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Five Years Into 'Vision Zero,' San Diego Streets Are Even Deadlier

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San Diego has a goal of ending all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. But progress has been slow, and many bike and pedestrian safety projects have yet to be built.

Speaker 1: 00:00 In 2015 San Diego adopted vision zero a campaign to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025, but five years in the city has made little, if any progress toward that goal, KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bell, and takes a closer look at why that is on November 18th, 2019 66 year old. My league was walking from her doctor's office to a pharmacy on El Cajon Boulevard in the little Saigon district, as she was crossing the streets, not in a crosswalk, the driver of an SUV struck and killed her

Speaker 2: 00:37 Mainly that was a tragedy and it reminded the city. A reminder of us that this El Cajon Boulevard is very dangerous.

Speaker 1: 00:46 Lamb is president of the little Saigon foundation, a nonprofit that works to promote and beautify the neighborhood. She and other civic and business leaders have long been calling for more crosswalks and slower speeds on Elkhorn Boulevard, which is one of the city's deadliest corridors. She sees Jay walking all the time and she understands why

Speaker 2: 01:06 The distance between, um, two crosswalks, um, as very far. So that's the reason why as make it harder for people to, um, pedestrian to cross the street. So they'd rather jaywalk and, um, that create a very dangerous environment for the driver and also fond up pedestrian themselves.

Speaker 1: 01:30 His death is even more tragic because she died in an area where the city has already planned for safety improvements. A 2017 study recommended narrowing the lanes to slow down traffic, which often exceeds 40 miles per hour. It also recommended more crosswalks and to raised a median, but none of the studies recommendations have been implemented, not even after Miley's day.

Speaker 2: 01:53 These are dangerous, uh, situation that people have to live through every single day. And then all elected official is not doing anything about it. They actually going out there and talk to people and people reflect and voice their concern, but they are concerned as not being heard.

Speaker 1: 02:14 This is despite the city launching a program in 2015 called vision zero. It's an ambitious goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries within 10 years, but we're halfway through and the numbers haven't gone down in 2015, there were 58 traffic deaths within city limits. In 2020 deaths went up to 61. We do see a, you know, year to year fluctuation. Of course we want to see, uh, all serious injuries and fatalities trending towards zero Everett. Hauser is a city traffic engineer. He says his department has done what it can within the budget that the mayor and city council have provided. That's included new crosswalks, bike lanes and other safety measures. Still. He admits it took a while for the vision zero program to ramp up. But every

Speaker 3: 03:00 Year we conduct, uh, additional analysis, uh, evaluating high crash locations. And then as well as, uh, some of the latest we've done with our systemic safety analysis is looking at ways to improve safety city system-wide across the city.

Speaker 4: 03:15 I mean, the Mark we need to do better. I've brought hopefully a new attitude, new energy to this issue

Speaker 1: 03:21 Or Todd Gloria blames the halting progress on his predecessor, Kevin Faulkner, and what he calls a lack of urgency on making streets safer.

Speaker 4: 03:29 Uh, the question was 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 are quickly running out of time.

Speaker 1: 03:39 Frequently vision zero projects run into community opposition because of parking and traffic concerns. A protected bike lane might require removing parking. A wider sidewalk might require reducing the number of travel lanes. Tram Lam of the little Saigon foundation says if taking space away from cars means fewer people in her community dying. She's okay with it.

Speaker 2: 04:02 Well, we need to start a redesign and rethink about us street and our city to increase the quality of life for the people and make it as safe as there can be for everybody that using them. Because a street sidewalk is not just only for car, but off also for people as well

Speaker 1: 04:28 Is KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, Andrew, welcome time orient. Thanks. Now give us a bit more background on the vision zero campaign. How did it start? The first vision zero program was in Sweden in the 1990s, and it started spreading across the U S in big cities. Uh, they started creating their own programs kind of around the 2010s San Diego's began in 2015 and at its core vision, zero is just a belief that all traffic deaths are preventable. Um, it's, you're you acknowledged that people make mistakes. Sometimes people break traffic laws, um, but, uh, we should just design our streets so that when people make those mistakes, uh, they don't cost you your life. And when you say the goal is to reduce traffic deaths on city streets to zero, is the focus really on pedestrian and bicycle deaths. Vision zero means zero traffic deaths, regardless of whether you're in a car or not.

Speaker 1: 05:27 Um, but cyclists and pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users and their Mo the most likely to die from a collision. So vision zero is kind of meant to put a greater emphasis on their safety. It's also about correcting the inequity of the status quo. So most of our streets were designed decades ago when the speed and the convenience of driving was seen as more important than safety. And so that culture shift, especially among traffic engineers in city, is across the country is ongoing. I've heard anecdotes, for example, about people requesting some kind of safety improvement, maybe extending the crossing time at a, at a, at an intersection for pedestrians. And the city will say, no, this will slow down traffic too much. So we're not going to do it.

