Advocates Argue San Francisco Must Improve Pedestrian Safety

ped_photo_myleen_small.jpgPhoto: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography.

Though San Francisco has been getting a lot of attention recently for its trial pedestrian plazas and "parklet" sidewalk extensions in former parking spaces, which has drawn interest from cities around the country and even spawned a copycat in New York City, the Big Apple has raised the bar considerably on improving pedestrian safety with the release this week of the NYCDOT’s groundbreaking Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan.

Given the recent high-profile bicycle fatality at the hands of an allegedly drunken
driver on Masonic Avenue and the perpetual danger to pedestrians in San Francisco (4.33 fatalities per 100,000 population,
significantly higher than New York’s 3.49, and nearly four times the rate in
one of the safest pedestrian cities, Stockholm, Sweden), pedestrian
advocates and city health professionals are urging city leaders to conduct a similar study and develop a comprehensive action plan for the
streets of San Francisco.

"I think the document itself that they’ve prepared is a statement from
the city that pedestrians are in fact a high priority," said Paul Supawanich, a member of the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee of the Board of Supervisors, about New York City.  "We’ve yet to
have anything nearly as comprehensive in San Francisco."

"I think the fact that [New York City] was able to create something
the ties existing pedestrian conditions and injuries with action plans
including planning, enforcement, and performance measures is quite a
feat," he added.

New York City’s study and plan place an economic and social cost
on pedestrian injuries and fatalities in New York City and set goals and a timeline to substantially
reduce vehicle to pedestrian crashes, including 20 mph "home zone"
trials in residential neighborhoods and the massive re-engineering of
the 60 most dangerous miles of streets to pedestrians.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, the
Director of Environmental Health at the San Francisco Department of
Public Health, said a rationale for reducing pedestrian injuries based
on economic or health indicators was fine, but he argued, "the reason we
should do it is it saves lives."

"I think culturally we have blinded ourselves to the fact that somebody
designed the system in a way that isn’t safe for vulnerable users," he said. "They
designed it for the movement of cars. That bias is built into the

San Francisco General Hospital, the city’s only Class 1 trauma center and the facility where all pedestrian collisions are treated, has conducted an exhaustive study of pedestrian injuries and calculated the medical costs of those injuries at around $15 million yearly, but the city has yet to turn those figures into an action plan. While the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs Muni and manages the city’s streets, boasts of a reduction of pedestrian injuries in its annual collision reports, they attribute much of that success to signal changes and new pedestrian countdown timers.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose admitted they don’t have a concrete target for reducing pedestrian collisions, nor a comprehensive plan to reach a target, but he said, "the Sustainable Streets division is dedicated to making our streets safer for all modes of transportation to co-exist."

Rose said in lieu of a comprehensive action plan, the agency conducts corridor and program-specific studies and tries to mitigate problem areas like Market and Octavia streets. "Traffic calming on local and residential roads is based on neighborhood
demand," he said and explained the process as one where the agency receives an application to perform a study to see if traffic
speeds go above a certain threshold, then they conduct mitigations based on the studies. 

Rose also highlighted the signal re-timing and other engineering work on Valencia Street as a success story, where effective speeds have been reduced through a 12 mile-per-hour green wave. Though he cautioned more time was needed to collect and analyze traffic data, "we still believe the results we’ve seen and heard are positive."

Walk SF Director Manish Champsee hoped San Francisco would take cues from New York and other cities like Portland, OR, where there has been a push by Portland Metro to revise the street guidelines to make it easier to institute changes that benefit pedestrians and cyclists. Right now, most state departments of transportation, including Caltrans, make it prohibitively difficult to implement "design exemptions" like slower speed zones, traffic calming, and separated bicycle tracks.

Champsee argued the "85th percentile rule" used by Caltrans and other states for determining speed limits was a major impediment to creating safer conditions for pedestrians. The rule, according to Champsee, requires that speed limits can only be set at the 85th percentile of cars traveling along that stretch of road, such that only 15 percent of motorists will be speeding, and essentially guarantees highway conditions on city streets that are designed primarily for the speed and convenience of drivers.  

