San Francisco Pedestrian Safety Efforts Mired in City Bureaucracy

Photo: ## Hollero/Orange Photography##

Despite a growing political focus on pedestrian safety, a thick layer of city bureaucracy and lack of funding are stalling real change to prevent pedestrian injuries and fatalities on San Francisco streets, including three deaths in just the last week.

The red tape and dysfunction became abundantly clear at a presentation and discussion at City Hall this morning on San Francisco’s efforts to improve pedestrian safety, which was centered more on the challenges than the solutions.

“We are experiencing a little bit of paralysis by analysis,” said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. “I do think we have solutions and it’s a matter of putting them together and having the will to execute them.”

A report on the city’s pedestrian safety efforts [pdf], requested by Chiu, was presented to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) Board’s plans and programs committee.

Tilly Chang, the SFCTA deputy director of planning who prepared the report, responded to Chiu: “We do know that there is a demand, a justified demand, for capital improvements that have already been effective: the countdowns, the bulbouts, the crosswalks. To some extent the MTA is working on them. We do need more funding.”

Chang said even though there has been “fragmented responsibility” on pedestrian issues, something that’s not unique to San Francisco, the SFMTA is “arguably” the lead agency on pedestrian safety, as it is in charge of managing the city’s streets. However, for many advocates, that agency is not moving fast enough.

“In some ways having the MTA be the agency where it’s centered makes sense, but in some ways the work that the other agencies are doing gets translated into real action on the streets faster and in a way that satisfies people more,” Elizabeth Stampe, the executive director of Walk San Francisco, told Streetsblog after the meeting.

SFMTA Deputy Director of Transportation Planning Timothy Papandreou delivered a presentation that mostly touted the agency’s accomplishments over the last 10 years, and some of its goals and next steps. He said a Pedestrian Task Force — which has 25 members, including representatives from 12 city agencies — “wants to develop the framework to implement the early actions” mandated by the Mayor’s executive directive on pedestrian safety “as soon as possible.”

Chiu told Papandreou that his agency needs to make it clear who is leading pedestrian safety efforts. “The fact that there are so many different agencies working on this is making it confusing for those of us who are not part of your administration, and it would be great to have a real sense of who is in charge,” Chiu said.

Papandreou did acknowledge reducing the speed of automobiles will be key, a point that was hammered home by Rajiv Bhatia, the environmental health director for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

“We’ve calculated that serious injuries could be reduced by over 50 percent from a 5 mile an hour reduction in the traveling speed,” said Bhatia, who added that there are legal and traffic design standard obstacles getting in the way of improvements.

Despite the frustration among advocates and some supervisors, Bhatia said all of the city agencies were making “a good faith effort” to address the problem.

Today’s discussion also focused on the need for data integration and better enforcement efforts by the San Francisco Police Department, which had no representative at the meeting. The committee agreed to bring the item back for discussion at a later date.

Stampe of Walk SF said she is anxious for something to start happening on the streets, and agreed with Chiu’s “paralysis by analysis” statement.

“I am concerned about analyzing the problem into oblivion. We need action. We have a lot of good plans for how to change our streets in the city. Where is the implementation? People have been waiting a long time,” she said.

  • Erica

    Oddly enough, there’s plenty of money to replace perfectly good bus shelters for no reason. But there’s no money to save lives of pedestrians?????
    No money to place a few mini-benches on sidewalks where seniors need to rest for a moment?

  • Jack

    Don’t forget the parklets…

  • Evan

    I think Viacom is paying for the bus shelters, or something.

  • Clear channel, part of their contract. It isn’t SFMTA money, as much of a slap in the face as it feels like.

    Parklets are clearly draining the city’s pedestrian safety funds!

  • Jack

    Being flippant re: parklets

    How much does it cost, really, to paint zebra stripes in the crosswalks and to flip the traffic lights to a four-way stop mode to help slow cars down as they approach intersections?

  • I know Jack, I picked it up and ran with it.

    Apparently painting cross walks is expensive because there are areas all over the city, but I’d love to see some numbers. Masonic and Van Ness come to mind as some of the worst examples of faded paint.

    Also, new paint doesn’t get drivers to actually slow (and especially stop) behind the stop line. Drivers continuely roll or stop (if they do actually stop) well into the crosswalk forcing pedestrians to really be on their toes or out into traffic to go around the vehicle.

