Drivers Are Running the Red Light at Fell/Masonic, Imperiling Cyclists

Fell_Masonic_crash.jpgBicycle hit by a car at Fell and Masonic on December 13th, 2008

Last September, San Francisco’s city attorney asked Judge Peter Busch to allow an exemption to the long-standing bicycle injunction so the MTA could improve the city’s second most dangerous intersection for cyclists, where Fell Street meets Masonic Street.  Even after the MTA adjusted signalization and gave cyclists a separate green light, cars are running the red light and hitting cyclists.

The latest collision happened Saturday, around 4pm, to Cindy Asrir, as she was riding bicycles with her 10-year-old daughter on the Panhandle Greenway after spending the afternoon in Golden Gate Park.  At Fell and Masonic, they waited for the bicycle light to turn green and then started across the street.  

In an interview, Asrir described what happened as she and her daughter entered the crosswalk. She said there were also several pedestrians crossing when a white SUV pulled through the red light, but stopped short of them.  A second car ignored the red signal and darted around the SUV, slamming into Asrir, knocking her up on the hood of the vehicle, and launching her to the pavement.  Asrir hit her head hard, though she credits her helmet with preventing further injury.  

According to witnesses, the driver had been talking on her cell phone. Later, she was not allowed to leave in her car.

A police report has yet to be filed in the case and Park Station police would not release any details about the crash, including possible citations and charges.

Though obviously shaken from the event and upset that the new light hasn’t improved things, Asrir was grateful that her daughter, who trailed behind her by a foot, had not been the one struck, nor a mother with a child in a stroller who was just behind them.

“I used to always be scared of that intersection,” said Asrir. “But I was so happy when they put in the light.  Now I’m scared of the intersection again.”

Fell_Masonic_good.jpg

The Fix Masonic neighborhood coalition has long sought improvements to the intersection and better enforcement of traffic laws to change driver behavior.  According to members of the coalition, at their last meeting, a representative of the MTA who has been observing Fell and Masonic since the bike light went in reported seeing numerous instances of cars deliberately ignoring their red left-turn arrow and turning against the cyclists’ green.   

“You don’t need to spend more than twenty minutes standing at the intersection to see the violations, especially at 5 pm on a weekday,” said Fix Masonic Founder Mark Christiansen

MTA spokesman Judson True assented that the intersection needs more enforcement and added, “It’s important for all users to obey traffic signals.  The whole point of the new signal is to separate vehicle movements from bicycles and pedestrians.”

True said there had been one previous crash between a cyclist and vehicle since the light was added.  In an interview a couple weeks ago, senior MTA traffic engineer Jack Fleck told Streetsblog that one or two crashes a year at an intersection could be coincidence, but that three or more was unacceptable and that the MTA would try to change such an intersection (as they have proposed doing with the eastbound bicycle lane at Market St. and Octavia Blvd.)

The SFBC has made numerous requests to the SFPD to increase enforcement at Fell and Masonic, as well as other dangerous intersections.  In a letter sent to Chief Heather Fong last June (PDF) they demanded a “well-publicized campaign focusing on motorists’ violations of vulnerable users’ right-of-way” similar to a recent initiative in Chicago.

“This intersection needs focused enforcement attention, right now and until motorists understand that the red signal arrow means STOP,” said SFBC Program Director Andy Thornley.  “Citywide, we need a renewed commitment to enforcement of basic traffic violations to address those behaviors that most often result in injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Cindy Asrir, meantime, is vowing to become active in the Fix Masonic coalition once her wounds heal. She also plans to lobby the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor to remedy the problem at Fell and Masonic.  

“That should be a safe zone; that’s how people get to the park,” said Asrir.  “If you can’t bike to the park safely, we have a big problem.”

Flickr photos: Alex Choi and Shmooth

  • Wow – even though on the cell phone how that driver could not have noticed the people in the crosswalk is beyond comprehension. Why the heck did she think the SUV had stopped while running the red? Would the City support a red light camera at that intersection? Maybe guaranteed tickets would help. And did the SUV driver get a ticket for running the red I wonder?

  • It should have said: “the driver was ILLEGALLY talking on a cell phone.”

    There are obviously grounds for a lawsuit, since the injury was caused by the driver’s illegal and negligent behavior.

  • Why are we giving the SFPD raises so that they don’t have to do their job in enforcing the California Vehicle Code until someone gets hit and injured or killed?

    Look, violence by motorists against pedestrians and cyclists is second only to gun violence in its impact on our city. Like communities concerned about violence have demanded foot patrols, which Ross passed over Newsom’s vetoes, we need to be similarly ambitious in imposing an enforcement arrangement on the SFPD on our terms that represents our values.

    Left to their own devices, the cops will stay isolated in their cruisers and bring their front seat perspective, mediated by their windshield, of our city to bear on their enforcement choices.

    Is it the average or starting cop that makes $101K. If they make it to retirement, they get 90% of that each year for the rest of their lives.

    -marc

  • greg

    There’s even an electronic sign up before the intersection that reads, “Signal change ahead / obey left arrow” Probably should read, “no turns on red arrow”, though.

  • I’ve spent about 1 hour on the phone with Police Departments and, finally, an official SFBC letter asking for information on the crash in the picture above– all to no avail. No response from the SFPD to identify if the cyclist hit 12/13/08 was injured, is OK, dead, or what in over one month…

  • Dave Snyder

    Enforcement against law-breaking motorists is always a good thing, but I doubt it’s enough to solve the safety problem, and in any case represents a failure of design.

    I never liked the current proposal, with its separate phases for different modes, as it takes time away from cyclists and pedestrians, to their detriment, and motorists (which I don’t think we should do unnecessarily). I propose a different redesign. Remove a traffic lane from southbound Masonic as follows: of the four approaching lanes, convert the second from the curb to RT only, from its current RT/straight combination. This would give you the opportunity to slightly shift the remaining two through lanes to the right, creating a median of about a foot between the Masonic lanes. Use the median to force the Fell Street cars turning left onto Masonic to make a wide, slow turn. Make the median cement, put a reflective post on it, heck, plant a tree. Regardless, this forces the cars to make a very slow turn and increases the chances of them seeing a ped or a cyclist and definitely reduces the severity of a crash.

  • joshuacitrak

    @marc this isn’t the police’s fault. i live on ashbury one block away from this intersection and see them sitting there monitoring it at all ours of the day. i’ve watched in amazement as car after car is pulled over. like it our not, cops can’t everywhere at once and often have more pressing tasks at hand.
    that being said, let’s put the blame squarely where it should lay, on the shoulders of the drivers who run the light. there is a large electronic sign at fell and central that tells drivers of the separate light, there is in lane signage also informing the drivers of a light, there is a signal, but yet still it is getting run.
    i’m all for a camera there, whatever happened to those?

  • redseca2

    I live on Ashbury and use that intersection on foot or a motorized vehicle all of the time.

    What I see far too often is a line of cars patiently waiting at the new left turn curb lane waiting for the green left turn arrow, only for a car in the next lane to the right to go past them and then make the turn left.

  • bebop

    Drivers aren’t necessarily running the light on purpose – I think many of them are confused by the design. No amount of enforcement will help people be less confused…

    I think two things need to happen:

    1) remove the left most (straight) light for motorists – it seems to permit progress in the left lane and marginalizes the red arrow.

    2) change the bicycle light color from green to white (or yellow). Drivers may be mistaking the *bike light* for a left arrow. It’s not a common symbol, and green is usually reserved for cars, where pedestrians have white and red lights.

  • dave snyder raises a good point. we have the light itself, plenty of markings on the street and even reasonable enforcement and yet there are still serious problems. the problem is inherent in the design of the intersection and it needs to be addressed with more ambitious solutions of the type that dave describes.

    the same applies at the market/octavia intersection. the proposed solution by the planning department will not do the trick either. all the barriers, warnings, cameras, etc. will not solve the problem. how about putting a bidirectional bike lane on the other side of market, thus keeping bikes and cars completely separated? it would split back into unidirectional lanes near valencia and continue down market as it currently does. you would need to remove car parking on the north side of market but i would think that the mta would go for that given that cars would then be able to make the right onto the freeway, which they understandably want to do.

    the point is that we really need to look at design and not enforcement mechanisms.

  • If the problem is “manhattan taxi turns” from the second lane, then one potential solution would be to restore the parking and remove the left turn pocket.

    Drivers are less likely to make that turn as the radius increases.

    Dave’s idea about a median would calm the intersection as well.

    But the lack of enforcement and consequences for dangerous conduct everywhere creates a climate of impunity which just encourages more dangerous conduct all over the city, including at these terror intersections.

    -marc

  • Cindy

    I am the cyclist that was hit at this intersection on Saturday. The driver was *not* turning left on a red light, she ran a straight red light into the crosswalk going south on Masonic. The driver in the SUV did the same thing (though she eventually stopped before hitting anyone) but then drove off and was not cited.

    I think the bike stoplight has helped, but is obviously not preventing all accidents so something else has to be done. Why not close that block (Masonic, between Fell and Oak) off to cars and make it part of the Panhandle Park? I know it would increase traffic on Stanyan (and possibly Baker) but I think far too many motorists don’t understand how people and families use the park for *walking* and *riding,* not driving.

    BTW, I drive a car as well as bike, but would never even consider running a red light through an intersection where people were crossing. I still have no idea what this woman was thinking….

  • I’m glad you and your daughter are OK Cindy–and your suggestion, to simply plant grass over the asphalt of Masonic between Fell and Oak would be a great solution. One great way to start fixing Masonic, in my mind.

  • Paul on Baker Street

    Closing Masonic through the Panhandle is not a realistic option, due to the volume of traffic that uses it. But how about a pedestrian/bike underpass beneath Masonic that allows peds and bikes to speed on through regardless of the traffic on top?

  • I love Cindy’s idea — get rid of the asphalt and just make it a solid park. Of course, the 43 bus travels up Masonic, so it would need to find a detour. Or maybe Masonic can be narrowed to bus-only at that part?

    Paul’s idea is also good, but I’d flip it around. Instead of sending pedestrians underground, I’d have the cars pass down into an underpass, removing them from the street level. Someday, it would be nice if that whole artery was an underground tunnel … but one step at a time.

  • joshuacitrak

    glad you’re doing ok cindy. thanks for clearing up my confusion about exactly what happened. that intersection does get red light runners from every direction–which may be indicative of its heavy commute traffic. closing that probably isn’t realistic. i wish you a speedy recovery.

  • I’ve never liked the Masonic/Fell/Oak intersection, as a driver (when I had a car) and as a pedestrian. It is too dangerous and I avoid it as often as possible.

    I have seen way way too many drivers on “autopilot” near-miss pedestrians, cyclists, or other cars. Blocking that section of Masonic entirely is not a viable option as you’d wreck a number of important MUNI lines. But maybe it’s time to just ban all turns on and off to start with, to avoid some of the problems.

    That said, if people run reds, they need to be punished for breaking the law and endangering safety, period. People in SF are generally pretty unaware of anything outside their immediate haze, and don’t really pay attention much to others. That’s fine if you live in the country or something, but in a congested urban area, people need to follow common sense rules so everyone can be safe and free.

  • CBrinkman

    Thanks for clearing that up Cindy, and I am so glad you are ok. That makes it worse in my mind, that they ran a straight red not a left turn red. The drivers had the crosswalk and the bikes/peds right in front of them, clear line of vision. And two cars on one red light? Yikes. MTA – how are we going to get families comfortable with sending their kids out on bikes or on foot if this is how our intersections are designed and our drivers behave? Any parent who heard of this will probably be resolved to NEVER let their child cross that intersection alone.

  • EliB

    I don’t really get all the objections of “The problem isn’t enforcement – the problem is it’s a badly designed intersection.” It’s not as if a red turn arrow is a new invention. There are turn arrows all over town. If people ignore them, they’re just terrible drivers breaking the law.

    The bad design was what we had before. When there was no turn arrow, it did encourage people to make left turns from both the left lane and the next one, which was dangerous. But now that there’s a big fat red left arrow, anyone who turns left from any lane is just an idiot; it’s not the fault of the intersection. If people are going to drive on autopilot based on the way the lights used to work, and ignore what’s in front of them, then they shouldn’t be driving in the city AT ALL – traffic signals get changed sometimes, that’s life. And if there are lots of terrible drivers breaking the law somewhere, like here, then it’s worth putting a cop or a camera around.

    And of course traffic design has nothing to do with the jerk who ran straight ahead through a red and hit Cindy.

