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With WalkFirst, SF Takes a Data-Driven Approach to Pedestrian Safety

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The city recently launched the WalkFirst program to lay a data-driven, participatory foundation for the effort to attain the main goal of its Pedestrian Strategy — cutting pedestrian injuries in half by 2021. In the coming months, staff from the SFMTA, the Planning Department, the Controller’s Office, and the Department of Public Health will field public input on dangerous streets and release new data illustrating the toll of pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Pedestrians use an unmarked crosswalk on Mission Street near Fifth. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Pedestrians use an unmarked crosswalk on Mission Street near Fifth. Photo: Aaron Bialick

To start, the new WalkFirst website has easy-to-use, interactive tools showing where most pedestrian crashes occur, the factors that cause them, and the kit of street design tools to reduce them. An online survey also allows people to weigh in on how pedestrian safety funding should be prioritized.

“For the first time, San Francisco will be investing in projects that are data-driven and focused on the most dangerous streets for pedestrians,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. WalkFirst is “a step forward for using the data that we have to the make the biggest impact.”

The feedback from the website will inform a draft plan for safety improvements scheduled to come out in January, with adoption by the SFMTA Board expected in February. The plan will guide an expected $17 million in safety improvements over the next five years. “By combining rigorous technical analysis with significant community outreach, we will target our investments in the communities that need them the most,” SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said in a statement.

The city’s goals include “upgrading” 70 miles of streets where injuries are most concentrated — 5 miles per year through 2021. Another aim is to extend pedestrian crossing times at 800 intersections — at least 160 annually. Schools and senior centers with high rates of pedestrian injuries will also be targeted for improvements, while the SFPD is expected to beef up its “Focus on the Five” effort to prioritize traffic enforcement efforts against the most dangerous violations at the most dangerous locations. (Not all SFPD captains appear to have gotten that memo.)

City agencies are also working on a report providing a fuller picture of the economic toll of pedestrian injuries, as well as the benefits of reducing them. As we reported in 2011, DPH and the University of California, SF estimated that the costs of medical treatment, emergency services, and other impacts of ped crashes add up to about $76 million annually. The WalkFirst report is expected to expand upon the economic ripple effects of traffic violence.

“Every life and injury is incredibly valuable, but from a decision-maker’s perspective, it’s also helpful to understand how much this is costing us to help make the case for the improvements that are needed,” said Schneider. “It costs way more to treat someone who’s been injured than it does to prevent the injuries in the first place.”

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City’s First “Play Streets” Event Kicks Off in the Western Addition

Photos: Aaron Bialick

Two blocks in the Western Addition were closed to cars and turned into a neighborhood gathering space Saturday for the city’s first “Play Streets” event. The program is an effort to build on the success of Sunday Streets and provide smaller-scale car-free spaces where people can play and socialize on a more frequent basis.

“This is an attempt to do all the great things that we do on Sunday Streets — creating a place for outdoor recreation, for neighbors to gather, for people to connect — but to do it on a small scale, and allow communities to self-start,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, which organizes Sunday Streets. “Sunday Streets is a big operation, and can be complicated. With Play Streets, we want it to scale down so any neighborhood can take back their streets for a day, or part of a day, and make them community space where kids can play and neighbors can be together.”

Supervisor London Breed with community activist Meaghan Mitchell (right) and Plaza East residents.

D5 Supervisor London Breed, who grew up in the immediate neighborhood, spoke at the event along with organizers from Sunday Streets and agencies that helped coordinate the program. In addition to providing a space that’s safe from car traffic, organizers said the aim was to invite residents to participate in community life with a space that feels safer from crime.

“Part of the challenge that we’ve come to face in this community has been kids not feeling comfortable and free to come outside and just enjoy themselves and be themselves,” said Breed. “I believe that we need to block off more streets to allow families and kids to play and be free.”

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Sunday Streets to Expand With Neighborhood-Oriented “Play Streets for All”

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San Francisco’s Sunday Streets will continue to grow next year with a new program designed to bring more neighborhood-oriented car-free street events to places that lack park space.

Kids playing at a Sunday Streets event in the Tenderloin. Photo: Bryan Goebel

“Play Streets For All,” a collaboration between Livable City, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, and public health organizations, will introduce a smaller-scale version of Sunday Streets, making it easier for residents to close a block or two to cars and open them up for play and community-building.

