Not a day goes by when Brandon Alvarado doesn’t encounter something or someone blocking downtown San Jose’s new protected bike lanes. Trash bins. Idling Uber and Lyft drivers. Package courier vehicles. Moving vans. Linen and beverage delivery trucks. Bird, Lime and Jump scooters. VTA buses. Even police cruisers.
Just weeks ago, a motorist almost started a fight after the bicycle mechanic snapped photos of a car impeding a bikeway by the Adobe tower off of San Fernando Street. All too often, Alvarado says, drivers get verbally or physically threatening when he politely informs them of his right to a clear bike route.
For Kelly Snider, a land use consultant and lecturer at San Jose State University, the barriers installed along 20 miles in and around the city’s central district have brought some relief. But she, too, has seen more than her fair share of tense exchanges with scofflaw motorists. “I will go up to the driver’s side if there’s someone in the car and I’ll knock on their window and say, ‘You can’t be here, you’re illegally stopped here,’” she says. “I get yelled at all the time for being perfectly legal in the bike lane.”
That’s after San Jose painted its bikeways bright green and buffered them with matching plastic posts, new lane striping and signage and parking moved from curb to mid-street to clear the path for cyclists. While only 1 percent of trips in San Jose are made by bike, the city aims to boost that rate 15-fold by 2040 as part of an ambitious effort to reduce its carbon footprint.
Yet a vocal coalition of bike advocates say that will never happen until the city figures out a better way to protect cyclists than flimsy plastic bollards, which—combined with orange plastic barricades, detours and blocked lanes from a crop of new construction—have forced people behind the wheel to navigate a baffling new landscape.
“One of the biggest reasons people don’t ride their bikes is because they’re fearful of the road,” says Alvarado, who chairs San Jose’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “If we don’t do something to make them feel safer, then how are we going to meet our ridership goals?”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ranks San Jose as the third most perilous city to bike in America in terms of cycling fatalities and injuries. And while the Capital of Silicon Valley bills itself as one of the nation’s safest big cities, it’s growing more treacherous for people walking, biking and scooting along its sprawling tessellation of roads.
San Jose’s pedestrian and cyclist fatality rate hovers at around triple the national average and remains on an upward trajectory that saw car-related deaths overall rise by 37 percent in the past decade though the population grew less than 10 percent. Statistics for critical traffic injuries are equally jarring. In 2018, the number of people severely hurt by cars reached 195—the highest number in the past five years. The city’s death toll of pedestrians and motorists peaked at 60 fatalities in 2015—the same year San Jose joined the global Vision Zero campaign, vowing to eliminate traffic deaths through cyclist-and-pedestrian-friendly street design, public education and stronger enforcement.
San Jose took the Vision Zero pledge with all the pomp of a coronation, boasting about becoming the nation’s fourth municipality to formally sign on to the international safety campaign. The unanimous 2015 City Council vote came 18 years after Sweden’s parliament endorsed the principle that “it can never be ethically acceptable that people are killed or seriously injured when moving within the road transport system” and resolved to end traffic fatalities by 2020. The initiative promoted the notion of shared responsibility between road designers and motorists to improve safety with slower car speeds and by physically dividing vehicle traffic from pedestrian zones and bicycle lanes.
Sweden’s traffic fatalities fell from 471 in 2007 to 253 in 2017 and Europe generally saw a 40 percent drop, along with a more than 20 percent decline in deadly bicycle crashes during the same period. The local trend has been less encouraging.
San Jose’s vehicle deaths now outpace homicides most years, an unusual lethality evidenced in white cross shrines surrounded by prayer candles and flowers along busy thoroughfares and crowdfunding campaigns to bury loved ones or foot medical bills for survivors. A murder rate as sharply ascendant might prompt widespread outcry. Other than occasional warnings from law enforcement for drivers to pay attention and pedestrians to look both ways before crossing, however, the city’s roadway deaths are met largely with inaction.
Five years have passed, and despite the new lanes and grand plans, San Jose has made little progress toward its Vision Zero goal. Clearly, it will take more than green paint, plastic cylinders and positive affirmations to protect lives from fast-moving metal.
“Protected bikeways are a start,” Alvarado says. “But they’re not enough.”
When Jesse Mintz-Roth left New York City to head San Jose’s Department of Transportation’s Vision Zero efforts, the initiative was running up against decades of ingrained practice. After generations of optimizing San Jose’s 180 square miles for cars, reimagining the cityscape for walkers and cyclists proved daunting and costly.
