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Perspective: With Six Deaths on SF Streets in May Alone, It’s Time to Admit Vision Zero Has Failed
Monday, July 04, 2022

Perspective: With Six Deaths on SF Streets in May Alone, It’s Time to Admit Vision Zero Has Failed

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. 

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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

  • I see all of this as true, but there are some problems not explored here that contribute to traffic and speeding in SF that involve human nature and some solutions should focus more on directing pedestrians, than limiting vehicles. One is the sheer increase in vehicles using the streets from ride sharing services as a substitute for what residents consider inconvenient and unpleasant public transportation, and the second is the effect that the removal of freeways has had on traffic having to navigate through the whole city. I don’t know how many of the deaths were the result of ride sharing or cross town traffic, but simple math says more cars around more people = more chances for people to be hit. I hate what freeways do to a city (ugly, loud…) but with no quick and easy way for cars to get from one side of the city to the other, or to get through it, except to travel on city streets among pedestrians, the reality is that people will try to get through by car as quickly as they can, especially if they are a ride share driver who makes more money the more trips they can get by dropping folks quickly and moving to the next fare. If public transportation is unpleasant because it is slow, over-crowded, no seats, filled with people eating, yelling, or smelling, then folks are going to continue using more convenient and private ride sharing cars or personal cars. I think that if the city dedicated some resources to getting pedestrians OFF of certain streets, be it with over pass walkways, or other architectural means, and with a much larger underground metro system or dedicated priority lane for more frequent buses/trains, and allowed a few more key streets to prioritize vehicle traffic, the vehicles will gravitate towards those streets where they know they can move more quickly, and get off of other streets where pedestrians concentrate. Folks will be more inclined to take public transportation if they know they can quickly and more comfortably get where they need to go. Prioritizing vehicles over pedestrians seems generally unpopular, I get that, and having a pedestrian dominated city is desirable. I get that too. But, the reality is that people can not get everywhere they need to be, whether in the city, or in the greater Bay Area, or elsewhere in CA, without cars. Thinking that cars can go away when a super efficient regionally extensive rapid transit system simply doesn’t exist (a la Europe), is naïve and just ignores fundamental human desire to be comfortable and avoid wasting time. People love the independence and comfort of personal vehicles. People not living in the city love coming to the city. People making money driving cars love to make the most money they can and come to the city to drive as much as they can. People traversing the city want to get through it as quickly as possible. Until the city further segregates the cars that will inevitably be driven, from the pedestrians, while still giving each dedicated priority travel resources, SF will have a problem with fatal collisions. Just too many competing forces trying to use the same resources. Thanks.

  • Personal vehicles are not going away. This is California and we love cars. SFMTA has made the city more dangerous by angering drivers with “traffic calming” features. They have made downtown gridlock even worse.

    Enforce the laws on the books, and maybe use some of the overpaid SFMTA employees to direct traffic in congested intersections their delusion red and green lane policies (empty green and red lanes, by the way) and ticket people who block intersections and turn into crosswalks where people are walking. If people are afraid of getting traffic violation because of aggressive traffic policing (in addition to catching more criminal behavior) maybe the overall safety of the city will improve.

    Telling poor people to leisurely ride a bike or walk to their three jobs is elitist and ridiculous.
    Telling women to ride the bus where they are afraid of assault is ridiculous.
    Long live person vehicles!
    Spoke style public transit is an artifact of the 19th century.

  • The elephant in the room here is that SFBike, WalkSF and SDA won’t call on the SFPD to enforce the law because doing so would threaten their access to city agencies.

    When the stakes are life and death, then police intervention is appropriate until there are other means to enforce the law.

    We passed Prop H in 2003 to open up the Police Commission to those frozen out including safe streets people. None of the supes have appointed any safe streets advocates to the PC. None of the nonprofits has even tried to get a PC seat.

    So we are left with a civil rights capitulation, “separate but equal” for cyclists and peds, a set of trade-offs that only shifts the conflicts. Instead of cyclists having to defend against cars, we are now put into conflict with pedestrians who spill out from the sidewalks into the separated bike lanes. Closing streets to traffic and mixing cyclists with toddlers only invites injury and death of children.

