“There is an epidemic of traffic fatalities and it can’t go on… Every one of us thinks: ‘What if that was my child?'” The mayor of a major American city said this today, announcing efforts to pursue Vision Zero, the goal of ending traffic deaths within ten years. Standing at the site where a child was killed by a driver, he said, “That is, in fact, how we have to make public policy and how we have to implement public policy.”
The mayor who spoke those words was not SF’s Ed Lee — it was Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City. Coincidentally, Mayor Lee did issue a press release today addressing traffic violence, but unlike the message de Blasio sent at his press conference, Lee’s statements appeared to be aimed more at placating city residents who’ve been calling for safer streets than demonstrating a serious commitment to making that a major priority.
Lee’s press release, which he did not hold a press conference to announce, touted a new SFMTA safe driving awareness campaign, an increase in SFPD traffic enforcement staff, and the SFMTA’s procurement of funds for planned traffic signal upgrades along Polk Street and South Van Ness Avenue — in 2017. A safe driving training program for truckers contracted by the city will also start in 2015.
The “Be Nice, Look Twice,” campaign will comprise a safe driving fact sheet to be distributed starting next month. Nice, yes, but the campaign is being produced by the SFMTA, not the SFPD — the agency that has the force of law behind it. (The only traffic safety flyers recently issued by the police department were basically a middle finger to pedestrian victims.)
While de Blasio stated today that he and his top commissioners “are standing with” the families of traffic violence victims (and they literally stood with victims’ families at the announcement), and that “we’re starting immediately to make changes to protect our children, and to protect all New Yorkers,” Mayor Lee’s printed statement was essentially a tepidly generalized “be careful, slow down” PSA, softened to the point of near meaninglessness:
Pedestrian safety continues to be a key focus as our City grows. San Francisco is a City that walks, and we all have a shared responsibility to protect and care for the most vulnerable users on our City streets. By looking out for each other and by driving more slowly and carefully, we can make a big impact on improving safety for those walking in San Francisco. This new campaign will be culturally competent and will touch all corners of San Francisco.
“The mayor’s announcement acknowledges the long-standing and pervasive problem of traffic crimes on our city’s streets, but it does little to end the preventable injuries and deaths from the daily crashes plaguing our streets,” said Natalie Burdick of Walk SF. “When there are solutions that can save lives, no loss of life should be acceptable. Rather than taking a scattershot approach that doesn’t even offer safety training until 2015, or engineering improvements until 2017, the city should adopt a Vision Zero goal now to eliminate every traffic death, whether it’s a driver, bicyclist, or pedestrian, over the next 10 years.”
In NYC, de Blasio appears to be embracing Vision Zero, announcing a working group led by the city’s police, transportation, health, and taxi commissioners that is tasked with coming up with an action plan by February 15. The most comparable action in SF is former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Directive on Pedestrian Safety, which established the Pedestrian Task Force in December 2010, leading to the Pedestrian Strategy released more than two years later. Lee did form the T2030 Task Force, which recommended three ballot measures to partially fund general transportation improvements, but even if they pass, they’re not expected to fund the drastic increase in pedestrian safety measures needed.
More importantly, Ed Lee has said nothing about the calls from supervisors and safe streets advocates to pursue Vision Zero, or the lives devastated by reckless driving.
“De Blasio raised expectations very high during his campaign when he adopted the ‘Vision Zero’ pledge, and today we got some concrete signs that it wasn’t just talk,” said Ben Fried, Streetsblog’s editor-in-chief in NYC. “He stood shoulder to shoulder with victims’ families and described how he’s going to bring different agencies together and devote more resources to traffic safety. It’s too early to say whether he’ll sustain this commitment over time, but he has already taken real steps to organize his administration around the idea that traffic violence must be drastically reduced.”
De Blasio said that NYPD will increase the size of its highway division — which investigates crashes and performs much of the department’s traffic enforcement — by 50 percent. He also reiterated campaign pledges to roll out safety redesigns along dozens of streets each year, and to press the state legislature to allow NYC to greatly expand its automated speed enforcement.
Meanwhile, Mayor Lee announced a 12 percent increase in the SFPD’s motorcycle-riding Traffic Company. It’s unclear if that’s actually a new development, as SFPD officials have said they’ve been working to replenish the Traffic Company and overall police staffing for months. Lee’s press release also says SFPD will follow its “Focus on the Five” campaign, targeting enforcement at the most dangerous intersections and driving infractions, but the department has supposedly been doing that for well over a year now. No data showing the SFPD’s performance on that program has been released yet.
The message from SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, who is known for wagging his finger at people walking with cell phones, appears to be evolving, as evidenced in his statement that the department is committed to Focus on the Five:
Enforcement of traffic laws continues to be a critical piece to improving pedestrian safety. Enforcement educates drivers about the rules of the road. One of the most effective ways to reduce serious injuries and fatalities has proven to be through targeted enforcement. It is with this in mind that we came up with our ‘Focus on the Five’ strategy where we have been focusing on the five most dangerous intersections in each of our 10 police districts, ticketing for the violations most responsible for collisions. We are committed to keeping our residents and visitors safe.
Still, we haven’t heard Suhr make any statements comparable to that of NYPD’s newly-appointed police commissioner, Bill Bratton, who acknowledged the department’s pattern of botched pedestrian crash investigations. A similar pattern has been seen in SF, as a Board of Supervisors committee will address at a hearing tomorrow. “Many, many serious accident investigations involving serious injuries were not adequately investigated,” Bratton said of the NYPD.
As we noted, Lee is also touting the SFMTA’s procurement of a $2.9 million federal grant to upgrade traffic signals, install pedestrian countdowns, and build ADA-compliant curb ramps along Polk and South Van Ness. Any pedestrian safety improvement is positive, but this sounds like the mayor is arbitrarily highlighting a relatively minor and routine pedestrian-related project development, based solely on the timing of his bid to manage political furor. And, as we also noted, those improvements aren’t even coming until 2017. Not exactly the swift action to curb the rising tide of reckless driving the city needs.
Perhaps it was prudent, then, that Lee didn’t take a tack similar to de Blasio and make his announcements at Polk and Ellis Streets, where 6-year-old Sophia Liu was killed after being run down, along with her mother and brother, in a crosswalk while they had a green light. If Lee wasn’t prepared to make a serious case for safer streets, he would risk embarrassing himself.
Unfortunately San Franciscans face a very real risk every time they’re on the streets: being run over by a reckless driver. And we may have to wait until the next mayoral election for that to change in any meaningful way.
Here’s video of de Blasio’s Vision Zero press conference today from Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson, Jr.: