City Slow to Improve Pedestrian Safety in High-Crash Areas

Editor's note: This is the latest installment in our series of occasional stories on how to improve the streets for pedestrians in San Francisco.

crashes_2.jpgTop 12 Intersections with Most Pedestrian Injury Crashes - Past 10 years (SWITRS)
We already know the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities is increasing in San Francisco. The response by city agencies is usually to boost enforcement, try to encourage motorists to drive slowly and install a handful of engineering improvements. Instead, San Francisco needs to make a more concerted effort to focus traffic calming in areas where the most pedestrian crashes occur.

One successful pedestrian safety project in San Francisco involved the installation of pedestrian countdown signals. The pilot study found the signals reduced pedestrians crossing on red from 14 to 9 percent, and decreased pedestrian collisions by more than 50 percent. 700 of San Francisco's 1,100 signalized intersections now have these signals. 

While the signals have helped, the streets are still perilous. MTA transportation engineer Christina Olea believes the most effective way to reduce pedestrian collisions is to slow vehicles. Streets with calmer traffic will also make walking and biking enjoyable enough for people to choose these modes over more polluting options.

Some successful calming techniques include roundabouts, lane narrowing, adjustments in roadway curvature, pedestrian refuge islands, and speed bumps. A report by the American Journal of Public Health found that vehicle crashes decreased 25 percent after these types of improvements were installed. Other treatments include pedestrian signal phasing and increased intensity of roadway lighting. For more descriptions check out this UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center report: (PDF pg 17-22).

The MTA does have a traffic calming division, but the majority of projects are located in more well-to-do neighborhoods such as Diamond Heights, Bernal Heights and the Marina. Yet, based on 228 injuries at the top 10 collision sites in the past 10 years, the majority of pedestrian crashes (61 percent) occurred in the Tenderloin and SOMA, and 30 percent in the Mission. Surprisingly, there have been no official traffic calming projects in any of these areas, except Valencia Street.

I created the map above which shows the top intersections in San Francisco where pedestrians are hit and injured by motorists. Of the top 14 intersections where the driver is at fault, half are located in SOMA or the Tenderloin.

The MTA consults collision reports, community plans and public requests to figure out where to focus its pedestrian transportation improvements. MTA media relations manager Judson True noted they also take into account where the majority of crashes occur, however, based on actual improvements, there seems to be a disconnect between where the improvements are installed and where most crashes are happening.

This may be because the MTA prefers to slow traffic in residential areas rather than on arterial streets because they are afraid traffic will divert from arterials to residential streets. Manish Champsee, the President of WalkSF, noted that "traffic engineers like to split streets between arterial, collector and residential streets. However, in San Francisco, just about every street is a residential street and all of them should be treated that way."

The MTA has also been criticized for giving preference to moving cars quickly through the city, over accommodating pedestrian comfort and safety.

"Traffic engineers have to balance between the needs of automobile throughput and pedestrian safety. It is our view that pedestrian safety should trump concerns about vehicle throughput," said Champsee.

maps.jpgPortland Bureau of Transportation Detailed Crash Maps

Other cities are well ahead of us in engineering safer streets. One key is the creation of detailed crash maps and graphs (above), not only showing where the crashes have occurred, but also including information about what type of crash it was, demographic information, who was at fault, and the severity of the crash.

How You Can Get Involved

There are many ways you can encourage city officials to install safer pedestrian infrastructure. Directly request a traffic calming project for your neighborhood through the MTA’s livable streets program. Tell city officials how you want your tax money spent by contacting your elected officials , local transportation agency and regional transportation commission. And you can join Walk San Francisco, which is working to make the city more walkable and livable.

Also, come and voice your opinions at the many community open houses held around the city. Streetsblog San Francisco has an excellent calendar listing nearly all of these meetings. An important one coming up on February 24th is the redesign of Cesar Chavez which calls for a 14’ median in the middle. Medians have been shown to increase traffic speeds and take room from increasing sidewalk widths or physically separated bike lanes.

Next: What San Francisco can learn from the safest cities around the world, and creative ways to fund traffic safety projects.