In an effort to at least pick up the pace a bit, the city’s elected leaders asked the transportation agency earlier this year to estimate how much money it would need to make meaningful progress on Vision Zero. The numbers that came back were staggering.
According to San Jose Transportation Director John Ristow, completely overhauling 56 miles of the city’s most dangerous streets could cost $560 million. If San Jose took things a step further and re-engineered an additional 330 miles of major roadways, it would draw $3 billion from the city’s already strained capital budget.
Better Bikeways SJ—one of several San Jose-specific plans by which the city aims to achieve its Vision Zero goals—brought buffered bike lanes downtown and offered a workaround to the fiscal constraints. Instead of using more permanent materials like concrete for protected bike paths, the city opted for cheaper posts and paint as part of what it calls a “quick-build” strategy, which it wants to expand throughout the city.
Mintz-Roth says he worked on similar projects at his last job as a transportation planner in the Big Apple, where he also fielded misgivings from the public at the initial rollout. “Some people feel like it might be more dangerous,” he says, “but in practice I think that sort of double-take where you have to think to yourself, ‘How do I use this street?’ … slows people down.”
But Alvarado says the city needs to bolster public outreach to drivers before bringing its quick-build bike lanes to the rest of the city. “They say people have to learn to use it,” he says, “but my fear is that they build it so fast that they build more conflicts between cyclists and cars. I don’t know. I’m just not convinced yet.”
What’s fueling the rise in traffic fatalities is up for some debate. After four decades as a personal injury lawyer, Michael Kelly says he’s fairly certain distracted driving is pushing up the death toll to record heights. It’s not just talking on the phone, he clarifies—simply having a handset in the car dangerously divides the driver’s attention.
“I actually think somebody ought to think about a complete bar on being on your phone while driving,” says Kelly, of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Shoenberger. “There is a belief that if you’re not holding your phone, you’re not being distracted. But then why are these deaths so high? We’ve electrified intersections, we’ve painted bright stripes on the roads, we’ve built these barriers, we’ve put in lights—so what the eff is happening? I don’t think it’s about visibility. I think it’s about inattention.”
Public safety officials put some of the blame on an uptick in SUVs, whose size makes them safer for the people inside but deadlier to pedestrians. The San Jose Police Department says it’s a dearth of enforcement. During the Great Recession and ensuing battles over unfunded pension liabilities, the number of traffic cops in San Jose dwindled from a couple dozen to barely a handful, a staffing level that held steady until this fall when Chief Eddie Garcia finally brought the Traffic Enforcement Unit up to 12.
California Walks—a non-profit that advocates for pedestrian-safe cityscapes—and its local chapter contend that the problem lies with poorly designed streets. “We need to invest in infrastructure,” says Nikita Sinha, manager of the Walk San Jose program. “Ultimately, if you want to see people driving slower … you need the infrastructure to support that behavior. It’s going to come down to how our city physically looks.”
Of the 17 major streets deemed deadliest by San Jose’s DOT, most comprise multi-lane corridors with long distances between traffic signals that allow drivers to pick up velocity and posted speed limits of more than 40mph. Other risk factors, according to San Jose Walks: a lack of sidewalks, signage, bike lanes and crosswalks. Forty-three percent of San Jose’s traffic deaths and nearly a third of serious injuries happen in those 17 roadways, dubbed by DOT as “priority safety corridors,” which span a combined 70 miles.
Law enforcement data show that, by far, the most destructive prevailing factor behind the collisions is speed. The victims are disproportionately Latino and Vietnamese and skew middle-aged to elderly. The deaths of 56-year-old William Povio and 91-year-old Gerald Williams each offer a case in point. On Oct. 23, a silver Lexus plowed into Povio as he walked near First and Virginia streets in broad daylight. Just days later, a Toyota RAV4 struck Williams as he rode his bicycle left toward Capewood Drive. Both died in hospitals earlier this month, bringing the year-to-date tally of San Jose traffic deaths to 43.
The deadliest intersections tend to lie in San Jose’s downtown and East Side, where they’re concentrated in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Between 2014 and 2018, Councilwoman Maya Esparza’s District 7, which encompasses Tully-Santee and Seven Trees, saw 52 traffic fatalities—the highest rate in the city. During the same timeframe, Councilman Raul Peralez’s District 3, which spans downtown, counted the second highest number of deaths at 34 and the most crashes at 5,544.
