Lesson in Upcoming Memorial for Thu Phan: Stop Compromising on Safety

SFMTA crews are improving crosswalk viability. Photo: SFMTA.
SFMTA crews are improving crosswalk visibility. Photo: SFMTA.

On Tuesday, March 1, at noon, advocates for vulnerable road users will hold a memorial for Thu Phan, a woman who was killed by a city vehicle while she was crossing the street at 7th and Market in her motorized wheel chair. The memorial will be held at UN Plaza, adjacent to the crossing where she was hit. Afterwards, participants will walk to City Hall to testify at 1 pm at the SFMTA Board Meeting. 38-year-old Phan of Berkeley was fatally struck on the morning of Friday, Feb. 5, by a white Ford sedan making a restricted left turn across the crosswalk.

The turn was restricted to commercial and Muni vehicles. Although the car was owned by the city and was driven by an employee of a city clinic, it was not permitted to make that turn, despite conflicting reports at the time of the incident.

“It has been confirmed that city drivers are not exempt from traffic laws,” said Jessica Lehman, Executive Director of Senior and Disability Action, an advocacy group. However, trucks, taxis, and Muni vehicles are held to a different standard at that intersection.

It’s hard to imagine how a turn can be unsafe for private vehicles, but safe for everyone else. Is someone less dead if they’re hit by a taxi or a truck? Also, in defense of motorists, the intersection is confusing. Imagine being in the lane behind a bus, which makes the turn, and a cab, which makes the turn, and a truck, which makes the turn. How can a driver at the back of that queue, ideally watching out for pedestrians and other vulnerable users, also be expected to read a list of allowed and not-allowed vehicles and figure out what applies? The sign is a driver distraction. Safe street advocates intend to use the memorial to demand fewer exemptions from that turning restriction.

“It’s a ridiculous thing,” said Lehman, adding that she still does not think “confusion is an excuse for any driver making an illegal turn.” That said, both Lehman and Nicole Ferrara, her counterpart at Walk San Francisco, want the city to take a look at the engineering of that turn and how it can be made safer.

Physical barriers save lives. Signs that make exceptions for unsafe turns do not. Photo: SFMTA
Physical barriers save lives. Signs that make exceptions for unsafe turns do not. Photo: SFMTA

The announcement of the memorial came at the same time as a release from SFMTA indicating that they are ahead on their goals for Vision Zero. “In the 24th month of our goal of completing 24 Vision Zero projects in 24 months, we’ve completed 30, as Mayor Ed Lee announced this week,” wrote the agency in a release sent to Streetsblog. The 30th set of safety improvements, according to SFMTA, was completed in the Excelsior at the Persia Triangle. At the intersection of Persia Street, Mission Street, and Ocean Avenue, new sidewalk bulb-outs and better street lighting have made pedestrian crossings safer.

According to an SFMTA release, the other five additional Vision Zero improvements completed since November are:

  • Safer signal timing at the top 20 intersections for broadside collision injuries.
  • Red curb zones for visibility (daylighting), safer signal timing, and bicycle safety measures at the intersections on Polk Street between McAllister and Union streets.
  • Signal timing changes and continental crosswalks at Ocean/Plymouth and Ocean/Miramar and a new crossing signal at Geneva/Cayuga.
  • Continental crosswalks at Kearny and Sacramento, and continental crosswalks and a leading signal pedestrian interval at Kearny and Geary.
  • Buffered bike lane, continental crosswalks, painted safety zones, advanced stop lines, and leading pedestrian signal intervals at Howard Street between 4th and 10th streets.

A full list of SFMTA Vision Zero projects is available here.

It’s great to see so much progress resulting from the hard work of so many advocates and passionate, caring city officials. But given the issues highlighted by Phan’s death and backpedaling on safety improvements on Powell and others, one has to wonder, how many other compromises are being made to placate business and city interests?

Phan’s memorial, meanwhile, will be attended by friends and family, disability rights advocates, Supervisors Jane Kim, Eric Mar, and Norman Yee, members of the Vision Zero Coalition, and other advocates for vulnerable road users.

  • gneiss

    While I appreciate the number of projects that SFMTA have been able to finish, it seems like they are nibbling away at the edges of what’s possible rather than re-engineering the streets to make them more pedestrian focused. The back-pedaling they went through for the Taraval-L community meeting is symptomatic of the focus of SFMTA. It’s seems like their matra is:

    Don’t anger motorists. Don’t anger merchants. Preserve parking.

    The SFMTA, DPW, and SFFD need to change the existing car focus street designs through putting up real barriers and diverters and narrowing our streets and lanes. They need to reduce the ability for cars to go quickly into parts of the city where we expect to see numerous people walking and biking. If that means angering motorists, then so be it. What’s better – continuing to have death on our streets or allowing people to save 15 minutes off their commute times? The consequences are that we will continue to have negative safety outcomes, regardless of how much lipstick and paint they slap on the pig of our infrastructure.

  • mx

    The Market St. restrictions are incredibly confusing. I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that some of the advantages we gain by having fewer cars on Market are taken away by the disadvantage of having puzzled motorists. A few things I’ve seen recently:

    – A woman headed EB on Market at 11th, plaintively begging anyone who passes by for help: “Can I drive on the red part??” She truly had no clue.