The pilot program, which will be held in addition to regular Sunday Streets events, will target neighborhoods that suffer from high rates of childhood obesity and lack safe places for kids to play.

“We need to remember that keeping kids active isn’t a secret — sometimes the answer is simply providing places for kids to be kids,” said Mayor Ed Lee in a statement. “Play Streets for All will build on our Sunday Street resources and organizing expertise to create family-friendly, safe recreational space in neighborhoods that need it most.”

Sunday Streets organizer Susan King said four neighborhoods are set to see Play Streets next year: the Tenderloin, Chinatown, Bayview, and the Western Addition. The exact dates and locations, along with the rest of the Sunday Streets schedule, will be announced by early January, she said.

“Due to its great success, the current demand for Sunday Streets outpaces our capacity to reach every community that wants to host these events,” said SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin in a statement. “Play Streets for All is a simple, straightforward solution that will help make more of our streets available for kids of all ages to enjoy in safe, fun and healthy ways.”

The program should provide an easier channel for residents to hold smaller, community-based car-free street events, which have been tough to organize because of an arduous bureaucratic process and a host of questionably high fees levied by city agencies. By minimizing city staffing costs and simplifying the process, the Play Streets program “presents a nimble and inexpensive approach for creating temporary open space,” a news release said. The effort will include local workshops, led by Sunday Streets and the non-profit organization SF Beautiful, to get neighborhood organizers up to speed on “best practices” for holding successful events, said King.

“The idea behind Play Streets for All,” she said, ”is to provide support for neighborhood activists to produce and manage their own car-free streets events on a smaller scale to make the opportunities provided by neighborhood open streets events (like Sunday Streets) happen more often in areas that lack open space and recreational resources.”

Play Streets will have a stronger emphasis on improving public health than the regular Sunday Streets program — it’s funded in part by a $50,000 grant from California Blue Cross and Anthem Blue Shield, and one of the organizers is the Partnership for a Healthier America — created in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign – which is launching Play Streets programs in ten cities.

“We can’t wait to see the initiative in action,” said PHA President Lawrence Soler, ”to see kids running around these new spaces and to hear sounds of traffic replaced by sounds of kids at play.”

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Infographic: The Many Connections Between Transportation and Health

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched their “New Public Health” website last year with the goal of meeting community members where they are to talk about public health. A lot of those conversations happen online, and they explore the connections between public health and policy decisions related to everything from education to transportation. Last week, they published an interview with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood.

They also put out a complete and convincing infographic showing why sustainable transportation modes are a key component of any public health strategy — and any healthy and prosperous community.

It highlights the positive health correlation between transit and health — and suggests that maybe the walk home from the train station is the best part of your commute. Experts say people are willing to walk a quarter mile to a bus stop and a half mile to a rail station. The more bus stops and rail stations there are, the more people get those healthy 19 minutes of walking, too.

Walking and biking as part of your commute can reduce obesity and your risk of a crash. And job sprawl that makes it harder for people to walk or bike to work cost communities money.

But don’t take my word for it — take it from the public health experts. Full infographic after the jump:

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This Is Your Brain on Cars—Oh, and Your Lungs and Heart and Gut, Too

Gerontologists in a laboratory at the University of Southern California exposed a group of mice to the same atmospheric conditions that humans encounter when driving along the freeway. Horrifyingly, they discovered that the mice’s brains showed the kind of swelling and inflammation associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The researchers didn’t super-dose to get these results: The mice were exposed to freeway air for the equivalent of 15 hours a week — less than the 18.5 hour average Americans spend in their cars. Jokes aside about getting those darn mice off the road, the study suggests that driving less may reduce our risk of brain damage.

Let’s make not strapping a child into a car seat a symbolic act of love. Photo: Lafayette County Health

For decades, Americans have been hearing about the dangers of air pollution, much of which derives from our fleet of vehicles. Yet as the body of research has grown, clarifying just how damaging automobiles are to human health and the environment, we’ve persisted in spending an astounding amount of time in cars. As a nation, we drove three trillion miles last year. We have developed responses designed to treat , like keeping children indoors when the local ozone level triggers “code red” or “code purple” alerts. But as a whole, we have not responded to the everyday contamination of our bodies by driving less.