  • Jack – it wasn’t parklets that got in the way – it was laziness.

  • ZA

    Did I hear a privatized solution? Sell the crosswalks to advertising interests! [tongue firmly in cheek]

  • Jack Walker

    In the mid ’90’s folks were getting run down right and left. Everyone agreed that by simply lengthening the yellow, some called it a zen pause, would improve life on the streets for all. I don’t think anything came of it. Instead of fixing the problem through maintenance the city tries to fix it through capital projects. They decided to replace the vertical pole mounted lights with lights stretching across the street. They started removing SF’s traditional 4 way stops with lights. They seem to replace the same curb cut every other year, the infinite curb cut replacement project, and finally they installed count down crossing signals. The newest thing is the stupid audible crossing signal. I don’t think the things even work.

    Of these the only step I believe that had any value are the count down crossing signals. The other steps are probably counter productive if you listen to the latest ideas of traffic calming coming out of Holland, Germany and Denmark.

    Back to lengthening yellow lights. Just do it for heaven’s sake. It ain’t sexy, it ain’t a big capital program that needs a lot of management, it just a simple effective, and inexpensive way to fix red light running.

  • susan king

    How about calling for greater traffic enforcement aimed at dangerous driving? Speeding, failing to stop at the stop line (or stopping at all) before turning on a red, distracted driving should be at the top of the list. Mandatory citations for drivers who cause injuries and are found at fault seems like a no-brainer, but it is shocking to find out how few citations are issued to dangerous drivers who cause collisions.

    We can engineer and educate too, but without enforcement of existing laws designed to protect the public on our streets, drivers will continue to put others in harms way without consequence.


  • it’s your world!

    I agree with Susan. Drivers behave badly all the time every day with very little consequence.

    I drive, I walk, and I bike and I’ll say that I can be an a-hole in each mode (depending on my mood) but the consequences of my bad mood are so much higher as a driver. “Out of my way, peasant!” and the next thing you know I’m knocking down an old lady.

    Part of the problem is that we forget what a privilege it is to drive — how miraculous to be able to pile into a metal box and float away in comfort. For most, that experience trumps all other modes. We simply don’t charge enough for the privilege. SFpark anyone?

  • DanaPointer

    Simple, cameras at all intersections and automatic tickets for infractions by drivers.

  • Al

    Would long yellow lights really fix anything? Seems like people would get used to it after a few months and adjust their driving to compensate.

    As for the Muni shelters, it may well be that Viacom is paying for them, but then that just means that the MTA should have made a better contract and made Viacom pay for something more useful, like track maintenance.

  • EL

    Believe it or not, I could really see the “more money needed” argument. I think I heard somewhere that installing curb ramps at an interesection costs over $60K. And just look at how much it cost to redo just a few blocks of Valencia, and the sidewalk only got a mere 2-feet wider – not even enough to fit an extra body walking along the “new” sidewalk.

  • adak

    I drive around the city all day long, and the number of people who test the traffic intersections/jaywalk mid block are unbelievable! To START walking across an intersection with “one” on the count down sign, and expect EVERYONE TO stop for them because they are “ENTITLED” is BS.

    The bike riders who “demand equal rights/access” who do not pay for license fees, insurance, and feel the traffic laws are designed for someone else is again BS. But they want bike lanes & traffic segregation for their safety. At night do they wear reflector vest, have lights on front and rear, and or have reflectors in their tires. No, only a few who want to live. In other cities they would be cited & fined accordingly, but SFO lacks the balls to go against the bicyclists!

    A perfect storm: bike rider crashes into a pedestrian, neither have ID and or insurance.

  • EL

    Adak – While I disagree with you on many points, there was a fixie who hit a pedestrian on Mission Street several weeks back. When the article was first posted, Streetsblog primary concern (believe it or not) was about how fixie riders were portrayed as “young hipsters”. After I pointed out that the pedestrian was in critical condition for days and that was probably more important than how fixie riders were portrayed did Streetsblog revise the article.

    Interestingly, I also pointed out how no one seemed up in arms to cite the fixie rider, but they do when a pedestrian is killed by a motorist at Townsend and 2nd.

  • The fixie rider ran a green light. Terrible!

