Saturday, June 04, 2016

The Vision Zero fantasy by the numbers

Vision Zero 2015 data
SFMTA graphic

From the MTA's latest on Vision Zero:

Even with all the progress we made in 2015, what stands out to me is that 31 people were killed in traffic crashes in San Francisco. It’s disappointing that to see that we had just as many traffic deaths in 2015 as we did in 2014.

Now some might ask, “Why should we support Vision Zero if there hasn’t an immediate decline in traffic deaths?”

Well, the first thing to remember is that Vision Zero is a long-term commitment. We knew this would take time and these past two years are just a beginning. As our engineering, enforcement and education efforts ramp up, we expect to see a sizable drop in the number of fatalities once all three crucial facets are in full swing.

Oh yes, as more people in the city become aware---now only 16% are "aware of Vision Zero and its principles"!---San Francisco will "see a sizable drop in the number of fatalities" on city streets, along of course with enforcement and "engineering."

Probably not, if historical trends continue. According to the last---and, alas, final---Collisions Report issued by the city, since the year 2000 traffic fatalities on our streets have been on a downward trend. Beween 2000 and 2011, fatalities on city streets have averaged 32 a year (page 5), which makes 2015 an average year.

That downward trend in fatalities began long before the Vision Zero fantasy was conceived. Looking at New York City’s Pedestrian Safety Study and San Francisco Data of 2010 (pages 5-7) you learn that in the 1960s there were more than 100 fatalities a year on city streets, though those totals are inflated because they included freeway deaths. Even so the trend was steadily downward over the years, with the final number at 35 in 2008.

The MTA asks some rhetorical questions:

As a county, San Francisco has the highest rate of traffic deaths in California. 30 people die and 200 more are seriously injured in crashes each year in SF. Are we willing to say this is acceptable? Is this the price we have to pay for mobility?

The answer to the second question is evidently "yes." Of course it's not "acceptable" in the sense that the city should stop trying to improve safety on city streets. 

But the notion that the city really knows how to prevent all traffic fatalities isn't even minimally credible.

It's that fantasy assumption underlying the Vision Zero campaign that grates---and is also intellectually insulting, by the way. 

One thing that most adults learn as they progress from childhood is that reality is not infinitely malleable, that wishing doesn't make things happen, that the Tooth Fairy eventually stops putting dimes under our pillows when we lose a tooth, that the Santa Claus story loses credibility, that our favorite team doesn't always win, etc.

Except apparently for employees of the MTA, what other grownups in San Francisco understand: There will not be zero fatalities on city streets by the year 2024---or by 2124, for that matter.

That's a laudable goal, but it's not going to happen, any more than 10% of all trips in the city were going to be by bike by 2010 or 20% of all trips in the city will be by bike in 2020, two other fantasy slogans posing as traffic policy.

Zero fatalities won't happen because, for one  thing, San Francisco is one of the most densely-populated cities in the country that has 485,766 registered motor vehicles, not to mention all the other 35,000 vehicles that enter the city every day. 

Sometimes the people who drive those vehicles---and, yes, the pedestrians and cyclists on our streets---will indulge in "really bad behavior," as Commander Ali put it a few years ago, which will sometimes result in fatal "collisions."

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