San Francisco Increasingly Dangerous for Pedestrians

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories that will focus on how to improve streets for pedestrians.

mission_6th.JPGWide intersections like this one at Mission and 6th make it dangerous for pedestrians to cross.

We’re all being encouraged to exercise more and drive less. But sadly, more people walking in conjunction with the minuscule funding dedicated to pedestrian infrastructure will increase the number of pedestrians hit and injured or killed by motorists.

This has already been happening on San Francisco’s streets. According to a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, SF is the 4th most dangerous city for pedestrians per capita (among U.S. cities with populations of 500,000 or more) and the streets are becoming more frightening by the day.

According to the latest crash data from the San Francisco 2007 Collision Report (PDF), in 2007 about 800 pedestrians were injured by cars. Given that as many as 21 percent of pedestrians don’t report the altercation, that amounts to nearly 3 pedestrians hit each day. Over the same period, the number of cyclists injured by cars increased by 31 percent to 451. Also, 32 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles, an increase of more than 50 percent from the year before.

These crashes are not only devastating to the victims, but they burden health care systems and tax budgets. Twenty-five percent of pedestrian-auto fatalities were Muni crashes. In the past 7 years, Muni paid out about $66 million to people who experienced injury, wrongful death or property damage.

ped_crashes_sf.jpgVehicle-Pedestrian Injury Collisions 2001 – 2005 CHP Statewide Traffic Integrated Record System

Of all fatalities involving motor vehicles in SF, 26 percent were
pedestrian deaths, and of total injuries, 24
percent were pedestrians. In 2006, 9.6 percent of San
Franciscans walked to work. Despite the obvious quantified needs of
pedestrians, the percentage of San Francisco’s transportation budget
dedicated to pedestrian transportation is estimated to be less than one percent.

According to a study by UC Berkeley’s Traffic Safety Center,
over half (58 percent) of pedestrian crashes were drivers’ faults,
and the majority of these (35 percent) were drivers hitting pedestrians
in crosswalks, followed by excess driving speed. Fifty-eight percent of
driver-fault crashes were vehicles turning left. San Francisco has fewer
intersections with protected left turn phasing compared to most other
western U.S. cities.

As shown in the map above, the majority of pedestrian crashes occur in SOMA while a majority of all vehicle crashes happen on Market Street. Sixth Street at Market is the most dangerous intersection for pedestrians. It is no coincidence that the majority of collisions occur in areas with many one-way streets and multiple wide lanes, leading cars to drive very fast. As shown in the map below, most pedestrian crashes occur along the most expansive streets with fast moving traffic such as Market, Van Ness and Columbus.

crashes.jpgAn Intensive Pedestrian Safety Engineering Study Using Computerized Crash Analysis
Crash Data 1996 – 2001; UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center 

NHTSA’s most recent analysis of pedestrian fatalities found that the pedestrians most often killed by cars are age 70 and over. This is especially dire given the fact that city populations are aging, and an increasing number of baby boomers are moving to urban areas for cultural attractions, lower property taxes, better public transportation, and highly accessible health care.

There are many simple engineering treatments to make streets safer, however, most engineers were trained to merely move traffic through cities. They will not change their ways unless they hear from you.

  • A statistic I would like to see is, what percentage of crashes involved taxis, compared to the percentage of cars on the street that are taxis.

  • CBrinkman

    Also interesting to know would be the percentage of fire department call outs that are responding to traffic crashs.(I would guess it’s about 40-50%) How much money could the city save by reducing the number of crashes with lower speeds, fewer one way streets, better signal timing…

  • ..except that it’s basically impossible to file a collision report with the SFPD.

    All the police I’ve been dealing with over the past few days say unless there is injuries or a hit and run, no collision report will be filed… and General Order 9.02 seems to support their claims…

  • CBrinkman

    In addition to saving lives, I should have added. But if safety doesn’t get people interested, perhaps pointing out every way that crashes cost money can.

  • two notes:

    1. does the 31% increase in bicycle incidents mean that bicycling is becoming less safe on a per capita basis as more bicyclists enter the streets? isn’t safety supposed to increase with greater numbers of cyclists?

    2. there is a move afoot in nyc to lower speed limits to 20mph. we could use this here in sf. see

  • My prediction is that cycling has gone up by more than 31% in the same (poorly referenced) period, making it a per capita decrease.

  • those dudes

    lots of kids riding bikes meant for the velodrome = more bike crashes

  • In relation to this article series I am looking for pedestrians who have been injured by cars to be interviewed for a Streetfilm. Preferably looking for crashes that happened in SF, but in other parts of the Bay Area is good too. If you have pictures of your injury/crash all the better. Please contact me janel (at) Thanks!

  • I would like to know the number of pedestrians hit by bicyclists. I’ve almost been creamed by cyclists not paying attention to where they’re going since they have no intention of stopping at the stop sign or stop light where I’m crossing the street on foot in just the last couple of days.

  • You do need to correct for exposure rates. We likely saw a surge of walking and bicycling in that same period.

