Stand on any street corner in San Francisco, walk a mile through the city, or ride a bike to work, and chances are you’ll witness someone committing a traffic violation. Whole Twitter accounts have been created just to point out vehicles idling in bike lanes, blocking sidewalks, or running red lights.
It’s easy to assume that a cop just wasn’t around to catch that car turning right from a middle lane or running a stop sign, but pay attention long enough, and it seems like there just aren’t any traffic officers… well, anywhere. With enforcement a key part of the Vision Zero plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2024, checking in on if the San Francisco Police Department is doing their part seems like a no-brainer. And in a hearing called by Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer on Wednesday, we learned the truth: The traffic department (formally called the Traffic Company) is incredibly understaffed.
There are only 37 traffic enforcement officers in San Francisco, down from 48 in 2017. When you break that down into day shifts and night shifts over seven days a week, it means that at any given time there are only eight traffic enforcement officers covering the entire city of San Francisco. There hasn’t been a Traffic Company class — which usually trains two sergeants and 12 officers in one go — in three years.
Ironically, SFPD has more bikes than traffic control officers. There are 85 motorcycles, 51 Harleys, and four Kawasakis available — just not enough traffic cops to drive them.
The staffing shortage hasn’t gone unnoticed; Municipal Transportation Commander Teresa Ewins is working hard on a two-year plan to get the department up to 56 officers. In an ideal world, she says, that number would be closer to 84.
“I can wish,” Ewins says.
There are a number of issues that arise from this shortage, not least of which is the fact that anytime a dignitary comes to town and requests a police escort, every single Traffic Company officer on duty is redirected for the day. In the last six months, that’s happened twice.
“So that day there is no one from the Traffic Company doing traffic enforcement on the streets of San Francisco?” Fewer asked.
“No,” Ewins answered.
The Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee was appalled.
“There is frustration from people about the feeling that traffic laws are violated left and right and there isn’t enforcement in this city, compounded by the issue of TNCs,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. “Your number of officers has gone down as the number of violations has probably skyrocketed.”
Despite the small team, Traffic Company officers have been enforcing the laws — when they’re not escorting foreign ambassadors to and from restaurants. In 2018, 167 citations have been issued for distracted driving and another 142 for speed violations. Last year, a total of 20,758 traffic violations were recorded.
Nevertheless, Fewer things this is an issue that needs to be remedied.
“I believe that enforcement plays a very important role in changing behavior as drivers,” Fewer said, noting that her husband used to be a traffic cop. “I think it’s a vital resource in the Police Department. With the increase in motor vehicles in S.F. — meaning many TNCs who do not know our streets very well — I think we need more enforcement.”
With the city approving tens of millions of dollars to beef up our Police Department just last month, this might actually happen. In the meantime, we can expect that much of drivers’ bad behavior will go unchecked.