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A new crosswalk system was installed on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa this year. Photo: Will Carruthers
A new crosswalk system was installed on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa this year. Photo: Will Carruthers

County Agencies Win State Funds to Reshape Local Pedestrian Safety Programs

May 28, 2019
by Will Carruthers

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After months of suspense, two Sonoma County agencies have been awarded $660,000 to reframe the county's approach to pedestrian and bicycle safety efforts. 

In November, two local agencies – the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and the county’s Department of Health Services – requested state transportation funding to launch an ambitious pedestrian safety program based on a model used in some of the country’s densest cities, including San Francisco and New York.

Vision Zero, the traffic safety framework the Sonoma County program would be based on, was started in Sweden in 1990s and has more recently been implemented in eleven cities in California, according to the Vision Zero Network, a national group representing participating cities.

To gain Vision Zero status a jurisdiction is required to set a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries. Vision Zero programs also reframe the way traffic fatalities are discussed and which solutions are pursued.

“Vision Zero recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities,” according to the Vision Zero Network’s website.

The funding will allow local agencies to coordinate efforts to reduce the county's high rate of fatalities and injuries.

In 2016, there were 8.8 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population in Sonoma County compared with 5.9 in the Bay Area overall, according to data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission citied in the funding application.

“Between 2010 and 2016 there were 1,163 collisions involving bicycles in the county, with 12 resulting in fatalities, and 855 collisions involving pedestrians, with 52 resulting in fatalities,” according to the application.

Cities with Vision Zero programs. Photo: Vision Zero Network

The program would start by improving the way injuries and fatalities are tracked.

“Successful Vision Zero initiatives in other cities cite the importance of having access to accurate, timely, and comprehensive data sets containing injury and crash data. Currently, it’s difficult to get a complete view of the safety issues in Sonoma County due to the lack of a robust data framework,” the county’s funding application states.

Data collected could then be used to more effectively target efforts to improve road safety. For instance, San Francisco’s Vision Zero program splits efforts to eliminate fatalities into four categories: enforcement, education, engineering and evaluation.

Steve Birdlebough, a local transportation activist with the Sonoma County Transportation and Land Use Coalition, agrees that a more data-driven approach could help agencies pursue improvements in a more effective way.

Under the current system, infrastructure improvements seem to be awarded based on how organized and angry neighbors are rather than on which intersection has the highest number of fatalities or injuries, according to Birdlebough.

“No changes are made unless the neighbors get up in arms,” Birdlebough said. “[The process] seems random.”

Brittany Lobo, a health information specialist with the Department of Health Services, says that her department would take the lead on connecting various local departments around the traffic safety goals. SCTA would create an online data dashboard to display information about fatalities.

Although Vision Zero programs have been passed in large cities across the country, Sonoma County’s proposal to include multiple cities and unincorporated county land within the program could be unique.

“This is the only proposal we’ve seen that proposes bringing together multiple jurisdictions,” Lobo said. As well as offering data to small cities, the data dashboard would display information about rural roads where fatality rates can also be high.

Because some transportation funding agencies now ask whether applicants have Vision Zero policies, the program could also make Sonoma County cities more competitive for future funding opportunities, Lobo said.

If the county's Vision Zero program is successful, it could help the county achieve other transportation goals. For instance, the county intends to reduce carbon emissions by increasing the number of bicycle and pedestrian trips taken from 8.4 percent of total trips in 2010 to 15 percent by 2040.

But, if residents don’t consider active transportation options safe or efficient, they will continue to drive.

However, due to the massive number of variables in any given traffic system, progress under Vision Zero is not quick or guaranteed.

San Francisco launched its own Vision Zero program in 2014 with a goal of eliminating pedestrian deaths by 2024. Although the fatality rate stayed flat for the first two years of the program, the rate dropped significantly in 2017 before  rising again this year.

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