  • Dave’s idea is solid and could be done in addition to the new red arrow. This intersection screams for a red light camera as well.

    But we need to look beyond this one intersection and look at Fell/Oak as a whole. These speedways were designed in a previous era and are the wannabe Panhandle Freeway. Both streets are overbuilt, too fast and completely inappropriate for a park setting.

    Why does Fell have four lanes when three (likely two) clearly accommodate traffic east of Baker? Why is the speed limit 30 mph, especially considering the adjacent park and pedestrian traffic?

    People will continue to drive recklessly at this intersection as long as these streets are designed like freeways.

  • Speed humps, chicanes, maybe even a couple four-way stops (gasp!) along the worst traffic sewers. The dilemma at it’s most basic: you cannot have speed AND safety. The current design opts for speed, we need to change that to safety.

    As a bonus, when traffic is slower the capacity of the road increases with absolutely no widening needed.

  • catherine

    I am both a cyclist and a driver and I agree that this is a dangerous intersection. I live two blocks away and travel this path daily. However, one thing I never hear come up in conversation that I think it worth noting: I have seen so many more BICYCLISTS run the light than I have cars. Maybe their actions are less likely to result in accident, I dont know.

  • TB

    “Why not close that block (Masonic, between Fell and Oak) off to cars and make it part of the Panhandle Park?”

    You’re joking, right?

    Masonic is the major north/south route to and from the Haight, for one thing.

    If you cut that off, not are you going to have to reroute some of the city’s major bus lines as well as traffic wanting to get through the park, but getting police, fire and ambulance to and from Haight just got a LOT harder and will also, therefor, take a LOT longer to reach its intended destination.

    Divisidero is already beyond capacity, and Stanyan is way too narrow to run not only the additional traffic, but also buses AND police, fire & ambulances.

    Also, both of these streets are more than a quarter of a mile to either side of Masonic, meaning to get from the corner of Masonic and Fell to the corner of Masonic and Oak would add half a mile to any given trip.

    Not to mention that any traffic shunted to Stanyan would have to deal with an already complex intersection and set of traffic lights. If traveling southbound on Masonic, you would be forced right onto Fell. Then you’d have to stay right for that short intersection/light at Fell & Stanyan to make a left onto Stanyan (currently only two or three cars can make it through at the moment do to the small physical space at that intersection, imagine if the traffic volume was increased by all the traffic from Masonic). Then wait for another light so you can turn left again onto Oak, currently getting 3 – 5 cars through at best. Then travel another quarter mile to get to within 100 yards of where you started.

    You might as well ask to close off Masonic at Geary.

    There are already lights at Schrader, Cole, Clayton and Ashbury to the West of Masonic, and lights at Central, Lyon, Baker and Broderick to the East.

    Rather than re-route a huge chunk of car traffic, along with major bus lines as well as police, fire and ambulance service to one of two bad options (Stanyan or Divisidero), why not re-route BIKE traffic to any one of EIGHT, traffic-light controlled, and much lighter traveled streets?

  • Joseph H

    It baffles me why cyclists do some things, for example, ride through dangerous intersections. The fact that it’s a legal right doesn’t make it any safer.

    That aside, adjusting the intersection so that only a single turning lane (in all directions) is physically *possible* would probably be helpful (it’s a scary intersection no matter what you take through it) – install curbs and lane dividers of some sort. Even simpler is the red light camera. People notice the flashes!

    I wonder if a red light camera can be programmed to flash on yellow without taking a photo.

    One thing that isn’t clear is whether the cyclist who was hurt was riding or walking.

  • I ride through that intersection at least twice a day, and often on a bike and in car – just not at the same time. A widening of the crosswalk and better-planned timing on lights are good starts, but honestly, none of them will have a serious impact until SFPD starts taking traffic enforcement seriously.

    This needs to be done not just at danger points like Octavia/Market and Fell/Masonic, but all over the city. Whether I’m walking, biking, or driving, I see drivers running reds and stop-signs everywhere. None of that will change until the city beefs up the fines, and the SFPD or DPT or whichever alphabet soup group gets its butt in gear and starts taking this seriously.

    SF’s a great town. Nobody has the diversity of transportation methods we do, with the density we’ve got. But enforcement levels appropriate for 1990 do nobody any good.

