Advocates: Despite Bike-Ped Death, Cars Still Greatest Danger to Peds

Bayshore and Alemany Boulevards, next to a Highway 101 onramp. High-speed motor vehicles on streets like these still pose the greatest threat to pedestrians by far. Photo: Aaron Bialick

In the midst of a wave of media attention around the recent bicycle-pedestrian death in the Castro, walking and bicycling advocates today re-affirmed the greatest dangers facing pedestrians on San Francisco’s streets: high-speed roads and dangerous driving behavior.

In a KQED radio forum this morning, Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe, SF Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) Executive Director Leah Shahum, SF Bicycle Advisory Committee Chair Bert Hill, and Captain Al Casciato of the SFPD Traffic Company all seemed to agree that the recent death of Sutchi Hui was as tragic as any, and that safer streets will require better street engineering as well as more effective enforcement and education efforts to elicit more courteous behavior among people using all modes of transport.

Still, there’s no question, they said: The vast majority of the more than 800 pedestrian injuries or deaths on San Francisco’s streets every year involve motorists and occur disproportionately on high-speed “arterial” streets.

“In a way, this is kind of a man-bites-dog story,” Stampe said of the bike-ped crash — an event receiving an unusual amount of attention precisely because it happens so infrequently, while too-common car-pedestrian crashes go vastly under-reported. “This is a real tragedy,” Stampe continued. “I don’t think anybody disagrees, a lot of people are upset, and it’s not okay for people to be hit in a crosswalk and killed in San Francisco. But the fact remains that three people a day are hit by cars… and that’s an underestimate.”

In fact, four other pedestrians have been killed this year alone, according to the SFPD, two of them in the same week as the bike-pedestrian fatality. The death of one still-unidentified victim killed by a Muni bus driver also made national headlines, but the other three victims killed by auto drivers, including 45-year-old Tom Ferguson (killed on the same day as the bus victim), received little more than a few blurbs in the media.

As the SF Bay Guardian pointed out, from 2000 to 2009, 220 pedestrians were killed in San Francisco, mostly by car drivers who rarely face criminal charges. None of those deaths are known to have involved bicycles. Media attention, however, seems to have focused on the two fatal bicycle crashes that occurred within the last year, and their reports rarely provide the statistics about traffic deaths in San Francisco. (Some of the more dramatic cases, like the Concord driver who ran over a family biking on the sidewalk this weekend, killing two, tend to garner more media attention.)

The behavior of Chris Bucchere, the bicycle rider who killed 71-year-old Sutchi Hui at Castro and Market Streets, has been roundly condemned, even by bicycling advocates, particularly in light of an online post in which Bucchere described “plowing through the crosswalk” and seemed more concerned about his broken helmet than about Hui.

“Of course, if there were problems and someone behaved recklessly, they should be held accountable. I would be the first to say that,” said Shahum of the SFBC. “Fortunately, though… these are very rare occurrences.”

The SFBC, Shahum pointed out, has long provided bicycling education classes and outreach efforts which instruct bicyclists to always yield to pedestrians. In fact, the organization released its new “Bicycle Rules of the Road” tip sheet for its Bicycle Education and Safety Week during the same week Hui was injured. Last Friday, in light of Hui’s death, the SFBC set up an outreach booth to hand out safety literature on Market Street and released a statement saying staff is “deeply saddened” by the news and “troubled” by Bucchere’s account of the crash.

While a few callers on this morning’s forum complained of bicyclists “flying all over” with impunity, Captain Casciato assured the audience that officers issue “quite a bit of citations” to bicyclists. He also pointed out the value of offering alternatives to traffic fines. In “the next couple weeks,” he said, the department will roll out a bicycle and pedestrian traffic school program, similar to the options available to drivers. The department will also make it easier for bicyclists who have received traffic citations to file formal complaints about street engineering that is difficult for bicyclists to navigate legally, he said.

Far more effective in reducing pedestrian injuries will be the SFPD’s new targeted enforcement plan, which focuses on the most dangerous violations in the areas with the highest rates of pedestrian crashes. As Stampe pointed out, over half of the city’s pedestrian injuries occur on just five percent of its streets — namely, high-speed roads in areas like the Tenderloin and South of Market.

“It’s pretty intuitive. It’s the wide, fast streets that act like freeways, where folks feel like they can drive really fast and don’t have to watch out for each other,” said Stampe. “What that tells us is if we can target our enforcement and our fixing the streets in those areas, we can make a big difference pretty fast and keep a lot more people safe.”

