Streetscast: An Interview with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee

Mayor Ed Lee talks to Streetsblog Editor Bryan Goebel. Photo: Christine Falvey

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee supports the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Connecting the City vision, promises to “very aggressively” carry out Gavin Newsom’s executive directive on pedestrian safety, and said he has a commitment from the SFPD to do more aggressive enforcement of drivers in the Tenderloin to make the streets safer for those on foot.

In a 25-minute interview with Streetsblog in Room 200 yesterday, Lee described himself as an occasional Muni rider “if I have downtown meetings” and said he does like to ride his bicycle on the weekends and during Sunday Streets, which he called a “remarkable experiment.”

On pedestrian safety, Lee said he wants the SFMTA to review “what the adequate speed should be” on San Francisco streets: “I know we have posted 25 and 30 mile per hour zones but I’m not sure, and I think that people are falsely led that that’s the speed they ought to operate on, whereas in reality maybe it’s closer to 15 miles an hour where it’s safe, more acceptable and it’s actually the usual way to get around the city.”

Lee said he wants “to move quickly” on the executive directive issued by Newsom in December, which called for a citywide target of reducing serious and fatal pedestrian injuries by 25 percent by 2016 and 50 percent by 2021. The directive includes recommendations for implementing nine near-term improvements, including reducing speeds to 15 mph around schools, which the SFMTA is currently working on.

“I am a big fan of that executive directive and I am definitely wanting to lower, if not eliminate, pedestrian fatalities. I am even intrigued with designing these streets immediately so that they don’t have car parking at the corner so that you can see the pedestrians come out.”

Here’s the complete audio of our interview, and read more below the break:


Lee said he got a commitment from the captain of the Tenderloin SFPD station last week to immediately up enforcement of drivers in the Tenderloin, which has a high rate of pedestrian fatalities and injuries. “‘I’ll be walking those streets a lot given that we want Twitter to stay and we want a lot of companies to get a lot of their employees down there.”

On Connecting the City, the SFBC’s bold vision for a series of connected crosstown bikeways, the mayor said: “I’d like to get the whole city family together and see how we can make that work from the ground up.” Lee indicated he understood that current standard bicycle lane designs aren’t ideal for people who ride bikes, and that protected, dignified bikeways would make them safer and more inviting for people of all ages.

Specifically, Lee said he supports a trial protected bikeway on Fell Street, long a source of trouble for bicyclists: “I want to get to that experiment on Fell Street quickly because I’d like to see how these lanes that we are dedicating would be away from the open doors, and away from fast traffic.”

Lee is definitely a personable guy, and we’re still sifting through his answers. Look for more stories in the coming days. Although there were a number of questions I didn’t get to ask Lee in our interview, he invited Streetsblog back in a month “to check on my progress.”

  • taomom

    If Lee comes through with a protected bike lane on Fell in the next month, is serious about reducing pedestrian fatalities, and begins to implement the TEP, he may be eligible for the Livable Streets Seraphic Choir (halo optional).

  • Justin

    Good stuff. On Fell St, just do it. We’ve already waited way too long. Please, SFMTA, Mayor’s office, just fricking do it. ‘Trial it,’ whatever. No more visions of a distant horizon, let’s just put in the infrastructure a la Folsom St.


  • Nick

    Certainly the Mayor could accomplish a lot more than a trial bike lane in one year’s worth of time.

    He should craft big goals- separated bikeways all over town. Force the issue upon the next mayor on Day 1. If they want to strike it down, so be it. At least we’ll know where we stand.

  • His vision of making SF more bicycle-safe sounds great! Let’s hope he can get Muni working again as well.

  • icarus12

    I think the mayor is way off-base when he cites the “need” for a 15mph speed limit in school zones.

    First, what children need is adequate crossing guards, traffic lights, blinking light cross-walks, and street engineering near schools that causes drivers to pay attention.

    Second, children are mostly protected by parents, schools, and after-school programs. Sadly, for some good and for other paranoid reasons, parents aren’t allowing their children to roam much. You rarely see youngsters out in streets or on the sidewalks much. When’s the last time you saw a game of stickball in San Francisco????

    Third, New York City has studied pedestrian fatalities and found that the elderly are overwhelmingly overrepresented in that fatal category. Children are underrepresented (if one may make such a macabre statement). The elderly’s deaths far outpace their percentage of the overall population. This makes sense, since they are independent, walking about as they have all their lives, but not able to hear, see, or react quickly to threats.

    Fourth, look at how and where the deaths are occurring in San Francisco — it’s almost always adults, often older adults, and it’s mostly happening at intersections where the driver is turning right or left and doesn’t see the pedestrian. Therefore, the remark of Mayor Lee’s that makes most sense is the idea of eliminating parking near corners.

    The rest of the mayor’s talk of reducing pedestrian deaths to zero is the kind of happy talk that should have banned along with Happy Meals. It goes down easy but leaves you with a later hunger for something substantial.

  • Walter


    In Europe, I’ve seen road signs with an image of elderly people, warning drivers to slow down. These are typically near old peoples’ homes or senior centers.

    Turning cars can be slowed by building out the kerb a little at the corners, at accident hotspots, to make the turn sharper. Also more “no turn on stop” signs could be introduced.

    “Remove the Parking” tends to be cited as the solution to every problem here, but often there are alternatives.

