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With six deaths on SF streets in May alone, it’s time to admit Vision Zero has failed

Illustration by Mia Carson

Jane Natoli is a local advocate who sits on the Airport Commission and spends too much time thinking about the future of San Francisco. She resides in the Inner Richmond when she’s not biking all over the city.

On May 21, a driver killed an unidentified 82-year-old at the intersection of 37th Avenue and Fulton Street in the Richmond District. If the details of this incident feel sickeningly familiar, that may be because a driver hit a 91-year-old woman there in 2019, or because a driver hit a babysitter and a 5-year-old boy there in 2014 or because a driver hit a 61-year-old woman there in 2012.

The latest fatal collision in the Richmond wasn’t even the only deadly crash of that weekend, as a taxi driver killed two tourists and critically injured a third near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. What makes these preventable horror stories all the more tragic is that they are in direct contravention of city policy: In 2014, San Francisco started a Vision Zero campaign with a goal of reducing fatalities from collisions to zero by 2024. Yet unsafe intersections like 37th and Fulton remain as they were a decade ago. After dipping to 20 in 2017, the number of fatalities on our streets has trended back upward. May alone saw six deaths, putting SF at 14 people killed in collisions only five months into the year.

It’s time to admit that Vision Zero has failed. As an advocate for safer streets, I hate saying that. But we must acknowledge that this campaign isn’t working as constructed and learn from its failures, from a lack of enforcement to a continued prioritization of speed and convenience for drivers.

Some failures are simply beyond our control as a city. Once again, an effort to allow automated speed enforcement failed at the state level, and we will have to wait until next year to try again. San Francisco cannot introduce ambitious plans to charge extra registration fees to drivers of heavier vehicles—doing more damage to people and streets—like DC is pursuing without state action either. Slowing down vehicles and figuring out how to get larger vehicles off our streets are both keys to reducing injuries and deaths, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless.

Still, there is plenty that San Francisco can do. Mitigations such as road diets (reducing the total number of lanes) have been used successfully in some spots. Thanks to state legislation last year, San Francisco has greater leeway to lower speed limits. Advocates successfully lowered the speed limit in the Tenderloin to 20 miles per hour and added numerous no-turn-on-red restrictions. SFMTA has tools like speed bumps, bulb-outs to physically make it harder to take turns fast, and diverters. Unfortunately, we may have to get creative in thinking about how we fund projects like these as Proposition A, a $400 million bond which would have helped funded critical safety improvements like these, is currently too close to call and may not be approved by the voters after all the votes are counted 

Yet, troublingly, many streets in our city remain unchanged. At 37th and Fulton, SFMTA installed a traffic light in 2017 per Google Street View, and otherwise, a clearly dangerous intersection has remained the same other than an occasional fresh coat of paint on the sidewalk. While SFMTA’s Rapid Response team has helped usher in changes on some streets and at some intersections where people have been killed by drivers, many intersections go virtually unchanged for years, especially on wide streets like Geary. This is despite the fact that we know those streets account for the vast majority of traffic injuries and deaths. We cannot even do basic treatments like daylighting or removing parking spaces to increase visibility at intersections because too many people treat parking spaces as sacrosanct. 

Too much emphasis is placed on education. I don’t need to see signs when I’m walking around telling me that this is a dangerous intersection or someone died there; I know just from walking and biking around our city just how unsafe the streets are. Far too much emphasis is placed on telling people to drive better instead of engineering streets that make it harder to speed, which is also in our control. Unless excessive recklessness or drugs or alcohol are involved, there are rarely any consequences for even fatal crashes on our streets. It is as if the phrase “the driver remained at the scene and is cooperating with police” absolves one of any responsibility.

Further, one of the pillars of Vision Zero is supposed to be enforcement. Yet total enforcement of traffic violations has plummeted in our city, coinciding with a time where our roads are more dangerous than ever nationwide. Enforcement is a tricky subject, though, as a single speeding ticket can bring financial ruin while, for people of color, routine traffic stops can turn deadly. However, we shouldn’t have to choose between no enforcement or only enforcement by armed police officers. 

There are other ways, including getting police out of the business of making traffic stops and using more automated tools. And while speed cameras might be held up by the state, there’s no reason we cannot follow the burgeoning movement of creating unarmed traffic enforcement. If law enforcement can’t or won’t enforce basic traffic laws as the recent numbers in San Francisco show, there’s no reason we cannot put it in the hands of others who will, and do it in a way that protects those driving while still also enforcing laws that protect people outside of cars. We can and should follow the lead of our neighbors in Berkeley in this regard.

There are many both inside and outside of our government itching to make positive changes to our streets, but the same culprits remain when it comes to making change in San Francisco: sclerotic process, multiple veto points for people who don’t want to lose parking or fear it will make their trip longer, businesses who fear that they will lose their customers without parking, and the San Francisco Fire Department pushing back against many changes to our streets for reasons that strain credulity. It’s more of the same zero-sum thinking that too often affects our ability to make any positive change. Street safety and fire safety don’t have to be at odds any more than supporting small business and street safety are at odds.

But we cannot expect to reduce the number of traffic deaths on our streets by continuing to do the same things we’ve done before. We cannot keep trying to make changes on the margins like we have been. I expect our state delegation to push for automated enforcement once again next year. But in the meantime, it’s up to us to more aggressively use the tools at our disposal—preferably before I read about the next person hit at 37th and Fulton.

Follow Jane on Twitter at @wafoli

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