Taken with Transportation

Keeping the Vision

April 16, 2024 SFMTA Episode 14
Keeping the Vision
Taken with Transportation
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Taken with Transportation
Keeping the Vision
Apr 16, 2024 Episode 14

In late-March 2014, San Francisco adopted Vision Zero, the road safety policy to eliminate traffic deaths and reduce severe injuries in the city. This episode of Taken with Transportation looks at the impact of that policy and what has changed over the last decade. 

We discuss the origins of Vision Zero, as well as the work the SFMTA is doing today and will do into the future to make San Francisco streets safe and joyful. Appearing in the episode are SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin, Board of Directors Chair Amanda Eaken, City Traffic Engineer Ricardo Olea, former Streets Director Tom Maguire and former Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health's Heath, Equity and Sustainability Program Megan Weir.

Show Notes Transcript

In late-March 2014, San Francisco adopted Vision Zero, the road safety policy to eliminate traffic deaths and reduce severe injuries in the city. This episode of Taken with Transportation looks at the impact of that policy and what has changed over the last decade. 

We discuss the origins of Vision Zero, as well as the work the SFMTA is doing today and will do into the future to make San Francisco streets safe and joyful. Appearing in the episode are SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin, Board of Directors Chair Amanda Eaken, City Traffic Engineer Ricardo Olea, former Streets Director Tom Maguire and former Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health's Heath, Equity and Sustainability Program Megan Weir.

MELISSA CULROSS, HOST: It’s been ten years since San Francisco adopted Vision Zero, a road safety policy to eliminate traffic deaths and reduce severe injuries.

TOM MAGUIRE: We’ve done so much to transform streets. We’ve transformed the way we talk about streets and traffic in San Francisco, and that’s meaningful.

MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross, and in this episode, we’re looking at Vision Zero and what has been accomplished under the policy over the last decade. We begin just outside Oracle Park on a rainy morning this spring where the ribbon is being cut to officially open a new bikeway on 3rd Street.

3RD STREET RIBBON: One, two, three…woo! Go Giants (clapping).

JEFF TUMLIN, SFMTA DIRECTOR OF TRANSPORTATION: This project is really just three blocks of a two-way protected bikeway. But it is much more than three blocks because what it does is if fills a gap between a protected bikeway that runs along the San Francisco waterfront and a protected bikeway that runs along Townsend Street to Division Street. So, what this does is it unlocks the power of our previous investments. It connects the city for the first time, and it also centers our amazing ballpark.

MELISSA: That’s SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin who explains that this bikeway is what the agency calls a “quick build project,” and that we indeed got it done quickly.

JEFF: This project went six months from conception to completion. It shows just what our crews are capable of when we have resources and when we have political alignment. And we had both of those in this case. We had full support from District Six and the San Francisco Country Transportation Authority for funding it, and we had deep political support from the mayor, from Supervisor Dorsey, and very importantly, from the San Francisco Giants. They wanted this in order to improve accessibility of the ballpark and to connect their Mission Bay projects to the rest of the city.

MELISSA: Protected bikeways play a significant role in Vision Zero, as do road spaces in the city that have been reimagined, such as JFK Promenade in Golden Gate Park. Runners, walkers, cyclists and scooter riders flock to the promenade that once was part of JFK Drive…a road that runs through the park. There are also art installations and, as we hear from SFMTA Board of Directors Chair Amanda Eaken, a decidedly playful atmosphere.

AMANDA EAKEN, CHAIR OF THE SFMTA BOARD OF DIRECTORS: There have just been created all of these beautiful elements that allow people to come together. There’s a ping pong table, and I’ve never seen it empty (laughs). It’s always full of people playing ping pong. There are these, sort of, white, wobbly, wonderful chairs, and I sit down sometimes and spin around, and it’s kinda silly. And it’s just a moment of joy and spontaneous connection. And I think those sort of moments of spontaneous exchange with our neighbors are why we all live in a city to begin with. 

MELISSA: The Great Highway at Ocean Beach, which is closed to car traffic on weekends, is another place where Chair Eaken often walks or rides her bike. She says it has a vibe like that of JFK Promenade. 

AMANDA: I will sometimes stumble across a little pop-up jazz scene. Somebody brings out these orange metal chairs. There is pop-up jazz. It is just as classy as you like, and you can hear the waves in the background, and you have the jazz. And you just think to yourself, “This is so incredibly beautiful.” Something that we did created a space where this little community moment of connect could occur, and it just, I just wanna see more opportunities like that for joy and connection.

