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Politics & Policy

San Francisco set out to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024. Why has it failed?

A group of people walk around City Hall in San Francisco during a vigil.
Jenny Yu, center, and others from Families for Safe Streets honor loved ones during World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims at San Francisco City Hall on Nov., 19. | Source: Courtesy William McLeod

Despite a decade of work and a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, San Francisco's 2014 Vision Zero initiative, aimed at eliminating traffic deaths in the city by 2024, never achieved its ambitious goal. In fact, the number of traffic fatalities on the city's streets remains basically the same as a decade ago.

Twenty-five people were killed in San Francisco in traffic collisions in 2023 through Dec. 19, according to city data. That’s six fewer than the 2014 year-end total, before a decade of Vision Zero work aiming to push that figure down. But in 2022, 39 people were killed on the city’s streets, dwarfing the alarming 2013 total that ushered in the Vision Zero era. 

“We have objectively failed,” sustainable transportation advocate Luke Bornheimer said, pointing to the death data.

Back in 2013, San Francisco was reeling from a year of horrific traffic deaths. A city employee ran over a mother sunbathing in a park, a reckless driver killed a 16-year-old boy and a young bicyclist died after colliding with a garbage truck.

It all added up to a grim milestone: 34 people killed in traffic incidents, more than the city had seen in years. 

To address the climbing fatalities, the city turned to Vision Zero, a concept heralded as a success in Sweden. The idea was simple: Governments should make sure not a single person dies in a traffic collision. In 2014, New York spearheaded Vision Zero in the U.S., and San Francisco followed shortly after. 

“We know that any death on our streets is unacceptable, and that is why San Francisco is committed to eliminating traffic deaths on our streets by 2024 as part of Vision Zero SF,” then-Mayor Ed Lee said at the time.

But San Francisco’s city government has moved far too slowly to put the street changes in place that could meaningfully bring down severe injuries and deaths, according to six transportation activists The Standard interviewed.

“It’s not a failure of Vision Zero, it’s a failure of political will,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Interim Executive Director Christopher White said.

Meanwhile, the average annual number of severe injury crashes climbed 33% during the Vision Zero era, from an average of 182 between 2005 and 2013 to 242 between 2014 and 2022. That’s according to more detailed city data that stops in September 2023. The data shows that there were 148 severe injury crashes in the city in 2023 through the end of September, a higher total than the 2014 total of 137, and setting the city on track to reach 197 severe injury crashes by the end of the year if the trend holds steady.

“We have done a tremendous amount of work within this department without a lot of help from the city family,” San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board Member Steve Heminger said at an October 2023 meeting. “And yet, looking at the cold, raw data, it’s as if we haven’t done a thing. We have the same number of people dying every year since when we started.”

A cyclist maneuvers around gridlocked cars at the intersection.
A cyclist maneuvers around gridlocked cars at the intersection of Octavia and Market streets in San Francisco on Aug. 8. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

San Francisco City Traffic Engineer Ricardo Olea, however, preached patience. When asked what grade he would give San Francisco’s Vision Zero efforts, he admitted that hitting zero deaths by 2024 was out of reach, but said the city deserved an “A for effort.”

“I think people are missing the point,” Olea said. “The point of the goal was to get us all focused on this issue, to bring attention to this issue and have a timeline.”

San Francisco’s Vision Zero commitment has kept the city’s leaders and watchdogs focused on traffic safety for the long term and helped launch a movement that resulted in both California and the U.S. Department of Transportation setting goals to eliminate street fatalities, Olea said.  

Meanwhile, the SFMTA has put traffic improvements in place on 97 miles of the high injury network, the 12% of city streets where 68% of severe and fatal collisions occur, according to the city’s Vision Zero progress dashboard. That includes more bike lanes, clearer walk signals that give pedestrians a longer time to cross and eliminating parking spots next to crosswalks for better visibility.

These initiatives all aim at a central goal: slow down traffic and prevent vehicles from colliding with pedestrians or bicyclists. 

That’s because the majority of fatal crashes in the city involve vehicles striking pedestrians. That was the case in 57% of the 276 fatal crashes in San Francisco from Jan. 1, 2014, through Sept. 30 of this year, city data shows. Vehicle-only crashes accounted for 93 fatal incidents (34%) and vehicle-bicycle crashes accounted for 17 incidents (6%).

For deadly crashes involving pedestrians, the largest single contributing factor was a driver failing to yield the right of way at a crosswalk, which happened in 48 crashes, the data shows. Speeding was the most common factor in vehicle-only crashes, which was the case in 33 incidents.

Not-So-Quick Builds

A vehicle hit Judy Yu on San Francisco’s Park Presidio Boulevard in 2011. The impact flung her to the side of the road, and the injury was so severe she needed surgery, according to her daughter Jenny Yu. Watching her mother’s experience spurred the younger Yu to become a transportation advocate.

