Is the Signal Timing Dangerous at the New Market/Church/14th Crosswalk?

Looking east at the new crosswalk on the north side of Market Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SFMTA opened a new crosswalk this week along Market Street across the three-way intersection with 14th and Church Streets, eliminating the need for people to cross in a longer two-step phase. The crosswalk, which comes as part of the ongoing Church and Duboce Track Improvement Project, was installed along with a new right-turn vehicle signal to create a safe window in the traffic sequence for pedestrians to cross.

But Streetsblog reader Joel Franquist says he witnessed the aftermath of a car crash which he believes was caused by a flaw in the new traffic signal sequence, and he’s concerned that it will continue to create a risky situation for people walking, biking, and driving through the intersection:

The new right turn arrow is for drivers turning off Market to go west on 14th St. (or north on Church). These drivers used to go with the with the rest of the traffic on Market, which meant there was a 10-second gap before Church got the green (during which drivers going east on 14th got the green light). Now these cars proceed immediately before the cars on Church do. There are actually a lot of these cars because 14th leads directly to Roosevelt and destinations such as Ashbury Heights.

I started observing the intersection [Thursday] around 4:30 pm, and noticed that just about EVERY time the light turns green for Church, there are still cars crossing Church headed for 14th on the new arrow light. Often these cars are still on the other side of Church when the light changes. Everyone on Church — drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists — doesn’t have a good view of these cars coming off Market, especially if they are behind a J that’s boarding passengers.

The new crosswalk (not shown) connects corners along the north side of Market Street, completing the triangle across both 14th and Church. The new right-turn signal controls westbound vehicle traffic along Market turning right onto Church or 14th. Image: Google Maps

It was easy to predict that there would be an accident if someone going southbound on Church simply went without looking when the light changed green. And sure enough, when I went out again around 6, there had been exactly this type of accident. A car coming south on Church had broadsided a car headed toward 14th. The car that was hit happened to be a UCSF Police car. The accident caused closure of 14th Westbound and one land of Church southbound, backups on all three streets, and a re-route of the 37 bus.

The problem is a dangerous one and will result in more accidents if not fixed. The new timing is especially dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians coming south on Church and crossing 14th St., or for bicyclists headed for 14th with the right turn arrow. If the UCSF Police car had been a bicyclist, the rider would probably be dead, and it would not be his or her fault.

It’s true that drivers who end up blocking Church mostly enter the intersection on the yellow or red arrow. But they are encouraged to chance it because the light only lasts ten seconds. And when the problem happens nearly EVERY time the light cycles, then the timing needs to be changed. Also, it can happen to a driver who goes on the green, if the car in front of them is turning into Church and is delayed by pedestrians legally crossing Church.

You might be wondering what the change was supposed to accomplish. Well, the change means that pedestrians crossing 14th can now proceed most of the time, instead only when Church has the light. And the city opened a new crosswalk that allows pedestrians to cross both 14th an Church on one light, instead of having to wait for two lights. (The new crosswalk couldn’t previously exist because it would not have been safe at any time.) So the new setup is more pedestrian-friendly (at least if cars obey the lights).

There were also numerous cases this evening of drivers simply running the right turn arrow while red, and pedestrians crossing Market stepping in front of the cars turning off Market onto 14th. However, much of that will presumably lessen as regular users of the intersection become used to the changes. And some of that confusion also predates the changes. It’s a complicated intersection, and will always confuse some people.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said the agency “will continue to monitor the situation and make any necessary adjustments.”

Have you visited the intersection since the change? Share your observations in the comments.

  • guest

    Almost got hit at this intersection yesterday–i was crossing 14th and a car was heading across Church onto 14th, didn’t make it into the intersection until pedestrians had the green. Exactly the situation!

  • Tl

    The light to cross Market on Church is and always has been far too short. One more thing for MTA to tweak.

  • 94103er

    I was just wondering about a Streetsblog tipline when I noticed the MTA had done this. It gave me a scare the other day–I’ve been accustomed to a longer light on Church for the 11 years I’ve lived here, so I got stuck in the middle of the street with my baby in a stroller when I realized I had a red light.