  • triple0

    @icarus: I think you missed your logic there — you don’t see stickball because there aren’t slow streets. Crossing guards, lights and such don’t actually create neighborhood streets — they are mitigation measures for fast streets.

    Plus, there’s always ‘stranger danger’ — which is only exacerbated by the fact that people race through neighborhoods at 30MPH, instead of being on their stoops or dining outside or simply loafing in their neighborhood. Again, slow people-centered streets accomplishes this; not armoring up crosswalks.

    And third fourth and fifth points are, again, solved with reduced speeds. 15 MPH is the key threshold for when car vs. pedestrian collisions become deadly. If cars are moving slow enough, they are less likely to hit something and if they do, it won’t kill.

  • icarus12


    My point is that one doesn’t see stickball in SF streets because child-rearing practices, women’s work outside the home, and children’s culture have changed. Your point is that traffic speeds have caused parents to keep children off the streets. That’s a historical and scientific debate for which there is not space here, but I leave it to readers to ponder.

    You also make the point that safe streets are ones in which people are present in large numbers — the eyes and ears of the street, the neighbors keeping an eye on matters, etc. And you say that armoring up the streets, crosswalks, etc. does NOT make streets safe, or at least doesn’t make them safe nearly as much as a communal presence does. This is a valid point, but I think we could have both — more human presence and street engineering are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, one can count on a well-designed street to be there 24-7, while good neighbors enjoying a cup of coffee or cigarette on their stoops are in short supply on quiet streets as well as busy ones.

    Lastly, I am a historian by training and therefore must take issue with your romanticizing of the past, and further, with your vision of the future. You wrote:
    ” . . There’s always ‘stranger danger’ — which is only exacerbated by the fact that people race through neighborhoods at 30MPH, instead of being on their stoops or dining outside or simply loafing in their neighborhood. Again, slow people-centered streets accomplishes this. . .”

    An Afghan once joked, “The West has television; we Afghans, genealogy.” Absent the contrivances of modern life, people do talk to one another more, tell stories, etc. That is true.

    But they also sit mutely in darkness and silence, unstimulated and unmoved. And when moved, they often interfere mightily with fellow individuals’ pursuit of individual fulfillment or happiness. I have only to visit my relatives in small-town Greece, sitting on their proverbial stoops and balconies, to recognize why my wife fled from there to the United States, a place of greater social freedom and, yes, anomie. It’s good to be gay here.

    A professor of mine once asked my younger self as I was writing my senior thesis and bemoaning how Dustbowl-era Okies had lost much of their folk ways and took on mass cultural ones in post-Depression California, “Icarus[sic], what do you imagine those people on their porches were thinking?” His comment has always stayed with me whenever I was moved to imagine the past as so much richer, textured, and more enjoyable than the present.

    Your idea that somehow we modern people will be satisfied with the sacrifices we would make to enjoy slow-cooked meals and long dinners, loafing on the porch, gossiping with our neighbors, and raising our children African-village like is fanciful.

    Nearly every social and economic trend shows western societies moving toward longer work hours, the interpenetration of work and home life, and the individualization of leisure. Hence, news pages and websites are filled with people expressing a corresponding yearning for “community”. Yet most people decline to give up the very pursuits (their careers, their children’s competitive achievements, their home comforts, leisure activities, and elaborate vacations) that define them so much as individuals in a competitive, capitalist, individualist kind of society.

    I challenge anyone to drop the speed limit to 15mph throughout towns and cities and see if women and men migrate to their front porches rather than heading for their private backyards for some barbeque. Or more likely, after picking up their child from a supervised play site, arrive home a bit later because of slower streets and shove a ready-made frozen meal from Trader Joe’s into the microwave while checking e-mail on their Crackberry before turning to their family to give them a bit of “quality time”.

    Let’s construct our streets and imagine our lives based on who we are, not on how we might wish others to live.

  • The speed limit has effectively been lowered to 13 MPH on Valencia by the green wave timing. And it’s a much more pleasant place to be, ever since.

    A strictly enforced 15 MPH speed limit in school zones might have the effect of diverting drivers not going to the school itself to other streets – which might not be a bad thing.

  • Icarus’s point is a fair one, but some people still do sit on their porches and talk to their neighbors. I don’t know what the “perfect balance” is, if such an idea even exists, but I do think the pendulum has swung too far in favor of speed over local comfort, and could stand to swing back a bit. Changing speed limits (well, re-engineering streets for lower speeds, since changing limits alone is a pretty fruitless gesture) isn’t going to cause some dramatic realignment of society, it’s just a nudge in one direction, and I support it as such.

    The internet and technology has allowed us to, as individuals, to travel much further in our socializing and our commerce without ever leaving the house. IMO, this reduces the need for constant, rapid travel, and allows for these speed reductions and local improvements without some of the negatives of the past, like people without easy and fast transportation being trapped in bad relationships and unproductive work.

  • Sprague

    Great to hear the mayor express support for (possibly) lowering speed limits. This is bold thinking and a sure way to improve safety and livability while reducing noise pollution. In the city of Graz, Austria, major thoroughfares continue to have 50 km per hour speed limits but all other streets have a 30 km/hour speed limit (which is just under 19 mph).

  • Walter


    And yet elsewhere in Europe, speed limits are being raised, citing productivity for business and the economy:

  • Walter,

    You are looking at highways. Not city streets. Actually, the UK has a program called “20 is plenty” for residential areas.

    Then you can look at fuel economy.


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