Cyclists riding through the Broadway tunnel in San Francisco.

Cars are killing pedestrians and cyclists at alarming rates in the Bay Area. When will city governments stop the carnage?

2018 saw the highest number of pedestrian traffic deaths in the United States since 1990, with California leading the count. In response, San Francisco Mayor London Breed called for the City to renew its 5-year Vision Zero plan from 2014, an action strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries there by 2024. High-profile traffic deaths have repeatedly brought Vision Zero into the political limelight over the past few years, but now advocates are hoping to make a lasting impact.

Vision Zero is an advocacy network that works to ensure road system safety—with the explicit goal of lowering traffic fatalities and severe injuries to zero. Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy organization formed in 1998, leads the city’s Vision Zero Coalition, a group of 35 nonprofit organizations united in that goal. “Traffic violence is something we accept, but we shouldn’t,” said Jodie Medeiros, Executive Director of Walk SF. “We’d live in a much happier and healthier city if people could choose their transportation options based on comfort and safety.”

Traffic safety is a major social justice issue, touching on broader concerns about racial and economic equity. In San Francisco, 75% of crashes happen on 13% of its streets, according to the 2017 High Injury Network map. Those high-injury corridors align with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s communities of concern—areas with four or more disadvantage factors, such as concentrated poverty, racial segregation, and higher populations of children, seniors, and residents with disabilities.

We need the city to be proactive,” Medeiros said. “We know where crashes are most likely to happen, so we need the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to install cheap, temporary solutions now. Paint and posts have the ability to change driver behavior. Plus, they provide testing grounds for more permanent solutions to our most dangerous streets.”

Currently, Walk San Francisco is focused on the Better Market Street project, which seeks to remove private vehicles from Market Street—one of the city’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians. This is not only a matter of vehicle volume on San Francisco’s streets, but also of speed.

“Our city must reduce speeds on every street—it’s the number one cause of death on our streets,” Medeiros said. “Our city isn’t acting fast enough—delays in redesigning our streets are deadly. We need bold action. We need political will. We need our city leaders to step up and say they’re going to prioritize people over cars.”

Courtesy: Seattle Department of Transportation

On March 6, Mayor London Breed issued a directive asking the SFMTA board to move forward with near-term safety improvements on the entire high-injury network immediately. She also asked for a top-down analysis of all high-injury corridors to ensure the City is prioritizing the most critical projects through a lens of safety.

Bike safety reached a fever pitch of political urgency in San Francisco this month after the tragic death of cyclist Tess Rothstein, who was killed by a truck driver on an unprotected block of Howard Street. In response to fierce advocacy and the support of District 6  Supervisor Matt Haney, the SFMTA announced that it would be extending the protected bike lane on Howard Street.

Matt Brezina, a lead organizer with People Protected Bike Lanes in San Francisco, believes the most effective way to bring people together is through demonstrations—namely by creating bike lanes made of hundreds of people.

“People are sick of going to meetings and waiting ten years for streets to change while their friends get hurt and killed,” Brezina said. “Going for an hour in the evening to show what a safe and protected bike lane would look like draws attention to how dangerous unprotected bike lanes are and creates a great visual.”

Courtesy: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

The organization, inspired by a duo of cyclist deaths on June 22, 2016, is the first of its kind, and has since inspired dozens of cities to create people protected bike lanes around the world, including in Berlin, Mexico City and New York City.

“Lots of people get hurt and killed when we don’t create protected lanes, and many more do not use bikes, scooters or skateboards to get around because they don’t feel comfortable and safe choosing a bike over a car,” Brezina says. “This makes people drive everywhere, which creates more traffic and air pollution.”

While San Francisco has pioneered numerous Vision Zero policies, in the East Bay, Berkeley is working toward a similar goal. Benjamin Gerhardstein is a public health professional and coordinating committee member for the Walk Bike Berkeley, an advocacy group with the goal of making Berkeley implement a strong Vision Zero action plan focusing on three E’s: engineering, education and enforcement, to achieve its goal.

“Like most cities, we have a repaving program, a street lighting program and a traffic calming program, but I don’t think we are using city programs as well as we could for safety,” Gerhardstein said. “The city needs to invest in the staffing resources to change our road infrastructure. If we don’t have the staff to make safer roadways, we can make all the plans we want, but we can’t implement those changes.”

Like Medeiros and Brezina in San Francisco, Gerhardstein is frustrated with the level of action on street safety issues taken by politicians in his area.

“The big problem from a political point of view is that too many people in the Bay Area rely on vehicles to get around,” Gerhardstein said. “It shouldn’t take somebody dying for our elected officials to address these issues. I haven’t seen any policymakers say unequivocally that we are going to prioritize people over cars. That’s the point of Vision Zero: we are not waiting for traffic deaths to kick us into high gear.”

Despite elevated traffic injuries and deaths, Gerhardstein has noticed significant pushback from Berkeley drivers.

 “Change is tough for people,” Gerhardstein said. “Culturally, automobiles are baked into our DNA. It’s hard for us to see a world without so many of them. The fact that so many people die and get seriously injured from automobiles seems like a state of operations. We are willing to put up with all sorts of hassles and inconveniences to ensure the safety of our air travel, but we view road safety issues as accidents, part of life—and we just say, ‘oh well.’’ We really need to flip that paradigm and prioritize safety over speed.”

 Another “E” that Gerhardstein believes Berkeley needs to focus on is equity.

 “We need to make sure we are prioritizing our communities that historically haven’t been, so that we don’t exacerbate biased enforcement efforts,” Gerhardstein said. “At least in Berkeley, African American pedestrians are disproportionately affected by injuries and collisions. One reason for this is that African Americans are more likely to rely on public transportation in the East Bay, so they’re more likely to walk along arterials than residential streets—putting themselves at greater risk of collision. They are also less likely to own vehicles, and some studies suggest that motorists are less likely to yield to people of color than white people crossing the street. I really want to see the city move quickly, but I also want to see that the community is part of that effort.”

Berkeley City Councilmember Lori Droste, a long-time proponent of alternative transportation methods and environmental conservation, is also taking action to maximize equity in Berkeley’s pursuit of Vision Zero goals.

“We know that victims of traffic violence are disproportionately people of color and low income community members,” Droste said. “Because traditional enforcement often can have inequitable outcomes, we are looking at more equitable ways to discourage, for instance, dangerous driving, by implementing automated speed enforcement instead of relying on fallible human beings.”

“Vision Zero is definitely something that we [Berkeley City Council] have all hands on deck for,” Droste said. “Traffic mitigation is the city’s stated number one priority for this year and the number one thing I hear about from my constituents. People are afraid for their children to walk to school—there are a lot of near misses.”

One reason these near misses persist is that, until recently, Berkeley only had two traffic enforcement officers.

“Our staffing capacity is limited because of our budget,” Droste said. “the Council has been unified in addressing our staffing capacity in all of our departments so that we can deliver on our processes. My hope is that we get the budget to hire a Vision Zero Coordinator in June and organize a summit to educate our community on what Vision Zero really means this year.”

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