Most of us feel powerless to affect air quality. Many feel trapped by the built environment and unable to cut down on driving. Plenty also see no point in changing their behavior when “everyone else” is going to drive as much as they wish to. It’s unsurprising then that news about pollution is brushed aside—as is news about other ills caused by driving, including crash fatalities and injuries, stress, and obesity.

The UCLA mouse study joined other recent reports that highlight the variety of ways in which remaining overly reliant on the private automobile is self-destructive. But these reports should also make clear that changes in individual behavior can alleviate some of the problems. Here’s just a sampling:

  • Sitting for long stretches greatly increases the risk of heart disease – even if you exercise afterwards – according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. It may come as no surprise that sitting isn’t good for your health, but what’s shocking is that the raft of articles following the study tended to ignore active transportation while advocating improbable solutions such as standing treadmill desks. What’s more practical than replacing some of our long hours planted in the driver’s seat with walking, biking, or getting by foot to public transit stops?
  • While there was some good news in the American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air Report, as one commentator put it, it was “like getting a 53 on your math test after you got a 49 on your last one.” Half of Americans live in areas in which air quality is unhealthy. The ALA points out that the elderly, the young, and the sick are most vulnerable to the effects of pollution. And of course some of the sick—such as those suffering from asthma and heart disease—can trace the very causes of their conditions to air pollution.
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New Freeway Revolt Grips Guadalajara

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

While the world has gathered in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss again a shared approach to Climate Chaos, action is already being taken in countless communities. On a visit last week to Guadalajara, Mexico, more than a thousand miles west of the Climate Meeting, I had the pleasure of discovering a vibrant grassroots movement to block the construction of a new 23-kilometer elevated freeway through the heart of the city. Interestingly, this movement leans primarily on people who live along the proposed route of the freeway, but found crucial support and activism from Ciudad Para Todos (City For All), a three-year-old group of bicycle and transit activists who are Guadalajara’s most vocal opponents to the reign of the car.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

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Our Waistlines Are Expanding In Sync With Our Car-Dependence

cdc_map.jpgStates with the highest obesity rates also tend to be where the fewest people bike or walk to work. Image: CDC

Two
reports released last week underscored the increasing severity of
America’s obesity epidemic. And the eye-opening findings add to the
mounting evidence that stopping the spread of obesity and its attendant
health risks will require changes to the nation’s transportation system
as surely as it demands altering our diets.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Tuesday
showed the number of obese Americans has increased by 2.4 million since
2007. There are now nine states where more than 30 percent of the
population qualifies as obese — up from three states in 2007. (Just ten
years ago, no state had obesity levels above 30 percent). 

The following day, Gallup released a ranking
of the nation’s most and least obese states as part of a broader index
of well-being. By its accounting, a cluster of states in the southeast
– West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, and South Carolina –
have the highest rates of obesity, while the thinnest states, mainly in
the west and New England, tend to have obesity rates about ten
percentage points lower.

In the CDC ranking of states (which varies slightly from the Gallup
ranking), Colorado and the District of Columbia are the only states
with obesity rates under 20 percent, making their rate nearly 15 points
lower than the most obese states. Their secret? During a press briefing, the CDC’s Bill Dietz speculated
that Colorado’s investment in biking and walking trails, as well as
District residents’ frequent use of public transportation, which goes
hand in hand with walking and thus burns more calories than driving, are
possible factors.

Indeed, if you look at rates of active commuting (walking and
biking) in the most and least obese states, a revealing correlation
emerges. Three of the five most obese states in the Gallup ranking are
also among the five states with the smallest percentage of people who
bike to work. At the other end of the spectrum, four of the ten thinnest
states are among those where people bike to work most frequently. (The
commuting rates come from Census data detailed in this League of American Bicyclists report.)

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The Problems With Ports, or Why We Need a National Freight Act

Maybe you commute by train, or maybe you've switched from driving to biking. But your stuff is still traveling the country by diesel truck.

port_of_oakland_noaa.jpgContainers at the Port of Oakland. Photo: NOAA
Nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions come from freight. The movement of goods from port of entry to a store near you throws enough particulate pollution into the air to shorten the lives of 21,000 people each year, according to the Clean Air Task Force.