    – Private autos driving EB on Market past 10th instead of making the required right turn. I’ve seen this even as clearly visible SFPD are pulling over other drivers for the same offense. I’ve seen a line of 10+ cars waiting for tickets for doing this. Some of these people are intentionally breaking the law because they want a shortcut, but I believe a good number are truly confused. Ticketing people does not help, because there’ll always be another confused driver coming along soon enough.

    – People driving down the middle of the bike lanes and/or using them for loading (wide bike lanes mean they’re big enough for cars too). The green pavement treatment isn’t so clear at night, and in many places there’s nowhere for blocks to pickup/drop off passengers or load/unload goods.

    – A dangerous situation on WB Market at Van Ness. Private autos are stacked up down the block during the evening commute hours, blocked by right turns onto Van Ness (across a high volume of peds and bikes) and the bus lane on their left. I’m surprised we don’t see more right hook collisions there.

    – Bikes and cars now forced to share a narrow lane in lower Market, when previously the right lane could operate primarily as a de facto bike lane with the occasional right turning auto.

    – City vehicles routinely violating every posted traffic law, including making left turns in the middle of Market. If everyone is supposed to abide by these rules, city workers should too.

    All the signage on Market St is too difficult to read, and the city’s standard response when it fails is to put up yet more signage, making it even more confusing. We want drivers paying attention to their surroundings and looking out for hazards, not interpreting complex signs (how is a tourist in a rental car supposed to understand the Powell St restrictions?). New street designs need to be engineered to be intuitive to all users, not covered in a maze of regulatory signage.

  • thielges

    This comes down to politics and democracy. The voting public is overwhelming made up of motorists and that will bias their judgement.

    Though SFMTA employees are not directly elected, their policies and their jobs are influenced by elected officials. So long as motorists are in such a large majority we can expect these public policies to be influenced by motorist’s desires.

    Mode-share demographics are changing though and every little bit of even substandard infrastructure enables a few more people to try car-free transportation. If on the flipside we could divert some of the billions flowing towards incremental dead-end freeway and road expansion that would also help people make sane transportation choices.

    Car free modeshare doesn’t need to reach 51% to have an effect. Even at a small 5-10% the car-less voting block can have significant influence. And every car-free person has a network of family and friends, some of whom can identify with the benefits of better infrastructure.

  • mx

    In San Francisco, the car-less voting block is well over 5-10%.

    As an example, prop L (the “cars first” measure) in 2014 had 63% vote against it. Increases for transit funding also won handily in that election.

  • gneiss

    This argument is a cop out. Everyone walks. Not everyone is a motorists. To suggest that ‘commute mode share’ should be used as a proxy for not making our streets safe to navigate by walking is ridiculous. This has more to do with how traffic engineers are trained, which is to consider LOS before safety. It has to do with how Firefighters think that response time in big firetrucks is more important than safety of people walking. That’s what needs to change, not the “voting public”.

    The city has committed to a “Vision Zero” approach on our city streets. If they really mean that, and I believe that a majority of the Supervisors do, then they need to commit to making the changes required on the streets rather than just paying lip service and putting down paint and expecting it to have any significant impact on safety.

  • murphstahoe

    SF needs to just suck it up and close the street. End of story, end of confusion.

  • jd_x

    While we no doubt have to deal with the reality that most people drive, that shouldn’t be a barrier. It’s the same reason only a minority of people are disabled yet we have disabled access infrastructure everywhere. Further, why would the city even install any bike infrastructure if it’s only a minority using it? And the answer is: because the majority people are at least somewhat rational and recognize that people who bicycle and walk need some sort of infrastructure (even if second-rate and anachronistic). Further, we live in a democracy so the tyranny of the majority must be trumped by the rights of the minority. The idea is that the experts — our government planners at the MTA, Planning Dept, etc — are acting rationally to protect minorities, especially when said minority holds the secret to reducing stated, official goals for reducing emissions and injuries/deaths.

  • Flatlander

    it’s really not about preserving LOS for motorists, It’s about preserving efficiency for Muni. The “No left except Muni” stuff all over town reflects that the city clearly prioritizes transit over driving. But the bottom line is that it’s pretty damn hard to do effective surface public transportation without compromising ped safety. Transit has to go underground. It will be expensive, but if not now (when the economy is great), then when?

  • gneiss

    I disagree. Talk to any traffic engineer and they will tell you that the reason they design streets is to the anticipated level of service. In point of fact, the whole reason why a CEQA challange was made to the bike plan was over perceived changes in LOS and how that would effect air quality. If the city traffic engineers wanted to preserve efficiency for MUNI and discourage car use they can still great barriers for cars and keep lanes open for public transit only. Narrowing lanes for cars does not impinge MUNI. They can create low curb barriers that better delineate what’s MUNI and what are for cars and trucks. They can ban cars from the central business district.

