San Francisco Updates Signal Tech as Traffic Fatalities Rise

Sixty percent of the city’s crashes in the past five years occurred at intersections. Twenty-seven severe and fatal collisions involved a vehicle turning — often left. Officials hope updated tech will see some reductions.

by Rachel Swan, San Francisco Chronicle / August 30, 2019
Shutterstock/lahayestock

(TNS) — San Francisco is redesigning its busiest intersections, a form of engineering triage to stave off a recent surge of road mayhem and traffic deaths.

So far, the city has made progress, staff for Mayor London Breed said Thursday. Crews at the San Francisco Munipal Transportation Agency have updated traffic signals in the neighborhoods around Market Street, aiming to give pedestrians a head start in the crosswalk, while prolonging yellow and red traffic lights for cars.

These technology upgrades aim to change drivers’ behavior, particularly at points in the road where cars must interact with pedestrians. Sixty percent of San Francisco’s crashes in the past five years occurred at intersections. Twenty-seven severe and fatal collisions involved a vehicle turning — left, in most cases.

Safety advocates who tried to deliver that message for years said they are pleased it’s resonating in City Hall.

“There are so many people getting hit in crosswalks where they have a right to walk,” said Marta Lindsey, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Walk San Francisco. “We’ve spent hours and hours talking about how to throw every possible tool at this.”

Breed’s office released numbers Thursday to tout the city’s achievements thus far, as SFMTA board directors prepare for a Vision Zero update next week. Some metrics show distinct improvement. The city installed 121 new signals in the neighborhoods surrounding Market Street to match walking speeds of 3 feet per second — officials aim to add 140 more by the end of the year. Engineers have also equipped 76 lights with longer yellow and red phases — with 90 more to go — and they have updated 76 signals to give more lead time to people walking, with 13 more expected by the end of the year.

Additionally, the agency will try new mechanisms like a left turn treatment that constrains vehicles to a 90-degree angle, reducing their speed and allowing them to check for pedestrians. New York City tried something similar, using paint, rubber curb and bollards to demarcate the turn lane. The SFMTA may eventually consider policies to limit right turns on red — transportation and public health officials will analyze data and come up with policy recommendations next spring.

Still, SFMTA acknowledged that a recent string of fatalies has set the city back, just when crash trends were showing signs of improvement. After celebrating the city’s least deadly year in recent history in 2017, deaths rose from a low of 20, that year, to 23 last year. Records from Vision Zero count 21 deaths through the end of July this year. Deadly streets have become a form of social inequality in San Francisco: more crashes and injuries occur in low-income neighborhoods with a high concentration of senior citizens, kids and people of color — what city officials call “communities of concern.”

“This year we have been reminded far too often that we have so much more work to do to reduce traffic fatalities in our city and make our streets safe,” Breed said. At her urging, the city adopted a new “quick-build” policy to prevent safety improvements from getting mired in politics and bureaucracy. It’s also accelerated production of bike lanes, with a goal to add 20 miles of protected paths in two years.

Board director Cheryl Brinkman praised the mayor’s efforts to chip away at injuries and fatalities, though she found the recent Vision Zero numbers dispiriting.

“One of the things that struck me is the number of deaths,” she said. “Even this year versus last year.”

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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