    What I observed at the time is that the green arrow seems to give cars a license to tear around the corner to northbound Church at full speed. It’s abundantly clear with the transit and grocery-store configuration on that block that that’s just about the last thing the 100 block of Church needs. I’m sure you Streetsblog readers remember that there was a discussion a while back about limiting car travel on that block, in fact. 

    Another fine day for being a pedestrian in SF.

  • It seems to me the problem is really about motorists running lights. That doesn’t mean the lights shouldn’t be timed. But it means the lights need to be timed to make up for the fact that in this neighborhood, SF drivers consistently rush lights and cross long intersections after their light is red. See also the intersection of Market/Sanchez/15th. 

  • Anonymous

    I just jaywalk.  It’s safer.  Signal lights and crosswalks just give pedestrians a false sense of security.

  • Anonymous

    Glad I saw this article, as I often ride through here on my bike and am used to the traffic timing (as it was). I will definitely pay careful attention next time I go through the intersection.

    Amazing that the traffic engineers can’t just sit back and look at their work, quickly see this problem, and correct it. Why is it so hard to think about anything other than car traffic? Come on MTA: just fix this and get on with more important things!

    Finally, when I was in Ottawa, Canada, I noticed that every time they changed the timing of a traffic signal or made some sort of change to the flow of traffic, they put this big, standardized signs up that say “New”, kinda like the one on pg 100 of this:

    Why can’t we use those in the US?

  • GT

    Exactly. Why allow right turns onto that block of Church at all? There’s another entrance to Safeway on Market, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

  • Joel Frangquist

    Agree that one should not rely soley on signals and crosswalks.  However, ignoring signals – which counts as jaywalking – most definitely does not make one safer.

  • Joel Frangquist

    94103er, you’re correct.  Among the changes made for the new timing is that pedestrians no longer get the ‘walk’ sign across Church when 14th has the light.  That crosswalk now gets the ‘walk’ sign only about half the time instead of 2/3rds.  On the other hand, cars now only get to make that turn for 10 seconds out of a minute, instead of 30 secs, so it should be safer for you to make that crossing when Market has the light.

  • Joel Frangquist

    Everything you say makes the problem worse, but the new timing is still inadequate for drivers who don’t do those things.  It takes long enough to make the turn from Market onto 14th that a car going a reasonable speed may not even have enough time to make the turn before the Church traffic gets the green.  If you enter at the last moment of green, you get about 4 secs (3 yellow, 1 delay) before Church turns green.  It’s 145 ft according to Google Earth, and if you are going 25 mph around the curve you need 4 secs.  If you are going slower because you are trying to be conscious of pedestrians, or because you are confused, or because someone turning onto church slows you down, then you can’t make it in time without speeding.  So even drivers that are not behaving egregiously are likely to get caught.

    By the way I use this intersection as a pedestrian not a driver.

  • Joel Frangquist

    Aaron, thanks for posting what I sent you.

    A couple thoughts based on watching things again this evening.

    There appears to be no huge reason why the green arrow couldn’t both begin and end earlier in the cycle, maybe 2-3 seconds..  Cars have about 50 ft from the limit line until they reach the new crosswalk, and a clear view of any pedestrians there.  As it is, they wait 4-5 secs for the yellow on Market and an all-red delay.  Especially during that delay they really could be going.  The arrow could end the same amount of time sooner, allowing cars to clear before Church gets the green.  

  • Carol

    I think this crosswalk is a huge improvement. I love it, and I think that your analysis clearly negates the benefits. Finding a new way to crap on sfmta every day must be tiring.

  • Anonymous

    Twice I’ve been struck by cars when I was in a crosswalk, both times I had the right of way. Both times the cars were turning. It’s much safer to jaywalk midblock.

  • Bruce

    Congratulations. You have validated why many people at the SFMTA are afraid to do anything creative. It’s pretty discouraging that none of you acknowledge this is good in the big picture. Take that constructive criticism
    101 class, it might do you some good.

  • Charles Lin

    Exactly Carol.  It is so much easier to cross as a pedestrian now with the new crosswalk.  People – drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians – just need to follow the traffic signals and everything will be okay.  People are in such a rush that they can’t see the new lights or they willfully ignore it in their haste to save 30 seconds.  

    Slow down folks and let’s be safe together.

