Share on Social

Meet our episode 35 guest Leah Shahum

The gradual privatization of the streets and mobility over the last century has Leah Shahum, the founder and director of the Vision Zero Network, breaking down silos to give communities the tools to think more collectively about how people move.

Enjoyed this podcast? Read more from Josh Cohen in the blog post Supply Begets Demand. 

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Shahum: Leah Shahum

Cohen: Leah Shahum’s realization that using the streets as a pedestrian and a cyclist was inconsistent with how they were built led to the creation of the Vision Zero Network, which is attempting to get the hundred people a day who get seriously hurt or die while walking, biking, or riding in a car to zero. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Leah Shahum who is the founder and executive director of the Vision Zero Network. I met Leah after she spoke at a community meeting of Bike Durham, when she was in Durham for a conference recently. And reading from her website now, “the Vision Zero Network is a collaborative campaign helping communities reach their goals of Vision Zero, eliminating all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” And I think that’s about as good as it gets. So thank you for joining The Movement, Leah.

Shahum: Sure. Thank you so much.

Cohen: Let’s get started by kind of digging into why you’re doing this work. What really led you and inspired you to spend your days working towards Vision Zero?

Shahum: Yeah, it’s interesting. I moved from the suburbs of Florida to San Francisco about 25 years ago, and I was really struck by in a city like that you could generally get around by transit and walking and not depending on a car like I really, frankly, felt like I had to in the suburbs of Florida. And I started biking a little bit when I first moved to San Francisco. And I thought, “Well, this is just a great way to get around.” Frankly, it’s more dependable than transit, at the time at least, and it was a great way to get around.

But I was really quickly awakened to how challenging that could be too and, especially back 25 years ago, that the streets really weren’t created with people biking in mind. And the more I became aware and was walking and thought, “Gosh. The streets really aren’t created for those of us walking either.” So I kind of stumbled into it, so to speak, thinking about, “Wow. Who are these streets for?” I ended up working for the San Francisco Bicycle coalition for about—gosh—more than 15 years after that. So I really got immersed in bike advocacy.

But I really kept coming back to this issue of kind of equity rights on the street; and whether you’re walking, biking, driving, whether you’re a senior citizen, a child, high-income, low-income, you know, whether you can own a car or do not or choose not to—there’s so many variables there—we all do and should have the right to be safe on our streets, whether we’re walking on a sidewalk, biking in a bike lane, driving, taking transit. And I feel like it just really moved me in a really fundamental way and have really been kind of focused on Vision Zero ever since I learned about six or seven years ago. And I feel like we’re really kind of awakening to something with this.

Cohen: So, I mean, the way you frame that there is so compelling. Right? We shouldn’t have to worry about these things on our streets. And yet we do, so where is the gap there? Why is this even a question? Right?

Shahum: Yeah, great question and great way to phrase it. Yeah, it’s interesting. I wish we knew an exact answer to that. I think, you know, the little bit I kind of read of history and talk with people, I think we have—and not just in the U.S. but really worldwide, but I’d say in the U.S. maybe more than most places we’ve really become a bit kind of immune to something pretty serious.

You know, I would say 40,000 people losing their lives each year—that’s more than 100 a day, every day in the U.S. losing their lives simply while they’re walking, biking, or driving, simply while trying to get to school or a park or to work or a playground—that number of deaths—and I would call them preventable deaths and far more injuries of course—those are preventable; those are tragic; but I think one of the saddest things is that we as a society have kind of come to believe that they’re inevitable.

You know, there’s this—and I don’t think people consciously think this, but there’s almost this resignation to it of, “Oh, huh. This is a cost of modern society. This is a cost of growth and mobility.” But it doesn’t have to be. Right? We can have mobility and growth without sacrificing safety. You know, we’ve done that in all sorts of ways. If you think back to a city growing from, say, small to medium to gigantic, you know, they grew the infrastructure, other pieces of infrastructure, say, like water services and electricity. And you say, “Okay, we’re going to keep pace with this.” Well, we should be keeping pace with our mobility, our transportation options, of course, but in a safe way.

