Walk to School Day: A Reminder That SF Needs to Make Streets Safer for Kids

A "walking bus" on the way to Buena Vista Horace Mann Elementary in the Mission this morning. Photo courtesy of Walk SF

A continuous “walking bus” of school children spanned several sunny blocks of the Mission this morning as the kids made their way to Buena Vista Horace Mann School.

“Drivers just waited and smiled, and everybody had a great morning,” said Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk San Francisco.

San Francisco broke records for Walk to School Day today, with an estimated 55 schools and 8,500 students taking part, many of them in walking buses, which provide kids a safe and healthy commute option. In fact, BVHM Principal Jennifer Steiner announced that the school would begin scheduling a weekly walking bus heading out from Parque Niños Unidos, where parents can drop their kids off five blocks away.

Walking in groups provides a presence on the street that not only makes students and parents more visible to drivers, but also sends the signal to slow down perhaps more effectively than any speed limit sign.

Advocates and city officials celebrated the SF Municipal Transportation Agency’s implementation of 181 15 MPH school zones. The project, which had just gotten underway by last year’s Walk to School Day, was the first of its scale in the state.

But while the city has set a strong example for others to follow, “We’re also looking for ways to tame speeds in San Francisco,” said Stampe. The danger of streets with high-speed car traffic is one of the main barriers discouraging parents from letting their kids walk to school, she said. “When kids have to cross a street with fast traffic, or cross where cars don’t yield like on Monterey Boulevard, that’s a real issue for parents.”

According to the Department of Public Health, 42 percent of students citywide live within a mile of their school, but only 25 percent walk, said Stampe. Those numbers do vary — for Buena Vista Horace Mann, located in the walkable Mission District, 23 percent of the students live within a mile, and 19 percent walk.

Photo courtesy of Walk SF

In a statement, Mikail Ali, commander of the SF Police Department’s Traffic Company, said officers are out enforcing the 15 MPH school zones. “Especially now that school’s back in session, we want to remind everyone to please drive slowly and carefully,” he said.

But police staff is limited, and enforcement alone won’t be enough to calm car traffic, noted Stampe, who encouraged parents to call on the city to redesign safer streets. Traffic calming measures like sidewalk bulb-outs, raised crosswalks, chicanes, narrowed roads and greenery are key to getting drivers to slow down.

“That is probably the best thing to do, is to redesign the streets so that cars simply physically cannot go fast around a school, or in a home zone where it’s a residential street,” said Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the SFMTA Board of Directors, who spoke at this morning’s press event.

When the SFMTA determined which schools were eligible for 15 MPH zones, not all made the cut — under a 2008 state law, the agency said, 15 MPH speed limits cannot be imposed on streets with more than two lanes. That means some of the widest, most dangerous streets would have to be physically redesigned before speed limits can be lowered.

“A lot of the streets around Bessie Carmichael [Elementary in SoMa] for example, and Broadway in Chinatown, they’re right next to schools, and the traffic is really fast, and really scary for parents and kids alike,” said Stampe. “That’s something the city really needs to tackle.”

The SFMTA and other agencies to do continually make pedestrian safety upgrades, develop streetscape redesigns, and implement neighborhood-wide safety projects through the SFMTA’s overwhelmed traffic calming program. The agency’s Minna-Natoma Home Zone Pilot Project, aimed at measuring the impacts of concentrating traffic calming measures in an area around Marshall Elementary in the Mission, was approved in 2011, but has been only partially implemented.

Street improvement projects typically take years to plan, fund, and construct under the current system, however, and increasing enforcement will be crucial to improving safety in the meantime, said Brinkman, who is a proponent of automated speed cameras. Redesigning streets is “expensive — we spent 60 or 70 years making our streets the way they are, and now we have to spend all the money to make them safe again,” she said. “Enforcement has to be a big part of the solution. We just have to remind drivers: These are streets where there are people, there are children, there are cyclists, and they just need to kind of snap back to attention and realize that.”

“We don’t just want [kids] and their parents to feel comfortable walking to school,” added Brinkman. “We want them to be able to walk to their friend’s house, the playground, and to the grocery store with their parents.”

  • Anonymous

    SF really needs t5o make streets safer for everyone. This is by far the most car oriented city that I’ve ever had the pleasure of living in.

    I’d say a good 80% of the city could stand to see some traffic calming measures and a good 90-95% of drivers could stand to show some empathy, or probably just go back to driving school.

  • It’s not as if state laws are immutable. Why should the number of lanes on a street dictate its speed limit? It seems many of our state laws were made with low density areas in mind and make little sense for a city that has the second highest population density in the nation. San Francisco should be working with our state politicians to amend laws that don’t work for us, perhaps adding exceptions for cities above a certain population density. Another example of a state law that doesn’t give San Francisco the tools it needs to create livable neighborhoods is not being able to charge more than administrative fees for residential parking permits. Too cheap street parking and increasing population density ends up flooding the city with more cars than our streets can realistically handle.

  • voltairesmistress

    By far the most dangerous pedestrian experience is drivers running red lights at high speeds in order to “make the light”.  How expensive would it be to set up red light cameras at all controlled intersections near schools?  Seems a lot more effective and in the long term less expensive than posting officers near school routes. That and raised crosswalks would produce an enormous cultural change in the city drivers’ habits.  SF driving culture, by the way, is atrocious, but one only fully notices how bad it is after visiting a city that has enacted the above mentioned changes.

