How to Stop Cars from Killing People

Pedestrians and cyclists keep dying on San Francisco streets. Transit advocates have a few ideas on how to keep that from happening.

On a stifling Friday afternoon in the Tenderloin, over 30 people gathered in a bright intersection. They had signs and instruments and looked angry. It was hot in the intersection and scorching on the asphalt, which several of the people lay down on during a series of moments of silence.

The silences honored pedestrians that died in the Tenderloin over the past year and were followed by ragged chants of “No more traffic deaths!”

The Sept. 13 protest at the intersection of Leavenworth Street and Golden Gate Avenue had been organized in the days following a near fatality in the same location, as a car crashed into a 12-year-old boy and left him with life-threatening injuries. The week before, a car drove into a 37-year-old pedestrian on Market Street between First and Second streets, Hoodline reported. Two days later, another pedestrian was hit by a car in SoMa. In all three cases — just days apart— the victims survived but suffered serious injuries.

These tragedies came after a spate of pedestrian traffic deaths in San Francisco over the summer. With each one, concern has grown about the city’s ability to execute on its Vision Zero plan of having no pedestrian or cyclist traffic deaths by 2024; San Francisco is on pace to have more traffic deaths this year than last year.

So what more can be done? What has to happen for San Francisco to stop backsliding on its commitment? Both the city and pedestrian advocates have some ideas on solutions.

Protestors drew chalk outlines at the intersection of Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street to commemorate pedestrians that have died in traffic fatalities in the Tenderloin in 2019. Photo by Kevin N. Hume



Left turns

Some changes happened earlier this year. Mayor London Breed told the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to speed up efforts around the city to improve traffic safety after a cyclist died in a traffic collision in March. The SFMTA created a “Quick Build” program in June, which increased the speed of traffic improvements by reducing red tape.

Another plan to change hundreds of traffic signals to give more time to crossing pedestrians was put forth, which should take effect by the end of 2019. 

One SFMTA team is also working on a pilot program, to be implemented “by early 2020,” to make left turns safer.

“The problem of left turns is so complex,” says John Knox White, planning programs manager for the SFMTA and part of the Sustainable Streets division. “When you’re driving, you’re thinking about the huge, heavy metal thing coming at you and your brain starts to filter out all sorts of stuff — like pedestrians and cyclists — because they’re not as big a threat.”

This leads to drivers cutting corners and taking left turns faster than right turns while being less observant, all of which are dangerous to pedestrians. New York City, the first U.S. city to adopt a Vision Zero program, changed a bunch of intersections to make drivers think harder about left turns. The city added rubber curbs to the center lines, slow-turn markings, and flexible plastic posts to 129 intersections, which have the cumulative effect of making drivers make left turns slower and more carefully.

Knox White’s team plans to implement similar changes before April of next year at 10 intersections in San Francisco that the Department of Public Health has identified as dangerous.

“We’re going to be pairing this with an information and education campaign,” Knox White tells SF Weekly. “We’re trying to see if the combo of telling people how to think about left turns paired with physical cues has any additional impact.” 

Speed limits and red lights

“At the top of our list are speed safety cameras and slower speed limits,” Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, a pedestrian advocate group, told SF Weekly in an email. “Both require state legislation to move forward, and we couldn’t be more eager for this to happen.”

There’s a lot of data and research that says your intuition is correct: The slower the car hitting you is traveling, the more likely you, the pedestrian or cyclist, are to survive. A 30-year-old pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling 20 mph will survive 93 percent of the time, a 2016 report from ProPublica showed. The survival rate drops to 65 percent if the car is traveling 40 mph. This has led many cities — first in Europe and now more in the U.S. — to reduce speed limits to 20 mph in cities and especially residential areas (you may have seen or heard the “Twenty is plenty” slogan). But, as Medeiros notes, legislation is required at the state level to lower speed limits below 25 mph. Many San Francisco streets have a speed limit of 25 mph but some have a limit of 30 or even 35 mph.