Despite demographic and geographic disparities in traffic fatalities, however, the city allocates $200,000 in traffic calming funds to each council district. Peralez says the city should use an evidence-based approach to budgeting for pedestrian safety by giving more money to the highest-need areas. “The way that we currently do things is not equitable,” he tells San Jose Inside, “and I don’t think that’s fair for the communities out there potentially suffering more than others.”
The costs to realize Vision Zero may seem insurmountable, but the price of inaction is greater. According to the NHTSA, car crashes in the US cost more than $870 billion a year in lost productivity, medical and legal bills and related societal and economic impacts. While driver deaths have declined as vehicles become safer for the people inside them, they’ve become more lethal for anyone in their path, turning 2018 into the deadliest year for cyclists and pedestrians since 1990.
Kyle LaBlanc had no desire to ever get behind the wheel of a car. A stickler for the rules of the road and every other sphere of life, it annoyed him to no end to see so many reckless drivers. The honking, the speeding, the unpredictability of the roadways felt like chaos to his extraordinarily perceptive mind.
Public transit, on the other hand, with its schedules and fixed routes, appealed to his sense of order. Throughout high school, the San Jose teen confidently navigated the South Bay’s plexus of trains, light rail and bus lines.
He appreciated the interconnections that brought him from one point to another as he appreciated the reticulations of computer networks and electrical circuits, which he learned to build at the age of 5 with the same grandfather who taught him how to ride a bus.
For as long as anyone in his family remembered, the boy loved using technology to devise new inventions. At 17, he created his own software cloud with a dozen computers he built from scratch. His parents and little brother could tell when he powered them all up at once because the lights would dim in the LaBlanc home. “He would have been an excellent IT person,” says his mother, Gina LaBlanc. “He was my IT person. He really loved helping everybody fix their computers. He could bring a dead iPhone to life.”
Just three weeks after Kyle’s 18th birthday and about eight months before he planned to start computer networking classes at Monterey Peninsula College, a mass of steel and glass came hurtling toward him and cut that future short.
It took multiple months and lawsuits for Kyle’s parents, Gina and Steve, to piece together the events preceding the crash that killed their son on Jan. 25, 2016. They learned that Kyle walked westbound on a dirt path beneath the Highway 87 overpass by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority station at Curtner Avenue, which has confusing crosswalks and no signs to steer pedestrians to a safer route. Recent rain muddied the path and Kyle—in brand-new basketball shoes—stepped off the curb and into the bike lane. With the lights out under the freeway, a waning moon offered the only illumination.
Shortly past midnight, a Tri-City Recovery Dodge Ram tow truck drove under the same overpass, where he merged slightly into the bike lane and struck Kyle at about 45 mph.
Paramedics rushed the boy to Valley Medical Center’s intensive care unit, where trauma surgeons undertook what Gina calls “a valiant effort” to mend his mangled body. Kyle’s parents showed up in time to take one last look into his eyes.
“I felt like he was waiting for me to get there,” Gina says. “Then his eyelids started to fall.” He died minutes later at 3am.
A day later, the city dispatched a public works crew to install new lights below the freeway. Other than that, nothing’s changed. At least two other pedestrians lost their lives in the same way in the same spot just months before and after the trucker killed Kyle.
“It’s a pedestrian trap,” Gina says, “and nothing’s been done to fix it.”
There are plenty of ways to curb vehicle deaths. But overhauling streets to slow traffic and get people out of their cars doesn’t exactly score a lot of political points. Just look at the backlash against the “road diet” on San Jose’s Lincoln Avenue a few years back, or more recent efforts in Los Gatos, where the southbound lane of North Santa Cruz Avenue was turned into a one-way street. Budgets restrict safety efforts at the local and state level, where highway widening and major public transit projects eat up most of the funding. Police departments say they’re stretched thin, and privacy concerns prevent many locales from installing cameras to enforce speed limits.
Diane Solomon, a local author and activist who bikes along many of those problem corridors, agrees with Walk San Jose’s stance that the city needs to reconfigure the streets and invest in more traffic signals, brighter paint, bigger signs, new lighting and traffic-slowing measures like speed bumps. “This will be expensive and unpopular,” she says, “but it will save lives.”
