With traffic deaths on the rise, San Jose renews focus on safety
San Jose adopted the goal of having 15% of all trips made by bike by the year 2040. Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

Five years after San Jose committed to eliminating all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries, the city is focusing on outreach after 2019 had the second highest number of incidents.

There were 60 traffic fatalities last year, the same number as in 2015 when San Jose first became a Vision Zero city, joining a worldwide initiative to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries.

The Vision Zero initiative focuses on data analysis to develop and launch safety programs in areas of the city that have seen a large number of traffic deaths. Data from the last five years was presented in a memo to the City Council on June 30 revealed traffic safety is also an issue of equity.

The data shows traffic accidents and deaths and “priority corridors” –  streets that account for the majority of fatalities and severe injuries – are not evenly distributed throughout the city. Districts 3, which spans downtown, and District 7, which includes East San Jose, consistently have the highest number of fatalities and serious injuries. District 7 has the majority of the most dangerous streets in San Jose, the report found.

“The Vision Zero corridors overlap heavily with what the (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) calls ‘communities of concern,’” said Jesse Mintz-Roth, the Vision Zero program manager in the San Jose Department of Transportation, in a panel hosted by the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition this week.

This inequity in dangerous streets has led to debates about enforcement, particularly when using automated speed enforcement, or speed cameras. San Francisco and San Jose attempted a joint pilot program for speed cameras in 2017 that fizzled out when the two cities were unable to gain support for it.

Still, the idea sparked concerns about equitable placement of the cameras, especially against the backdrop of a movement against over-policing in minority communities.

“Essentially one could conclude we are choosing to over-police in an area that already feels over-policed and terrorized by the police and can afford it the least when things go wrong,” said Shiloh Ballard, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, who moderated the panel.

Concerns over traffic safety enforcement also stem from staffing shortages. The San Jose Police Department’s Traffic Enforcement Unit fell from 48 in 2010 to five in 2018, Mintz-Roth said. The city’s proposed solution is to rely on data to allocate the limited unit’s resources to the priority corridors.

Vision Zero data show 2019 had the highest number of pedestrian deaths, spiking at 29. It also showed that the median age of bicycle fatalities has risen sharply from age 43 in 2015 to age 69 in 2019, though there haven’t been as many bicycle fatalities as other categories, such as pedestrians and vehicle passengers, in the last five years.

The median age of pedestrian fatalities is also skewed older at 58.

“I think that in the history of transportation safety, a lot of the outreach really focuses on children, and our data indicates that we really should be focusing our outreach on adults, and older adults,” Mintz-Roth said. “One of the most interesting things in the world of traffic safety is that, politically speaking, you get the most support when you do things that protect children.”

In response to the data, the city plans to continue outreach campaigns targeting older adults. A campaign that included “Drive Slow Seniors Crossing” signs hanging from streetlight poles was adopted in 2018 after seeing success in San Francisco. The planned outreach program for older adults this year was transitioned to Zoom because of the coronavirus, which caused a brief setback that Mintz-Roth said has now been overcome.

Despite less traffic activity during the shelter-in-place orders, traffic fatalities in January through March this year are as high as 2015 — with both years having 21 deaths in the same period. The city’s Department of Transportation in March disabled signal coordination so that it is no longer possible to hit a wave of green lights in an effort to reduce speeding. They also automated 100 pedestrian signals in downtown so that pedestrians don’t need to push the walk-button, cutting down on shared surfaces.

In May, the department launched a campaign of “20 is plenty” yard signs — which refers to the speed limit 20 mph — which are being distributed now.

In support of the Vision Zero initiative, the city also is drafting the Better Bike Plan 2025, which is an update to the San Jose Bike Plan 2020.

San Jose adopted the goal of having 15% of all trips made by bike by the year 2040, and the new bike plans will work toward achieving that by expanding the bike network. The new plan focuses on building more shared paths, exclusive to pedestrians and bikes, and separated bike lanes, which have curbs or other vertical barriers separating the bikes from the cars.  The plan is available for public comment until July 19 and will be forwarded to City Council in August.

“That’s been my experience with the city,” Ballard said, “that when people have concerns they get addressed.”

Contact Stella Lorence at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @slorence3.

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