MELISSA: So, how did we get here? Vision Zero was created in Sweden in the late 90s and became San Francisco policy in March of 2014. President Obama was in his second term in office at the time; John Legend, Lorde and the soundtrack from Frozen were all over the radio; the Giants would win their third World Series championship in five seasons that fall…and Megan Wier was director of the Health, Equity and Sustainability program at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Wier was the first Vision Zero Task Force co-chair, and she’s talking to us today about what led the city to take on the policy.

MEGAN WIER, OAKLAND DOT ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, PREVIOUS DIRECTOR OF THE HEALTH, EQUITY AND SUSTAINABILITY PROGRAM WITH SF DPH and SF VISION ZERO TASK FORCE CO-CHAIR: There was really a cultural change, I think, that was underway locally and nationally with really understanding that severe and fatal crashes are preventable, and that there’s ways to prevent them and save lives, as opposed to accepting those deaths as an inevitability. And I’m speaking on behalf of, like, literally hundreds of people that contributed to Vision Zero. And so, it was truly like a collective movement that led to the adoption of Vision Zero, and when I reflect on it, it really had its foundation in a pedestrian safety executive directive that then-Mayor Gavin Newsom announced shortly before he left office, which really established goals for the city of San Francisco around severe and fatal pedestrian injuries; brought together the San Francisco Health Department and the MTA and the police department; convened a task force for the first time of those agencies and community representatives; and laid out some data-driven, evidence-based strategies to start moving the needle more collectively on reducing pedestrian injuries. And that foundation, as awareness around Vision Zero and thinking around safe systems grew, was really something that we were in such a great position, as a city, to level up on.

MELISSA: Wier, who now is assistant director of the Oakland Department of Transportation, says San Francisco was one of the only cities that made its Department of Public Health a co-lead of the Vision Zero effort…a move that makes sense to her.

MEGAN: Public health is really a multi-disciplinary framework to understand problems, inform prevention strategies, work to use data and evidence, lead with equity, engage community partners…all of those are components with Vision Zero. So, I had the opportunity to both provide that perspective and then also work with my colleagues in transportation and the health department. So, that meant, you know, thanks to funding from the SFMTA, we hired an epidemiologist that was focused on Vision Zero, that was dedicated to work with our partners at SF General Hospital to establish one of the first city data systems that linked hospital and police data to inform data-driven improvements, which was huge because we knew there was significant underreporting of crashes, particularly among communities of color.

MELISSA: On the SFMTA side, Tom Maguire became the agency’s Streets Director as Vision Zero was getting underway. We’ve met him just outside the San Francisco Ferry Building to get his perspective on the beginning stages of the effort.

TOM MAGUIRE, FORMER SFMTA STREETS DIRECTOR (2014-2023), NOW CHIEF MEGA PROJECT OFFICER FOR THE VALLEY TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY: Well, I remember 2014 being this really exciting and wide-open time. I think a lot of people in the field had been working for years to get away from the idea that blame and personal responsibility were at the source of traffic fatalities, and we needed a systemwide approach, a systems way of thinking. And so, Vision Zero just opened so many people’s minds to that and really put it front and center on the city’s political and policy agenda. So, it was a very exciting time.

 MELISSA: So, what were those early days like? You say “exciting.” What made them exciting?

TOM: Well, I think we had an opportunity to define what it meant to commit to Vision Zero. We shaped a, you know, a series of action strategies that were around the big picture goal, but we had to fill in the blanks and make Vision Zero, which is a high-level global policy commitment, relevant to San Francisco and the streets we have and the world we have here in our city.

MELISSA: Were you able look at other cities in other parts of the world and apply what you saw there to our specific streets?

TOM: Yeah, a lot of what we thought about in the early days of Vision Zero was leading with design, leading with street design, thinking about the ways in which we as the stewards of the street, you know we don’t write speeding tickets, we don’t do a lot of things that can stop fatalities, but we as the MTA can really take the lead on redesigning our streets. That is something that we saw as a pretty key principle of the European approach to Vision Zero, and so we tried to being that here. 

MELISSA: Maguire now works for the Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose. But after just under a decade of Vision Zero work in San Francisco, he has a lot to reflect on.

