Here's How We Can Really Achieve Zero Pedestrian Deaths in San Francisco

Categories: bikes

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The Board of Supervisors, spurred on by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and Walk San Francisco, is supporting a resolution to adopt a "Vision Zero" policy -- a transportation philosophy that aims to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. (As a sidenote, the term was first used back in Sweden in 1997).

But is Vision Zero realistic with a California car culture that's still driving strong?

So far the biggest commitment to Vision Zero from the Mayor's office is advice to "Be Nice, Look Twice." While Mayor Ed Lee plans on using the month of February to launch this mind-your-manners campaign, the Bike Coalition called for more serious efforts to stop all these deaths, including pedestrian bulb-outs at intersections. And while that and green painted bike lane boxes might help, it's probably not going to save every texting pedestrian from speeding motorists.

So we thought about it ourselves, and came up with some big and more promising changes that would require a whole lot more than a warning to drivers.

Elevated Bikeways

London made some waves in the bike world with this fantastical utopian plan to put bike lanes on top of the city's rail lines. The proposed network , called SkyCycle, is a design project by foster + partners that would put cyclists completely out of the roadways on over 100 miles of paths.

The project would obviously make use of a unutilized space on top of the elevated rail lines, but we don't have anything like that here in San Francisco. Maybe the best space for a bike superhighway like this would be right next to existing highways, or on top of the Bay Bridge. We aren't holding our breath.

Oddly, the SkyCycle system is not without precedent. Back in the first heyday of cycling, over a century ago, The California Cycleway existed in Pasadena. This elevated bikeway was only ever 1.3 miles long, but its creator, Horace Dobbins, was aiming for a total of nine miles. Unfortunately, cars took over.

Car Technology

So another industry has adopted Vision Zero initiatives: the auto industry. In my day job where I write automotive copy, I've learned quite a bit about automotive car technology. Vision Zero has been adopted by automakers like Volkswagen. Many automakers use a kind of holistic safety strategy at this point -- accident avoidance, collision prevention, and injury protection, are all part of the game. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, one of two big safety testers in the U.S. is now ranking vehicles based on the availability of collision prevention systems. To get that organization's top safety rating, 'Top Safety Pick Plus" a vehicle must be available with a collision prevention system.

These systems include sensors that use radar, lasers, cameras, sonar, or some combination of those, to "see" obstacles or hazards and first warn the driver, and then apply the brakes to prevent a collision or reduce injury. Most can detect pedestrians or cyclists.

Check out this recent Toyota demonstration:

What if this technology was not an optional, but mandatory on all cars, and speed limits in the city were all lowered to a level low enough for safe automatic braking?

Or, what if cars had to have more pedestrian protection, like this wacky Volvo, with an exterior airbag, to help protect pedestrians in the event of a collision?

The Auto Diet

Of course, we could just get rid of cars altogether (not holding our breath still). Not many cyclists or pedestrians fall over and die on their own. But I don't think that's going to happen, and cars don't necessarily need to disappear to realize Vision Zero. In fact, our neighbor to the north, Portland, had zero cycling fatalities in 2013. That city also had no cycling fatalities in 1999, 2000, 2006, 2008, and 2010. I'm willing to bet that one simple thing plays a major role in cycling safety, besides all the cycling infrastructure: speed limits.

The limit on most streets in Portland is 15 mph. It's a lot easier to die when you get hit at 25 mph (or 40 mph) than at 15 mph. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pedestrian fatality rate more than doubles when you go from 25 mph to 30 mph speed zones, from 1.8 percent in 25 mph zones to 5.4 percent in 30 mph zones.

So while Vision Zero is a great goal for San Francisco, it's going to take a lot more than extra cops and nicer drivers to achieve. Needless to say, we won't be counting on everyone to "be nice and look twice" when we're walking down the street.

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He's can be spotted dragging himself up a hill -- literally and metaphorically.

My Voice Nation Help

Many pedestrians hit by cars are self distracted, most likely looking at their smartphone instead of paying attention.

Heres another fun fact! San Francisco City Hall is now providing free WIFI on Market Street so Now we will have more people watching videos and checking their email when they should be looking both ways as they cross streets and exit public transit vehicles.

