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SF Auto Deaths on the Rise Despite City’s Enforcement Approach to Vision Zero

San Francisco — The City set a goal to all but eliminate auto fatalities and serious injuries, but is not on track to achieve it by 2024. In fact, the traffic fatalities in 2020 so far are about in line with the previous 5 year average. The City hoped to be a leader in the fight against traffic fatalities, but it’s now obvious that the City’s current approach is not going to be enough.

San Francisco was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt the Vision Zero goal in 2014 of zero traffic deaths and serious injuries. The strategy the city chose to reach this goal consisted largely of punishing drivers with the force of law. After 6 years of experiment, the results clearly show that this strategy does not reduce traffic violence.

The city of Oslo in Norway, a city of almost identical population and character to San Francisco, removed car traffic entirely from much of its city center and became the only major city in the world to record zero traffic deaths in 2019. This impressive achievement came with the added benefit of increasing shopping foot traffic and commercial activity in areas where cars were banned. Many analysts interpret this to mean that the only path forward for San Francisco should be removing cars from streets entirely.

This abolitionist view is shared by Leah Shahum, founder and executive director of the non-profit Vision Zero Network. She has implored the MTA Board of Directors to adopt a “paradigm shift,” and  a “different way of thinking” that requires a radical commitment to reducing  cars and prioritizing people on the streets.

Some of the MTA board members agreed with her position. “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 is staying focused on its end goal and is open to new ideas for results.

One example of current efforts to reduce traffic violence is the red light camera program. 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. However, these cameras serve only to punish drivers after the fact. Any argument that the cameras act as deterrence must contend with the fact that traffic deaths have not significantly decreased even with those cameras

The MTA Board is desperate for new approaches to meet the 2024 goal. “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.” 

San Francisco needs more creativity and action from its leaders. While the Board continues to deliberate, the deaths continue to rise. 

Photo Credit: “Distraction” by Frédéric Poirot is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ken is a self-described public policy wonk and covers local politics, incarceration, and police. He loves classical music and thinks Michael Tilson Thomas is the greatest thing San Francisco has ever produced.

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