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