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Right turn on red could get banned in downtown San Francisco

Cars wait at a red light as a pedestrian and a truck drive past an intersection.
Cars wait to turn at the intersection of Hyde Street and Fulton Street in San Francisco in August 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Turning right on a red light might soon be illegal across San Francisco’s Downtown if the city’s traffic agency has its way.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) sent a proposal that would bar the practice across Downtown to an internal city committee. If adopted, the new policy would add no-turn-on-red restrictions at about 200 intersections, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by The Standard.

North of Market Street, the zone would extend through the Financial District to Broadway and run from the Embarcadero in the east to Powell Street in the west. South of Market, the area-wide ban would stretch to the Mission Creek Channel and from the Embarcadero to 12th Street. 

An SFMTA map showing existing and proposed intersections where right turns are not allowed
Turning on a red light would be banned at every intersection within the pink borders shown on this map under a new SFMTA proposal. Intersections marked with a red dot already do not allow turning on red, and the black dots indicate that an intersection currently has a traffic signal installed. | Source: Courtesy SFMTA

Right now, an internal city transportation advisory committee with representatives from the public works, police, fire and planning departments is set to vet SFMTA’s downtown no-turn-on-red proposal. The transportation agency hopes to receive approval to present the proposal at a public hearing in March, according to spokesperson Michael Roccaforte.

The fire department needs to approve the project, according to Roccaforte.

The fire department is evaluating this proposal to determine the potential impact on its response time and public safety, as this change could restrict the movement of traffic, Deputy Chief Darius Luttropp and Fire Marshall Ken Cofflin said in a joint statement.

The proposal is the latest major step in San Francisco’s Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths in the city. Despite a decade of work, traffic fatalities in the city have not dropped significantly since the goal was first set in 2014. 

Transportation advocates see barring turning right on red as a key safety measure. Marta Lindsey, Walk San Francisco communications director, celebrated the Downtown proposal, saying the policy is a simple, cheap way to reduce conflict at intersections.

“That part of the city has a very high concentration of high-injury intersections,” she said. “If you’re picking where to put no turn on red, you want to put it at these most dangerous intersections.”

In San Francisco, less than 1% of all injury crashes happen during a turn on red, but 20% of pedestrian- or bicycle-related injury crashes involve turning drivers at intersections with traffic signals, according to SFMTA.

SFMTA workers painting stronger lines for pedestrian walkways on 6th Street at Stevenson.
SFMTA workers painting stronger lines for pedestrian walkways on Sixth Street at Stevenson Street as part of a larger effort to improve pedestrian safety in San Francisco. | Source: Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

In the fall of 2021, the city created a no-turn-on-red zone in the Tenderloin. SFMTA found that the Tenderloin pilot reduced close calls between vehicles and pedestrians from five to one and cut down on vehicles blocking sidewalks by 70%.

SFMTA is focusing on the Downtown areas straddling Market Street because they have the highest concentration of crashes and pedestrians in the city, Roccaforte, the spokesperson, said. 

“No turn on red is a tried and proven method for keeping crosswalks clear of vehicles so that pedestrians can safely cross,” he said.

Safe street advocates have pushed San Francisco to adopt a citywide ban on turning right on red. Last October, that movement scored a major victory when the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging SFMTA to develop a plan to expand and implement no turn on red as much as possible. 

New York City has long barred drivers from turning right on red; Ann Arbor, Michigan prohibits the practice in its downtown; and Washington, D.C., will ban right on red beginning in 2025. Other cities, such as Seattle and Chicago, have limited right on red or signaled an interest in doing so.