After a lull caused by shelter-in-place orders, traffic deaths have increased in the past two months. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

As cars return to the road, so too does danger for cyclists and pedestrians

Recent months have seen a ‘statistically significant uptick’ in traffic violence

San Francisco’s infamously congested streets emptied almost overnight when the City’s shelter-in-place order was first issued. With it came a precipitous decline in traffic violence.

But leaders of the City’s Vision Zero campaign — a coalition of city officials, advocacy groups and community members seeking to eliminate traffic deaths in San Francisco by 2024 — cautioned against getting too comfortable.

WalkSF’s Executive Director Jodie Medeiros penned a letter to SFMTA leadership and Board of Directors in May warning what could happen without “immediate action” by the agency.

“We will soon see a tragic surge in severe and fatal traffic crashes in San Francisco, especially among our most vulnerable. And the City’s Vision Zero goal will slip out of sight,” she wrote.

The warning unfortunately proved true.

There has been a “statistically significant uptick” in traffic deaths over the last two months as more people got back behind the wheel, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Jeffrey Tumlin told the Board of Directors Tuesday.

He soberly recited a list of recent deaths: a motorcyclist at Crossover Drive and Park Presidio; a pedestrian at San Bruno Avenue and Dwight Street; a person in a wheelchair who was hit while crossing Van Ness Avenue; a hit-and-run on Bayshore Boulevard (the suspect has since been arrested).

SFMTA engineers evaluate any crash site within 72 hours to conduct a street analysis and recommend any changes that might prevent repeat deaths or injury.

Tumlin theorized the increase could be attributed to changing traffic patterns that correlate with other “antisocial behaviors” emerging as people grow increasingly frustrated by life under shelter-in-place orders.

“There’s a level of frustration and anguish out there that we need to be paying attention to, and we need to be prepared to find ways to return to civility and to care for each other,” Tumlin said.

Though SFMTA says if the number of traffic deaths to date — 15 — holds through the end of July, it will mark a slight decrease in the five-year average over the same period of 15.8, it’s widely believed this decrease is due to the decline in traffic during the early months of shelter-in-place.

Medeiros said now’s not the time to let up, and put some of the onus on drivers to take responsibility for their actions.

“We need to keep our eyes on making the streets people-first,” she said with particular emphasis on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin where streets have been designed “so that cars are the priority.”

According to the Vision Zero monthly summary, 75% of this year’s traffic fatalities through the end of June occurred in communities of concern, areas identified as having high concentrations of vulnerable populations and poverty.

Two of the pedestrians who were struck and killed by cars in the last few weeks died in the Bayview and Portola neighborhoods, along corridors that are part of the Vision Zero High Injury Network Plan.

According to WalkSF, an average of 600 people sustain injuries and 30 people die every year on San Francisco streets.

Speed is largely to blame. But SFMTA is currently hamstrung in its ability to implement best practices that have been proven to reduce speeding and mitigate severe injuries and fatalities.

The power to enforce traffic laws using automated technology and set speed limits currently falls to the state.

San Francisco, as part of a statewide task force advocating for solutions to end traffic violence, has lobbied for changes to the law that would empower local jurisdictions to take these actions, SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said. But the group’s legislative recommendations, issued in January, were put on the back burner and aren’t expected to be considered until early next year with other post-COVID resolutions.

In the meantime, Tumlin assured the Board the agency continues with Quick-Build efforts to make streets safer, faster. Ongoing are the Mission/Geneva Safety Project and the roll-out of three long-awaited bike lanes on Fell Street, the Embarcadero and Mission Bay’s Third Street Bridge.

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