TOM: What we thought about back in 2014 almost feels like, uh, older ways of thinking now. You know, we think…we don’t think about just striping bike lanes, we protect bike lanes. We don’t just think about transit priority, we think about, uh, transit exclusive lanes. And so, it’s been really exciting to actually see that evolution. In terms of a favorite project, I mean, you know, we’re standing on the Embarcadero, I’ve loved, you know, having helped bring along a transformation, bring protected bike lanes to the Embarcadero, traffic calming, making it much safer. We’ll build on this one forever.

MELISSA: Can you talk a little bit about that evolution and about what types of projects you guys were thinking about in the early days. 
TOM: Well, I think when we started, our idea was that we needed to fundamentally, you know, from the ground up or even from below ground, rebuild every high injury street in San Francisco, pour a lot of concrete, move a lot of utilities. And it turns out, those projects take years and years and years to build. Some of the projects that we started working on back in 2014 have only been completed in the last year or two. What we hit on was this idea of quick building streets and using much more nimble public outreach methods, planning methods and materials that our own shops and our own forces can deploy in a matter of weeks rather than a matter of years. And that gave us the confidence in the pace and scale that we could just move a lot faster and get a lot more done within the time that we had.

MELISSA: One thing that has been getting and always has gotten a lot of attention is the Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic deaths in San Francisco BY 2024. Here we are, and that hasn’t happened, but Maguire says that while every life absolutely is precious, it’s important to remember that we’ve made a lot of progress on safety with Vision Zero.

TOM: It’s easy to look and see fatalities not dropping as fast as we wanted and certainly not reaching zero and say, “The whole thing’s a failure. Scrap it. Go back to what we did before.” But going back to what we did before would be the worst thing we could do for traffic safety. So, the distance we’ve come as a city; the distance we’ve come, frankly, as professionals working in what used to be a very car-oriented profession is now a multi-modal profession…is really meaningful. We need to build on it. Obviously, that urgency needs to remain there, but I just think we’ve laid the foundation. And frankly, we have saved so many lives over the last ten years. I mean, the counterfactual of what the pandemic would have been like, what years like 2017 and 2018 when the city was choked with traffic would have been like, had we not been working on street safety, had we not been taking the actions that Vision Zero spurred us to…is a lot more death and a lot more, uh, injury. And I think we need to build on that, rather than think about things in this binary “failure-success” mindset. 

MELISSA: So, of course, Vision Zero is by no means some kind of lost cause.

TOM: In retrospect, it wasn’t necessary to put the ten-year time deadline on Vision Zero because Vision Zero, itself, is such an audacious, aspirational way of thinking about streets. I think if we were doing it again today, I don’t think we would give ourselves a ten-year timeline. I think what’s unique about, about Vision Zero is not that it’s a, you know, goal where you’re saying, “I’m going to stamp out, you know, I’m gonna replace ten stop signs tomorrow.” It’s not an output or production goal. It’s an outcome that we’re striving towards. And, you know, like a lot of ideals in public policy and in life, it’s like, you strive toward this ideal, and the work you do that helps you make progress towards it, even if you don’t reach it within ten years, we’ve done so much to transform streets. We’ve transformed the way we talk about streets and traffic in San Francisco.
 MELISSA: Given what he learned, does Maguire have any advice for the people currently working on Vision Zero?

 TOM: There’s definitely a positive lesson that change is possible. I, I, I think the way we thought about streets in 2014, not just here in San Francisco, in New York and everywhere else, was so fundamentally different from the way we do now, and that’s really encouraging. But I think it’s also important to be a little humble about all the things that are outside your control, whether you’re the Streets Director for the MTA or an advocate or even a politician in, in San Francisco. You know, we don’t control the size of vehicles; we don’t control the despair and bad behavior that came up during the pandemic that really affected the way people drove on our streets; and you know, acting really boldly and decisively on the things we can control as a city is your sweet spot. That’s the advice I would give. 

MELISSA: Let’s now look toward the future. Joining me and Maguire is SFMTA Traffic Engineer Ricardo Olea to talk about Vision Zero now and for years to come.

RICARDO OLEA, CITY TRAFFIC ENGINEER: As time has gone by, I think there’s been kind of a, a realism that has taken on, but we haven’t given up. Instead, we’ve become even more serious and asked ourselves the question that we should have been asking ourselves in 2014: What are the things that need to happen in terms of social, uh, changes that need to happen, education, training, enforcement, enforcement methods, equity, vehicle design, health care, access to trauma care and other factors that, that are being discussed, as potentially leading to a better outcome. 

