Commentary: Despite Mandate to Improve Pedestrian Safety, SF Doesn’t Act

Photo: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography
Photo: ##http://orangephotography.com/##Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography##

I often write stories for Streetsblog as objectively as I can, but after talking with the SFMTA about their pedestrian safety report, I got a little too upset to write dispassionately. Therefore, I’ll call this a “commentary” and you can take it for what it’s worth.

If the footage of 65-year-old Nu Ha Dam getting mowed down in a crosswalk at Leavenworth and Geary by a UCSF shuttle on Wednesday didn’t appall you, the continued failure of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to improve pedestrian safety should.

San Francisco has the highest rate of pedestrian injuries of any sizeable city in California and is one of the highest in the nation. Pedestrian injuries have stayed steady over the past few years at more than 800. Of total fatal collisions in San Francisco over the past ten years, pedestrians have consistently accounted for 50-60 percent.

So when the city comes out with a report [pdf] modeled on the New York City Department of Transportation’s much heralded Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan, you could excuse me for getting excited. The 55-page document is chock full of great data on existing conditions, and at a minimum helps lend some visibility to pedestrians on paper.

Unfortunately, the report has no collision reduction targets, work plans or evaluation metrics that will result in safer streets. All it offers is this bit of drivel:

[While the SFMTA has] an important role to play in improving pedestrian conditions, specific collision trends can be also influenced by demographic, cultural, and economic changes that affect the amount and type of traveling people engage in. For these reasons the SFMTA has in the past not set an exact percentage goal for the reduction of fatal collisions in future decades, though of course it remains our mission to improve roadway safety as rapidly as possible. It is the general goal of the SFMTA both to see reductions in pedestrian injuries every year and to increase the number of pedestrian trips in the City.

Important role? You have a charter mandate to improve pedestrian conditions as part of the Transit First policy (“5. Pedestrian areas shall be enhanced wherever possible to improve the safety and comfort of pedestrians and to encourage travel by foot”).

You’ve had that mandate since the 1970s.

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“They’re not setting any goals and that is something the MTA needs to do to show they are serious about pedestrian safety,” Elizabeth Stampe, the executive director of Walk SF, told me in reference to the report. While she was happy it presented the baseline data, she said it didn’t go far enough. “They need to set targets about how they plan to make the streets safer.”

When asked why there was no action plan, Bridget Smith of the SFMTA’s Sustainable Streets Division said: “The report we put together was really what New York City put together and we wanted to look at our work through that lens. It’s a professional to professional look at what they presented and how our city compares to New York City.”

Except for the action plan, which is nearly half of the volume of words in NYC’s report and arguably the most significant part of the whole endeavor. Without a plan that can be executed and proper metrics to measure the impact of changes, conditions won’t change.

For example, New York City has committed to reduce pedestrian fatalities by 50 percent by 2030, incorporating engineering, enforcement, public communication campaigns and a hefty legislative policy change framework that would make any advocate or public health official blush with excitement. They will dramatically ramp up Safe Routes to School improvements; they will expand their Safe Routes for Seniors program; they will re-engineer 60 miles of streets, 20 miles of them with “intensive safety redesign;” they will daylight corners to improve visibility; they will pilot slower speed zones across neighborhoods through engineering for calmed traffic; they will coordinate enforcement with the NYPD to target the riskiest driver behavior to pedestrians; they will push legislation for more red light cameras, speed cameras, mandatory truck crossover mirrors, and increased penalties for unlicensed drivers; and they will update they NYC Pedestrian Safety Act, which requires the NYC DOT to improve the top 20 most dangerous locations for pedestrians.

And what about San Francisco? If you’d like to follow along for yourself, scroll down to the bottom of page 50 [pdf].

San Francisco will continue to do a litany of things (but given the data, those things apparently aren’t working to make the city much safer for pedestrians). More countdown timers will be added, which the report spends a page telling you we helped pioneer, and we’ll continue our analysis of higher collision corridors, areas, and intersections, continue our expansion of audible pedestrian signal locations, continue the installation of traffic calming measures to slow vehicle speeds, continue the removal parking at corners to improve pedestrian sight distances, continue the expansion of the use of “continental” or “ladder” type crosswalks.

When I pushed SFMTA’s Smith on why they didn’t set targets for reducing the number or rate of collisions, she said there were “a couple of things in development” and that they were considering a “pedestrian master plan.” Smith also pointed to their work with other agencies on the Better Streets Plan as instructive and ripe for possible future collaboration.

When I questioned how the Better Sidewalk Plan (to steal Livable City executive director Tom Radulovich’s derisive sobriquette) would address dangerous speeds, illegal turning in occupied crosswalks or other driver behavior, Smith acknowledged its shortcomings. “We all recognize that we’d like to expand the work,” she said. “It was always intended to be the ‘Pedestrian Realm Plan.”

In a previous Streetsblog article, Dr. Rajiv Bhatia of the San Francisco Department of Public Health blasted the city’s efforts to date on pedestrian safety, calling the failure to add known safety improvements “transportation malpractice.”

When I asked Smith about the criticism by Bhatia, she said: “Rajiv could take the leadership role on it.”

Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to be effective. The SFMTA is the implementing agency with responsibility for controlling our streets and improving pedestrian safety. The SFDPH has zero input on whether or not Leavenworth and Geary will get a “continental’ crosswalk, bulbouts or other treatments, nor whether or not that would have done anything to save Nu Ha Dam.

