A New Vision Zero for St. Paul: Part 6 – Encouragement

Writing about the 5th “E” of implementing Vision Zero – Encouragement – is long overdue, perhaps a symptom of a lack of encouragement in general. The other “Es”: Evaluation, Engineering, Education, and Enforcement, have been covered previously, with suggestions, sometimes contradictory, on the multitude of ways that St. Paul could become a model Vision Zero City.

This post will be this author’s last on the topic, at least until there are reasons to be encouraged at all that St. Paul could become a Vision Zero City. I (and you) can therefore take encouragement that there will be no more.

Why?

When I had the opportunity to personally ask Mayor Carter whether or not he would adopt Vision Zero as his policy position on transportation and public space usage in St. Paul, his answer was cagey, and highly qualified, and amounted to “no” at the end. During my brief time associating with the Highland District Council, there was very little interest in Vision Zero as a concept, or in encouraging the City Council or the Mayor’s Office to adopt it as policy.

What is policy? Policy, at its etymological root, simply means: “choice”. It is a choice that we make, as a community, as officials, as a body politic, about how we will conduct ourselves, and returning to my first post on this topic, the very first step towards becoming a Vision Zero City is the choice by the Mayor’s office to be a Vision Zero City. After that, the 5 “Es” are tools to help implement that choice…that policy. Many cities across this country have made that choice already, among them a number of cities that certain St. Paulites will say repeatedly in public forums that they do not want to resemble in any way, or that they can’t, because it just couldn’t work here.

One of many pedestrian scramble intersections in Boston. It’s a 5 way intersection. St. Paul claims that 4 way intersections are too tricky to make this happen.

For instance, broaching the subject of implementing “pedestrian scrambles” at intersections in St. Paul will elicit all the reasons why it can’t work here. Too confusing for drivers. Too confusing for pedestrians. Too dangerous. Too inconvenient for drivers. Simply too complicated for a city like St. Paul to program. It is a remarkably pleasurable thing to walk around a tiny, simple hamlet like Boston, and cross through a dozen “pedestrian scrambles” at controlled intersections on my way to my favorite Italian restaurant. Are the planners so much more clever in Boston? The planners in Boston, like those in Germany – home of the Autobahn – have banned “right on red”. St. Paul doesn’t have Vision Zero, but has zero will to eliminate “right on red”.

In most discussions I’ve engaged in on the subject, Vision Zero is regarded as seemingly revolutionary, and St. Paul is apparently not a revolutionary place. Where do revolutions happen?

New York!

Look around, look around, the revolution’s happening

In New York!

A city that St. Paul will do anything to avoid resembling

New York!

If you listen to the dialogue on density and developing…and don’t forget the parking

But history is happening in Manhattan…the greatest city in the world!

Yes, I had the pleasure of seeing “Hamilton” recently. Lyrical tributes and levity aside, New York City’s Vision Zero plan and public outreach is probably the most comprehensive in the country, and certainly the boldest, particularly in singling out the behaviors and choices of drivers.

St. Paul might not want to emulate New York, but has seldom been shy about chasing its more progressive neighbor to the west, which makes it curious why every individual involved in St. Paul policymaking claimed an ignorance of Vision Zero nearly concurrently with Minneapolis’ adoption of the policy, albeit to little fanfare. Perhaps, with time, the Minneapolis plan will be as fully-formed and realized as New York City’s. In the meantime, St. Paul can continue to make international headlines for parking foolishness.

How will St. Paul encourage citizens on the path to Vision Zero, when city officials and planners cannot encourage themselves?

Encouragement:

This final piece of the Vision Zero puzzle has the greatest potential for community enrichment. and far greater chances of a positive impact than any enforcement campaign. The closest that St. Paul comes to Encouragement at present are the “Stop For Me” events, which have not moved the needle on safety in the city. Why this should be so isn’t apparent, but I surmise that it is because “Stop For Me” events come across as cloyingly sanctimonious victims bringing with them the strength of momentarily crushing spot enforcement.

This doesn’t seem to be working.