"This creates something of a chicken-and-egg problem, though measures like the 12 mph light timing on Valencia can slow speeds down which can drive a reduction in the speed limit," said Champsee.

SFDPH’s Bhatia didn’t mince words in criticizing the city’s failure to act faster or to have a broad vision for reducing pedestrian collisions along the lines of New York City or Sweden’s Vision Zero.

He compared traffic engineering to medical practice and said it was troubling the city hasn’t traffic calmed as many streets as possible with interventions like traffic circles, which, he noted, reduced pedestrian collisions by half over stop lights. "If I’m a doctor and I have a new technology that works and I don’t use it, what do
you think will happen to me?" he asked rhetorically. "I’ll no longer be a

Despite the data showing the clear path forward, he said, city and state agencies responsible for making the roads safer haven’t implemented serious engineering solutions. "Not putting in a traffic circle is doubling the chance of injury at that intersection," he said, as an example. "It can be viewed as a form of transportation malpractice not to implement known safety improvements."

If San Francisco were to get serious about pedestrian safety and develop a plan, Bhatia said, they could start by targeting the areas with the highest incidences of injury collisions. For example, the most dangerous 20 percent of census tracks experience 50 percent of injuries, compared with the least dangerous 20 percent of census tracts, which experience less than 5 percent of the injuries.

"We don’t treat this as a fundamental environmental hazard that is fixable," he said. "We need to make walking like clean air, clean water. We need environmental rules for safe walking."

  • CBrinkman

    “It can be viewed as a form of transportation malpractice not to implement known safety improvements.”

    That quote is repeating in my brain. What a powerful statement.

  • NT

    I’m all for improving pedestrian safety since I’m primarily a pedestrian in SF. However, I hope that any plan put into place acknowledges that pedestrians have a responsibility to not be stupid. Every day when I walk down the street I see pedestrians crossing against lights, waiting for lights practically in the middle of intersections, and starting into major intersections when the countdown reads 1. All basically the equivalent of running a red light.

  • NT, one of the things the Vision Zero approach to traffic engineering does is improve the odds if a pedestrian is stupid or if a driver is negligent. If speeds are slower, it reduces the severity of injuries should a crash occur. In this story, you can see the handy graph that illustrates how dramatic an injury severity factor speed is:

  • Katherine Roberts

    That’s right, matthew. “Stupidity” is one thing, but no one deserves to die for a mistake.

  • Having lived without a car for the past 41 years and getting around by bicycle and by foot more of than not in the South of Market neighborhood, I could not agree more that we need to take actions to improve pedestrian safety in San Francisco. If elected Supervisor, I would work towards lowering the speed limit in South of Market to 25 MPH across the District.

  • I don’t understand why there aren’t more corner bulb-outs, barring lack of funding. But on Irving in the Inner Sunset, they recently added a few which are fantastic. But I don’t understand why they didn’t go further – particularly, at 9th & Irving where I don’t see why every corner isn’t extended, they re-did all the corners for whatever reason and only extended the corner at the N-stop (which was badly needed). This is a highly pedestrian-priority area, and it’s a shame to miss such an opportunity.

  • Actually, correction – I know the southeast corner can’t be extended because the N-tracks need that space… but the extending the rest of them could really improve comfort & visibility.

  • anonymouse

    What really strikes me about SF is how few traffic lights have pedestrian signals. I’m not talking about countdowns or anything like that, I’m talking about basic Walk/Don’t Walk ones which, outside of Downtown and huge streets like Geary are a real rarity. You’re just expected to look at the car signal and run out of the intersection in 2 seconds when that turns yellow. I think this is merely symptomatic of SF’s attitude toward pedestrians.