The freight sector is lumbering under inefficient and outdated systems that cause pollution, public health problems, safety hazards, and delivery delays. There’s never been a coordinated national approach to solving these problems. And with no deliberate strategy, the default approach is often to build more highways.

As Stephen Davis of Transportation for America writes:

If a port is congested or wants to expand, there’s little available federal money to spend directly on rail or any other mode. Your choices are highways or highways. When a state or port does spend to improve operations, there is no accountability to make sure they’re actually reducing port/freight congestion, moving freight faster, or reducing air pollution in surrounding communities.

Enter the FREIGHT Act. (That’s the Focusing Resources, Economic Investment and Guidance to Help Transportation Act of 2010, with true Capitol Hill acronym panache.) The FREIGHT Act was introduced in the Senate toward the end of July and in the House a week later.

The bill focuses on areas known as "connectors," said Kathryn Phillips of the Environmental Defense Fund. “All the literature and studies say it’s the connector areas, the hubs, where you have the most congestion and environmental impacts.” The bill calls for troubleshooting at these bottlenecks, where products are transferred “from boat to truck to another truck to rail” and everything gets bogged down. Trucks get stuck in traffic; trains sit on the tracks; ships idle at port.

Communities near international ports pay the price. In Riverside, California, traffic gets tied up at 26 at-grade rail crossings 128 times a day when trains pass. Add to that the noise and pollution nearby neighborhoods must contend with.

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MTC Adopts Aggressive 15 Percent Target for Reducing Emissions by 2035

2577326999_327ccb7f59.jpgPhoto: Keenahn
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in a historic vote Wednesday that will help guide the future for more sustainable land use and transportation planning in the Bay Area, recommended a 15 percent per capita target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2035, the most aggressive goal to date among California's metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

"Bay Area residents should be really excited about the 15 percent target. That's because it's high enough to trigger the transportation and land use changes we need to make the region more livable and affordable, especially as our population grows significantly by 2035," said Marta Lindsey, the communications and development director at TransForm.

Lindsey sent out an alert last week urging people to write emails to the MTC, fearing the commission would adopt a lower target of 10 percent, which its planning committee recommended at a meeting earlier this month.

"It's a realistic target given MTC's modeling and the kinds of investments and policies we already know really move the needle in terms of how much people drive their cars," said Lindsey.

Under the groundbreaking anti-sprawl bill, SB 375, most of the state's 18 MPOs are required to set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions for passenger vehicles and light trucks by 2020 and 2035. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) recently adopted a set of draft targets (PDF) for the four largest MPOs (the Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego), which represent 80 percent of the state's population. Each MPO will then be required to development a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) to show how it will meet its target. CARB is expected to adopt final targets in September.

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Car-Dependent States Hit Hardest by Obesity Epidemic

driving_obesity.pngStates where more people drive to work
face an even worse obesity crisis. Graphic: Noah Kazis and Carly Clark

Transportation
is a public health issue. As profiled in the recently released report
from the Trust for America’s Health, "F as in Fat,"
obesity rates continue to rise across the nation, increasing the risk
of serious health problems like diabetes and hypertension. To solve the
obesity epidemic, the data suggest, we need to rethink our dependence on
the automobile. 

"F as in Fat" breaks out obesity numbers state by state. After
glancing at their
map
, it seemed like transit and pedestrian-friendly states were
doing better than the national average. To get more precise, we decided
to compare adult obesity rates, as gathered in the report, to commuting
statistics in the U.S. Census. You
can download our spreadsheet here

The result is the scatterplot shown above, which clearly shows that
states where more people drive to work have higher obesity rates.
Caveats abound — correlation isn’t causation and state-level data can
obscure important patterns visible only through a closer microscope –
but the result is provocative. The two outliers are D.C. and New York
State; they imply that while a large shift away from driving can make a
big difference, it can’t solve the obesity crisis on its own.

Although "F as in Fat" doesn’t analyze transportation behavior
itself, the authors agree that moving away from a reliance on the
automobile is a critical component in curbing obesity. Their
recommendations include: passing
legislation supporting non-motorized transportation
, such as an
expansion of the Safe Routes to School program or a national complete
streets bill; building more safe pedestrian space and bike paths to
encourage active transport; and supporting mixed-use, walkable, and
transit-oriented development.