  • EL, several people said he should be cited. He ran a green, just like the driver of the big rig. You have to yield the right-of-way, any failure to do so should result in a citation.

    I also don’t recall any mention of the condition of the pedestrian, I think an update would be nice.

    And adak, take it back to sfgate. Everyone is an asshole, yes we know. And saying the cyclists don’t pay for road infrastructure is about as tired and worn an argument as there is. It has been debated and debunked a million times over.

  • On the topic of red tape holding ped safety projects back, didn’t the city create a better streets division (or something along those lines) to coordinate all the other city depts (MTA, DPW, etc) so that projects can be completed in the most efficient manner possible?

  • SteveS

    @Al From what I’ve read, extending yellow lights has been found to be most effective physical change that can be made to reduce collisions at intersections, with pedestrian countdown signals being the second most effective. Longer yellows also improve bike safety, as yellow phases designed with cars in mind are often far too short for bikes when crossing distances are large.

    Lack of funding is really no excuse on a lot of these issues. The city has already aggressively installed countdown signals to most of the city, which did require some investment. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be extending yellow lights, as it costs almost nothing to implement and once implemented there is zero recurring cost. And there’s really no reason they shouldn’t be hiring more motorcycle officers to increase safety enforcement, which would be revenue-positive and create jobs!

  • Charlie

    audible signals work for the visually impaired and have been installed at many locations under pressure from advocates for the visually impaired.

  • triple0

    With four deaths in two weeks caused by the same group of people (drivers) — maybe it’s time for SFPD to crack down on drivers from associating on a massive scale — a Gang Injunction against Motorists?

  • I hear they gather en masse weekday mornings and evenings, ruining EVERYBODY’s commute. They must be stopped! I also caught wind that the radio tells you where the largest gathers are, those “traffic” reporters are accessories as well.

  • aShep

    Regarding the extension of yellow lights, an additional change — or perhaps an entirely alternative one — would be to lengthen the gap between “reds” and “greens”. My experience living in D.C. was that motorists adjusted to the longer yellow signals; they simply had more distance before the intersection in which to accelerate to beat the light. A delayed green light allows a buffer between the adjacent red. While many motorists cheat on yellow lights, motorists (very generally) do not “cheat on greens” and do not enter intersections until the light turns to green.

    One other thing about SF signal lights (an even easier fix): the pedestrian countdown signals turn from “walk” to flashing “don’t-walk” way too late in their cycles.

  • Jack

    The biggest danger I experience repeatedly in SoMa is a driver with a green light approaching an intersection to make a right or left turn without slowing down to take into account the possibility of a legally crossing pedestrian in the crosswalk. With our long, uninterrupted 600′ blocks in SoMa, cars can easily get up to 40 MPH when approaching intersections. Add to that crosswalks that are blocked by eager drivers, and it becomes a human game of Frogger just within the 3′ of the crosswalk.

  • Max


    There’s an obvious problem with enforcing such “accidents”. And that is that the police invariably only arrive after the scene of an accident, and it’s usually a “he said, she said” situation, with both parties pointing fingers.

    That won’t stand up in court and they know it. So generally traffic accidents get “enforced” (if at all) in civil court and through insurance. Since driver have to have insurance, and pedestrians and cyclists don’t. that’s a ones-way bet.

    Also, police resources are limited, and increasing enforcement in some area’s inevitably means decreasing it in others. So if you want cops to spend more time on this, what would you like them to spend less time on? You’re second guessing what police priorities should be.

  • triple0

    Max: Considering two times as many people die every year due to road deaths (40,000) than murder (18,000), how about the police spend a proportionate time investigating road deaths as they do murders?

    The police are fixated on ‘violent crime’ and ‘public safety’ — but fail to recognize that the greatest threat to safety is car drivers, and the largest public space is our roads. Less on guns, gangs, low-level drug dealers — and more on real safety.

    Murders are a ‘he said, other guy’s dead’ — and they seem to find time to investigate those…

  • “Despite a growing political focus on pedestrian safety, a thick layer of city bureaucracy and lack of funding are stalling real change to prevent pedestrian injuries and fatalities on San Francisco streets, including three deaths in just the last week.”

    Something really needs to be done. This is so preventable. We just need to get on it and keep our pedestrian’s safe.


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