Progress changing speed limit laws to be more accomodating has been slow: A 2018 bill created a taskforce, which will analyze the way the state approaches speed limits and submit its findings to the Secretary of Transportation, who will in turn file a report by January 2020. After all that, lawmakers could choose to move forward with changing speed limits — but they might still face opposition from the California Highway Patrol, the Teamsters union, and the trucking industry, all of whom have opposed previous such efforts, according to Streetsblog.

So changing the speed limit might not happen in the near future. What else might help?

“San Francisco also has an existing and powerful tool we think is being underutilized: redlight cameras,” Medeiros says. “San Francisco currently only has 13 — at one time there were 47. We know redlight running is one of the most dangerous driving behaviors… This seems like low-hanging fruit for better traffic enforcement; we’ve requested a hearing about this with the SFMTA Board of Directors.”

There are actually only four intersections in San Francisco with photo enforcement right now, according to the SFMTA. It has plans to implement nine more, with eight of those nine installed by the end of the year. The transit authority “will likely” add five more such intersections, but the design phase of those additions would not even start until the end of 2020.

“Red light camera installations are still major capital investments that are done at locations where we have already upgraded the traffic signals and signal timing and are still seeing a red-light-running collision problem,” Ben Barnett, an SFMTA spokesperson, tells SF Weekly. “Funds spent on red light cameras could be spent on other capital improvements, so we have to balance competing safety needs based on crash data and other factors.”

Cracking down on drivers running red lights is one of the five areas the San Francisco Police Department has supposedly increased its focus on as part of its contribution to Vision Zero. Actual enforcement has gone down since Vision Zero was introduced, according to reports from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Protestors as the Sept. 13 Tenderloin rally had demands for the city, including more time to traffic signals so pedestrians can have more time to cross the street. Photo by Kevin N. Hume



Take away the cars

Removing cars from the equation altogether is another way to reduce accidents.

Barcelona has been experimenting with superilles (“superblocks”) which only provide vehicle access to residents and delivery vehicles going no more than 6 mph, and all the parking is underground. That means the vast majority of space is for pedestrians and cyclists. Creating more parts of the city without cars also came up during the outrage around the 12-year-old boy getting hit in the Tenderloin.

“We want to actually talk about some of our streets being car-free altogether,” said Supervisor Matt Haney at the rally in the Tenderloin. Making any of the streets in the Tenderloin car-free would likely be an improvement; it’s one of the most dangerous parts of the city for pedestrians.

San Francisco in general is extremely dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians. The California Office of Traffic Safety collects data from the CHP to generate Collision Rankings, which weight many different factors to assess how safe cities are for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Cities and counties are ranked within size categories. Of the 15 California cities with more than 250,000 people, San Francisco was the most dangerous for bicyclists and second-most dangerous for pedestrians in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

Fixing that by 2024 will require more than just changing traffic signals.  Medeiros and Walk SF are hopeful that an Oct. 15 SFMTA Board meeting could make significant progress toward getting private vehicles off Market Street in 2020.

Making cars pay more

Another idea, which has been tried in other cities, is congestion pricing. Vehicles driving downtown, SoMa, or in the Tenderloin would be charged.

“More and more communities across the globe, including in the U.S., are embracing congestion pricing in their downtown cores as a way to lessen congestion and also improve safety,” says Leah Shahum, the founder and executive director of the Vision Zero Network. Shahum has worked in transit for over 20 years and was moved to found the nonprofit Vision Zero Network in 2014 after a child was hit and killed on Polk Street on New Year’s Eve.

“We know that fewer cars on the road means less possibilities of serious crashes,” she tells SF Weekly. Using congestion pricing in tandem with transit options like bikeshare and scooters is key to this strategy.

The Vision Zero Network operates out of San Francisco and now has more than 40 U.S. cities signed on. New York City has seen its traffic deaths decrease by about 30 percent in the four years since implementing Vision Zero, a decrease Shahum says they credit to, among other things, a focus on lowering speed limits and using safety cameras. San Franciscans, politicians, agencies, and law enforcement all want to reduce the number of deaths and injuries on its streets. The trick is enacting meaningful changes fast enough.

“We do not feel safe, and we know San Francisco can do better,” Medeiros says.

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