New York’s Vision Zero campaign turns one this month. In the year since Mayor Bill de Blasio held an inaugural press conference, officials have installed more than 40 safety cameras, drafted harsher penalties for drivers who fail to yield and reduced citywide speed limits to 25 mph.
But New York isn’t the only city celebrating an anniversary: San Francisco’s version of the same campaign also launched a year ago this month. Because eliminating traffic fatalities will only work through a series of cultural shifts (on top of policy and design changes), I spoke with advocates about the wildly different cultures that define each city, and how — or if — they’re beginning to see change.
In New York, one of the largest hurdles Vision Zero faces can be summed up by Don Henley: a New York minute.
“That’s been our main plea to anyone in the street: It’s really not worth it to go so fast,” says Caroline Samponaro with the activist nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, referencing the song. The city’s notorious pace of life, she says, becomes deadly when applied to moving cars.
The built environment is partly to blame. While planners historically subdivided many cities into commercial and residential districts, New York is so dense that residences line most streets.
“In New York, every street is a neighborhood street,” Samponaro says.
When a series of crashes killed at least eight young children in 2013, those two realities — fast-moving cars and pedestrians, including children, everywhere — came to a devastating head. Transportation Alternatives formed Families for Safe Streets, uniting victims’ relatives. When de Blasio announced the campaign, he stood near the intersection where an 8-year-old boy was killed trying to cross the street.
Vision Zero, Samponaro says, will require New Yorkers “to really think about the culture of our streets being different.” That might be a difficult, nuanced shift to engineer long-term, but she’s optimistic, especially with lowered speed limits.
Already, she adds, that is “arguably a tremendous culture change.”
In San Francisco, Vision Zero looks very different. After all, the West Coast city’s most famous song features light piano chords and Tony Bennett’s silky voice — all cable cars, morning fog and nostalgia. It’s certainly not about speed.
Still, as in New York, 2013 was a particularly deadly year for S.F. pedestrians, with 21 walkers and four cyclists killed. Following a rally in January, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) adopted a vision to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2024. (New York City’s target year is also 2024.)
Instead of targeting speed limits, however, the city set goals that fit its tech-hub status: data-driven design change. And according to Nicole Schneider, of pedestrian advocacy organization WalkSF, applying real numbers to San Francisco’s streets is creating a cultural shift in how — and for whom — safer infrastructure gets built.
Schneider begins our interview with a shocking figure: “Only 6 percent of our streets account for 60 percent of severe and fatal injuries.”
Those numbers can also be found through an interagency, open-source database using injury and fatality figures to visualize San Francisco’s most dangerous streets. In its January resolution, MTA committed to 24 projects over 24 months to improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the corridors highlighted by that data. As of December, nine were complete.
This new method is especially important because of how planners used to prioritize pedestrian safety upgrades, Schneider says. Like so many city policies, they were largely complaint driven — shaped by whoever had time and access to call officials or go to meetings. But the most dangerous streets and intersections weren’t necessarily in areas with high levels of civic engagement.
“Similar to many cities, more pedestrian injuries are occurring in low-income and communities of color,” she says, pointing especially to S.F.‘s Chinatown and the Tenderloin. “But those communities aren’t neccessarily coming to city hall or calling their supervisors and making complaints.”
But with Vision Zero, she sees that changing.
“We’ve seen a more strategic and data-driven prioritization of safety projects,” she says.
Despite San Francisco’s work around the Vision Zero campaign, Schneider acknowledges that its efforts haven’t been nearly as high-profile as those in New York. Recalling a trip to the East Coast city in 2014, she says that signs and lowered speed limits reinforced the campaign street by street.
And de Blasio’s leadership also sets the city apart, she adds. While MTA, the city’s police force and other officials have adopted policies in line with Vision Zero, no San Francisco politician has spearheaded the effort like New York’s mayor. An update to the Vision Zero committee from December describes this as a primary challenge, stating: “City lacks strong and clear leadership implementing transportation policies.”
Still, one year on, both cities boast physical changes like lowered speed limits and better design. The culture of car-centric victim-blaming that Vision Zero targets is going to be harder to change, but for now drivers go more slowly and real data is being collected and applied. Advocates in both cities seem confident that, over time, attitude and behavioral shifts will follow.
As Schneider says, after advocating pedestrian safety for many years, “we’re now seeing city stakeholders and community groups realize that they cannot accept that fatalities are a simple byproduct of the transportation system.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.