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February/March 2018

In Sight: Vision Zero Aims to Prevent Traffic Deaths

Safety advocates have identified the intersection of Fifth and Market streets as one of the most dangerous in San Francisco. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

By Cecily O’Connor

Do you live near an intersection where cars often run red lights, or where signals don’t give pedestrians enough time to cross?

These conditions are red flags to safety advocates who have been determinedly spreading the word about Vision Zero. A strategy pioneered in Sweden during the 1990s, Vision Zero is a commitment to make local streets, sidewalks, and bike lanes safer by eliminating car-related fatalities and injuries.

Vision Zero takes the so-called “Complete Streets” concept — planning roadways with all users in mind — a step further, emphasizing design measures to slow traffic speeds, enforcement to deter violations, and education to increase awareness. Goals to end traffic deaths are being set by several Bay Area cities, sending a message that the loss of life is unnecessary, advocates said.

“We’ve come to allow deaths to be acceptable, one of those growing pains cities have to accept in order to modernize,” said Kathleen Ferrier, policy and communications director at the Vision Zero Network, a California-based group that advises cities across the U.S. on creating Vision Zero goals. “This is not true. Vision Zero pushes back on that and says, ‘These deaths and injuries are preventable.'”

From a policy standpoint, life-saving improvements are as much a transportation priority as they are a public health issue, city officials said. As the Bay Area’s population continues to age, long-term transportation plans increasingly emphasize street networks that do more than just move cars. Roadways are considered in terms of how they benefit residents with safe access to transit and amenities, as well as how they serve the local economy and its ongoing development. To fund safety upgrades, cities are generally relying on a combination of federal, state, and local funding streams, in addition to other sources such as loans.

In 2014, San Francisco was among the first U.S. cities to adopt a Vision Zero policy, and wants to eliminate fatalities caused by car crashes by 2024. The City of Fremont’s goal is 2020. San Jose is pursuing goals “as soon as possible” without a target date, according to the city’s website.

The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), responsible for regional transportation funding, is supporting the state’s “Toward Zero Deaths” goal of 2030 laid out by Caltrans. Its decision is consistent with other metropolitan planning organizations in cities such as Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego, said Dave Vautin, principal planner and analyst at MTC.

MTC will review how it sets these goals annually, in compliance with 2012’s Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. This federal legislation required the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop rules for metropolitan planning organizations to report on transportation performance targets, including number and rate of fatalities.

Improvements are necessary because the number of fatal car, bike, and pedestrian collisions in the Bay Area have increased from 2010 to 2016, according to MTC, which tracks transportation data and trends via its Vital Signs website. There were 455 fatalities and 2,089 injuries from crashes involving automobiles on public roads and local highways across the Bay Area’s nine counties in 2016. That’s an increase of 43 percent and 25 percent from 2010, respectively. The data takes into account deaths and injuries that occur when people are walking, biking, riding a motorcycle, or driving a car, for example.

The number of fatalities and injuries grew faster than vehicle miles traveled and population growth in the six-year period MTC studied. Vehicle safety advances like airbags help reduce fatalities among car passengers, but bicyclists and pedestrians have experienced higher fatality levels than in decades past.

Youth, seniors, and residents in low-income communities are also disproportionally affected by car crashes and related injuries, safety advocates said. Some residents, including San Francisco seniors, report that they don’t feel safe walking on certain streets, said Cathy DeLuca, policy and program director in charge of Walk San Francisco‘s Vision Zero advocacy.

“The number-one thing we hear is [seniors] feel like they don’t have enough time to cross the street,” DeLuca said.

In general, the majority of fatalities and accidents occur on a small percentage of streets in a given city’s network. For example, 13 percent of streets in San Francisco make up the city’s “high-injury network” and account for 75 percent of severe and fatal traffic collisions, across all modes of travel, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

Human error is partly to blame when motorists drive at unsafe speeds, make improper turns, or operate a car while under the influence, said Stephanie Mak, a transportation planner and analyst at MTC. The region’s accelerating economy is another culprit, contributing to more congestion on streets where residents walk and bike.

