Can San Francisco meet its Vision Zero goals?

First implemented in Sweden in the 90s, Vision Zero gained momentum after the rate of road fatalities reached alarming levels and San Francisco was one of the cities to join in 2014. As part of this ambitious project, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) took on the mission to completely eliminate traffic-related deaths by 2024 and make San Francisco a safer place for motorists and pedestrians alike.

This was, of course, a complex task that required the mobilization of the authorities and a number of traffic safety changes, such as harsher road policies, building better infrastructure and raising awareness among the public. So far, Seattle, Boston, Portland, and New York have made the biggest progress since adopting Vision Zero, but where does San Francisco stand?

When Vision Zero was adopted in 2014, San Francisco had 31 road fatalities, mostly involving pedestrians. According to the latest data found in the city performance scorecards, there are 27 traffic fatalities so far, which is less than when the project started and more than the lowest rate achieved in 2017, of 20 fatalities per year. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, especially in terms of bike safety.

Ridesharing vehicles pose a new challenge for bikers and pedestrians

Building separated bike lines was a major improvement that helped San Francisco residents enjoy safer roads. This new bike infrastructure at a city level not only led to fewer crashes, but also contributed more locals to use their bikes on their commute, which has numerous health benefits. From 1990 to 2015, there was a whopping 348% increase in people biking and this has definitely helped make San Francisco a cleaner city.

However, the city could be doing more to keep cyclists safe. In San Francisco, as in many other urban areas, the number of Ubers, Lyfts, and other ridesharing vehicles has increased considerably and this has increased traffic congestion by 40% and led to some serious road safety issues. In 2018 alone, there were no less than 27,000 citations on cars blocking bike lanes and one accident stood out in 2019: 30-year old Tess Rothstein was hit by a truck while cycling in the area of Sixth and Howard streets and died on the spot. The accident, which was met with an outpour of grief and sympathy, also led to protests for protected bike lanes, which could have prevented Rothstein’s death.

Although there have been fewer car crash claims in the past few years, authorities also need to factor in new challenges and find solutions for problems that didn’t exist back when Vision Zero was adopted.

In May 2019, Mayor London Breed announced that the city plans to create 20 miles of new protected bike lanes and thus create a connected network to increase the safety of bikers. He also added that these protected lanes are a vital part of San Francisco’s growing infrastructure and that keeping other cars out of the bike lanes is key in reducing congestion.

The city also announced plans to grow the bike-sharing fleet up to 11,000 rental bikes from 2,000 in an effort to fluidify traffic, but the measure wasn’t well received by Lyft, which sued San Francisco on the grounds that it broke their exclusive rights to bike-sharing.

Speed reduction remains a top concern

“One death is too many”. San Francisco drivers see these signs from Vision Zero quite often in traffic, but signs aren’t actionable measures, pedestrians complain. After San Francisco road fatalities reached an all-time low in 2017, the city failed to maintain these results and most accidents happen because of speeding.

In November, the Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency for traffic safety in San Francisco in an effort to raise awareness of the devastating consequences of reckless driving. Compared to other cities, San Francisco has relatively relaxed penalties for speeding and speed cameras aren’t legal yet in California. On a national level, speeding has been found to cause 30% of fatal road accidents.

San Francisco has many dangerous intersections such as Third and Folsom and Howard and First, and residents worry that without urgent changes in legislation the city will become more and more unsafe.

Road quality and pedestrian safety in San Francisco

Apart from protected bike lanes and better anti-speeding measures, San Francisco could also be doing a lot more to improve road quality, which plays an important role in road safety too. Decades of neglect have left their mark on San Francisco roads which, for several years in a row, rank as the very worst in the country, according to a TRIP study. With 71% of roads in San Francisco and its suburbs in poor condition, it comes as no surprise that other injury claims are also on the rise.

Senior pedestrians are at particularly high risk. Recently, the District Attorney’s Office launched a campaign in support of Vision Zero SF, highlighting that 63% of pedestrian fatalities in 2016 were seniors, although they only make up 15% of the city’s population. Statistically, seniors are five times more likely than young people to die from a vehicular collision or sustain serious injuries after stumbling and falling as a result of poor road quality. A few years ago, there was even a formal protest highlighting the dangers of crosswalks for seniors with disabilities in San Francisco, who clearly don’t have enough time to cross the street safely

Combined with all the other traffic issues that San Francisco faces, poor road quality can also increase bike injuries and further increases the risk of car accidents.

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