So I don’t know why it’s—I can guess some reasons why it’s different, but it definitely is different than a lot of other maybe categories of what we might consider, I would say, kind of basic rights in a civilized society.

Cohen: It makes me wonder about utilities. Right?

Shahum: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: So transportation in the U.S. is not looked at as a utility in the same way that we look at, say, electricity or water. And in a city nowadays you wouldn’t say, “Oh, we couldn’t have electricity there.” It’s kind of standard issue. Right?

Shahum: Right.

Cohen: You know, “We couldn’t have water there,” that’s part of being in the city. And yet sidewalk access and bike lanes and safe streets are not as consistently applied, perhaps because there’s not this kind of treatment like a utility. So I don’t know. I’m with you there, that that’s definitely a missing element.

Shahum: And I think—you know, I don’t want to sound conspiratorial, but you certainly can’t not acknowledge the fact that over many, many generations, decades, there’s been really a kind of a privatizing of public space, but even more than public space, I would say, like, movement in a way.

Right? You know, whereas there’s been a long history, unfortunately, even of, say, car companies successfully lobbying or oil companies successfully lobbying to dismantle public transit options and really change physical environment but also laws and policies in a way that really favor one kind of mobility over another. And it’s not necessarily the safest; it’s not necessarily the most equitable. Right? It’s definitely not necessarily the most sustainable from an environmental sense or affordable.

So it’s challenging, because I think part of what we need to do and I think we are doing more and more with Vision Zero and other pieces of efforts out there are, “How are we thinking more collectively about transportation?” I mean, of course, in the end it’s an individual challenge. Right?

Like, “Okay. How do I get to school? How do I get my daughter to school?” etcetera. But we also need to think collectively like, “What do we as a society need to be doing? What do we kind of owe individuals who are part of our society, you know, especially those that may be more vulnerable—right—senior citizens, children, low-income folks, people who are living in tougher areas, far-flung areas?” You know, I think we need to awaken a bit a collective conscience about mobility and transportation as a basic, fundamental right.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah, I like that. I think that’s a good way of framing it. What I like about your work is that it’s really complimentary to what I’m talking about as well, which is how we build this equitable and accessible and verdant mobility future that we all want. And so as you reflect on the last few years of the Vision Zero Network and some of your work—I mean, the number of cities that have signed onto Vision Zero has increased significantly from two to over 30 now. And kind of thinking about the work and your role in that, what have you done well that you feel like has really led to some of that success in getting these cities to sign on?

Shahum: Yeah, I definitely want to make sure that the credit goes to the locals. You know, it really is—you know, every Vision Zero effort is absolutely coming from locals, and sometimes that’s really pushed by advocates; sometimes it’s led by an elected official like a mayor or city councilmember. Sometimes there’s amazing champions within, say, a transportation department or other community members perhaps. So there’s all different ways.

You know, I’d say some of the key elements to a successful Vision Zero program, no matter where, whether it’s rural or urban or suburban or big or small or east or west, it’s really about that leadership piece. You’ve got to have that strong mayoral or city manager lead to really pull agencies together. There’s got to be collaboration. People have to move out of their silos. You know, I think we see a lot in government, unfortunately, people fall into silos without meaning to. So really a big part of what we’re pushing at the network and I think cities are doing more and more is, “How are we moving out of those silos?” How are we helping, say, folks in the transportation-planning realm understand they really need their public health colleagues?”

You know, the epidemiologists are really smart people who can help them figure things out and use limited resources even more effectively and efficiently. And how do we pull the policymakers in and the police in in appropriate ways? And when I say appropriate, not inappropriate, in very appropriate ways. But we really need to be thinking about this not as a transportation problem but, you know, a human or societal challenge. Right?