Fewer people were killed in traffic crashes in San Francisco last year, showing hopeful signs of progress, based on preliminary totals from Vision Zero SF dated January 2. There were 20 people killed while walking, biking, or riding a motorcycle on the city’s streets, compared to 30 the previous year.

In Fremont, before-and-after Vision Zero comparisons also show big reductions, according to Hans Larsen, the city’s public works director. There was a total of 51 major crashes involving cars in 2017 and 2016, 14 of which resulted in fatalities. That’s down 27 percent from a total of 70 major crashes reported in 2015 and 2014 when Vision Zero changes were not yet in place. When drilling down further, the comparisons point to significantly fewer collisions involving pedestrians, children, and seniors.

Larsen said he has individual meetings with the mayor and four councilmembers planned in February to discuss performance data thus far and the 2018 Vision Zero work plan. Fremont’s mobility task force, which meets monthly, provides input on the city’s traffic safety plans throughout the year.

“Our goal is zero — so anything higher than that, and we need to keep working at it,” said Larsen.

Fremont also will continue to focus on strategies that work. LED-street lighting retrofits helped reduce a high percentage of pedestrian injury and fatal crashes that had been occurring in the dark, dropping to two in 2017 from 10 in 2015. The net cost (after rebates) for the lighting project is $5.8 million, according to Larsen. The city took out a 10-year loan to foot the bill; however, subsequent reduced maintenance and energy savings will help offset annual loan payments.

“Better lighting was probably one of our most successful countermeasures,” Larsen said.

“A lot of improvements align with mode-shift goals of trying to walk and bike around the community, and people won’t do it if they don’t feel safe,” he added.

In that vein, San Francisco has made a host of street safety renovations on miles of roadways over the last few years. It has adjusted signal timing to make pedestrian crossings safer, incorporated painted safety zones, and added flexible posts to provide more protection to bike lanes.

With these smaller fixes implemented, major work is now underway on other thoroughfares like Second Street. It’s getting more space for bicycles, infill trees, expanded crosswalks, and refuge islands where pedestrians can wait before crossing the second half of the street.

“There can be trade-offs to traffic flow or parking when the city installs safety improvements, so we work with neighbors to understand the context and how the streets are being used,” said Luis Montoya, an SFMTA planner who manages the agency’s Livable Streets division.

Funding for San Francisco’s Vision Zero improvements come from state grants and local funds, including bond measures and local sales tax dollars. The SFMTA’s Capital Improvement Program for 2017-2021 invested approximately $190 million into a wide range of safety projects in support of Vision Zero, according to the agency’s data.

Outside of San Francisco, more conversations are occurring in cities about speed enforcement and ways to ensure improvements are equitable in 2018 and beyond. The City of Sunnyvale is working on a Vision Zero policy and expects final approval this summer, said Shahid Abbas, transportation and traffic manager.

Berkeley’s City Council is considering a Vision Zero traffic safety policy, but “formal direction has yet been given to proceed,” wrote Farid Javandel, transportation manager for Berkeley’s public works department, in an email.

“We have interest, but would need funding and dedicated staff capacity,” he added.

Nearby in Oakland, a Vision Zero policy is being developed because, on average, someone is severely injured or killed in a traffic crash every other day on Oakland’s streets, according to Nicole Ferrara, who leads the city’s pedestrian safety efforts. This crash data, shared in a pedestrian plan this summer, also pointed to disparities that will inform Oakland’s Vision Zero effort when it’s ready for implementation.

“Asian Oaklanders are nearly four times more likely to be victims of a pedestrian crash than White Oaklanders, and Black and Latino Oaklanders are two times more likely,” Ferrara explained in an email.

Ferrara’s work now involves meeting with agency partners and community groups to understand Oakland’s street network problems. The information she’s gathering should help the city design improvements for the needs of seniors and people with disabilities, while also addressing resident displacement and other issues.

“As we build solutions, we want to make sure they are not only transformative in terms of safety outcomes on our highest crash streets,” Ferrara said. “We also want to look beyond the stripes and signs to the broader social environment on our streets.”

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.

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