  • peternatural

    Bicycles are vastly outnumbered by cars — I’ve heard that only 6% of trips in SF are by bike. But what percent of spending on roads in SF has gone toward bicycling infrastructure? I don’t know, but I’d guess it’s a tiny fraction of 1 percent. (Painted bike lanes and sharrows are practically free). Even the Masonic upgrade isn’t mostly about bikes. That road is due for getting repaved anyway, and if they simply repaved it in its current configuration, I doubt it would cost much less than the proposed design. Once spending on cycling infrastructure is at least commensurate with cycling’s mode share, we can talk about how unfair it is to drivers. Until then, try enjoying your subsidized lifestyle without complaining that the subsidy is too small!

    p.s. Roads in SF are funded by property and sales taxes, which everyone pays. (Renters pay property taxes indirectly).

  • SFGate.com is leaking again.

  • mikesonn

    @google-333a3c6be8253ca72913510f16918446:disqus This is for NYC and about road space, not spending, but the disconnect is clear.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2011/03/01/there-is-no-war-on-cars/

  • Dave Moore

    peternatural: I think the bulk of road spending goes towards maintenance (potholes, etc…) Doesn’t that benefit both cyclists and drivers? I guess you would claim that potholes are so bad because of cars and maybe they are worsened more because of cars than bikes but there’s also weather, buses, trucks, etc… The roads are shared and bikes need smooth roads at least as much as cars do.

    With the leftover money we do various improvements. And I claim that the improvement money has been spent disproportionately on bikes (more than 6%). Of course I’m not staring at the real numbers so I could be wrong. Does Doyle Drive count, or does that come from other funding sources? Other than that every road improvement in the city I can think of had at least a major bike component, and Doyle probably does too. 

  • Dave Moore

    mikesonn: I was getting at the idea that taking cars off the road so that people could bike will likely not ease the burden on the remaining drivers. Plus not all cyclists represent a displaced driver. It’s often stated on this board that more cyclists is better for the remaining drivers and I’m not sure that’s the case.

  • mikesonn

    So we’re basing this discussion on hunches and guesses?

    @azb324:disqus Can you add some data? Maybe a history of cycling infrastructure in Netherlands how it influenced cycling usage. Another example of why we need a “refresher” link on the sidebar. My NYC link went unread, but maybe Dave will take a look at other links (hoping).

  • Anonymous

    Cars are a known quantity.  There is no question that they kill, hence there is no reason to cover automobile accidents unless the driver showed outrageous neglect, such as the DUI who seriously injured a young baseball fan or the driver who attempted to enter the MUNI tunnel..  Bicycyles that kill are something novel, so they get more attention. Also,pedestrians have had negative interactions with bicycles. 

  • @pchazzz:disqus so you are so numb from automobile deaths that they do not warrant coverage? How callous and inhumane.

  • mikesonn

    @pchazzz:disqus That’s pretty bad, but a logical next step in your commenting trajectory.

  • Anonymous

    @google-333a3c6be8253ca72913510f16918446:disqus wrote: “Good argument, but unfortunately it can’t be proved or disproved until
    you’re done and forced everyone to go through a fair amount of pain and
    cost.”

    It has been done and proved to work. See Amsterdam, Utretch, Copenhagen, etc. Highest cycling rates and yet these cities have some of the world’s highest standards of living and most happy people.

    Now it hasn’t been done in the US (though a handful of cities like Portland and Davis are getting close). But it is American Exceptionalism to think that we as people are any different than those anywhere else. People are people no matter where you go, and we all want the same things.

    “There are smart moves that can be made for small cost but the city
    seems very willing to commit to big things (the Masonic changes for
    example) without acknowledging the pain they will put people through or
    having rational discussions about them all in the name of this 20 by 20
    plan and the “transit first” program that got turned into “bikes first”.”

    The “pain they will put people through”? What evidence do you have that adding bike lanes/cycletracks will put people through pain? That’s what they said about Valencia St, Market St, Embarcdero, etc., etc. and every time there’s been, at worse, no ill effect.

    Bike lanes are very cheap compared to roads. That’s not just because they are thinner, but because they don’t need to be made as “high-tech” because bikes weigh so little and hence have much less wear and tear on them. Adding a cycle track when you are redoing a road anyway for the motorist’s benefit (see, for example, Cesar Chavez) is a small cost that, once you reach that goal of having a complete network throughout the city I mentioned in the previous post, is well worth that small cost.

    “Or maybe, just like the studies that show that adding capacity doesn’t
    improve traffic, all you’ve done is made it harder for most people to
    get around while a minority bikes.”

    You have extracted exactly the wrong conclusion from this concept. Those studies showed exactly what you said: adding capacity doesn’t *improve* *traffic*. But bicyclists don’t have a traffic problem! That isn’t the problem we are solving right now! I can only wish there was bicycle traffic. Right now, we have the *opposite* problem.