So how do we bring in all those pieces and work at it in a more, again, collective and conscious way and not just kind of—I don’t know—almost ghettoize this issue of, like, “Oh, yeah. That’s a transportation problem. Let those engineers figure it out.” It’s much more than that.

Cohen: Sure. And I imagine part of the challenge though if you do need that kind of bully pulpit as you’ve kind of determined the gravity of that city leader, part of the challenge is that they’ve got 57 things that they’re interested in at any given time.

Shahum: Yeah.

Cohen: And I think to do this work effectively, as you highlighted, you need to get people out of silos. And it’s almost like a—it’s more of a stance than anything else. Right? It’s almost like it’s a point of view or it’s a worldview almost that you can take to say that, like, “In our city, this is what’s important.” Right?

Shahum: Yeah.

Cohen: “That the way we’ve done it before when we’ve prioritized vehicle speed over safety, you know, that’s not acceptable.” Right?

Shahum: Right.

Cohen: So and it kind of goes beyond just the bully pulpit to say, like, “That needs to kind of be allocated and dispersed throughout the whole organization and the whole community.”

Shahum: Right.

Cohen: And that’s challenging. I mean, are there any specific tactics that the network or you have taken to kind of help facilitate that dispersal of that worldview to beyond just the bully pulpit there?

Shahum: Yeah. You know, I’m glad you brought that up. I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s important to talk about this in that very big picture, because it really is a relatively—it’s big, but it’s a very fundamental or transformative shift in how we’re thinking, and that can be overwhelming. Right?

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Shahum: People sometimes look at this and go, “Ooh, we need culture change. Yikes. That’s too big. That’s too hard. That’s impossible.” And I would agree, yes, we need culture change. The way I often think about it and kind of encourage people to kind of break it down in their minds and in their actions and strategies is, yes, we need culture change; yeah, we’re trying to change everyone’s thinking and behavior, but rather thinking about it as, you know, the big, overwhelming piece, think about it in terms of who your key influencers are.

And in this aspect of transportation we know, “Okay. There are certain people that design those roads. There are certain people that set speed limits. There are certain people that decide policies related to enforcement and other street design things,” and, you know, really important things that we know. We know the things that matter, and we know there are certain influencers, policymakers, designers, media even who affect those. So we need to focus on culture change within that subset.

So, you know, I’ve learned a lot from the public health realm in these last couple of years of, you know, how did they—and not to generalize, but thinking about issues like curbing smoking or encouraging early childhood education or even thinking about things like gun violence. You know, how are movements effectively changing strategy so that they’re really looking and thinking and acting more upstream? Right? We’re not saying, “Hey, we’re going to go out and change hundreds of millions of people’s behavior very directly.”

That would be great, but it’s very challenging. Instead, what are the levers at the top, that upstream piece, where when they change their thinking—so back to this piece—when they start thinking about traffic safety and mobility as a moral issue, an ethical responsibility, “Everyone has the right to come home safely to their family,” when they are able to frame it and think of it that way, their actions are going to affect everyone in behavior down the road. And, you know, to an example of a very specific strategy—well, I’ll say two.

One is really, I think, folks are doing a really good job of helping bring forward voices and experiences, people who have been effected the most by these tragedies, so either someone who has been a victim themselves and survived but suffered through a traffic crash or someone, you know, tragically who has lost someone.

Cohen: Sure.

Shahum: So groups like Families For Safe Streets, that’s a wonderful new, unfortunately, new group that’s forming around North America so that folks that have lost loved ones and victims organize. They go and meet with their city councilmembers and state legislators and the media, and they show up at rallies. And their voices are so powerful because they have really lived these tragedies. And you want that human experience really to come in and frankly force people to shake off in a way their complacency that we’ve grown.