    We need for the SFPD to leave their suburban driving inclinations behind and be compelled to enforce traffic laws proportionate to the observed public health threats.

    Vision Zero was the fashion of the day 10 yr ago. It has failed. But it has magnified the dangers, lied to the public about cycling risks. And that does more to keep people from cycling than it does to convince them.

    Cyclists and peds need full civil rights protections to negotiate the public realm without hindrance and violence, not the bike lane equivalent of segregated water fountains.

    Where is the accountability of the bike and ped advocates who were clueless enough to buy into whatever crap the SFMTA threw over their transom? One reason why Prop A might go down is that SFers have had enough of SFMTA lies, corruption and interminable capital projects of moderate complexity.

  • Hundreds of people die of drug overdose every year in SF, why isn’t that given more of a priority? Why aren’t you more up in arms about that? It appears all you news agencies do is mention it and nothing more. I don’t see you pressuring the city or anyone else to do more like you do SFMTA . Driver education and safety should always be part of the conversation and action, but the 100’s more dying of drugs should be a more critical concern

  • Berkeley’s effort to create a civilian traffic enforcement team has stalled because state law prohibits it. Read about it over on Berkeleyside. There are reasons why you only want trained officers to have the authority to pull over vehicles. Like the disastrous Urban Alchemy experiment, it just isn’t safe to put unarmed, poorly trained people in situations where they are likely to be confronted by armed individuals engaged in illegal behavior. Let’s focus on getting dangerous drivers off the road.

  • If you want to reduce pedestrian deaths, you need to prioritize reducing pedestrian deaths over making driving more difficult. Advocates of Vision Zero only want solutions that put additional burdens on drivers, even if other solutions would be more effective in reducing pedestrian deaths. Especially off-limits are solutions that make pedestrians obey their obligations under the law (or even just practice basic situational awareness). Those approaches are never considered, even if they would save lives.

    If you want to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero, then all options must be on the table. Even those that burden pedestrians.

  • Thank you, Jane for chronicling my firm belief over the years – Vision Zero is a failure and with the exception of one blip year, pedestrian fatales have gone up since Vision Zero’s inception. Backing up a bit, aside from an aspirational goal, what is the true vision behind V0?

    SMTA has gone to great lengths to frustrate drivers – restricting left turns, enforcing one way streets, red lanes, typically in the name of speeding up Muni or managing traffic flow. This is a hapless goal. What constraining vehicular mobility options has done is simply frustrated drivers so that they drive recklessly when given any daylight to do so thereby putting pedestrians at risk. Street planning and design can help.

    We have no traffic enforcement within SFPD or CHP. Can they define a team targeted on pedestrian safety that focuses on non-escalated traffic stops? Stop and cite drivers for the infraction at hand and do not escalate the stop. If there are multiple traffic infractions, impound the vehicle. If the driver is engage in gross and reckless operation, impound the vehicle.

    Does SMTA have a role? Interesting during the depth of the pandemic when parking enforcement was paused, the City realized a budget surplus. What is the true ROI of parking enforcement once you factor in compensation, benefits, pensions, fleet maintenance, database, infrastructure costs (meters and founds) and could some of that money be better directed towards pedestrian safety?

    Let’s create a 911 for non-emergency traffic infractions. Yes, better technology can help however the citizens who are most at risk can help as well. There is way to safer streets. Vision Zero has not provided it.

  • Slow streets have contributed to this issue by worsening traffic where cars are allowed. Let’s get rid of these unfair and elitist street closures.

  • Number one culprit in creating a more frantic driving atmosphere is the SFMTA slow streets or livable streets program. They are basically directed by their city funded nonprofit the san francisco bike coalition to close streets so the 5% of the population that bikes can get around lawlessly; they never stop at stop signs. This group is also predominantly white wealthy males. How is this equitable. Why are our tax dollars being spent to make life harder for the majority. It’s not as if we have a safe, efficient, ubiquitous, punctual public transportation system to fall back on when the SFMTA takes our roads away and pushes their anti-car ideologies down our throats. Open our streets!!

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