San Francisco is not on track to meet its goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2024.
“Today is not the time to celebrate our accomplishments, but the time to ask the hard questions about what we need to do to get to zero,” Tom Maguire, director of sustainable streets at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, told the agency’s Board of Directors Tuesday.
The City was the second in the nation to adopt a Vision Zero platform in 2014, but it remains a challenge to achieve the steep reduction in the rates of traffic violence required to eliminate traffic violence.
Through September, there had been 19 deaths as a result of traffic violence in San Francisco, which is about on par with the five-year average at this point in the calendar.
But the danger from traffic violence isn’t hitting San Francisco residents equitably.
From 2018 to September 2020, 60 percent of those traffic fatalities occurred in a community of concern, populations considered by The City to be exceptionally vulnerable.
Seniors were especially at-risk as well. Of those killed in collisions, 31 percent were over the age of 65.
“We are not on a trend line that suggests we will get to zero,” Maguire said.
Most collisions that result in injury or death are caused by three actions — not yielding to pedestrians, speeding and failing to stop at a red light — and SFMTA staff say they have used a data-driven approach to limit those behaviors using targeted, lower-cost interventions.
Left turns are particularly fatal. Nearly 40 percent of traffic fatalities in 2019 involved a left-turning driver.
Maguire described the transit agency’s go-to tools as “building block” traffic engineering strategies. They’re quicker to implement, easier to scale and more cost-effective than more dramatic changes to street infrastructure, but still result in significant reductions in dangerous driving behavior and collisions.
For example, daylighting — or painting red zones to improve sight lines — at 80 intersections throughout the Tenderloin resulted in a 14 percent reduction in collisions, said Ryan Reeves, an SFMTA senior transportation planner.
Other pedestrian safety and traffic calming measures regularly used across The City include boarding islands, protected bike lanes, painted crosswalks, lane reductions, left-turn restrictions and signal timing. These haev quick turnarounds and are relatively affordable.
These efforts tend to focus on the High Injury Prevention Network, the 13 percent of streets that account for 75 percent of San Francisco’s fatal or serious injury collisions.
According to Reeves, 53 miles of road have received safety treatments to date with another 29 miles currently in the design stage.
For $85 million, Reeves said the agency could make improvements to the entire High Injury Network.
By contrast, more complete, corridor-wide street improvement projects such as those on Van Ness Street or Geary Street would cost roughly $1.7 billion.
On speed, which remains the single most important factor in determining whether a person will survive being struck by a vehicle, San Francisco is hamstrung by its limited authority to set its own speed limits and install automated speed enforcement cameras. That power lies with Sacramento, where the state legislature has batted down a controversial bill to pilot speed cameras in San Francisco and San Jose, bolstered by opposition from law enforcement unions, motorists and some criminal justice advocates concerned that speed cameras could disproportionately target communities of color.
Maguire said these interventions “could truly unlock, for very little money, a dip in our fatalities.”
Leah Shahum, founder and executive director of San Francisco-based non-profit Vision Zero Network, presented to the Board Tuesday as well, and she implored members to adopt a “paradigm shift,” what she called a “different way of thinking” that requires a radical commitment to slowing cars down and prioritizing people on the streets.
Doing that, though, takes money, which is a tough thing to find in SFMTA’s capital budget these days.
Board members engaged in a vigorous discussion with transit agency staff at Tuesday’s meeting, pushing for answers to the question of how The City can prioritize achieving Vision Zero goals by the 2024 deadline.
“We’ve either got to change the target or we’ve got to change the strategy, and you’re probably not going to get many motions today to change the target,” Board member Steve Heminger said.
The Board collectively voiced support for pricier infrastructure projects that might have greater safety payoffs in the long run, even in the context of budget austerity required by COVID-19.
One such intervention is the existing red light camera program, intended to mitigate the roughly 9 percent of injury crashes that result from speeding through stoplights, according to SFMTA.
There are 19 cameras at 13 locations around San Francisco with 8 more planned for installation by the end of 2022. It costs about $250,000 and two years to install every new camera.
“I think we’ve got to give this one priority,” Heminger said of red light cameras. “When we’ve got that choice to make, maybe that other piece of capital infrastructure is going to have to wait a couple years so that we can get this done.”
SFMTA estimates a $555 million decline in revenues within the capital budget over the next five years, which means everything from basic transit repairs and maintenance to more imaginative undertakings are at risk.
When pushed on putting more of the already-tight capital budget towards red light cameras and other expensive street safety projects, Tumlin said “we’ll have to cut Muni, and we’ll also have to tap our reserves, which is the same source of funding we’re using to pay for basic operations once our basic CARES funding runs out in December.
He cautioned that dipping into reserves too much would likely shake his confidence that “we’d still be able to pay the salaries of staff 18 months from now.”
Directors asked staff to return to the Board with information on what it would look like to expand and, ultimately, make permanent some parts of the Slow Streets and Shared Spaces programs, both of which stimulate economic recovery and create safe spaces for pedestrians, cyclists and other users of non-traditional modes of transportation.
They also asked for a roadmap-style dashboard to track progress, a more aggressive effort to “exhaust our authority” in setting turn restrictions and speed limits, where possible, and engage with other partners to improve enforcement, education and outreach on street-safe behavior.
“Bring us some out-of-the-box ideas,” Director Cheryl Brinkman said. “Anything we can do that’s in our ability to do, we really have to give it a try.”