Five Years Into 'Vision Zero,' San Diego Streets Are Even Deadlier
San Diego is halfway into its Vision Zero campaign to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. But data show the city is now even further from achieving that goal than before the campaign began.
There were 61 traffic fatalities in San Diego in 2020, higher than the 58 deaths seen in 2015 when the city created its Vision Zero program, according to data collected by the San Diego Police Department and analyzed by KPBS. The number of deaths has wavered year to year, dipping to a surprising low of 36 in 2017, but a broader downward trend has not materialized.
Advocates say city officials have been slow to implement projects that protect pedestrians and cyclists — the most vulnerable road users — and quick to water down those projects when they garner pushback.
Meanwhile, certain corridors have remained death traps. On Nov. 18, 2019, 66-year-old Mai Lê was struck and killed by an SUV driver while attempting to cross El Cajon Boulevard near 46th Street. She was crossing the street from her doctor’s office to the pharmacy to fill a prescription.
Lê was jaywalking — a behavior that may be unsafe but happens all the time given the long distances between marked crosswalks on the boulevard.
"Mai Lê's death was a tragedy, and it reminded all of us that El Cajon Boulevard is very dangerous," said Tram Lam, president of the Little Saigon Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes and beautifies the ethnic neighborhood that straddles Talmadge and City Heights.
In 2017, Lam was involved with the city's Complete Boulevard Study, which analyzed ways to make El Cajon Boulevard safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. It recommended things like narrowing the travel lanes, extending the sidewalks at intersections and adding a raised median to slow down traffic.
But four years after the study was released, none of those recommendations have been implemented — not even after Lê's death.
"These are the dangerous situations that people have to live through every single day," Lam said. "Our elected officials are not doing anything about it. They're actually going out there and talking to people, and people reflect and voice their concern. But their concern is not being heard."
Everett Hauser, a traffic engineer who designs many of the city's Vision Zero projects, acknowledged that traffic deaths are trending in the wrong direction and that the Vision Zero program had gotten off to a slow start. But he said his department has done all it could within the budget the mayor and City Council have provided in recent years.
"Every year we conduct additional analysis evaluating high crash locations," Hauser said. "And some of the latest we've done with our systemic safety analysis is looking at ways to improve safety system-wide across the city."
Hauser acknowledged the city’s failure to implement 15 new roundabouts by 2020, as called for in the city's Climate Action Plan, and that it hasn’t developed a roundabout master plan. Even the city's Vision Zero webpage, with its map of crash locations, has not been updated since 2019.
There are also shortcomings in the traffic death data itself.
KPBS calculated the number of traffic deaths per year by cross-referencing two separate traffic collision data sets maintained by the SDPD. The first data set reflects the city's official traffic death count included in its Vision Zero Strategic Plan released last December. But it is an undercount: Collisions that resulted in two, three or four deaths are counted only as one.
Another collision data set does account for collisions that resulted in multiple deaths. But it is less likely to include deaths that occurred days or weeks after the collision took place. Neither data set counted the death of Bill Elliott, who was gravely injured in a March 2017 bike collision in Talmadge and died after four months on life support.
Hauser said the second data set may include traffic deaths that occurred on private parking lots, which the city chooses not to include in its official tally. But he could not explain all the discrepancies between the two data sets before this story's deadline.
Mayor Todd Gloria places most of the blame for slow progress toward Vision Zero on his predecessor, Kevin Faulconer, and what he calls a "lack of urgency" on traffic safety.
"I've brought, hopefully, a new attitude, new energy to this issue," Gloria said. "The question is how much time do we have to actually effectuate those changes. My hope is to have as much time as possible because some of this stuff is difficult because it requires a lot of process and we're quickly running out of time."
Beryl Forman, marketing and mobility coordinator for the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, said she hopes Gloria will push city staffers to adopt more unconventional traffic calming strategies that can be done quickly and cheaply. For example, a curb extension that would normally be done with concrete could also be done with paint and bollards.
"If someone’s standing in the way who’s a director of a department who doesn’t believe it’s okay to make our streets safer, well then they probably shouldn’t be in that position," Forman said. "We have goals set. We need to roll out and take action, especially when it comes to the safety of our communities."
Frequently Vision Zero projects run up against community opposition, especially when they would result in a reduction of parking or travel lanes. But Lam, of the Little Saigon Foundation, said if taking street space away from cars results in fewer people dying in her community, she's okay with it.
"I believe the street is not just for the car, but also for the people as well," Lam said.