Joe Herrera was waiting for his friend, Maria, to return from a 7-Eleven at the intersection of Tully and Senter roads last May. She never made it back.
Maria, an unhoused person living on Quinn Avenue, was hit by a car crossing Senter Road around 11 p.m. last year. Herrera, another unhoused person, said by the time he found her, Maria had died. He never learned her last name.
“It’s just terrible,” Herrera told San José Spotlight, choking up as he recalled the memory. “She was a good person. She didn’t deserve that.”
San Jose’s streets have become increasingly dangerous, with traffic fatalities reaching near record levels in 2021. This year is on track to beat it—24 people have died as of March 31. That’s three times higher than the number this time last year.
And residents in East and Central San Jose, including unhoused people, are feeling most of the heat.
San Jose adopted the Vision Zero initiative in 2015 to analyze traffic data and develop safety programs after the city saw 60 people die from crashes that year. In 2018, the city identified 17 of its most dangerous corridors—10 of them run through East and Central San Jose. Six pass through District 7.
These corridors include White Road, McKee Road, Santa Clara Street/Alum Rock Avenue, Jackson Avenue, Capitol Expressway, Story Road, McLaughlin Avenue, King Road, First Street, Monterey Road, Senter Road, Blossom Hill Road, Branham Lane, Almaden Expressway, Saratoga Ave, Fruitdale Avenue and Hillsdale Avenue.
City data reviewed by San José Spotlight shows the roads continue to be dangerous. They accounted for more than 70% of all traffic-related deaths last year. District 7 had the most fatalities at 16—all along Monterey Road, Story Road, McLaughlin Avenue, Capitol Expressway, Tully Road and Senter Road.
City leaders attribute the deaths to the reopening of the economy post-pandemic and increased speeding on busy streets—accounting for 30% of the fatalities. Officials are calling for investments in traffic enforcement with more police officers and automated speed cameras. Others want to see improvements in infrastructure with more narrow roads, more bike lanes and better street lighting.
Decades of neglect
Councilmember Maya Esparza—who represents District 7—said for the east side, the problem is decades of underinvestment which has led to crumbling infrastructure that is costly to fix.
“You have major arteries and you have a lot of density going on the east side with that lack of infrastructure investment that has compounded over time, which is why price tags are so high,” Esparza told San José Spotlight.
Esparza successfully advocated for new safety measures near Monterey and Curtner roads last year, after the intersection saw seven hit-and-runs. But transforming Senter Road—one of the deadliest roads in San Jose—is a $10 million ask, Esparza said. Funds would bring more permanent infrastructure like concrete partitions for bike lanes, enhanced crosswalks with flashing beacons and better street lights, among other things.
“The road is so big and problems have gone on so long so it has that price tag,” Esparza said. “But for the first time, the city's prioritizing this and putting this forward to the state.”
While the city could end up waiting on state funding, Esparza is calling for more interim solutions—such as fences along medians—for hot spots in Districts 3, 5 and 7.
Those three districts have more traffic-related kills and serious injuries (KSI) compared to other parts of the city. From 2016-2020, District 3 had 2,388 KSI crashes, District 7 had 1,915 and District 5 had 1,546. All other districts had under 1,000 KSIs, according to the city.
Part of the reason for the disproportionality is because low-income neighborhoods border those fast, high capacity streets. It could be that wealthier neighborhoods have the political tools and time to get some protective measures built on their streets, said Jesse Mintz-Roth, Vision Zero program manager.
“If you drive through a fancier neighborhood, you do tend to see more custom safety improvements,” Mintz-Roth told San José Spotlight. “Why does Naglee Park, for example, have those calming islands that are on the entrance to roadways when you're on Santa Clara Street and about to drive into that neighborhood? I would assume that it is from greater access to government."
Colin Heyne, spokesperson for the city's transportation department, told San José Spotlight it’s a chicken and egg dilemma.
“Did we put the fast streets through the poor neighborhoods or did people with more income move to areas of the city that don't have those high speed, high capacity streets?” Heyne said. “I suspect it's more of the latter.”
Councilmember Pam Foley, vice chair of the Vision Zero task force, said solutions are already out there. She pointed to Branham Lane, one of the city's deadliest corridors, as a success story after the city installed plastic barriers several years ago.
"We're seeing less fatalities there,” Foley told San José Spotlight. “We used to see drag racing, but the streets narrowed so it's not as attractive to speed. It’s safer for all of us.”
In 2020, the city spent under $1 million to paint the intersections along Senter Road and put green balls and plastic barriers to force drivers to slow down. KSIs along Senter Road dropped from 15 in 2020 to five in 2021, according to city data.
“It’s hard to know exactly if (the drop is) because of that, because we only have a little over a year of data,” Mintz-Roth said. “But it’s hopeful.”
In District 6, reducing the amount of lanes has also proven successful. Fruitdale Avenue, which saw several serious injuries and at least one death between 2016 and 2019, had no reported serious incidents in the last two years. Mintz-Roth said this could be because the lane count was reduced—forcing people to drive slower.
While many priority corridors are in the process of getting funding for quick-build and long-term infrastructure improvements, it could still be some time before San Jose residents see notable and sustainable reductions in traffic fatalities.
“Traffic fatalities in San Jose are not new, but attention to them is,” Mintz-Roth said. “That is a good thing.”