Sourced from Liberty Mutual Insurance Company:
51% of pedestrians talk on the phone while crossing the street
26% of pedestrians text or email while crossing the street
34% of pedestrians listen to music while crossing the street
60% of pedestrians use a smartphone while crossing the street

How does that work with San Francisco's Vision Zero policy to eliminate pedestrian and bicycle related traffic deaths? Lets take a minute to thank Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for contradicting their own pedestrian safety policies.


rmajora topcommenter

We still don't know how safe/unsafe our streets are, since the city has been using a radically flawed methodology to count accidents on city streets, relying on police reports and ignoring all the accident victims treated at SF General:

rob035 topcommenter

Stop the many evil drivers who plow through crowded crosswalks, narrowly missing (most of the time) the pedestrians!

Misty Gandee
Misty Gandee

Rightof way shouldnot mean you r not responsible for being in the road, where cars r driving, sauntering, talking on the phone, after the light had changed, and u know it, this didn' t used to be a problem

NorCal Crowe
NorCal Crowe

Theyll bounce off the bag and hit the head on the ground and still die....

mrericsir topcommenter

It's the pedestrians' fault they're getting run over!! And why do rape victims have to wear such provocative clothes?!

Steven Python
Steven Python

Oh yeah, I also can't count how many times I saw a pedestrian crossing the street with their face buried in their damn phone. THAT should be every bit as illegal as driving while using a cellphone.

Mimi Thomas
Mimi Thomas

Get off your gd phone and watch where you're walking or driving. How's that for a complicated and expensive solution?

Steven Python
Steven Python

A pie-in-the-sky article if ever there was one. What can we REALLY? do? One-way streets. I cannot count how many times I could not see pedestrians crossing the street because they were obscured on account of headlights from oncoming traffic. More traffic lights. People usually STOP for those. Better street lighting! SF is DARK at night in most places. This city is the worst traffic-engineered city I have ever lived in. It practically forces you to make illegal turns just to get where you're going - and everyone does it.


If preserving life's is really what this hearing is about, then "Vision Zero" should start and finish with Accident Prevention Sensors!!! A quote from us at last night's hearing.


The thing that NO ONE has mentioned yet is building safer bikes. Just like motorcycles, there needs to be turn signals, (bright) running lights, frames that absorb some shock, etc. I drive and ride so i'm aware of cyclists, but at night some of us are totally invisible and when cyclists need to change lanes, its very difficult as a driver to give way properly.  Lets get some safety standard equipment onto our bikes!

sfhrod topcommenter

Elevated bikeways in a small crowded city is pushing it. It's going to have to come down to stiff fines. hit them hard in the pocket book, where it hurts. More intersection cameras to catch aggressive drivers too.


@rmajora Rob, get a life. Seriously. Here's an amazing, groundbreaking thought for you: If that NIH paper were so illuminating, why hasn't every city taken it to heart and demanded a similar study? And how would you like to explain Portland having zero deaths in 2013, along with many other European cities? Oh, I forgot, San Francisco is some special, unreformable place and cycling will always be dangerous here no matter what.


Hmm. Knowing physics might help you a little bit there. It is true that this scenario could play out if we're talking about someone elderly and/or frail. But statistically speaking you can bring fatalities to almost zero with the right technology (but really, safer street design is even better).

rmajora topcommenter

@Really @rmajora  

I don't know anything about Portland or Europe, but I did learn from the UC study---which of course you have read, right?---that the city has significantly under-reported cycling accidents in San Francisco by relying only on police reports and not counting 1,377 injury accidents to cyclists treated at SF General between 2000 and 2009 (

Now, I'm not a cyclist, but that seems like an important bit of information, especially if other types of accidents have also been under-counted using the same flawed methodology.

Yes, I do think riding a bike is intrinsically dangerous and that it's irresponsible of City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition to encourage people---even children!---to take it up as if it's a safe, green, win-win deal for everyone.

You and the cycling community will resist this important information because it undermines the city's foolish attempt at remodeling city streets on behalf of this small minority and against the great majority of those who now use our streets.

Another important document you ignore, the MTA's Collision Report (, tells us not only how many traffic accidents happen every year in the city but also where they happen. They then focus their attention on the streets and intersections where most accidents happen to see what can be done to prevent future accidents.

The MTA and the city's traffic engineers can't do that---and thereby make our streets safer---if they don't have accurate information about the number and the location of accidents. Seems like common sense to me, but then I'm not a cyclist, a San Francisco "progressive," and, as you advise, really need "to get a life" rather than concern myself with such trivia as life and death on the streets of San Francisco.

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