The Deaths Behind Vision Zero’s Numbers

Data drives Vision Zero — but an obsession with statistics can leave the people it affects behind.

A cyclist lies in an ambulance after being struck by a vehicle near 4th and Market Streets in San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, May 12, 2016., Photo by Jessica Christian

In 2016, 36 pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers were killed on San Francisco’s streets. In 2017, that number dropped by a third, to — by SF Weekly’s count — 23 (including three highway deaths within city limits). After three years with little change, it’s a hopeful sign, and perhaps a result of the pressure, money, and efforts made in the name of Vision Zero — the city’s plan to end traffic fatalities by 2024. All those new bike lanes and bulbouts must be working, and hey, New York City had 229 fatalities in 2016, which was a record low, so in comparison, we’re not doing that bad. Right?

Perhaps. But the singular focus on numbers — “23 is less than 36!” — can cripple discussion on a critical health emergency. On Vision Zero’s website, there are action plans, statistics, mission statements, and key phrases like “safer streets,” “high-injury corridors,” and “traffic calming.”

What’s missing are any profiles of people who actually use San Francisco streets, or mention of those who’ve lost their lives doing so. In a city that loves its data, we seem to have lost sight of who all this work is actually for. As a result, the most comprehensive list of people who’ve died on San Francisco’s streets is not managed by the city’s government, but by one guy who happens to be employed by Twitter.

Since 2014, Patrick Traughber has painstakingly tracked the names and ages of traffic victims, where they were killed, and how. He used to work for former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office, tracking the city’s homicide rates. “We would track in really fine detail all the information we had,” he tells SF Weekly. “The more we knew, the more patterns we could detect. If you just got a homicide report, you’d just see that someone was killed. But if you found out they were shot by a stranger, or maybe by a gang, you might realize that half of that year’s homicides were gang-related.”

That data analysis helped the Mayor’s Office direct its resources effectively, and it worked. “The homicide started with around 100, and had dropped down to 48 when we left,” Traughber says. “We just better understood what was going on.”

Traughber began biking in the city in 2013, and quickly realized what a dangerous endeavor a simple morning commute could be. When 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac was killed on her bicycle by the driver of a big rig in August of that year, it hit him hard. They were around the same age, and Le Moullac “felt like she could have been one of my friends,” he says.

Curious, he dug up the data of traffic fatalities in San Francisco — this was pre-Vision Zero — and was stunned to find that they were nearly at the city’s homicide rate.

“We have so much attention focused on the homicide rate; we have a police department, Gang Task Force, billions of dollars worth of budget dedicated toward public safety — but there are people on the streets dying, and there’s very little attention for that,” he says.

That day, he published a Medium post listing every cyclist fatality he could find that took place in San Francisco. It dates back to 1996, it’s updated regularly, and it’s still the only website where this information is publicly available. It has names, ages, photos, and links to news stories written about the victims. It’s the human face of what Vision Zero is striving for — and the dark side of its failure.

The Medium post isn’t the only thing Traughber’s done: He has a spreadsheet, too. Every time someone is killed on our streets, he adds their name to it — with their age, gender, mode of transportation, and years lost. That last detail is what Vision Zero has carefully skirted around: the catastrophic societal effect of someone’s death.

When you strip it bare, it’s a pretty basic calculation. Take the age and gender of the victims, and combine them with death probability and life expectancy. Thor Thomas, age 56, who was killed at Market Street and Octavia Boulevard on May 1, 2017, lost 25 potential years of his life. Gashaw Clark, 25, was killed on his bicycle on Third Street in Mission Bay, and, statistically speaking, had 52 years left to live. All told, more than 500 years of life were lost in traffic collisions on San Francisco’s streets in 2017.

“We’re randomly plucking people out of the world, they’re dying, and that’s really harmful to us,” Traughber says. “It leaves behind a family, friends, a whole social network that’s affected. How can I highlight the magnitude of losing someone like Clark? By looking at numbers of life years lost. It’s another way telling us how much we should invest in fixing this. It’s very dark, but you can value a life year and then you can project that out.”

Dylan Mitchell

Julie Mitchell is painfully aware of the magnitude of years lost. Her son, Dylan, was killed on his bicycle in the Mission District on May 23, 2013, when he was hit by a Recology truck.

“I have seen firsthand the toll that a loss of someone so young takes on a community,” she tells SF Weekly. “His death affected so many people young and old. The local schools all had a moment of silence in his memory when they heard. There were wrestling tournaments and swim meets done in his honor. Our community still mourns his death and so many friends still miss him dearly. The death of a loved one never goes away. It’s with us for the rest of our lives.”

And Dylan was so young. With only a week under his belt living in San Francisco, he had dreams, and his mom — like so many moms — had some for him, too.

“My hopes for Dylan was that he would find someone sweet that loved him as much as he loved her,” says Mitchell. “I just wanted happiness for him and for him to feel that he was successful and could support himself. I also think he would have made an amazing dad. Thinking about all that is lost, all our and his hopes and dreams for his future is heart-wrenching, especially when I now see his friends getting married and having children of their own. He would have been 26 if he were still here.”

The city is currently compiling its 2017 Vision Zero data, which will be released to the media and the public in the coming weeks. It’s important to closely track what changes are being made, in order to justify the budget and energy spent on future efforts. And with the number having dropped so sharply from 2016 to 2017, there’s sure to be a lot of politicians and government workers patting themselves on the back for getting a step closer to Vision Zero.

But at the end of the day, 23 people died driving, walking, and cycling in San Francisco last year. More than 500 years of life were lost. It’s an improvement, but should not be celebrated. No matter how low that number gets, it’s never going to be acceptable until it’s zero.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

Check out more stories from our Reaching Zero cover story:

Waste Not, Want Not: Although the city isn’t likely to meet its goal of zero waste by 2020, San Francisco has dramatically reduced how much it sends to the landfill.

 Homelessness Improvement: San Francisco has an ambitious goal of eradicating several categories of homelessness in an accelerated time-frame. Are we doing enough?

 

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