Chinatown Group Analyzes Pedestrian Safety, Offers Plan for Improvements

Photos: CCDC
Photos: CCDC

Chinatown’s crowded sidewalks, unsafe crosswalks and poor pedestrian signage are not likely to be among the endearing physical characteristic featured in any tourist brochure. Yet in a recent study — the San Francisco Chinatown Pedestrian Safety Needs Assessment [pdf] and Safety Plan [pdf] conducted by the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) — those issues were identified as several of the highest priority concerns for tenants, merchants and visitors to the popular area.

Chinatown is the densest neighborhood in San Francisco, according to the study, and has the lowest rate of automobile ownership, at 17 percent. The neighborhood is made up of a large percentage of transit users and pedestrians, many of them seniors. From the report:

The 2000 Census reported the median income for the neighborhood as $18,339, with a median age of 50. The proportion of the population living below the poverty level in 2000 was 21 percent versus 11 percent citywide.

Although Chinatown has the lowest rate of car ownership, it has the highest volume of traffic of any San Francisco neighborhood. Seventy eight percent of households live within 150 meters of a truck route. The proportion of Chinatown households living with traffic-related air quality hazards is 100 percent compared to 68 percent citywide.

Image: CCDC
Image: CCDC

The study analyzed a laundry list of characteristics and data at 142 intersections within the study area, which was bounded by Mason Street, Green Street, Columbus Avenue, Montgomery Street and Sacramento Street. It scored each intersection based on a variety of factors, including SFPD vehicle-pedestrian collision data over a 10-year period, the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Pedestrian Quality Index (PEQI) and community surveys.

“We’ve gleaned an incredible amount of useful information just by having spontaneous conversations with school cross guards, store owners, and postal workers on their smoke break,” said Deland Chan, a senior planner for CCDC and the author of the study.

After narrowing the list to the top 21 most dangerous intersections, CCDC studied those further, sending staff and volunteers out to collect pedestrian volume counts and observations of pedestrian and vehicle behavior. In addition, every sidewalk within the study area was assessed to determine the quality and condition of the walking surfaces and pedestrian amenities. These 21 most dangerous intersections were then grouped together into eight priority corridors, with the Stockton from Sacramento to Vallejo the highest priority segment, followed by Broadway from Mason to Kearny and Columbus from Jackson to Green.

CCDC has been shopping the study to numerous city agencies and has received a lot of support from the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH), which provided $20,000 to organize and complete the effort. According to Ana Validzic, a pedestrian safety coordinator at the SFDPH, CCDC’s plan was a model she hoped to see scaled up across the city. Calling CCDC “rock stars in this area,” she said her department had received a large planning grant and was in the early stages of a citywide study.

“It’s a really solid piece of work, we’re excited for the next steps,” said Validzic.

Image: CCDC
Image: CCDC

Unlike the SFMTA’s recent pedestrian safety study, which pretended to model itself on New York City’s much-heralded Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan, but failed to include an action plan, the CCDC Safety Plan has a long menu of interventions the group hopes to see realized in the neighborhood.

Along the Stockton corridor, for instance, the Safety Plan recommends increasing pedestrian space, comfort and mobility by adding pedestrian scramble phases and full intersection crosswalk treatments and curb extensions at intersections. Other suggested improvements include “adding seating, removing old signage and meter posts, and getting rid of newspaper racks to help reduce sidewalk clutter. Strategies to decrease vehicle speeds and turning conflicts include replacing standard ‘No Right on Red’ signs with LED signage, which illuminate to prevent turning movements during pedestrian phases, and adding a dedicated left turn signal phase to the traffic lights.”

Improvements like pedestrian scrambles are relatively cheap and already in effect at certain intersections in the Financial District only a few blocks away from Chinatown (or see Oakland’s Chinatown for a gold-plated scramble). As the report notes, because “low-income communities are disproportionately affected by the lack of walkable neighborhoods” and because of the demographics in Chinatown, “the provision of safe, walkable streets is a social justice issue.”

This message resonates with senior advocates in the neighborhood, who underscored how significant improved safety at crosswalks, improved sidewalk conditions and longer crossing signals at intersections are for an aging population.

