In May, a speeding truck in San Francisco ran a red light and slammed into another car, killing a pedestrian named Lovisa Svallingson and severely injuring her boyfriend, Daniel Ramos.

The tragedy occurred as the city attempts to completely eradicate traffic deaths by 2024, a commitment called Vision Zero that its Board of Supervisors adopted in 2014.

San Francisco’s number of traffic deaths has not been significantly impacted since the city embarked on Vision Zero. In 2014, there were 31 deaths. In 2020, there were 30, according to Vision Zero’s end-of-year report.

“The city has been failing to address Vision Zero. It’s a goal we should still have and we should work harder toward it. I don’t think that it’s likely to happen, sadly, in light of where things are now.”

Supervisor Matt Haney

“The city has been failing to address Vision Zero,” Supervisor Matt Haney said.

“It’s a goal we should still have and we should work harder toward it. I don’t think that it’s likely to happen, sadly, in light of where things are now,” Haney said.

The city’s lack of progress in reducing traffic deaths in the long term cannot be attributed to any one thing, but the city must act faster to enact proven strategies to reduce traffic deaths, according to Eric Rozell, pedestrian safety manager with the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, which represents property owners, residents, business owners and other stakeholders in the neighborhood.

“Speed up and put the urgency on these more immediate changes that we know do have a solid impact, like more road diets, speed enforcement cameras or red light cameras,” Rozell said.

Attempts at a solution

The city has used a variety of strategies to address the number of traffic deaths, such as traffic rule changes in the Tenderloin that reduced the speed limit from 25 mph to 20 mph and bans right turns on red lights.

That neighborhood is part of the 13 percent of streets that account for 75 percent of severe or fatal traffic injuries in what the city refers to as its High-Injury Network.

An issue in District 6, which includes the Tenderloin and many of the streets on the High-Injury Network, is the street design, according to Haney, the district’s supervisor. Streets with three or four lanes for cars, small sidewalks and open bike lanes can be dangerous, so removing a lane for cars can increase safety, he said.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is trying two new traffic safety measures as a part of its Tenderloin Traffic Safety project. These include prohibiting vehicle turns on red at approximately 54 intersections and reducing vehicle speed limits to 20 mph on 17 corridors. (Graphic courtesy of SFMTA)

The May 18 crash that killed Svallingson happened in Haney’s district a block away from where the reduced speeds and no right turn on red rules took effect, but Haney noted that protected bike lanes are also an important strategy in combating traffic deaths.

“That particular crash happened in an area that is built for pretty high-speed traffic, and it had a bike lane that he could drive into to try to run the red light. If that bike lane was protected, he wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Haney said.

The city has also used quick-build projects, which include new traffic and street signs, parking and loading adjustments, changing the times of traffic signals and building transit boarding islands, in order to reduce traffic deaths.

Vision Zero, which is used in many major U.S. cities, originated in Sweden in 1997, where traffic deaths have been halved since they committed to the policy. In the U.S., states with Vision Zero programs saw traffic deaths fall 25 percent faster than the rest of the country since 1997, according to a report from New York City’s 2014 Vision Zero action plan.

Safety plan evolving

In an email, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokeswoman Erica Kato said that since 2014, San Francisco’s Vision Zero strategy has evolved, and new approaches such as reduced speed limit rules in the Tenderloin and the quick-build program, which was approved in 2019, have the potential to decrease traffic deaths.

“We will continue to deploy proven tools to slow speed and make crossings safer. However, we know that getting to zero will require major shifts in policy, politics and resources, such as: more flexibility to lower speeds, speed safety cameras, and pricing to reduce vehicle miles travelled,” Kato said.

Rozell noted that American car culture is one reason why Vision Zero programs in San Francisco have not reduced traffic deaths, and that cultural investment into alternative means of transportation is another strategy to meet the Vision Zero promise.

However, sound policy and infrastructure changes to San Francisco’s streets can help inform cultural change, according to Nesrine Majzoub with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which is part of the Vision Zero Coalition.

“I’m sure anybody on a bike before has heard the phrase ‘we should just be like Copenhagen,’ and I think that is an idealized sentiment,” Majzoub said.

She noted that the city’s initiatives such as the quick-build program are helpful, but the city needs to make bolder moves to reduce traffic deaths.

“We still have people dying on our streets … these steps are in the right direction but we’re still not close to being on track to eliminate traffic deaths entirely by 2024,” Majzoub said.