  • Bob Davis

    Not that making drivers operate their cars in such a way as to lessen the chances of their striking a pedestrian isn’t a good thing, but I wonder about the term “traffic calming”. I can imagine the late George Carlin saying something like “Take ‘traffic calming’. That sounds so nice and peaceful. [in a very gentle, soothing voice] ‘calming’. But let’s tell people what we’re really doing. ‘Traffic restricting’ is much more accurate. [tough, ornery voice] ‘Yeah, you can drive your @#$%! SUV through here, but no faster than Grandma’s electric wheelchair! Understand?” Not to disparage the move to make streets safer for everyone, but to borrow a line from the late Howard Cosell, “Tell it like it is.” A driver who’s in a hurry to get somewhere and runs into speed humps or curvy streets that weren’t there before is going to be anything but calm.

  • My personal peeve are the upper market crossings, such as Sanchez, which give pedestrians less than 10 seconds to cross. This is barely enough time to ride a bicycle across Market Srreet, which is quite wide. If you are a senior or disabled you simply can’t get across Market without being caught in cross traffic. It’s odd to me that there has been no outcry or ADA lawsuit.

  • Alex

    Looks like the MTA has started tracking collisions with alighting collisions in their daily service reports. Aside from bicycles, disembarking from an LRV in mixed traffic is one of the most dangerous situations I encounter on a regular basis. Thankfully we’ve got Carmen Chu who is doing such a fantastic job at ensuring passenger safety with her photo ops and shiny new stickers. lol. More than chasing down brothels and grow houses, I’d love to see some of the Taraval station cops doing some more stings.

  • SDonahue

    Pedestrian fatalities are just another of the enormously costly side effects of our overwhelming dependence on motor vehicles even in dense urban areas. SF’s very large numbers of visitors, and of out-of-town drivers, may make the situation worse here. Certainly, as Bhatia suggests, the city has an obligation to drivers and pedestrians alike to take the steps we know will reduce these life-destroying accidents.

    And, with respect, I have to disagree with the commenter above who says plans should be based upon pedestrians’ “responsibility to not be stupid.” The fact is, in a dense environment, there will be children, drunk people, schizophrenics, and even British people expecting traffic from the other way — the plan has to be rigorously protective of the party who’s not encased in tons of metal. Earlier this week I saw a toddler, his mom occupied with a smaller baby, march out into an intersection at 16th/Guerrero — fortunately no one happened to be coming.

  • Al

    @Aaron #6: Ditto for Clement St. They recently redid the corners, and I can’t understand for the life of me why they didn’t add bulbouts to the lot of them.

  • Al

    #9: It’s traffic calming, not driver calming. Drivers may curse, but they still have to slow down.

    I saw a lot of speed bumps on residential streets in Melbourne, and I saw some street designs that I liked. Minor residential streets would often narrow suddenly to a single lane flanked by raised sidewalks or planters, which would in addition be at an angle to the street it was on. This definitely forces cars to slow down and navigate the obstacle, in addition to providing a nice place for some pedestrian amenity or tree.,+Australia&gl=us&ei=Z0puTPm7H5LUtQPPv_mnCw&ved=0CCEQ8gEwAA&ll=-37.862877,144.9744&spn=0.003058,0.004356&t=k&z=18&layer=c&cbll=-37.86281,144.974337&panoid=R60Hz4nfdjIi9_KCbqxSCw&cbp=12,273.79,,0,24.08

    On the flip side, some of the larger streets were like highways.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m not sure the city can afford the EIS, followed by the decade long lawsuit and appeals.

  • scurvy

    OK let’s get one fact out of the way here: San Francisco has the most irresponsible pedestrians in the US. Bar none. I’ve lived all over this fine country, and that statement can’t be disputed. Be it the crazies (ours are up there) that just walk into an intersection while having a conversation with an imaginary friend, the cell-phone talkers (they’re in every city but seem to love it here), the iPod/PDA crowd (ditto), or the typical San Franciscan who thinks they’re entitled to do whatever they want whenever they want — including crossing the street. It’s the “San Franciscans” who are the worst. They have no fear of cars and no respect for anyone, because they’re the center of the universe.