    The larger issue is that taxis have been given similar levels of access to MUNI. Since a taxi is essentially a car, the only way they can prevent private cars is through regulatory signage, which is shown time and time again to be confusing and contradictory, particularly with the proliferation of Lyft and Uber who want to be treated just like taxis. It’s not MUNI, its cars that are the problem.

  • mx

    Taxi drivers contend that the city charter grants them the right to do anything Muni can do. This is obviously nonsense to some degree (taxis aren’t welcome in the Sunset Tunnel and no amount of legal wrangling will fix that), but it’s what they claim. Specifically, the city’s transit-first policy, which is part of the Charter, defines public transit as: “including taxis and vanpools.” Therefore we get:

    “4. Transit priority improvements, such as designated transit lanes and streets and improved signalization, shall be made to expedite the movement of public transit vehicles (including taxis and vanpools) and to improve pedestrian safety.”

    And so, whenever we have bus only lanes or turns, the taxi drivers insist they have to be included too. Of course, they also routinely make left turns in the middle of Market with impunity, so I’m not sure what barriers would stop them anyway.

  • thielges

    I did not mean that to be a cop out but rather an acknowledgement of reality. If you don’t think public opinion can sway public policy then you’re missing a great opportunity for change.

    jd_x brings up the ADA minority comparison. There’s one big difference there. Like ethnic minorities, the disabled minority really has no choice to become un-disabled. The same cannot be said for someone who commutes on a bike. The liberty in question becomes a lot murkier if there are “easy, obvious” alternatives, as in the ubiquitous “Get a car!” crowd is quick to remind us when we take a lane.

    And that is what causes much of the inertia to change here. A decent sized chunk of the public thinks that accommodation for non-motorized transport is optional. In fact much of the road building done from between the 1940s to the 1980s embodies the idea that everybody drives: no sidewalks, no bus duckouts, no crosswalks, no bike lanes.

    I don’t know about y’all but I’ve been to plenty of contentious public meetings where those in opposition are livid that their ability to drive is being made less convenient to make roads more accessible for recreational bicyclists. You know the spiel: “I’m stuck in traffic trying to get to work and these guys out on a fun ride have a whole lane to themselves!”. Never mind that most of those people on bikes are also going to work, the reality is that the vocal opposition is out of touch with reality.

    Public opinion does matter and it does affect public policy in a number of ways: through direct legislation and indirectly through the windshield perspective those in a position to make decisions. Increasing non-motor modeshare is going to eat away at those perceptions and result in change for the better.

    The most direct way to change the consensus reality is to change the consensus.

  • “Can I drive on the red part?”

    You’ve never been able to drive in Bus Only lanes. Red is just supposed to make them more obvious. The previous signs saying NO are still there.

  • thielges

    Good point about the ADA minority. But one key difference is that transportation mode is a choice where as disability is not.

  • mx

    Sure. I’m just saying that even with the street painted red, labeled with text, and signs posted, some people are legitimately confused by the situation to the extent this woman stopped her car and begged pedestrians for help. We can shake our head at how this can be, but the fact is that people are confused, and more regulatory signage isn’t going to help.

  • Fultonian

    I would urge anyone who is actually interested in doing something to take a look at the history of SFMTA’s latest proposals. The initial staff proposal is usually a set of fairly strong and simple proposals – I’m sure not perfect, but at least clear and direct – then each time the proposal is presented to the public, it is watered down to placate this or that group. Transit lanes become bus-taxi lanes become part-time bus-taxi lanes. Bulbouts become painted areas or removed altogether. Bike lanes become sharrows. Boarding islands become cross-hatches in the streets.

    The public reaction to the proposal freaks out the elected officials who tell the staff to water it down. It seems simple to me. So the electeds need to be shown that they won’t face political consequences for standing up for safety improvements or they will face consequences for not standing up for those improvements. That’s the only way this changes. Cranky people will show up like at the Taraval meeting. We either need to teach our City’s leadership not to be afraid of curmudgeons, or to be more afraid of people like us.

  • ARRO

    or simply re-open it allowing everyone to pay attention to the road and each-other, not a silly maze of rainbows and signs.

  • So set it back to the situation which was known to be unsafe? Right. “Everyone to pay attention to the road and each-other”, yeah, except that doesn’t happen. That’s why changes are proposed.

  • neroden

    If you can’t afford a car, transportation mode isn’t a choice.

    Walking (or rolling your wheelchair) is the only transportation mode everyone has access to. Sidewalk improvements really should be prioritized.

  • neroden

    California changed the law so that LOS is no longer to be used as the primary measurement. So that should change things, if the local engineers even NOTICE.

  • Filamino

    We could put in a small overhead sign that would solve the problem and be a million times more visible and clearer, but that would be too logical. Besides, all the Market Street, SF Beautiful, SF Tomorrow, etc would argue it’s ugly, and all the anti-car people won’t have drivers to bash on anymore.

  • Filamino

    This is the simple minded ignorant engineer-bashing thinking that still boggles my mind. LOS is important because creating congestion on non-Muni streets can impede Muni service on cross streets. That’s why traffic engineers must look at the whole picture to see how one change in one area can affect another area. That is what happens when you have a grid pattern of streets.

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