Fundamentally, no one is encouraged by “Stop For Me”, save for the people walking around with the banner. It potentially breeds resentment or derision. Encouraging realigning social mores and norms around the precepts of Vision Zero, and around a shared space that negates the primacy of the automobile, needs to happen another, more effective way. My favorite method, one so charming that it will be the only one mentioned, are Zebras.

  • The Zebra People of La Paz.

A demonstrably viable, effective, and community enriching approach would be for St. Paul to adopt a program exactly like, or very similar to, the “Traffic Zebra” program pioneered in La Paz, Bolivia from 2001 to the present.

The program’ origins are were in a 1990s initiative in Bogota, Columbia, pioneered by then-Mayor Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and mathematician who had a daring idea regarding social engineering in Columbia. Specifically, based on his belief that people were more susceptible to ridicule and social shaming than to fines, whistles, and tickets, he dispatched a team of mimes across the city to tease and shame drivers into better behavior. The results were a stunning and unprecedented 50% reduction in pedestrian traffic fatalities; a result that “Stop For Me” has never come close to achieving.

A Zebra of La Paz, courtesy of The Guardian.

Following the success of the mimes, a La Paz government official named Pablo Groux met with Mockus and adopted the ideas for the cebritas program, placing people in zebra suits at traffic crossings, which are known in both Spanish and the King’s English as “zebra crossings”, or paso de cebra. The Zebras utilize methods similar to the mimes of Bogota, gesturing comically, dancing, even laying across the hoods of vehicles who intrude into crosswalks. The results have been stunning, a vast improvement over enforcement events which consisted nearly exclusively of whistles and tickets from the local constabulary. Since the Cebritas, drivers in La Paz have been more mannerly, and definitely more cautious. The Zebras are well loved within this city, and attracting the comically baleful eye of one not only entertains passers-by, but invites their derision for the driver as well.

The Zebra program started in 2001 with 24 Zebras, and has expanded to 265 in La Paz, plus new outposts in El Alto, Tarija, and Sucre. It was in Tarija in August of 2014 that the Zebras experienced their first fatality, when a 17-year old traffic zebra was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The zebras, however, have not been deterred, and it is a testament to the powerful cultural change wrought by the zebras that the community outcry was so uproarious, and that the reaction by police was swift and effective. Prior to the zebras, it would have been just one more fatality on Bolivia’s increasingly crowded urban streets.

The zebras are more than traffic calming, though that is what they get the most visibility for. The program employs, wherever possible, at-risk and even homeless youth, giving them a wage, sometimes a roof, and community training under the leadership of a “zebra administrator”, often a person who started as an at-risk youth walking the paso de cebra just like the new recruits. “A zebra is love, a zebra is humility, it’s respect”, said Karen Huaylluco, a 24 year-old administrator who entered the program at 20. “We learned all that here, and we take it with us and will be this way wherever we go.” She can be found on many days ushering people through crossings with her “hooves”, buoyantly celebrating when commuters make safe choices, and clutching her head in theatrical agony when they don’t. Trained in performing arts and alternative techniques of education, Zebras are urban educators on a mission to improve citizen manners and habits.

In 2015, the Zebra program was designated as a UNESCO “Intangible Cultural Heritage” artifact, and in 2016 the program won the prestigious Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation. It is a remarkable project, growing from an effort to help people safely cross the street to providing young people a space for personal growth and development, self-esteem and commitment to their city. In a manner far superior to “Stop for Me” processions with the local constabulary waiting in the wings, the Zebras have managed to educate citizens based on respect for the other and have helped them to understand public and common space. The zebra program also does anti-bullying seminars in schools. It is so popular that tourists journey to La Paz to be a “Zebra for a day”.

St. Paul could certainly hope to aspire to something like this.

Vision Zero is achievable by the City of St. Paul, without stretching the budget or resources to a great degree. What it will stretch is some people’s norms and attitudes towards traffic safety and design…which it is intended to do. Fundamentally, this is about summoning the political will and ethical leadership to become a Vision Zero City.

 

And maybe to emulate New York City…just a little bit.

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