Speaker 5: 06:16 How does the city of San Diego calculate the number of traffic deaths each year?

Speaker 1: 06:22 Well, it doesn't include deaths on freeways because those are not within the city's right of way. But, um, on the city streets, um, San Diego, the San Diego police department maintains two separate databases of traffic collisions. One of them is much larger. It includes collisions where no one was injured or where maybe the injuries might be pretty minor. The other one is limited to serious injuries and deaths. And in reporting this story, I basically tried to cross reference these two data sets, and I found a lot of mistakes. The city's official death count in its vision zero strategic plan, uh, from which was released last December, actually overlooked collisions that resulted in more than one death. So a crash might kill two or three or four people, but, um, they counted it only as one. And this just had to do with basically the way that they structured their Excel spreadsheet. There were some other discrepancies as well say, a person dies from their injuries in a crash weeks or months after it takes place that death might not appear in one data set, or it might not appear in either of them,

Speaker 5: 07:28 Just the city acknowledge their statistics may be incomplete. They, uh,

Speaker 1: 07:33 Sort of, so I tried to get, uh, an explanation for all the different discrepancies I was given kind of a broad explanation. Like, well, some of these deaths might've occurred say on a private parking lot, which is not city a right of way. So they don't include that in their vision zero death count. Um, but I ultimately just wasn't able to get a, a complete explanation of all of the, um, discrepancies, uh, by the time I had to finish this story.

Speaker 5: 07:59 Now, when mayor Todd Gloria says there was a lack of urgency in the Faulkner administration and moving toward the goal of reducing traffic deaths, what does the mayor referring to? Is he referring to a lack of funding, a lack of policy?

Speaker 1: 08:14 I think what mayor Gloria was saying was he just didn't feel like this issue was taken seriously enough. And the data bear out that, you know, traffic deaths have not gone down significantly since 2015 city officials acknowledged to me that it took a while for this program to get up and running. Um, you know, I think he's been in office for a few months, so it's fair enough to say I just got into office. Um, you know, we're still changing things and it's pretty easy to point the finger at his predecessor and say, you know, we've all of this data just shows his, his sort of lack of urgency. Um, you know, you say lack of funding, lack of policies. I think those are certainly a part of the equation. Um, you know, the, the, that 2025 deadline of zero traffic deaths is just four years away. So, um, so it it's, it it's gonna, things are going to have to change very quickly. And, um, and yeah, I, I, I frankly agree with the mayor. There has been a lack of urgency in all of this. Um, there are quicker, uh, you know, we've seen pedestrian and bike projects get multiple delays. Um, lack of funding is a big part of the, of the picture as well. And

Speaker 5: 09:28 You say other cities are finding faster ways to slow down traffic, then undertaking major street renovations. Can you describe maybe how that can be done?

Speaker 1: 09:39 Absolutely. So let's take the example of a bulb out. So this is where at an intersection, you extend the sidewalk so that it reduces the distance that a person is actually in the intersection. And in that same space, that's used by cars. And it, uh, also kind of pinches the lanes so that when you're driving through that intersection and you see that bulb out of the, of the sidewalk, um, you, you tend to slow down. Those are typically done, or the conventional way of building. Those is with concrete. You actually pour the concrete and make a bigger sidewalk. Other cities have decided, well, that costs a lot of money. Sometimes it takes a while to get all that funding together. So in the interim, let's do it with paint and let's do it with bollards, basically just plastic or metal poles that you stick in the ground.

Speaker 1: 10:26 These can be extremely fast and cheap. And then this more innovative or less conventional approach to street design, just really hasn't taken hold in San Diego. Uh, I think it's, uh, I I've been told by the mayor's office that they're working on strategies and different designs that, that traffic engineers can learn how to adopt and implement and everything. Um, but you know, we haven't seen it yet. It's, it's, it's gonna take a while for all of those. Um, Oh, it shouldn't take a while, but, uh, but it, it, it has taken a while for those more innovative methods to really take hold here.

Speaker 5: 11:01 And is there any work being done to change neighborhood resistance the way you described to these changes?

Speaker 1: 11:08 You know, I think that ultimately, um, it is a difficult thing for, uh, politicians who are ultimately accountable to their constituents to, to say, you know, we're not going to prioritize parking or speeds over safety, but you know, it, it has to happen if the city is really serious about ending traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025, they have to start thinking more about safety and less about the speed and convenience of driving.

Speaker 5: 11:44 I've been speaking with KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, Andrew. Thank you. Thank you, Maureen.

Speaker 6: 11:53 Uh,

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.