objectives is easy to spot: improving road safety makes cities not only safer, but also more sustainable because it enables people to walk or cycle without having to fear for their lives. It also makes them more inclusive because those who cannot afford cars can be mobile without running lethal risks.

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But in practical terms, what can mayors and city authorities do to enhance traffic safety in their city? One obvious answer is: Do not reinvent the wheel – learn from what others are already doing. Many good practices for urban road safety exist around the world and only wait to be copied. A second, maybe less obvious answer is: Get your data in shape. Measure what is happening on your streets and how it changes, so you can base policy decisions on evidence, not assumptions.

When cities learn from each other

These two thoughts are the driving ideas behind Safer City Streets, the global traffic safety network for liveable cities. Little more than six months after its launch in October 2016, a total of 38 cities are working together in the Safer City Streets network, ranging  from Astana in Kazhakstan to Zürich in Switzerland and including global metropolises such as New York City, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, London,  Berlin, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Montreal and many others.

Safer City Streets brochure cover page w framThe Safer City Streets network, which holds its first meeting in Paris on 20 and 21 April (with more than 50 participants expected to attend),  provides the first global platform for cities and their road safety experts to exchange experiences and discuss ideas. At the heart of Safer City Streets activity will be efforts to improve the collection of data about urban road crashes to enable cities to compare themselves with others and base policy decisions on reliable evidence. A methodology for the database has already been developed and many of the cities have started feed it in their numbers.

The flying start has been helped by the fact that Safer City Streets itself is building on previous experience: It is modeled on the highly successful International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD), the International Transport Forum’s permanent working group on road safety, which brings together countries and national road safety stakeholders. Fittingly, the annual IRTAD meeting is held back-to-back with the inaugural meeting of Safer City Streets – which will also include a joint workshop with POLIS,  a network of European cities and regions, on how to bring cities from both networks together in order to find the best solutions for data collection.

Cities who are interested in finding out more about Safer City Streets are invited to contact the author. They should also know that membership of  Safer City Streets is currently free, thanks to a very generous grant from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

Alexandre Santacreu is a policy analyst for road safety at the International Transport Forum and the project manager of the Safer City Streets network. More information at http://itf-oecd.org/safer-city-streets. This post also appears on OECD Insights.