Vision Zero Desperately Needs Help

San Francisco’s goal to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024 seems farther away than ever. What will it take to get back on track?

By SF Weekly’s count, 23 people have died in traffic fatalities on city streets this year. (Art by Sophia Valdes)

Hui Jun Yang, 79-year-old woman hit by a driver on Fifth and Market streets.

Bruce Romans, 59-year-old man killed in a hit-and-run in Bayview.

Benjamin Dean, 39-year-old celebrating his wedding anniversary near Union Square.

Those three deaths are the most recent traffic fatalities in San Francisco, all occurring on or since July 21. They bring SF Weekly’s tally of people killed by drivers in 2019 to 23 — the same number of such deaths in all of 2018.

The increase in deaths shows a Vision Zero mission headed in the wrong direction. Five years ago, San Francisco agreed they could completely prevent such tragedies and adopted a goal to end street fatalities (highways and San Francisco International Airport not included) in a decade. So why does it seem to be going so poorly?

“2019 has shown an upward trend of traffic fatalities in cities nationally, and San Francisco has tragically experienced its highest number of fatalities since 2017,” says SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato, of the year when deaths dipped to 20. “We recently passed our ‘Quick Build’ policy to ensure we can be delivering safety projects with minimal red tape or delay.”

After a truck killed cyclist Tess Rothstein in March, Mayor London Breed directed the SFMTA to speed up street safety improvements. To do that, the SFMTA created Quick Build, a program approved in June that implements non-capital projects — like changing traffic lines and street signs — designed to increase traffic safety.

SFMTA plans to complete 10 projects by the end of the year and another five by the end of 2020. The improvements target high-injury corridors, where 75 percent of severe and fatal injuries occur despite making up 13 percent of the city’s streets. Earlier this month, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority allocated about $5 million from sales tax revenue generated by 2003’s Proposition K for a year’s worth of projects.

Summer construction on Sixth Street between Market and Folsom streets will result in reduced lanes, left turn restrictions, and painted safety zones to increase the visibility of all modes of transit. Townsend between Third and Fifth streets will have new sidewalk extensions and curb loading zones and creating temporary tow-away zones. Taylor Street will also see reduced lanes between Market and Sutter streets, loading and buffer zones, a left turn arrow on Ellis Street, and a left turn restriction onto Eddy Street.

Street safety advocates say Quick Build is merely one piece of the puzzle. For one, the Taylor project was installed days before Dean was hit by the allegedly speeding driver of a Tesla.

As part of Vision Zero, the San Francisco Police Department has a goal to have half of all traffic citations issued fall under the top five causes of collisions: speeding, failing to yield while turning, running red lights, running stop signs, and violating pedestrian right-of-way. For the months in which data is available going back to 2015, police hit the goal 11 out of 47 months.

“Despite the number of vehicles in San Francisco, we’re seeing the focus on the five citations come down,” says Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, a street safety advocacy group. “We know that behavior changes come frequently through citations and being caught doing bad behavior.”

Supervisor Norman Yee sought to lower the speed limit earlier this year, only to be blocked at the state level. That’s partly due to California’s way of determining speed limits using the 85th percentile of the fastest-moving cars. The faster cars go despite the posted speed limit, the higher the next limit could be.

Medeiros hopes, however, that the January 2020 report due from the statewide Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force — which includes Walk SF — will give the state legislature useful recommendations on how to improve traffic safety.

“We need the state to change this methodology before we can change our local speed,” Medeiros says. “Unfortunately, there’s no one solution to keep everyone safe on our streets.”

Meanwhile, Supervisor Matt Haney introduced a resolution in July to declare a state of emergency for pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the city. The resolution, which orders city departments to prioritize street safety measures, heads to the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee next month with the backing of Supervisors Vallie Brown, Hillary Ronen, and Yee.

“These deaths are devastating, and they are preventable,” Haney says. “This is a crisis that disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities, with seniors, people of color, and children much more likely to be hit by cars. Every one of these individuals had loved ones and a future cut short by our city’s failure to prioritize people over cars. It’s infuriating.”

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