You know, that’s one piece. And then I’d say another strategy, you know, how do we kind of break this down, is we need to hold our elected leaders accountable. You know, if a mayor stands up and says, you know, she or he is going to do this, you know, their responsibility is to keep people safe, then we need to help them do that, but we also need to keep them accountable. So, you know, making sure that this is a campaign issue in your campaigns, I’d say local and state level, maybe one day federal. We’ll see. But, you know, there are concrete ways that we can organize to be effective on this. It’s not going to be over night. The change isn’t going to be visible within a year or so. It’s going to take longer, but it’s absolutely possible.

Cohen: When you look at the success that the local organizations have done—which I appreciate you giving credit to them, because they’re the ones that are on the front lines there. As more cities are signing up to commit to Vision Zero, at the same time we also have these vulnerable road-users and street-users. Deaths are actually up over the last few years.

Shahum: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so obviously you look at that and obviously that’s I’m sure frustrating for you because obviously you’re feeling good about getting more and more public support for these policies, and at the same time obviously the end result that you want is obviously fewer deaths and serious injuries. And so I guess maybe to kind of really attack that directly, I mean, what do we need to do differently in order to overcome this kind of troublesome trend here?

Shahum: Yeah. A lot. [LAUGHS] You know, I think the core principles of Vision Zero, I believe, are the right ones. They’re going to need to really be implemented and committed to and stuck with over time. You know, I want to encourage people, again, to understand, like, “Hey, just calling a city Vision Zero and putting that name on it isn’t going to do anything.” Right? And we really discourage people from adopting this name without real plans and commitment and strategies.
And just to highlight some of the proven strategies we know that work, are lowering speeds, so that can mean lowering speed limits. Of course, it means redesigning streets to physically encourage safe speeds. It can mean automated speed enforcement and other technology within cars and outside of cars that encourage good behavior. Those are hugely, hugely proven and successful. And yet so many places in the U.S. don’t take advantage of these strategies. And it’s mostly for political reasons. There’s pushback politically. So in a lot of cases these aren’t technical challenges. A lot of times they’re not even really money challenges. A lot of this is not very expensive, relatively speaking. It’s really about have the political will.

So, you know, you see in places like New York City where they have lowered speed limits, added safety cameras, are redesigning streets in a much faster level. And, you know, I’m visiting here right now, and it’s really different to walk and bike in New York City than it was certainly 10 years ago and even five years ago. It really, really feels more comfortable. It still could be improved, but it feels much more comfortable and much more like planners and policymakers are thinking about those on foot and on bicycle, you know, as well as those driving. So it happens, but it takes years. But it really takes that commitment to the policy change and, again, back to the political will piece.

People are always going to be averse to—some people, I should say. Some people are always going to be averse to change. So whether that’s, “Hey, don’t change my street. Don’t add a bike lane there,” or, “Don’t add a camera here. I don’t want to get a ticket,” or, you know, “Don’t change my street structure. I’m used to it,” people are always going to be averse to change. But I think, you know, in Vision Zero really what we’re pushing is we’ve got to prioritize safety. You know, who wouldn’t agree that the safety of their loved ones or themselves is paramount to compared to, say, speed or getting somewhere more quickly? We all probably understand and agree with that. Now we need to act like it and make changes towards that.

Cohen: Is there any work that the Vision Zero Network does to really get at that issue of political will? Because, again, it’s one thing if you get the city engineer or whoever it is in the transportation department to say, you know, “Sure. We can change some signs on the speed limit,” and so forth, but if you don’t have that political will to really stand behind that decision at a mayoral level or a council level—

Shahum: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: At the Vision Zero Network, is there something that you do or anything that you can do to provide some of that quote-unquote “cover” for those elected officials and appointed officials who are in those critical roles to help make those kind of what may be perceived as hard decision to change something but are for a good, community goal?

Shahum: Right. Great question. You know, we’re trying, and I feel like we can and should do a lot more around showcasing positive examples and successes, particularly in the U.S. You know, I could show a lot of European examples. Unfortunately there are some people who just frankly tune out when you show another country. They say, “Oh, that’s not America,” even though there is so much we could compare. But I’m realizing we need to show people what they’re going to respond to or find relatable.

