A San Francisco supervisor is leading a drive to slow traffic on The City’s deadliest streets, but state law may hamper that effort.
Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee on Tuesday directed the City Attorney’s Office to draft legislation to decrease speed limits and require the installation of safety treatments known as “daylighting” citywide.
The move was praised by pedestrian and bicycle advocates, but city transit officials were quick to point out that state law may make it difficult for The City to lower speed limits.
Eight people have been killed on San Francisco’s streets just this year. Previous reporting by the San Francisco Examiner revealed that some efforts by The City to curb traffic deaths, including traffic deaths, slipped below required levels in 2018.
Yee said those deaths were unacceptable in light of The City’s Vision Zero mandate to end local traffic deaths by 2024.
“No more ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Action is what we need because every injury, every traffic-related fatality is a loved one. It’s a daughter, a father, a grandmother, a life partner,” Yee said, in a statement. “If we don’t act with urgency, we are saying that it is acceptable to allow these unnecessary tragedies to continue.”
Yee himself was struck and injured by a vehicle while he was walking San Francisco’s streets in 2006, giving him personal sense of urgency to change the law. But lowering speed limits and daylighting intersections may not be easy.
The City’s power to change speed limits is limited and previous attempts have run into obstacles.
Reports by The City’s Budget Legislative Analyst in both 2015 and 2016 reaffirmed that San Francisco has “limited authority over altering speed limits,” which are mostly governed by state law that allows for speeds of between 25 and 65 miles per hour.
California cities can only adjust speed limits when it is “demonstrated to be needed by an engineering and traffic survey which finds that the speed up to which 85 percent of free flowing traffic is traveling is higher or lower than the existing speed limit,” according to the legislative analyst’s 2015 report.
Speed limits can be lowered in particular areas, including 500 feet from schools and on blind alleyways.
Yee isn’t daunted by those challenges, his legislative aide Ivy Lee said.
“It’s true that there is some crossover with state law, but we can make changes where it’s possible right now, and we haven’t,” Lee said, adding that Yee was frustrated with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for not acting to lower speed limits themselves.
“We’re really not satisfied with waiting for them to take action any longer,” Lee said.
SFMTA officials lauded Yee’s efforts, but said it would be tough to get speed limits passed.
“We agree that speed limit is the leading predictor of whether or not someone survives a crash, so we are doing everything we can to get people to travel at safe speeds,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose in a statement. “However, past proposed state legislation to allow cities to reduce speed limits has been unsuccessful.”
“We have lowered speed limits everywhere we can within the limits the state allows,” Rose added.
Lee, Yee’s aide, countered that point. “It is possible if you have the will,” she said.
Daylighting includes simple fixes to increase the visibility of pedestrians and cyclists at intersections, including the removal of parking near corners to prevent vehicles from blocking the view of crosswalks.
But San Francisco neighborhood groups routinely push back against any effort to remove parking as the number of drivers on city streets increases.
To those neighbors, Yee issued an ultimatum:
“For anyone who says that this will cost parking spaces, let me just respond now: saving lives is more critical than saving a parking space,” he said.
Anyone who disagrees should tell the families of loved ones who died on city streets directly to their faces that “I would rather save a parking space than a life,” he said.
Despite the bumpy road ahead, advocacy groups praised Yee’s call for a new law slowing speed limits. Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, said daylighting would save lives.
“We need to use every possible tool to bring sanity and safety to our streets right now,” Medeiros said in a statement. “Daylighting is a fast, affordable, proven way to make our streets safer for everyone.”
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition also praised Yee’s efforts. The coalition’s spokesperson, Jen Gennari, said “speed kills, and it’s time we hold drivers accountable for their recklessness. That’s why we support President Yee’s legislation and his call for action to slow speeds and make the change we know that’s needed citywide.”
Numerous studies have shown that reducing the speed of a traffic collision by even 5 miles per hour can make the difference between death and injury.
Speeding is known as one of the five most dangerous traffic behaviors, and is part of the San Francisco Police Department’s “Focus on Five” effort to catch traffic scofflaws who endanger people who walk and bike. Those efforts have slipped in the last year, the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.