Among Walkable Regions, San Francisco One of Most Dangerous

3816698732_dc7b4b8a26.jpgA pedestrian crosses Van Ness Avenue, wary of a driver who seemingly intends to switch into the left lane. Photo: Bryan Goebel

Just how dangerous is San Francisco for pedestrians?

A new report on pedestrian safety in the 52 largest U.S. metro areas ranked San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont 13th safest for walkers, based on an index that takes into account annual pedestrian deaths and the percentage of workers who commute by foot. San Francisco looks pretty good at first glance, but Walk SF president Manish Champsee said a closer look at the city's record reveals a less favorable state of affairs: 47.7 percent of all traffic fatalities in San Francisco are pedestrians, more than four times the national average of 11.8 percent. The rate of pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents is 2.60 in San Francisco, 70 percent higher than the national average of 1.53.

That's partly because far more people walk in San Francisco than in the country as a whole. The rate of pedestrian fatalities per walking trip is still much lower in the city proper than in most metro regions. But a fairer comparison, said Champsee, is between San Francisco and other very walkable cities. "We do rank favorably when you control for the number of people who walk to work. Having said that, I think a truer measure of that would be to compare San Francisco to its peers cities, places like New York City, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington DC."

The report, co-authored by the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and Transportation for America, only includes regional data, and doesn't break out statistics by city, which would give a more precise picture of how dangerous San Francisco is compared to peers. Regionally, however, San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont is more dangerous than other metros with very walkable cores, like Chicago, Portland, New York, Seattle, and Boston.

"We hope to see a report coming out that will compare San Francisco to other similarly land-used cities," said Champsee.

PSI.jpgSan Francisco-Oakland-Fremont is safer for pedestrians than most U.S. metro regions, but is more dangerous than most of its walkable peers. (Chart: Dangerous by Design report)

By another measure, San Francisco is definitely trailing in improving pedestrian safety: while the report found an average of 1.5 percent of federal transportation spending is focused on pedestrian and bicycle safety, Champsee said San Francisco is spending only 0.5 percent of its federal transportation dollars on that purpose (MTA spokesperson Judson True said he couldn't immediately confirm that number.)

"MTA keeps saying, 'Yes, this is the amount we spent directly on it, but in all the other stuff we do, like road repair, there's a bunch of pedestrian stuff we roll into it,'" said Pi Ra of the Senior Action Network. "We keep saying, show us."

Champsee and Ra both point to pedestrian safety projects the MTA is currently working on, including the 19th Avenue and Van Ness Avenue double-fine zones, pedestrian countdown signals, and DPW's pedestrian improvements on Divisadero Street, Valencia Street, and Leland Avenue.

Still, Ra would like to see the total pedestrian safety spending figures itemized. "The bottom line is we aren't spending enough money on pedestrian improvements," he said.

For now, many of the cities' most dangerous streets for pedestrians remain untamed.

"If you look at places where there are a lot of lanes, a lot of traffic, and a lot of people walking, I think those are the priority areas," said Champsee. "Places like Market Street, Van Ness, Geary, Mission, 19th Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Cesar Chavez Street, Guerrero, just places where you have a lot of fast-moving traffic and a lot of people."

True said the MTA has moved vigorously to improve pedestrian safety in recent years. "So much of what we do is about pedestrian safety," he said. "Road diets, ... improving traffic signals, the school crossing guard program, Safe Routes to Schools, Safe Routes to Transit, the accessible/audible pedestrian signals which were installed on Market Street, increasing ladder crosswalks around schools, the speed humps that have been put in as part of traffic calming projects and others. Improving pedestrian safety permeates everything we do every single day."

True said the MTA is advocating for greater pedestrian safety funding in the upcoming federal transportation spending bill.

"The key is that we all know we could use more dedicated resources for pedestrian improvements in the next federal transportation spending bill," said True. "That's really our focus."

Carli Paine, president of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, said the economic downturn has made it even more difficult to find funding for pedestrian safety. "Oakland has come a long way in pedestrian safety over the past decade, but the city's fiscal crisis has put the squeeze on our public works budget," said Paine. "Federal support for Complete Streets policies and increased funding for pedestrian safety projects are critical to meeting our goals for walkable neighborhoods and safe access to transit."

The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara region, which was measured separately, fared worse than its northern neighbor region, with 1.3 deaths per 100,000 residents, in spite of only 1.8 percent of residents walking to work, according to 2000 U.S. Census data. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont had 1.6 deaths per 100,000 residents, but had a much higher walk-to-work ratio of 3.9 percent.

"The data that we have in San Jose shows that the areas in which we have pedestrian fatalities are really more in the suburban areas of the city, where we've got high-speed, four-lane, six-lane arterial streets that are difficult for people to cross," said San Jose's acting transportation director, Hans Larsen. "We are looking to try to transform some of these streets to be more pedestrian friendly."

"It just illustrates how important it is that we have safe facilities for bicycling and walking," said the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition's Colin Heyne. "San Jose and Silicon Valley are definitely making large strides towards those ends, but definitely we'd love to see more done and we'd love to have it done quicker."

"In order to encourage that kind of transportation, you have to have the infrastructure in place that makes it safe and easy and, as a result, enjoyable."