    Also, In the end, people have to move through a city. So if you are designing a city from scratch (so there isn’t all this car infrastructure in place to bias your opinion towards the automobile), would you choose the layout so things were far apart and people had to use a 4,000 lb vehicle that is 10×4 ft and requires all kinds of real estate to store and kills and maims people regularly (because it’s so large and over-powered)? Or would you design things so that people can walk (no extra weight or size), bicycle (weighs 20 lbs and takes up so little space you can stuff it in your apartment), and take public transit (large, but extremely efficient)? In such a proposition without any preconceived bias and truly considering all the issues involved in each form of transit (i.e., not externalizing the damage to the environment and our health that fossil fuel combustion causes and how large vehicles are dangerous, loud, and dehumanize to our cities), the most rational thing to do is to prioritize walking, cycling, and public transit. If you are truly concerned about “traffic” of whatever type, then you would choose the most efficient form of transit. That is patently *not* the automobile. So sure, we’ve got ourselves in this mess and our cities have been completely designed around the automobile in the last century, but our goal now should be to as quickly as possible change that and develop sustainable ways of moving people around our cities.

  • Anonymous

    Just saying how the media looks at it.  Anything that is novel will receive coverage.  Automobiles killing people is not new. Bicycles killing people is new. Not saying it’s right, just saying how it is. Pretty much what Elizabeth Stampe the director of Walk SF said in her comments.

  • mikesonn

    @pchazzz:disqus All someone has to do is expand your profile to see your past comments and know you are full of it.

  • Yet Caltrain kills 15-20 people annually. Discuss.

  • Bicyclists think of themselves as noble [citation needed]

  • Anonymous

    Insert any number of comments and/or SF Streetsblog articles about how when you bicycle instead of drive you make the streets safer, you reduce global warming, you improve your health, yadda yadda yadda, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. 

  • mikesonn

    @pchazzz:disqus Brushing off deaths that you deem to be so frequent as to not be worthy of news coverage does not, in any way, compare to explaining what the benefits of cycling are (whether you agree with said benefits or not).

  • Anonymous

    Context, context, context. My comment was relative to the groundswell of anger directed at bicyclists as a result of the recent bike-ped deaths, even though cars pose a far greater threat to peds.  First off, don’t blame me for the lack of coverage of car-ped deaths, it’s the news directors who don’t deem it worthy of coverage, not me.  Second, the holier-than-thou attitude of cyclists for the reasons given has created a gap between how cyclists perceive themselves versus how they are perceived by the general public.  When a cyclist screws up as badly as Bucchere did, that suppressed anger that is felt toward cyclists in general now has an outlet.  Capice?

  • This “holier than thou attitude of cyclists” is a fabrication. When a motorist screws up and almost runs over a cyclist, and the cyclist screams at them, the motorist can do one of two things. Apologize, or demonize the other. Apologizing is not in the American DNA. So instead let’s make fun of the cyclists.

  • Anonymous

    @pchazzz:disqus wrote: “Just saying how the media looks at it.  Anything that is novel will
    receive coverage.  Automobiles killing people is not new. Bicycles
    killing people is new. Not saying it’s right, just saying how it is.
    Pretty much what Elizabeth Stampe the director of Walk SF said in her
    comments.”

    Totally agree. And that is what we’re trying to change. We all agree that this is the status quo, where what is truly causing the most damage is ignored/accepted while that which is rare is given all kinds of attention. So many (especially here) would argue we need to change that, as having perception skewed from reality I think we can all agree is bad. But you seem to be arguing that we should just accept it as human behavior and move on. I completely disagree, and many (including Streetsblog) think that we must change this perception. So that’s why we’re here talking about it.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a pragmatist not an idealist. I think that human nature is difficult, though not impossible, to overcome.  I certainly think we should try, however.

  • mikesonn

    “I certainly think we should try, however.”

    You have an interesting way of trying.

  • Guest

    “Second, the holier-than-thou attitude of cyclists”and what of the holier-than-thou attitude of motorists?  

  • khalil

    Phil, I think Streetsblog is justifiably upset because organizations like Streetsblog have been working for years for safer streets, and its only when a cyclist kills a pedestrian that the mainstream media picks up on the fact that streets are dangerous places for pedestrians. But as the article points out, streets are hazardous not because peds are routinely hit and killed by bicyclists, but by cars.

    Unfortunately, Chris Bucchere’s conduct feeds into the stereotype people have about the arrogant, reckless bicyclist. But this is, to be sure, a “man bites dog” story because this story happens so infrequently. The mundane, hit-by-a-car story that happens day in and day out is ignored because frankly, it isn’t really “news” unless it happens to you or your loved one. Bucchere’s conduct is painful to me because I bike day in and day out and do it lawfully, but his conduct will tar other cyclists like myself with the same brush..

    Meanwhile, we do have a double standard. A lot of peds are killed by motorists committing moving violation. Where is the outrage? Once you get beyond stereotypes, you gotta wonder why death in the street is treated so casually.

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