A spike in traffic deaths places the City’s traffic safety initiatives on the back foot after years of incremental success. Agencies are regrouping with new initiatives, focusing on reducing traffic speeds and overall car use.
San Francisco has long aspired to be a more walkable, “Transit First” city. Nevertheless the automobile continues to drive traffic, and the footprint of car use continues to stand on the neck of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders.
If you doubt that, check out the corner of First and Howard anytime during the workday and have a look. It's not the only intersection where trying to cross the street can resemble a live-action game of Frogger. Losing has serious consequences - which are increasingly on the City's mind, as the last two years have seen a sharp rise in both traffic fatalities and severe pedestrian injuries.
In response, the Mayor’s Office and Board of Supervisors are literally racing against each other to come up with solutions.
In June, responding to direction from Mayor Breed, the MTA Board approved a "Quick-Build" policy to expedite temporary safety improvements and pilot projects. One example has been the Protected Bike Lane project on Valencia Street, which has already produced positive results. The program will soon expand to Fifth Street.
The City is also updating traffic signals to give pedestrians more time to cross – a critical move given that 60% of crashes have occurred at intersections over the last five years.
In July, Supervisor Matt Haney, along with advocacy groups Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, called on Mayor Breed to declare a "state of emergency" on traffic safety when two residents were killed in four days. The two fatalities happened within blocks of each other.
Key to the resolution, co-sponsored by four other Supervisors, is the role of prevailing car speeds in pedestrian fatalities. The problem is that state law plays a big role in how speed limits are set in San Francisco and other California cities.
Haney has also suggested that he would be supportive to exploring a proposal making certain blocks in the Tenderloin neighborhood car-free.
The deaths have also put San Francisco's Vision Zero program under pressure. The task force which governs the program has gotten some bad press in recent weeks, both over the recent statistics as well as some messaging gaffes.
Vision Zero is a traffic safety policy initiative which started in Sweden in 1997. It's about realigning priorities for traffic management and street design away from speed and convenience for cars towards protecting pedestrians and cyclists. It's a different approach from previous traffic safety policies which relied on modifying driver behavior while preserving traffic systems designed for vehicle speed.
Several US cities, including New York City, have adopted Vision Zero. San Francisco adopted the concept in 2014, setting a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024.
By 2017, the City was moving toward that goal, with only 20 deaths suffered that year - the lowest in well over a decade. That changed last year with 23 fatalities. The death toll this year so far has already hit 22.
San Francisco’s Vision Zero Task Force addressed the issue last Monday, where the Department of Public Health presented a report on traffic injury trends for the past seven years.
The report confirms that critical pedestrian injuries returned to pre-2014 levels, and there was also a sharp increase in motorcycle injuries. The report cited several reasons for the increases, including a growing and aging population, and more vehicles of all kinds on City streets.
Other factors cited in the increase in traffic fatalities were an increasingly aging population more likely to incur more severe injuries in traffic accidents, as well as a 15% increase in the number of homeless people living on the streets in the last five years. Equity issues are also driving an increase in pedestrian deaths, both locally and nationally.
Deficits in police traffic enforcement make up another large piece of the puzzle in the recent statistics. Recent vacancies and leadership turnover in SFPD’s traffic unit has led to a significant drop in traffic citations.
After digesting the DPH report, the Task Force turned to the elephant in the room: speed limits and enforcement, and how to change the current practices in those spaces to save lives.
Legislation recently passed in Sacramento created a State Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force, to look at the way new state laws and policies can address new and increasing challenges to pedestrian and traffic safety.
Kate Breen, Governmental Relations Director at MTA, serves on the state task force, and Walk SF Executive Director Jodie Medeiros serves on its advisory committee. Together they gave a presentation to San Francisco's Vision Zero task force on challenges of the state level that directly affect San Francisco.
One of those challenges is creating new, pedestrian-based standards for speed limits on city streets. California, like many other states, relies on the "85% rule,” which allows for speed limits to be set according to prevailing car speed preferences.
“Many streets in San Francisco are set at 25 miles per hour, but on some of them you'd never realize it, because people regularly go over the speed limit. If the speed is set at 25 miles per hour and someone is really driving at 35 miles per hour, the likelihood of survival for a person being hit by that vehicle is pretty low,” noted Medeiros.
The goal is to incrementally change state Vehicle Code and policy regarding speed limits, first by giving cities more leeway in enforcing lower speed limits, especially along high injury intersections and thoroughfares, and eventually to move away from current practice entirely.
“(A colleague) described the current practice to me as being like setting a teenager's curfew at the time the teenager wants to come home," said Breen. "We need to find ways to communicate on this issue, because of how deeply entrenched it is."
While Breen and Medeiros noted that there was consensus on the State task force toward changing the status quo, there will likely be continued institutional resistance in Sacramento. On the infrastructure end, State Senator Scott Wiener’s Complete Streets bill has met with considerable resistance from Caltrans. It nevertheless passed the Legislature and is now on Governor Newsom’s desk.
In the end, the same stakeholder groups who often hold San Francisco's Vision Zero policy initiative accountable also acknowledge its value.
"I shudder to think what the City would be like if we had not adopted Vision Zero five years ago," says Marta Lindsey, Communications Director at WalkSF. "There are places where City agencies need to be faster and more aggressive, but it's not like Vision Zero hasn't made a difference. It's been a literal perfect storm of challenges in the last five years."