“Because Chinatown is so congested, the city should cater to some of the needs of Chinatown, including sometimes the crosswalk phase,” said Wing Hoo Leung, vice president of the Chinatown Tenants Association (CTA). “There aren’t enough accommodations. The street lights should be longer, since there are a lot of people crossing the street and not enough time for them to cross the street safely.”

Chinatown saw seven fatalities on the streets between 1999 and 2009, and CCDC and CTA hope this initial work will prompt action that will significantly reduce these preventable deaths.

“Rather than waiting for another accident to occur before taking action,” said CCDC’s Chan, “we wanted to proactively identify and systemically rank priority areas where the city and community groups can work together to make the neighborhood safer for pedestrians.”

  • “Along the Stockton corridor, for instance, the Safety Plan recommends increasing pedestrian space, comfort and mobility by adding pedestrian scramble phases and full intersection crosswalk treatments and curb extensions at intersections.”

    Increasing pedestrian space is a MUST.

    Also, there are several intersections along Stockton that currently use the “scramble” crossing. Unless, of course, you are talking about the paint treatment (which is pretty sweet).

    Kudos to CCDC and SFPHD on this study. Chinatown needs to be better pedestrianized.

  • sarah

    Introducing pedestrian scrambles and removing pedestrian obstacles are good starts and these efforts should definitely be happening all over the city. However, considering the rate of car ownership and other demographics in this particular area, it seems a far better way forward would be to shut down Stockton and Grant to all but MUNI, delivery vehicles, and perhaps local traffic from Sacramento to Broadway, opening it up completely to the people who actually live, work, go to school, and shop there. (Just as we always say about Market street, who really wants to drive through this area anyway?)

    I’m optimistic that someday opening up congested streets to the local people who actually use them and shutting them down to motorized through traffic will become less of a radical and unapproachable idea and more a matter of policy. I just hope that San Francisco will lead the way instead of scrambling to catch up when cities like Portland get there first.

  • sarah, that would make the CS unnecessary.

  • This is a study that everyone should be able to get behind and support. Distances in and through transit-oriented Chinatown are short. With Stockton Street rearranged as required to assure good bus movement and pedestrian flow, with today’s convenient bus stop locations, with a speeded up system for loading and unloading passengers, and last but not least with enough low-floor, articulated buses to comfortably meet demand, all Muni riders would be well-served. A further improvement to consider is shifting the southbound leg of the 8x bus to a southbound bus-only lane on Kearny. This shift would both help to ease conditions on Stockton and provide another route of access to downtown San Francisco.

  • I hope they don’t actually emulate the scrambles in Oakland’s Chinatown. Those never give pedestrians a walk signal while traffic has a green light, yet also allow right turns on red at many hours of the day, giving cars a double advantage over pedestrians.

    I dislike the scrambles on Montgomery too, but at least they always prohibit right turns on red and do give a walk signal on green for the no-conflict legs of the intersection.

  • Michael Smith

    Oh swell, another study. Too bad all the implementation funding is going to be sucked up by the Central Subway project.

    We don’t need more studies. We need action plans with identified funding.

  • This doesn’t go far enough in the recommendations. Stockton should be closed to autos or at least narrowed considerably. I suggest taking away the parking on one side of the street and widening the sidewalks. If the main issue is conflict with autos, why not take a portion of them away.

  • Jonathan Bonato

    Closing Stockton to all but Muni and delivery truck traffic would largely eliminate the need for an expensive and extremely short subway, wouldn’t it?

  • Amy

    Before considering closing streets to vehicular traffic, consider the effect on local merchants. Most are barely surviving now. Such restrictions would give customers even more reasons to stop coming here. We are already losing business to outlying “new Chinatowns”, ie. the Ranch 99s, etc. Just look at the loss of many of our older businesses & huge turnover in newer ones. Vacancies abound, then get replaced by more tourist outlets that don’t survive. Would we prefer to lose jobs for a proposed “solution”? Instead I would suggest more no turns on red & enforcing existing traffic laws like those running red lights & double parking. Maybe cameras mounted on signal lights @ busy intersections. CS would help reduce a lot of the vehicular mess by providing access & reducing the need for cars.

