If yours is like most cities in the U.S., you’ve got a speed problem. Not just a speeding problem, in which people are breaking the law by driving above the posted limit, but also, just as importantly, a speed problem, in which street- and vehicle-design and the way speeds are set actually encourage higher, less safe speeds.
Fortunately, communities are increasingly working to address their speed problems by using upstream, Safe System-approaches, such as lowering speed limits and re-designing roadways to encourage safer speeds. A few recent examples worth checking out include Madison, WI, Seattle, and Jersey City.
San Francisco is another of the places focusing its Vision Zero efforts on addressing high speeds. It recently lowered speeds in a specific neighborhood from 25 mph to 20 mph and added traffic calming elements to streets (more on that below), and it has been working to change state law to allow a pilot program for speed safety cameras (so far, unsuccessfully).
While that’s encouraging, local advocates are understandably concerned that the pace and scale of implementing these speed management strategies aren’t enough. Like many across the country, they understand that in order to advance Vision Zero in a meaningful way, leaders need to scale up their work to slow people down (more on Why Speed Matters).
In our January 2023 webinar, San Francisco Vision Zero advocates shared how they are shining a brighter light on the problem of speed and pushing city (and state) leaders to implement bigger changes more quickly. Check out the 1-hour webinar recording to learn experiences and suggestions from Jodie Medeiros and Marta Lindsey of Walk San Francisco and Eric Rozell of the Tenderloin Traffic Safety Task Force, a neighborhood group that is part of the 35+ organization SF Vision Zero Coalition. And we suggest reading their excellent report, Making San Francisco a “Safe Speeds City” – Solutions to Slow Our Streets and Save Lives, for examples of proven speed management strategies and models for strong safety advocacy.
Beating the Drum on Dangerous Speeds
Walk SF, the city’s pedestrian advocacy nonprofit, knew they needed to speed up the progress on Vision Zero as the city’s traffic deaths and injuries were increasing and meaningful action seemed to be stalling out. Unsafe speeds were identified as the #1 cause of severe and fatal crashes, so the advocates decided to focus there. They understood that they needed to catch people’s attention because, overall, too many had become immune to the problem of high speeds – assuming that we could not, or would not, be able to make change.
Walk SF began “beating the drum” on the need to lower speeds, according to Executive Director Jodie Medeiros. The Vision Zero Coalition – a diverse group of more than 35 community-based organizations from across the city and led by Walk SF since 2014 – and the SFBay Area Families for Safe Streets chapter recognized the importance of tackling unsafe speeds and advocated for the City to develop and prioritize its own speed management report.
Walk SF spent eight months developing its comprehensive speed management report to serve as their campaign platform – something to mobilize volunteers and partner groups, educate decision makers and focus media and political attention around and also to set the bar for what should be reflected in the city’s speed management report.
Importantly, the strategies in Walk SF’s speed report focus on upstream solutions – particularly re-designing roadways to physically discourage high speeds in lasting ways and also lowering speed limits to fit the context of the communities. The focus is not on increasing the role of enforcement. In fact, of the 30-page report, only one page is focused on enforcement.
The report provides a comprehensive overview of speed countermeasures, with a focus on the most effective infrastructure solutions. And, aware that big, behemoth redesign projects take lots of time and money, the report recommends many smaller-scale, effective speed management tools that can be used across the city, such as narrowing and reducing lanes, retiming traffic signals, replacing stop signs with roundabouts, and adding left-turn traffic calming.
And the report is getting attention, including spurring discussions at the local Transportation Authority Board and media attention from the SF Chronicle. And it helped to mobilize volunteer energy calling for change. In fact, it took a village to develop the report. More than 50 volunteers from Walk SF and other community groups surveyed speeds on 47 blocks across the city. The organizers found that using “speed guns” was a helpful and affordable (only $125/each) strategy to measure speeds and document problem areas. This strategy also drew attention from journalists and local elected officials who could test out the speed guns and experience the issue firsthand.
Neighborhood Progress Provides Model for Change
San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood has the city’s greatest concentration of traffic violence, with every street in the area being part of the official high-injury network. This dense, central area also hosts many people of color, seniors, children, and low-income people. And, as is too common in American cities, these are also the neighborhoods that have been designed in ways that prioritize speedy car traffic over the people who live in and move about the community. A disproportionate number of streets in the Tenderloin are high-speed, multi-lane arterials – designs that encourage drivers to speed up.
In 2019, in the aftermath of a spate of people hit and killed while walking in the area, the Tenderloin Traffic Safety Task Force was established. The Task Force is composed of community organizations and neighborhood activists who collaborate for improved roadway safety. The diverse coalition worked to draw their local elected supervisor into the effort, and he dedicated more discretionary funding toward addressing the speed problems in the Tenderloin. In addition, the group advocated for the transportation agency to take more action in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, thanks to strong advocacy, change is coming. The City is moving on quick-build traffic calming projects, signal changes, daylighting at intersections to improve visibility, lane reductions, pedestrian safety zones, turn restrictions and speed limit reduction neighborhood-wide from 25 mph to 20 mph.
And analysis shows that the speed management changes in the Tenderloin are having positive results, including:
- Daylighting reduced reported collisions by 14%;
- 92% of drivers complied with the turn restrictions which increases pedestrian safety;
- Close calls for vehicle-pedestrian interactions decreased by 5 times;
- The lower speed limits are making a meaningful difference. Walk SF’s speed surveys found that, after the speed limits were reduced, the streets measured in the Tenderloin had lower levels of speeding than every other neighborhood we surveyed. (Though, dangerous speeds did continue, which means more street design changes and signal upgrades are needed.)
Key Ingredients for Advocacy Success
Walk SF staff highlighted the importance of leveraging three key ingredients in its approach to advocating for change: A policy window, policy solutions, and political will. As they explained:
A policy window is a moment when the problem you’re focusing on is getting attention in a new way and has a chance to draw more potential for change. Walk SF identified an important policy window when the City decided to update its Vision Zero Action Strategy in 2021. They engaged stakeholders like the Tenderloin Traffic Safety Task Force and members of Families for Safe Streets and the Vision Zero Coalition to assess current policies from across the nation on what policies could be adopted in San Francisco.
Policy solutions are the top asks, prioritized based on urgency. The advocates evaluated the city’s previous Vision Zero plans and efforts and compared them to how other cities were more actively advancing speed management strategies. They identified a problem: in their opinion, the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan was too broad and spread its work too thin. So, Walk SF set a goal of getting the City to adopt a more detailed and actionable speed management action plan – and to make sure they implemented it.
Political will is the most critical ingredient. For Walk SF, a clear takeaway from the progress in the Tenderloin neighborhood is that the diverse coalition of voices they helped to assemble was key to engaging local decision-makers and getting them invested in the cause of slowing speeds. Having this group making the case showing a clear problem (high speeds), pointing to solutions (in the report), and making a clear ask of decision makers at a key time is making a difference.
We encourage you to read the report, watch the recording, and start searching for these three ingredients – policy window, policy solutions, and political win – to advocate successfully for safe speeds in your community.
We express our gratitude to the panelists who generously shared their time and knowledge. We hope you’ll learn more about the important work of Walk San Francisco & the Tenderloin Traffic Safety Task Force. And learn more about the importance of managing speeds for safety.