The Tenderloin has long had the highest rate of severe pedestrian injuries and fatalities in The City.
Yet drivers there are unlikely to get a speeding ticket.
Going back to 2015, data shows San Francisco Police Department officers largely failed to issue speeding citations in the Tenderloin, despite San Francisco’s Vision Zero pledge to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024 through a combination of education, engineering and enforcement.
SFPD issued just five speed citations in its Tenderloin District during all of 2019. Meanwhile, there were 29 traffic-related deaths that same year, four of them in the Tenderloin.
By comparison, officers in the Richmond District, a much larger geographical area but one that also struggles with traffic deaths and injuries, doled out 1,566 speeding tickets last year. The district with the second lowest number in 2019 was Ingleside with 40 speeding citations.
Through September 2020, the last month for which citation data has been published, SFPD has issued three speeding tickets in the Tenderloin District. Again, using the Richmond District as a point of comparison, officers in the neighborhood have written 442 speeding tickets.
Lack of enforcement
The lack of enforcement raises the question of whether efforts to slow cars and enhance street safety, including a recent proposal from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to lower all speed limits in the Tenderloin to 20 miles per hour, will have any effect.
Speeding is widely considered the single most determinant factor in whether a person will live or die after a traffic collision. If a pedestrian is hit by a car moving at 20 miles per hour, the person has a 90 percent chance of survival. Raise that travel speed to 40 miles per hour, and the chance of survival plummets to just 20 percent, according to the SFMTA.
An average of one person is hit while walking or biking every nine days on Golden Gate Avenue or Leavenworth Street, two of the Tenderloin’s primary corridors, and 47 percent of those strikes are caused by drivers failing to yield, running a red light or speeding, according to city data.
The SFMTA’s proposal to cap Tenderloin speeds at 20 miles per hour — a five mile reduction from current levels on most corridors — would be the first neighborhood-wide effort to calm traffic through speed limits and protect lives in a unique community which includes high concentrations of seniors, youth, immigrants, individuals with limited mobility and low-income families.
District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney applauded the proposal from SFMTA, and his office has worked closely with the transit agency on bringing it to life.
“The streets of the Tenderloin are finally getting the pedestrian and street safety improvements they need […],” he said last week after the announcement.
But if law enforcement officers aren’t handing out tickets to violators, how much difference can the new speed limits even make?
According to SFPD, speed citations aren’t the only effective enforcement measure in the Tenderloin.
Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a department spokesperson, says education and public awareness campaigns, dense roadways controlled “almost exclusively and universally” by traffic signal lights and the sheer presence of officers in the neighborhood curb dangerous driving behavior.
“The high visibility of uniformed police officers prevents and alters the unsafe road use activity,” he said.
However this approach arguably hasn’t yielded results specific to the Tenderloin, as nearly every street in the neighborhood still remains on the High Injury Network, which represents 13 percent of city streets that account for nearly 75 percent of severe injuries or fatalities.
When questioned about the effectiveness of speed limit reductions without ramped up enforcement, SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato did not directly comment other than to say the transit agency is “committed to advancing the tools known to save lives and apply them in the most equitable way.”
She pointed to SFMTA’s extensive work implementing street changes such as daylighting, redesigned traffic lanes and signal timing to make all road users more safe.
Haney, however, was more direct in his stance: “There absolutely has to be enforcement of speed limits. It would add insult to injury for the neighborhood if The City once again refused to enforce laws here,” he said.
Does it make a difference?
Despite the prominent role bad driving plays in pedestrian and road safety, enforcement carries the proven risk of racial bias and increases the chances a disproportionate burden will be placed on drivers of color and low-income community members.
A national moment of racial reckoning coupled with a pandemic and ongoing shelter-in-place order have served as the backdrop to an overall nosedive in traffic enforcement and citations this year.
As of June 2020, the number of stops for traffic violations this year had dropped by nearly 54 percent citywide, according to SFPD quarterly reports.
Still, Andraychak says the agency is on track to meet its commitment to make 50 percent of traffic citations issued target the five most dangerous driving infractions — speeding, running a red light, failing to yield while turning, failing to yield for pedestrians and not heeding a stop sign.
He also points to the consistency of 20 to 30 fatalities seen in The City annually, even in years when citations have been higher, as evidence that simply ramping up enforcement doesn’t eliminate traffic deaths.
“Our traffic enforcement efforts address the unsafe conduct of individuals whose disregard for traffic laws jeaprodizes the safety of others, specifically pedestrians, cyclists and motorists with whom they share the road,” he said.
Haney said he’d also like to see automated speed enforcement, additional changes to street infrastructure to support slower speeds and community-based alternatives to enforcement in order to achieve safety goals without sacrificing equity.