  • anonymouse

    How many customers actually drive to Chinatown? Of those, how many actually park on Chinatown streets such as Stockton, as opposed to one of the garages in the area? I think something does need to be done about Stockton, but if, say, it’s narrowed from 3 lanes to 2, and parking is restricted to loading only during business hours, and possibly general traffic is restricted during certain hours too, you could build a surface rail line and get most of the benefit of the Central Subway, without spending a billion dollars, and without forcing passengers to make a long walk and descend down a long escalator from Market to the station, then ride one stop, then go back up four flights of escalators. As it is, I think the total trip time, including the escalators, will be longer with the subway than with the existing buses.

  • No one in their right mind goes to Chinatown and tries to find street parking. You either take Muni or park in one of the garages on the periphery. Right now, the sidewalks in Chinatown are so crowded they are unpleasant to use, driving potential customers away. Last time I was there 9 out 10 of shoppers looked to be neighborhood residents who arrived on foot. Why are all the paying customers spending real money crowded onto scrawny little sidewalks so that a few cars just passing through can take up 90% of the public space? If I thought Chinatown was at all bike friendly, I might go there to shop more often. Currently I go to Clement Street or Irving street in the Outer Sunset because I can get there more easily by bicycle and it’s not so congested that I despair of finding a place to lock up my bike.

    How to make Chinatown a great, fun place that serves the neighborhood and pulls in dollars? Close Grant Street to all motorized traffic! Make it a big pedestrian plaza. Put some outdoor cafe tables in. Tourists will love it. Some cross streets could still be through–say Clay and Sacramento–but Jackson and and Washington should be closed at Grant. Could have Grant open for deliveries from 6am – 8am.

    How to provide good public transit on a heavily used line in a highly congested area? Close Stockton Street to all through traffic but Muni! This is cheap, easy to do, and we would see the benefits in through times and increased ridership immediately.

    The proposed Central Subway is a highly expensive, highly inefficient method of transporting very, very few people and is years off, if ever completed at all. I’m all for investing in new transit infrastructure, but to have a bad project siphon off an enormous amount of money that could go to good projects is an egregious waste and injustice to every taxpayer and citizen in San Francisco.

  • Michael Smith

    taomon, actually lots of people go there expecting street parking. They all coincidentally have disabled placards and take up the parking spaces all day! It is just the *shoppers* who don’t go there by car. And since Chinatown has the lowest per capita car ownership rates of course it isn’t the shoppers who complain about parking.

    Just as an experiment go to Grant and Stockton and see how many parking meters actually have money in them. You will be shocked to see that no spaces are available and pretty much every single one will be occupied by a car with either a disabled placard or with someone sitting in the car to avoid getting a ticket.

    Yet the merchants insist on coddling drivers to the detriment of their pedestrian oriented shoppers. Rather peculiar.

  • taomom, spot on.

    I usually just walk in the street when I have to walk down Stockton. Customers come via foot from the neighborhood, or the 30/45 from BART or 8x from the Bayshore. The central subway would serve none of them (maybe the Bayshore crowd, but once they ride the slow T line and climb a mountain to get up to the surface in Chinatown, they’ll be back on the 8x in no time).

    Stockton should be closed to traffic, Kearny switched to two way. It’s so painfully obvious that I get upset every time I see Stockton turned into a parking lot (which is often). Hell, Stockton should be two ways all the way to Market so that the 30/45 NB can stop at Union Square/Powell Station and hook up with the 38.

    I’d also like to see some traffic calming done to Broadway east of the tunnel because cars come FLYING out of there and speed pass Powell, Stockton, and Grant/Columbus.

  • I really think making Grant St a pedestrian St should be a no brainer. There is nearly no reason anyone should drive there. There is 0 chance to find any street parking since they are all taken up by placard holder all day. The few tourists and visitor who venture there will be trapped, having to fight their way out through the narrow street and pedestrian.

    The street should be pave over with brick and turn into a “historic” pedestrian mall. Merchant should be happy to be able put merchandise on the street, just like those festival days. Drivers are saved from the trouble of getting caught in the street by accident.

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