So part of that is better documenting, you know, more before and after studies and analysis and even testimonials. You know, let’s say a neighbor or a businessperson on a street that said, “Oh, I really thought this was going to be terrible and ruin my business or be such a pain, but in fact it’s not.” You know, we have lots and lots of these situations where a lot of times especially those who fear change kind of throw their hands up and say, “Oh, this is going to ruin everything.” And then the change happened, you know, a bike lane is added or traffic calming is added or something; and later people say, “Oh, yeah. That wasn’t so bad,” or, “Oh, it’s actually a little better in this way that I didn’t expect.” So how do we get those stories out? How do we get more data out?

We certainly—you know, people believe it when they say, “Okay. Here is the before and after of numbers of people on the street. It hasn’t changed the throughput actually. There’s still people going down the street, and people aren’t staying away from the businesses.” I think that’s important to emphasize, but we’ve got to have that data from places. And, frankly, we need more leaders, politicians, community leaders, bureaucrats out there. And I should say victims, families, and those kinds of advocates as well; we need them out kind of telling the stories more and more so that, again, we’re kind of bringing in the data but also that more personal, experiential piece too.

Cohen: I like that about the kind of before and after. I think that’s a really compelling way of framing that. I remember seeing a recent video talking about some bike lanes that were added in Vancouver, I think, 10 years ago or so. And it was a big hullabaloo at the time, and since then people just get used to it, and it’s fine now, and tons of people are using it. In fact, I think it’s one of the most heavily traveled cycling corridors in North America.

Shahum: Wow. Great.

Cohen: So I think there’s something to that. And I chuckled when you talked about epidemiology earlier because that strikes me as very similar to the work of an epidemiologist in the sense that you’re often studying something for a period of years before you get the results.

Shahum: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so very similar to what you need to do here, is kind of show that before and after. And that’s going to, obviously, take some time. That’s not something they can do—

Shahum: That’s right. And, frankly, as transportation thinkers, we haven’t necessarily been kind of trained, so to speak, in this area of kind of the long-term change and these kind of intersectional factors. Right? And it’s not blaming; it’s just not what we were trained in. So how to think about—and that’s, again, another benefit of the kind of un-siloing of these issues, right, moving out of silos—how do we help broaden this so that people really see, again, the connectivity and the broader impact here? You know, what are health impacts? What are affordability impacts? What are environmental impacts? You know, I think that’s something we in the transportation realm need some help with and shouldn’t be shy about asking.

Cohen: Definitely. Definitely. So you mentioned part of the tool bag that you have that you want to do more of is sharing some of the positive stories. And so let’s maybe use that as a jumping-off point here, which is, you know, what are some of those cities or leaders that you look at and say, “Wow. They’re doing this right”?

Shahum: I think part of the challenge is, you know, anybody that hears their city mentioned gets a little bristly often. I understand like, “Oh. We’re not doing enough.”

Cohen: [LAUGHS] Sure.

Shahum: And let me say, you know, there’s communities doing great work in certain areas, and yet we know there is more they can do. So let me preface it by saying that. You know, I’m really impressed with a couple of cities’ leadership around managing speed. You know, back to that issue of we know it’s the speed that kills, period. If we had very low-speed crashes, we would have fender-benders and broken ankles. That would be unfortunate, but it would be bearable. Right? We could bear that. We wouldn’t be having deaths if we were having low-speed crashes. And by that I mean in particular in cities where you have people walking and biking, more vulnerable users, etcetera. So it’s really the speed. So thinking about cities, New York City, again, is doing a great job on that. I’ve mentioned them. Boston recently lowered—

Cohen: Yeah, I saw that.

