City Slow to Improve Pedestrian Safety in High-Crash Areas

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in our series of
occasional stories on how to improve the streets for pedestrians in San

crashes_2.jpgTop 12 Intersections with Most Pedestrian Injury Crashes – Past 10 years (SWITRS)

We already know the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities is increasing in San Francisco. The response by city agencies is usually to boost enforcement, try to encourage motorists to drive slowly and install a handful of engineering improvements. Instead, San Francisco needs to make a more concerted effort to focus traffic
calming in areas where the most pedestrian crashes occur.

One successful pedestrian safety project in San Francisco involved the installation of pedestrian countdown signals. The pilot study found the signals reduced pedestrians
crossing on red from 14 to 9 percent, and decreased pedestrian collisions by more than 50 percent. 700 of San Francisco’s 1,100 signalized intersections now have these signals. 

While the signals have helped, the streets are still perilous. MTA transportation engineer Christina Olea believes the most effective
way to reduce pedestrian collisions is to slow vehicles. Streets with calmer traffic will
also make walking and biking enjoyable enough for people to choose these
modes over more polluting options.

Some successful calming techniques
include roundabouts, lane narrowing, adjustments in roadway curvature,
pedestrian refuge islands, and speed bumps. A report
by the American Journal of Public Health found that vehicle crashes
decreased 25 percent after these types of improvements were installed. Other
treatments include pedestrian signal phasing and increased intensity of roadway lighting. For more
descriptions check out this UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center report: (PDF pg 17-22).

The MTA does have a traffic calming division, but the majority of projects are located in more well-to-do neighborhoods such as Diamond Heights, Bernal Heights and the Marina. Yet, based on 228 injuries at the top 10 collision sites in the past 10 years, the majority of pedestrian crashes (61 percent) occurred in the Tenderloin and SOMA, and 30 percent in the Mission. Surprisingly, there have been no official traffic calming projects in any of these areas, except Valencia Street.

I created the map above which shows the top intersections in San Francisco where pedestrians are hit and injured by motorists. Of the top 14 intersections where the driver is at fault, half are located in SOMA or the Tenderloin.

The MTA consults collision reports, community plans and public requests to figure out where to focus its pedestrian transportation improvements. MTA media relations manager Judson True noted they also take into account where the majority of crashes occur, however, based on actual improvements, there seems to be a disconnect between where the improvements are installed and where most crashes are happening.

This may be because the MTA prefers to slow
traffic in residential areas rather than on arterial streets because
they are afraid traffic will divert from arterials to residential
streets. Manish Champsee, the President of WalkSF, noted that "traffic engineers like to split streets between arterial,
collector and residential streets. However, in San Francisco, just
about every street is a residential street and all of them should be
treated that way."

The MTA has also been criticized for giving preference to moving cars quickly through the city, over accommodating pedestrian comfort and safety.

"Traffic engineers have to balance between the needs of automobile throughput and pedestrian safety. It is our view that pedestrian safety should trump concerns about vehicle throughput," said Champsee.

maps.jpgPortland Bureau of Transportation Detailed Crash Maps

Other cities are well ahead of us in engineering safer streets. One key is the creation of detailed crash maps and graphs (above), not only showing where the crashes have occurred, but also including information about what type of crash it was, demographic information, who was at fault, and the severity of the crash.

How You Can Get Involved

There are many ways you can encourage city officials to install safer pedestrian infrastructure. Directly request a traffic calming project for your neighborhood through the MTA’s livable streets program. Tell city officials how you want your tax money spent by contacting your elected officials , local transportation agency and regional transportation commission. And you can join Walk San Francisco, which is working to make the city more walkable and livable.

Also, come and voice your opinions at the many community open houses held around the city. Streetsblog San Francisco has an excellent calendar listing nearly all of these meetings. An important one coming up on February 24th is the redesign of Cesar Chavez which calls for a 14’ median in the middle. Medians have been shown to increase traffic speeds and take room from increasing sidewalk widths or physically separated bike lanes.

Next: What San Francisco can learn from the safest cities around the world, and creative ways to fund traffic safety projects.

  • I don’t want to seem hard-hearted, but if you study the map at all (and if you travel around our fair city at all) it’s obvious that the crashes in the Tenderloin and down 6th St. are a matter of larger public health policy. In short, there’s little the MTA can do about the fact that thousands of crazed drug addicts are wandering into traffic on Turk St. You could say that crack and traffic are simply incompatible. One solution would be to put drug addicts into treatment and crazy people into appropriate mental health care settings. Or, you could leave the crazy people there and close the worst streets to cars. Either way, you have to separate the cars from the nuts.

    That is not to say that street design in SoMA is perfect, of course. The city needs to commit one way or another to alley crosswalk policy. There is one zebra-striped crosswalk on 6th St at Minna, where almost no drivers deign to stop. There are very few mid-block crosswalks without signals in SoMA, the others being at Stillman and South Park on 2nd. Drivers pretty much ignore them, and where alleys cross streets pedestrians treat them as crosswalks anyway (see Natoma at 2nd, Stevenson at 6th, etc). The city should probably stripe more of these alley crossing and perhaps erect signs to alert drivers when they enter SoMA from the freeways.

  • Jeffrey, do you have any evidence that people being hit along those corridors are in a drug stupor, dashing out illegally into traffic?

    Do you have any statistics that indicate that the per capita hit rate is higher there than elsewhere?

    What I’m getting here is that you appear to think it okay for the MTA and SFPD to sit back and allow people to be hit by cars because government is not providing mental health and substance abuse treatment?

    The concept of making alley crossings first class intersections in SOMA is moving forward as is preliminary planning. Whether there is funding or not to make them real remains to be seen.


  • I noticed the concentration on 6th street and had a completely different first thought about the cause – one based on my daily commute down Brannan St. I-280 touches down at the intersection of Brannan and 6th, dumping freeway-minded cars onto 6th street. And if you stand at that corner, or walk along sixth street you can see that they keep on driving like they’re on a freeway.

    Much of 6th street is devoid of pedestrians, but past Folsom those cars start to encounter people (I could have typed ‘hit’).

  • patrick

    Both of those high collision areas are prone to extreme amounts of drugs and alcohol. I worked near 6th street, and have walked and barhopped in both neighborhoods. But at the same time 6th street is much worse for the amount and the speed of traffic, as is evidenced by the number of collisions that were the cause of a motorist. Even for those in full command of their faculties, it’s a dangerous street to cross. 6th st is in desperate need of traffic calming, and improved pedestrian access.

  • This is also an example of where a dangerous conditions inspection system could identify potentially dangerous design and state of disrepair before anyone gets hurt so that the City could prioritize the expenditure of scarce resources in areas where it is needed most based on empirical data.

    The fact that Cesar Chavez and Jefferson are receiving funding for beautification but the 6th Street corridor, where the two of the densest neighborhoods in the City, the Tenderloin meets the SOMA SRO district, somehow does not rise to that level. I wonder why that might be? Could it have something to do with the low median incomes and preponderance of people of color, perhaps that out city views some as displaceable, some as car fodder?

    6th Street is Redevelopment, and over the past few years, they have deployed from the Superlative Infrastructure toolkit, widening the sidewalks by a whopping 2-3 feet and planted street trees, probably costing in the $5m range. But 6th Street is still a two-way feeder ramp to I-280. This should provide a sobering lesson that it takes more than a few treatments from the Superlative Infrastructure toolkit like wider sidewalks or two way traffic to shift motorist conduct from dangerous to safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

    The long blocks need to be broken up and the vehicle code needs to be enforced.


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