MELISSA: What does that mean, specifically?

RICARDO OLEA: The question for us as designers is what do we need to do? And by designers, I don’t just mean people designing roadways but everyone who’s part of the system. And that includes different levels of government such as the state, who needs to give us authorization to do speed limits in a different way, to enforce things in a different way, to change guidances around street design. So, the state adopted Vision Zero in 2022, just recently. They also now share a goal of getting to zero. We have to look at the federal government. The federal government has a lot of authority in terms of vehicle design. They’re the ones that determine what is or isn’t safe in terms of a vehicle equipment or vehicle design. And there’s a lot of things that are being discussed in studies and the media about how vehicles in the United States are getting larger and heavier, and we know that a heavier, larger vehicle is going to cause more damage when it gets involved into a crash, particularly with vulnerable members of the population, such as people that are walking.

MELISSA: Olea has been with the agency for about three decades and says while even one traffic death is too many, there are reasons to be optimistic. According to recent data analyzed by the League of American Bicyclists, San Francisco is one of the safest larger cities in the country, with the lowest number of bicyclist fatalities per bicycle commuter and second lowest number of pedestrian fatalities per walking commuter. 

RICARDO: I’ve always been glad that we have in San Francisco a lot of people that are interested in pedestrian safety; that we have a multimodal system where it’s not just about driving. That you can take a bus; that people bike; that people like to walk; that we have a walk-friendly environment. All those put together are the foundation by which we create a city around which you can have Vision Zero. Because Vision Zero ultimately depends on not having roadways that are purely designed for the movement of high-speed traffic. So, as I’ve grown in the profession, I’ve seen how this issue has become more central to what we do, but safety has always been top of mind for San Franciscans. I think what’s changed now is just the way we approach it; the way we talk about it; and the way that we all agree that people dying on our streets is unacceptable. 

MELISSA: Back at Willie Mays Plaza at Oracle Park, Director of Transportation Tumlin also is looking forward to the work ahead and the progress we can continue to make. He talks about some specific next steps.

JEFF: The mayor issued a series of directives to the SFMTA to accelerate our work on over a dozen things that we had been working on. Everything from no turn on red to speed safety cameras to daylighting of intersections, but also to be working on building out infrastructure across the city to ensure that there are safe routes for people who are walking or biking or using a wheelchair or a mobility assistance device or a scooter or a skateboard. We know that we can do this work. We need two key things. One is we need the resources to do so, despite the fact that our budget has been devastated by the economic impacts of Covid, and two is we need political alignment across all of the city’s policymakers. And we’re so glad to see that emerging political alignment of the mayor and the Board of Supervisors all agreeing that we need to move forward with this action more quickly, and that while it’s important we do thoughtful community engagement, we can’t just endlessly delay if there are some people who are objecting. 

MELISSA: Like so many others, Tumlin loves San Francisco and its walkable, bike-able urban landscape. But loving a city doesn’t mean being complacent, and he knows this city can become an even better version of itself.

JEFF: I want San Francisco to be the kind of place where children can feel safe and comfortable biking to school anywhere in the city. I want San Francisco to be the kind of place where an older adult or somebody with mobility-disabilities feels perfectly comfortable in their wheelchair or a mobility assistance device getting their groceries, going to their doctor’s appointment or meeting up with their friends. I want San Francisco to be the kind of place where the streets celebrate human connection and joy, not just the efficiency of moving cars. San Francisco is a great city, but it could be so much greater if we really understood our beautiful city’s core strengths. And its strengths are the magic that happens when strangers run into each other in the street and spark up a new relationship.

MELISSA: Board Chair Eaken agrees.

AMANDA: I think the vision of SFMTA is that we would create a citywide network of safe streets for walking and biking so that anyone anywhere in the city could get onto that network with their bicycle, with their kid on a scooter, whatever it is, and have a safe place and a safe network of streets that they could get anywhere they want in the city. Now, I would love if, in addition, to safe, some of those elements of joy and placemaking and art that we are seeing on JFK could start to work their way from the park. And that could be a bit of the language of the network. That you could follow the yellow street; you could follow the ginko street; you could follow the art street to get anywhere you needed around the city, and that all the streets that are on that safe network would also be opportunities for communities to express their unique identities.

MELISSA: Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. I’m Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.