  • Anita Bennet

    The Masonic/Fell intersection is incorrectly designed, guys. Like every other decision they make, there is no thought, no thinking behind what they do. This intersection, like very other intersection, despite what they say, is designed in total deference to the auto, to moving the auto, to making the auto king. I, myself, a bicyclist, am critically sensitive to bicyclists and peds, but that stupid green arrow, pointing up and directing cars in the lane next to the turn lane that they can go forward, IS DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE LEFT TURN LANE. IT LOOKS LIKE A GO SIGNAL, and even I have gotten confused. Good, responsible traffic design is 100 percent thoughtful design, total attention to detail, not rote application of so-called standards. These guys are so dumb, they would be laughable if they weren’t criminal. Why can every other city in the U.S. have modern traffic design, while San Francisco is locked into the dumb, rote reactions of 50’s traffic engineers. It is so frustrating. So very frustrating. Damn! And let’s be clear, you cannot control drivers with enforcement. You have to have physical design changes, physical cues that make drivers do the right thing, without the need for signs and enforcement. The need for enforcement is the sign of design failure.

  • CBrinkman

    Two way Oak and two way Fell anyone? Slower speeds, more safety, less freeway like mentality, less noise. Same number of lanes going everywhere.

  • Anita Bennet

    Truth be told, the only way to solve the safety issues in places like Masonic/Fell and Market and Octavia is to totally rethink how our streets are designed and managed. Right now, truth be told and despite what MTA says it’s doing, our streets are designed and managed for all-cars, all the time, and peds and bikes be damned.

    While two-waying Oak and Fell would be one way to make the situation safer, keep in mind that Masonic is two-way, and the person who hit Cindy was on Masonic. Josh’s suggestion has the best hope of changing the situation, coupled with street design that visually and physically encourages appropriate driving (rely on signage is a bankrupt idea: it just doesn’t work, and neither does enforcement). Traffic funnels like Oak and Fell deliver drivers used to and expecting to drive in near-freeway-like conditions to pinch points like Masonic, and they act and react in car-only freewaylike frenzies. They expect to be traveling quickly, they are in channelized environments where they are not needing to be particularly observant as they drive (the worst effect of channelizing autos), and they are impatient and easy to anger when their progress is slowed. They tend to be extremely unobservant and oblivious.

    There should be few if any streets in a dense city like San Francisco where drivers can expect to travel long distances without needing to stop, and where they can reach high speeds. While the 50’s traffic engineers at MTA will tell you that Oak and Fell are signalized to “only” 30 or 35 mph, drivers can and do go much faster, especially when they are hoping to make the next few lights before they go red so they don’t have to stop. And the countdown ped signals only help. At speeds of 15 mph or less, car/ped or car/bike accidents rarely result in injuries. And, contrary to logic, streets that operate at these slow speeds actually can handle more traffic than those that encourage faster speeds, and the drivers on them are more observant and less “in the zone”.

    Street design is an art, not a rote application of standards by mechanistic thinkers.

  • FWIW, I’ve noticed on my morning jog the past two or three days, a motorcycle cop posted up on the Panhandle at Masonic & Fell.

    Curious if this was prompted by the accident named above or overall increase in violations since the new lights, and/or if it’s resulted in more citations/enforcement. (Haven’t seen any action, but I’m usually just running by.)

  • Rocco

    The signals at the Masonic/Fell intersection are confusing- it really does look like you can make a left from the no-turn lane. And bad driving is inexcusable.

    But as a driver and pedestrian, I like that the new lights slow cyclists down, too. That east-west path is no longer pleasant to walk. This is a path through a park, not the Tour de France route. Cyclists have turned GG Park into a senior citizen’s nightmare.

    Let’s see the city take out the parking on one side of Fell from Hayes Valley altogether, replace it with a bike lane and return the Panhandle to the pedestrians. There’s no inherent right to use the public street for auto storage, which, except for a few moments of street cleaning each week, occupies 50% of our roads.

    I keep reading comments here about enforcement. How about a few tickets for cyclists who fail to stop for red lights or stop signs? Or who decide to use the sidewalk instead of the street? It seems a bit cynical to tout this as a walkable city when it’s actually fairly dangerous for pedestrians.

    PS: Yes, I’ve been hit twice by bikes in the past ten years, both times on sidewalks.

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