About the only thing the SFDPH can do about that is add her to the statistics they keep on pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

I know I shouldn’t just pick on Bridget Smith here. SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford and Mayor Gavin Newsom, neither of whom have said boo about targets for improving pedestrian conditions, deserve at least as much credit, if not much more. Without bold leadership and a clear mandate, there is probably little Smith or any other well-meaning planner could accomplish at the agency.

While I was heartened to hear SFMTA’s newest board director, Cheryl Brinkman, discuss the importance of improving pedestrian safety (Brinkman, in the board meeting on Tuesday: “I think there is a lot more we can do including lowering speed limits to make sure that any interactions between pedestrians and cars are not fatal”), the real work has yet to begin.

Smith did say they had priced out an action plan and they just need to find the money to complete it. Maybe Brinkman and Chair Tom Nolan can show some leadership in securing this funding.

Compared to the hundreds of millions they’re going to be asked to issue in municipal bond debt to fund the Central Subway next year, what’s a few hundred thousand to keep more pedestrians from being run over in the crosswalk?

  • Alex

    @mike I think you’ll find many automobile enthusiast groups would like to see stricter licensing procedures in the US.

    @EL I have no doubt that the flashing yellow was due to the weather. In fact the 311 folks said as much, only they alluded to it being an intentional choice. In either case flashing yellow is not *fail safe*, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s not safe at all.

    If something actually failed due to the flooding, the lights should default to flashing *RED* to ensure that both automobiles and pedestrians can use the intersection safely.

    If the lights were purposefully switched due to concern for driving conditions… they still should not have been flashing yellow. Not a single car slowed down for the flashing yellow lights, without an intermediate stop traffic was moving faster. Yes, despite whatever adverse conditions existed, there was still plenty of northbound traffic.

  • “I think you’ll find many automobile enthusiast groups would like to see stricter licensing procedures in the US.”

    Do you mean AAA or the local hot rod club? I’d doubt the population at large would be for it since most of them would fail any retest – not to mention the costs and time commitments.

  • Alex

    AAA doesn’t count as much of an enthusiast group, do they?

    http://www.autoblog.com/2010/09/28/government-seen-backing-graduated-drivers-licenses

  • Alex

    And, yes, I’m aware that a bunch of comments don’t necessarily represent enthusiast groups… but based on other comments and discussions I’ve had I think those comments are a pretty accurate representation. Some don’t support it, most do, and most of the objection will come from those in areas where there is no public transit infrastructure.

  • Alex, AAA is a VERY powerful voice. I’m not doubting that. But it is in their business interest to have more drivers on more roads.

    And most of the country has little or no public transit access.

  • wheelchairgirl

    It boggles me that simple, cheap solutions aren’t getting implemented.

    I try to be very conscious of pedestrians when I drive, but the highway off-ramps around here are dangerously fast and then dump you into slow streets with no fade-in. I’d like to see better speed marking, reminders that driers should slow down, and rumble strips in these areas. How much can rumble strips cost? Can we donate some of the blind-bumps that even blind people don’t like and which may actually make sidewalks less safe? (They’re slippery and dangerous to canes, crutches, and wheels. The South Bay has some examples of sidewalk Braille made from recycled rubber which are far preferable to every disabled person I’ve asked about the issue; non-slip and less of a barrier to mobility aids, just as good for the blind.)

    Rumble strips would come in handy at larger pedestrian intersections as well; a bump where the vehicle reaches the crosswalk would help to remind drivers of the crosswalk’s existence, especially when turning.

    Our yellow lights are still insanely short. Has anyone got data on this? While much of our red-light running problem may be due to negligence, with a one-and-a-half second yellow light, it’s nearly impossible to stop in time. Longer yellow lights might seriously help intersection control.

    The turning issue is ten times worse at older intersections where the wheelchair ramp does not match up with the crossing area or is on the “wrong” side of the corner. I’ve gotten stuck in intersections because a car has crept forward trying to turn, and is blocking my ramp access – but I’m now stuck in the road blocking the car, and the driver has no idea why and can’t or won’t back up. (This problem happens to a lesser degree even at modernized ADA-compliant intersections.)

    It can’t cost that much to paint an intersection, can it? Shall I donate a roll of reflective tape? And why is the overextended DPH the one having to spend money on this when we have state and national transportation and transit money available? Ridiculous.

  • Kevin

    This article is misleading in it’s representation of San Francisco as a dangerous city to walk in. We have the most injuries compared to population, but that is apples to oranges. If you compare injuries to miles walked, as others have mentioned, the story is different.

    SFMTA is the easy scapegoat for a problem that is deeply political and cultural; the prioritization of cars and speed over pedestrian safety, livability, and sustainability. I think MTA is doing their best with what money they have left after being continually short-changed by the state, and by the city. If you want a world class transportation system, you have to pay for it. If you want safe and livable streets, you have to build consensus; just go to a public meeting and see what MTA is up against when they try to remove even one or two parking spaces for the sake of pedestrian or bicycle safety.

    If you have an issue with how a particular pedestrian safety grant was spent, or how the MTA approaches a certain design, let them know, or come up with a better idea. As readers of this site, we all agree that pedestrian safety should be top priority, but is writing an inflammatory piece about the city’s pedestrian program manager, someone who has dedicated their life to safer streets, really necessary?