    That said, San Francisco needs a lot of areas for improvement. Namely, every single cable car crossing needs to be rethought and redone. You think the signals are “gamed” for cars? Well what about cable cars? I’ve seen more people get jacked getting on and off those things than I can count. Also, they trip the lights and make their “green” longer so that they can keep riding the cable up the hill. For those people trying to “time the walk light”, that messes with them and inevitably they get owned. Honestly, I’d be all for scrapping the cable cars (and the Victorians while we’re at it), but I doubt that would happen. Don’t think cable cars are a menace? Grab a coffee and camp out at California and Mason for a few hours on a Friday.

    To Katherine Roberts, I say you couldn’t be more wrong. Ever see Idiocracy? Yeah it’s supposed to be a farce, but that attitude will make it a reality. Take some responsibility for your actions.

    Whoever mentioned the English further reinforces my point. We don’t need a nanny state turning us into a nation of softies. We need reasonable measures. Please don’t turn us into the UK.

  • sarah

    I strongly believe that one city containing more “stupid” pedestrians than another city is an illusion. Pedestrians are collectively much the same and their behaviors largely predictable across the board. Human behavior doesn’t change from city to city nearly as much as city design and street layout does. When a city appears to have a higher proportion of “stupid” pedestrians, I strongly believe the reality is actually that the city has not considered the obvious “desire paths” of pedestrians or the visibility challenges of pedestrians or the speed differentials of pedestrians vs car traffic. If you have a lot of pedestrians crossing mid-block, for example, chances are, the region features blocks that are way too long to be practical for someone traveling through the area on foot on a regular basis.

    As a full-time pedestrian who lived and worked in SOMA for 3 years, I can tell you SOMA’s blocks are far too long. The distances between controlled intersections favor car traffic with absolutely no consideration for any other kind of traffic. SOMA is hazardous to pedestrians not because stupid humans occur in higher percentages in SOMA (i mean… really?) but because SOMA is laid out as a highway-feeder neighborhood with little to no consideration for other types of traffic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pedestrians nearly get mowed over while trying to cross 2nd street on the pedestrian crosswalk connecting South Park to the bars and shops on the east side of 2nd street (and I’ve been nearly rear-ended while on my bike while stopping for pedestrians in the crosswalk). Pedestrians are not being stupid for using the mid-block pedestrian crosswalk, and drivers understandably don’t expect to see a mid-block pedestrian crosswalk at all in SOMA. The obvious answer here is to add traffic calming, add blinking crosswalk lights, and add a whole lot more pedestrian crosswalks all over the rest of SOMA so drivers are no longer taken by surprise.

    I really wish this conversation could some day move beyond the “stupid pedestrians” argument. It simply doesn’t hold water and doesn’t actually help solve problems.

  • sarah

    @David Baker: I couldn’t agree more about the Market crossing at Sanchez. I cross there regularly, usually by bike, and it always astonishes me to see the light turning yellow when I have more than half of the intersection still to cross. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the elderly to try to cross there, especially for those not in the know who get caught off guard by the light change. Tragic.

  • I totally agree with Sarah regarding SoMa and the awful conditions for pedestrians … That is what turned me into a neighborhood activist! How do we get SFMTA to embrace the obvious solutions?

  • EL

    Aaron – You can’t do the southwest corner of 9th/Lincoln either because there’s a bus stop there, and the bus will block the N-train that’s turning. The problem with the bulb-outs is that the local merchants always want the parking loss to be compensated, and that isn’t always possible – which is why fewer bulb-outs get constructed. Anyone who’s been following Geary BRT knows what I’m talking about.

    Regarding intersections with no WALK / DONT WALK signals, you have to remember that many of the signals were installed in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m no expert, but it probably costs at least $50,000 per intersection just to add them, because the conduits to run the wires are probably too old, too small, or just plain broken.