    Theoretically, if the number of autos decrease, say by 75% and walking and bicycling make up that difference, we’ll see dramatically less collisions, not because of exposure rates alone, but there becomes a critical point at which peds and bikes “take over the road” and a driver knows that he does not have priority of this street (think ped-dominated market-like streets in Europe or Asia). But as these modes increase, and auto traffic remains steady, there are so many opportunities for collisions. As a person who occasionally drives Market St., I can tell you that it is very difficult to make turns and change lanes without hitting someone. I wouldn’t trust too many drivers less cautious than I to navigate these areas. I’m all in favor of restricting auto use in key ped and bike corridors. I think drivers in SF need an extra safety certification to navigate our unique environment.

  • I always hear about these cyclists “almost mowing down” pedestrians, but I can’t get anyone to throw me even an anecdote, let alone data of pedestrian injuries from cyclists – and definitely not fatalities.

    Meanwhile, cars mow down pedestrians daily. This despite their perfect record of stopping at lights and stopsigns – which I can only assume to be the case given the lack of rage against such misbehavior.

    Focus your anger where it belongs. I won’t excuse bad cyclist behavior but motorists pose a much greater danger. Perhaps we don’t hear as much from victims of motorist stupidity because the victim is dead…

  • “I always hear about these cyclists ‘almost mowing down’ pedestrians, but I can’t get anyone to throw me even an anecdote, let alone data of pedestrian injuries from cyclists – and definitely not fatalities.”

    Rachel Gordon wrote about the hazard cyclists on sidewalks represent to seniors a couple of years ago. The Senior Action Network in particular is concerned about that hazard.

    Take a look at the city’s 2007 Collision Report (on MTA’s website), issued last October for some numbers on the safety or lack thereof on our streets. Looking at the numbers since 1998 on “injury collisions involving pedestrians” (page 12), and we see that injuries to pedestrians are actually down considerably since 1998, when there were 985 and 796 in 2007. That’s also true for non-fatal injury collisions of all kinds: there were 4,599 in 1998 and 3,021 in 2007.

    Hence, it’s fair to conclude that our streets are actually getting safer not more dangerous.

  • “Hence, it’s fair to conclude that our streets are actually getting safer not more dangerous.”

    Coincident with the rapid rise of cycling and the increase in bike lanes today compared with 1998. Food for thought.

    Unfortuntately some of those cyclists use the sidewalks. Why? In large part – particularly in the Mission – there is fear of cars. Thornley agrees.

    “Andy Thornley, program director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, showed up at Thursday’s event to support a crackdown on law-breaking cyclists — and to push city officials for more bike lanes. “There’s a perception that riding on the sidewalk is safer than riding on the street, but for the most part riding on the sidewalks is more dangerous for everyone”

    Unfortunately the streets are not being made more safe for cyclists. Why could that be?

  • Re: Rob – Yes you are right, from 1998 to 2004 injuries have decreased. However, it is worth noting that the number of injuries have been increasing since 2003, and the drastic increase since 2006 is of concern. The sharp increase of pedestrian fatalities since 2005 is also worrisome, and the number of fatalities also have not been this high since 2003.

    Re: jdub, murphstahoe seth – According to the MTA they do not take consistent pedestrian or bicycle counts, so there is no way of knowing if total pedestrian/bicycle traffic is increasing or decreasing (perhaps more funding could allow this). However, census figures of journey to work show a slight increase of 3% of number of people walking to work from 1990 to 2000. If anyone can find these numbers please post.

  • Certainly my observation of “There are more cyclists on the street” is not scientific by any means – it become obvious when there is an order of magnitude more cyclists compared to 1998 when I started biking to work through San Francisco, but I am a scientist and anecdotes are not data. But I’m telling you there are more cyclists out there.

    Nor is the number of members in SFBC data – it’s worth joining just for the discounts.

    Here is one very clear piece of hard data however. In 1996 Caltrain had 24 bike spaces per train on their 76 daily runs, and there was never a lack of space on the trains. Now Caltrain has an average of over 32 spaces per train on their 98 daily runs – substantially more capacity – and the bike cars are bursting at the seams. Caltrain has actual passenger counts and these could show hard data on the numbers of cyclists riding Caltrain daily, of course this data is skewed because they count the passengers in the rainy season when cycling is disincented – and because cyclists refused boarding don’t count 🙁

  • This article makes the correct point: street design is the reason why our streets are not safe for vulnerable users. Our streets are designed around the capabilities of the automobile – any restrictions placed on drivers have to be enforced, which isn’t reliable and isn’t happening.

  • First..excellent article. Thanks for putting this together.

    The decrease and then increase in auto-ped crashes is consistent with the economic cycles of San Francisco. We saw a decline around the same time of the dot-com crash where people were moving out and jobs were on the decline. The increase in the last several years has been consistent with an up economic cycle. We don’t know final numbers for 2008, but fatalities are almost definitely down from 2007 again consistent with the economy.

    San Francisco needs to re-double its efforts to make our streets safer without counting on economic cycles.


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