After years of complacency, at least the city is finally ramping up those kinds of projects. On Nov. 4, Mintz-Roth went before the city’s Transportation and Environment Committee to present the latest sobering statistics on “KSI collisions”—bureaucratic shorthand for crashes in which a vehicle “killed or seriously injured” someone. He called for more funding for data analytics and road redesigns and asked the city to form a multi-agency task force to double down on the Vision Zero pledge.
Kirsten Smith, whose dad died by a hit-and-run earlier this year, applauds the proposals but also asks what took the city so long. “Hearing that for six years you’ve seen a trend in KSIs go up … how did we let that go?” she asked at a recent public meeting. “How did no one see that for six years?”
Losing her father, Bob Lavin, robbed her of the safety she felt all her life in San Jose, she said. Multiple traffic deaths have occurred around the same Curtner Avenue corridor where police say 35-year-old Anthony Trusso, on June 28, rammed his car into Lavin during one of his daily bike rides. But a continued lack of enforcement and a dearth of cameras render it just as unsafe as the day he died, she added.
“With all due respect, my dad is not a KSI,” Smith said, addressing city staff. “His name is Bob Lavin. … So, I know you need your lingo, but he’s a person.”
Minutes later, Gina LaBlanc—who wore a pin on her sweater with a picture of her smiling son in a Captain America T-shirt—stepped up to echo Smith’s condemnation.
“I am shocked that a dangerous situation is allowed to continue and no changes have been made, as though my son’s death and life didn’t matter,” she said, holding up a blown-up version of the same photo. “This is my son, not just a data point.”
A self-described “cycling geek,” Mayor Sam Liccardo has long backed policies to make San Jose more bike-friendly. As downtown councilman a decade ago, he helped create the city’s Bike Plan 2020, which envisioned a 500-mile bikeway network and called for halving the number of car-bike collisions by 2020. This year, he became a data point.
When Liccardo barreled into an SUV crossing a northeast San Jose intersection on New Year’s Day, the cycling community nationwide took note. Public safety in poor, underserved areas with large immigrant populations have been historically ignored, but suburban streets that aren’t even safe for a cycling-enthusiast mayor made national headlines.
Liccardo fractured his sternum and two vertebrae in the collision, which left him wearing a brace for months. Shiloh Ballard, head of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, rode to the scene of the crash—at Salt Lake Drive and Mabury Road—to assess whether improved visibility might have prevented the accident.
Alvarado also seized on the moment as a chance to raise awareness about the dangerous state of the city’s roads. “I wrote him a card that had a bunch of bikes on it and hand-delivered it to his office,” he recalls. “It said, basically, that I hope you recover, I’m sorry to hear what happened and that I want to meet you to talk about what I could do individually to make things better.”
Liccardo took him up on the offer, granting a face-to-face klatch where Alvarado shared his idea of bringing a Ride of Silence—a nationwide ride to commemorate victims of traffic collisions—to San Jose.
Alvarado’s first Ride of Silence took place on a rainy mid-May evening in downtown and drew a few dozen participants. But what he initially planned as an annual event took on a life of its own. In the weeks after Bobby Lavin’s death, the man’s family asked Alvarado for help putting together a celebration-of-life ride.
“I jumped on it,” Alvarado says. “I’d already made a personal commitment that when somebody does have a fatality, we can have this format for a ride ready to go.”
Lavin’s surviving relatives picked a date in early August, a day before the funeral. Councilman Sergio Jimenez sponsored the Hawaiian-themed event, while Liccardo and council members Dev Davis and Pam Foley spoke and Johnny Khamis came to watch. The perambulatory tribute ended at the Lavin home, where about 50 of the remaining attendees formed a circle, held hands and joined in a traditional Hawaiian prayer.
Lavin’s widow said the gathering made her feel at peace about going to her husband’s funeral the next day.
“We can’t bring back their loved ones,” Alvarado says. “But we do want to bring these families into the conversation and let them know that we’re here for them.”
On Sunday, Alvarado will join Walk San Jose and SF Bay Area Families for Safe Streets in a World Day of Remembrance march for people killed and injured by cars. The solemn procession will start at 1:30pm at St. James Park and wend its way to City Hall, where friends and relatives of victims will have a chance to share stories of a kind of loss that’s widely accepted as an inevitability of modern life.
A previous version of this article stated that San Jose’s traffic fatality rate was triple the national average. The story has since been updated to clarify that San Jose’s pedestrian traffic fatalities are three times the national average. San Jose Inside regrets the error.