  • Katherine Roberts

    Scurvy — 2 words (one hyphenated): “Pedestrian Right-of-Way”. Ever heard of it? It’s the *law* here in the great state of California, not that you’d know it by looking. That means that, whatever pedestrians’ intelligence level, it’s the driver’s job to yield to them, period. Last I looked, the law does not make provisions for drivers who deem pedestrians’ intelligence to be sub-par, or think they are acting selfish or “crazy”. It is not the driver’s prerogative to determine this, or to exhibit reckless behavior FOR ANY REASON that puts pedestrians’ lives and limbs at risk. Despite this, that type of thinking is pretty rampant out there — the sense of, “If you’re slowing me down, you deserve to get hit”. Which makes those motorists seem, from my p.o.v., pretty arrogant, selfish, disrespectful, crazy, AND stupid. Only they’re in a position to kill for their misguided beliefs and sense of self-importance, since they’re driving deadly weapons. I’ll take a stuck-up jay-walker listening to their I-Pod over a homicidal motorist with an outsized sense of entitlement any day. I’m just sayin’.

  • mcas

    @scurvy and @Kathy can argue it emotionally, but the law is pretty clear:
    “21954. (a) Every pedestrian upon a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway so near as to constitute an immediate hazard.

    (b) The provisions of this section shall not relieve the driver of a vehicle from the duty to exercise due care for the safety of any pedestrian upon a roadway.”

    Meaning, ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid’ or having an ipod, it’s STILL the drivers’ responsibility to use due care for the safety of someone in the street.

  • scurvy

    I’ve seen 6 people get hit by cars (and 1 bus) in my 11 years here in SF. They were due to the following:

    1 drunk person stumbled off of the sidewalk on Market Street and got tagged by a taxi.
    1 person in the TL was running away from 2 others straight into traffic on Taylor. Not at a crosswalk.
    1 crazy person was screaming nonsense at the top of his lungs and wandering in traffic. He wandered from behind an obscured view into oncoming traffic at Cal & Larkin.
    3 people hit by cars while getting on or off the cable car. Cal & Hyde, Powell & Bush, Cal & Mason. The two Cal incidents were the drivers’ fault, but I think there needs to be better signage/signalling at these stops. The Powell & Bush one wasn’t really the driver’s fault. The cable car was leaving and a tourist ran straight into traffic trying to catch it.
    1 person walked out in front of a bus on market. No idea what happened. Just walked in front. Yeah, they were wearing headphones.

    So we have 4 incidents that will happen even in utopia with perfect signage and design. Then we have 3 incidents which could clearly be improved with some basic work, but nothing radical. I fail to see how my comment about SF’s residential composition has anything to do with the vehicle code. People aren’t homicidal maniacs in cars looking to run someone down at every chance. To think that is ludicrous yet that’s how you paint the picture. Your attempt at bifurcating the issue is exactly what’s wrong with SF politics. Extremists like you try and make the issue one of a scorched earth decision (my way or the highway) — rather than dealing with it in a rational, iterative process.

    I also like your projection into another driver’s point of view; thereby immediately drawing conclusions about attitude, driving ability, circumstance, and motivation. Awesome.

  • scurvy- I have seen 3 people in my neighborhood (Sunnyside) run over and killed by drivers in the 16 years I have lived on Monterey Blvd. All three were crossing in crosswalks, all three were in the crosswalks before the drivers were close, all three had the right of way, both legally and morally. Drivers have the absolute responsibility to not hit pedestrians and to do everything in their power to do so. This includes slowing down at night when the lighting is poor and people are hard to see (in fact, my kids had to start taking the bus home from martial arts in the winter because I was afraid of hitting someone during dark commute hours), slowing down around schools all the time (not just when “children are present”), slowing down in residential areas, slowing down in densely populated business areas, slowing down on narrow streets…

    The city of San Francisco has an absolute responsibility to ensure that street design makes sure that every person that uses that street can get to their destination, not fast but alive. Putting the blame on pedestrians for their “crazy” behavior is going to get you nowhere as the street planning all of us are forced to live with is “crazy” to begin with and encourages the unsafe behavior of all of its users.


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