Shahum: —and Cambridge as well—isn’t that great? Yeah—from 30 to 25 as their de facto. I want to point out Cambridge in particular. You know, a smaller community there, but they’ve done a really great job of going even lower, 20 miles per hour on some of the smaller streets and some of their kind of town squares, the squares that have more pedestrian activity and business activity. I think they’re a great model. And then I’ll mention some cities that, frankly, haven’t gotten there yet. And unfortunately it’s often because their states block them.

So places like Austin, Texas; San Francisco and San Jose, California. There’s other cities that want to lower speed limits, that want to use automated speed enforcement because it’s proven effective so many places, yet their states block them. So I want to give credit. There’s more and more cities going to the state level and, frankly, lobbying for change, which is nuts to me that we need to be asking our states to let us do the safe thing that’s needed.

You know, I want to point out Portland and Seattle. You know, they’re kind of the evergreen, often leaders in some of these areas, but they’re doing a really good job, I’d say, both of them of combining key elements, again, core elements of speed management, redesigning streets to really be complete streets, safer streets while also bringing in policy levers. And I’d say Portland in particular of being really conscientious of, “Yeah, we need an enforcement piece here.” Of course enforcement is a part of this but being really thoughtful and aware and, I’d say, self-aware particularly around helping make sure that we don’t let enforcement become over enforcement and risk increased levels of racial profiling or focus in certain neighborhoods, traditionally into certain neighborhoods, you know, which can have unexpected or unplanned, I should say, maybe ramifications and effects.

So, you know, there’s so much we need to do better and think about and be careful of, but there’s certainly some bright lights out there in terms of change. And maybe I’ll give some credit, because I know I keep naming these bigger cities like kind of the cusp. But, you know, places like Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Orlando and Tampa, Florida are doing some really innovative things around redesigning arterials, slowing down arterial, big streets. And that’s something we really need.

And especially in those let’s call them like more newly developed areas, you know, versus, say, a New York or a Chicago, we really need those models for those places that have a different land use and setup. So I’m really encouraged that places like Charlotte and Durham and places in Florida and San Antonio, Texas are really engaged in Vision Zero too. And, you know, is it going to be a little slower going in some places? Sure, but it’s starting; it’s happening.

Cohen: Yeah, I agree. And I often feel conflicted there, because obviously in the bigger cities there’s more people, and so kind of the impact there can be higher. The flipside is if you’re driving a vehicle in New York City it’s going to be slower generally because of the other vehicles and so forth than it’s going to be in Fort Lauderdale or Orlando or Tampa that were designed around the automobile. And I really feel for vulnerable road-users in some of these kind of Sunbelt cities that are really designed around the automobile, because if you’re not using an auto there, you feel really naked.

Shahum: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Cohen: It’s really, really tough.

Shahum: It’s a really different playing field or such that you’re starting from, which, yeah we can’t discount it’s going to be a lot harder. It really is. But, you know, and some different strategies, but we’ve got to do it.

Cohen: Definitely. Definitely. This is really, really helpful. I appreciate you kind of giving a little context here and even some of the strategies that communities can take and really kind of asking these critical questions, which are, you know, “Who are these streets for, and how are we working towards orienting the streets towards that?” Where can our listeners find out more about the work you’re doing with Vision Zero Network?

Shahum: Yeah, we’d love you to check out That’s vision Z-E-R-O network dot org. We’ve got a lot of information there, a lot of resources that can help cities, whether you’re a city planner or an elected official or a public health professional and also community advocates, community members working in their community. There’s a lot there.

You can learn about other cities’ examples and best practices so far and hopefully even connect with other people so that you—we don’t want people to have to recreate the wheel. So, yeah, check out our website. Learn more. You can join our—we have a monthly email list, so check out our list, and we will keep you updated on Vision Zero.

Cohen: Awesome. Leah, thanks so much for joining The Movement. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Shahum: Thank you, Josh. I appreciate the time. Thanks for getting the word out.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.


Enjoyed this podcast? Read more from Josh Cohen in the blog post Supply Begets Demand.