“There have been a lot of changes, but those changes need to happen quicker,” Yu said.

A woman looks out the window with a streak of sun hitting her face.
Jenny Yu became a transportation safety advocate after her mother was struck by a vehicle in 2011 in the Richmond District and suffered a traumatic brain injury. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

It’s a sentiment held by many advocates in the city and what most point to as the chief reason why Vision Zero hasn’t moved the needle on death rates. When asked about the criticism, Olea said that SFMTA has a significant number of projects ongoing, and at the end of the day, sometimes the city just doesn’t have the resources it needs to push forward a specific project.

“You know that you need to do something, and you wish you could snap your fingers and get it done already,” Olea said. “But the reality is, as we all know, that city government has limited resources and limited staffing.”

When Vision Zero started, the city focused on major infrastructure projects, like redesigning entire streets or traffic signals. These types of capital projects can take years to plan and advertise to the public, then additional years to build, Olea said. That’s why in 2019, the city began using a new “quick-build” process, which is aimed at delivering street safety improvements within weeks or months instead of years. The quick builds rely on improvements that are adjustable, such as paint, posts and signs.

But that speedy timeline has not taken root for many so-called quick builds. For example, planning on a quick-build proposal to improve bikeways and pedestrian safety on less than a mile of Bayshore Boulevard began in October 2021 but did not wrap construction until September 2023.

“That is not a quick build,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the national Vision Zero Network that works on traffic safety with cities across the country. “I think this is a case where we need to be calling the transportation and elected leaders out on that. If they’re recognizing roadway safety as the crisis it is and promising to make changes more quickly … a quick build should not be a year long or more.”

SFMTA workers painting stronger lines for pedestrian walkways on 6th Street at Stevenson.
SFMTA workers paint bolder lines for pedestrian walkways on Sixth Street at Stevenson Street in San Francisco, an intersection in the city's high injury network, where the majority of severe and fatal traffic collisions occur. | Source: Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Bornheimer, another transportation activist, says that SFMTA unnecessarily allows quick builds to get slowed down by a bureaucratic process that allows upset neighbors and other city departments to gum up the works. 

“Yes, there are some projects that are delayed because of things like, we need to consult with the neighborhood, we need to make sure that merchants are comfortable with it,” Olea said.

What Happens Now?

The city volunteered to take on an ambitious deadline with Vision Zero based on the premise that San Francisco could solve the problem on its own, according to Olea. 

“[This] turned out to be incorrect,” Olea said.

That’s because the city needed state approval to put in place some of the measures it sees as central to its Vision Zero strategy. It took nine years of advocacy to pass a state law allowing San Francisco to drop the speed limit to 20 mph in some key high-injury locations, Olea explained. A law signed this year by Gov. Gavin Newsom will enable the city to begin catching speeders with automated cameras, and another prohibits drivers statewide from parking within 20 feet of crosswalks.

Implementing the changes allowed by these new laws will be a centerpiece of the city’s efforts in 2024 and beyond. 

Meanwhile, the city has about 50 miles of the high injury network left to improve with safety strategies, SFMTA Vision Zero Program Manager Uyen Ngo said at an October public meeting. By the end of 2024, every remaining mile of the network is slated to receive crosswalk upgrades, pedestrian head starts before the light turns green, increased visibility around intersections, longer walk times and an advanced stop line for vehicles before the crosswalk, Ngo said.

Two people stand on a city street and one person holds a sign that reads "17 DEAD ON SFMA STREETS IN JUST ONE YEAR"
Brett Bertocci, right, speaks with Maureen Persico on the corner of Eddy and Larkin streets during a vigil for people killed by drivers on San Franciso streets in June 2022. There were 39 traffic fatalities in San Francisco that year. | Source: Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard

The cost of improving the rest of the high-injury network could be as little as $4 million if the city does the cheapest possible quick builds or as much as $331 million to incorporate all options, according to a June report prepared for SFMTA.

In terms of Vision Zero itself, the policy does not expire in 2024, Olea said. But whether the city will set itself a new deadline is another question.

“We know that we will continue to need state and federal leadership to embrace Vision Zero goals through improved policies, programs, and regulations and that may take more time,” Mayor London Breed’s office said in a statement. “We will continue to prioritize safety in our work in 2024 and beyond.”

Meanwhile, 73-year-old Judy Yu continues to suffer the trauma of being hit by a vehicle, and her daughter Jenny Yu has been forced to balance her work as a financial planner with acting as a full-time caregiver. She hopes the city will set a new timeline for Vision Zero after 2024.

“When something is already lengthy and is so important but there’s no agency, it just sits on this list that never gets addressed,” Jenny Yu said. “And pretty soon we’re not even aware that it’s been 10 years almost.”

Noah Baustin can be reached at nbaustin@sfstandard.com