  • I too am really excited about this new crossing. Really acknowledges a desire line – no reason you should have to cross twice just to continue walking on Market St. I think people will get used to the new signal phasing in due time. The SFMTA just needs to make some tweaks to the timing based on Joel Franquist’s observations.

  • Joel Frangquist

    I would say your comment has no bearing on the subject of this article, which is an intersection.  But then again, it’s really hard to actually walk anywhere without crossing through intersections.  In any case, the opinion you’ve expressed doesn’t constitute an argument that the city shouldn’t engineer signal timing as best they can.

  • Guest

    the new intersection ideas are good, but as many people noted there’s a few things to change:
     * They should put up “New” signage immediately. Like this weekend. “Traffic signal timing changed” signs are common elsewhere, and apply to pedestrians too–the signal was complex but lots of people knew how they worked and thus would cross at safe points (e.g. half way across market when 14th had the light was safe, but no longer is). (P.S. the best sign format I’ve seen for this is a flourescent flag–which naturally fades over a few months so it’s clear how ‘new’ it really is)
     * Some timing changes for the market/14th light may be useful–make it start and end earlier as suggested below might be a good idea.

  • Joel Frangquist

    Conversely, nowhere on this page has anyone said that the whole change was a terrible idea (although I’m sure the drivers who commute on the new arrow think that!)   The argument could be definitely be made that the previous arrangement was safer and more convenient for cars, but that would be a car-centric argument, which is why I didn’t make that argument.  With that said, overall I
    would say I’m impressed that most of the bases were covered, and you are probably right that I should have said that already.   

  • Justin

    Reading all the comments and looking at this intersection, I wonder if we could all agree on this: the intersection is designed to move cars as efficiently as possible — not to safely allow the passage of PEOPLE, or to allow numerous TRANSIT lines to actually move, but for cars. As long as this is true, it will be perilous for people walking and on bikes, and it will take 10 minutes for the J to go one block from the subway to the other side of Market. 
    If this really was a Transit-First city, the no-brainer here would be to close Church to private autos between Market and Duboce. 

  • Anonymous

    True, I wasn’t addressing the particular crosswalk; I was addressing the larger issue of pedestrian safety. I wasn’t trying to argue that city engineers shouldn’t engineer signal timing as best they can, merely observing that crosswalks and signal lights create a false sense of security.

  • Anonymous

    Why SF still allows cars on Church between Market and Duboce absolutely baffles me. If they’re not tearing through the tiny space between the 14th St. J stop and the sidewalk at ridiculous speeds, they’re drunkenly trying to drive into the Muni tunnel. But, as others have said, God forbid we ever inconvenience car drivers in any way.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    There is no reason at all to allow private automobiles northbound on Church.
    (And the only reason to allow them southbound is to exit the Safeway parking lot.)
    Close it!

    And do we even need to allow private cars to exit the Safeway lot there anyway?  The only thing lost if it were closed would be making a left on 14th or a left on Market.  If that’s really a huge issue, then perhaps the least-bad solution might be to signalize the right-turn only exit access on Market.  (Yeah, might hurt the F a little.  But more more than made up for by big gains for the J and 22 on Church.)

  • 94103er

    While we’re dreaming here in our traffic-flow discussion, maybe it’s time to really talk about how to convince Safeway (?) or the city (?) to rethink the use of that former reservoir/farmers’ market space. Obviously, the elephant in the room is that gigantic car vortex that is the Safeway shopping center and how it affects traffic patterns at that intersection.
    And speaking of traffic patterns…(getting a bit off topic)…anyone know the latest news on 2001 Market (the S&C Ford bldg at Dolores that’s supposed to make way for Whole Foods & housing)? According to the site, “Prado Group anticipates starting construction 1st quarter 2012 which will enable the grocery store to open in 2013 and residential units fall 2013.” I have trouble believing it.

  • Flyguy107

    They should mark the new crossing via the standard hash marks, so drivers are aware that there could be people there.
    Also: the right turn red light on Market is too short. They should get rid of the red, and just let the cars cross. The waiting line of cars actually ends up blocking cars that are headed east (up) on Market, resulting in more delays.

    I give credit to the MUNI for trying something, but in this instance, they seem to have shot an airball.


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