  • voltairesmistress

     Karen, I think the problem is that the streets as currently designed actually do handle the existing car traffic pretty well.  That’s why people drive — because it works pretty well for them. The only really bad congestion occurs at rush hour on streets leading to the bridges and freeways entrances.  Let’s be clear about that part, and if one wants to rid the city’s streets of cars because they suck for other reasons, then one can say so.

    The problem in San Francisco is overnight parking, and sometimes daytime parking, — insufficient space where it’s cheap or free. And on that score, I would completely agree with you that free or cheap parking allows people to store private property (cars) on public property (curbside) almost for free for long periods of time.  And to the detriment of all other possible users and uses.

    Currently it costs me a little over $4,200 a year to garage the family car.  Only $110 is a residential street permit, with the rest being for the private garage and 20% city tax on that rent.  (Total annual tax & fee revenue to the city = $974.)  I think if others had to pay anything close to that kind of annual cost, they would re-think having multiple cars or any car.  I know we did.

  •  Voltaire,
    Well, we’ve got ourselves a conundrum.  Roads need to be big and wide and fast to carry all the traffic or we’ll have congestion!  But big, wide, fast roads make it unsafe for kids to walk to school, so their parents drive them to school which creates (. . . drumroll, please) 30% of all morning traffic!  If the kids were walking to school, holy moly, the drop in traffic would mean 15 mph might not cause much additional congestion at all. (Remember that cars, on average, manage 12 mph traversing San Francisco at preasent.)

    From a city planning point of view (not from an individual car driver’s point of view) cars are the worst possible transportation mode in high-density areas. This is true for dozens of reasons and I would be glad to enumerate every one. (And I have on this site, many times!) But in this case, I’ll just point out that studies show that children who bike or walk to school (controlling for all other factors) are healthier, have higher test scores, are less prone to smoke young, are less likely to be overweight and/or obese, and have higher grades. For some reason twenty minutes of physical activity in the morning gets the blood moving and the brain stimulated and ready to learn. (This, of course, is why it’s ridiculous that many schools in the US are eliminating recess time so as to improve test scores.) Not allowing children to be physically active on their way to school so that adults have an easier time driving their cars (when they, too, would be better off getting a little exercise in the morning) is a gross disservice to them.

    I agree with you entirely that people drive because they find it convenient. But this is because we’ve made it convenient. In fact, we’ve designed our entire way of life around driver convenience and embedded it into our state laws. If the fundamental precept of our laws was that children are more important than driving adults, Streetsblog wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, the reverse is true.

    (For “children” you could substitute “public health”, or “livable communities”, or “avoiding environmental collapse”,  or “species on the verge of extinction” or “anyone alive twenty years from now,” and you would get a similar result. At present driving adults appear to take precedence over any other possible entity, past, present and future.)

    The parking issue will really get us as San Francisco’s population rises from 800K to 900K. Even if all these new people had an off-street place to park, there is literally not enough space on our streets for 50,000 more cars to drive, much less park when they get to their destination.

  • HoJo

    Oiseau, I find that comment interesting because SF is one of the least car-friendly cities in the US, and certainly the least car-friendly in the West. Also, statistics show that SF has a relatively low proportion of cars and drivers.

    So I am not saying that drivers could not be better, but to categorise SF as the most car-friendly city in the US is a heck of a stretch.

  • jimmy

    Something doesn’t add up in your cost of overnight parking example.
    – if you have a garage, why do you also have a residential parking permit?
    – AFAIK, the “20%” tax only applies to non-residential parking leases.  You should not be paying that for overnight parking for your family car.

    Also, 4200 / yr is $350 per month which is definitely on the high end of San Francisco garage rent.  I suspect that you are living in an expensive neighbourhood and garage rent is only a small fraction of your total rent.

  • Guest

    I’d say that people making turns without seeing pedestrians is the most dangerous.

  • HoJo – he didn’t say it was the most car oriented city in the US. He said it was the most car oriented city he has had the pleasure of living in. 

    Perhaps he has lived in San Francisco, Paris, and London. Oh, and maybe Houston which would not be pleasurable to live in. 

  • jimmy – he got the permit because it’s insanely cheap, so when someone comes to visit him, he can park his car on the street and his visitor can park in his garage. QED.

    Not saying that Voltaire is a bad person – pointing out that the street permit is insanely cheap

  • voltairesmistress

     Jimmy, I pay $360 for a fixed parking spot and believe $72 per month goes to the City.  The garage is commercial and provides monthly parking on one floor and hourly or one-time overnight parking on the other.  It think the garage is mandated to collect that 20% tax from all users, and it has a sign posting that it does so.  I could not find a cheaper garage within a mile when I looked four years ago.  It’s within a couple blocks of my flat in a pretty dense neighborhood which is mostly residential with some restaurants, services, hotels, and nightclubs.  There is some transit, but not much unless you count taxis.  The transit situation will improve a great deal with the Central Subway and dedicated transit lanes with fewer stops, if we keep advocating for the latter. 

  • voltairesmistress

     Oh, I forgot . . . murph is right.  We bought the residential parking permit for the occasional dinner guest.  I see nothing wrong with paying $110 for it to park our car on the street for probably 100 hours a year.  Murph is right though in that a $110 annual residential parking permit is ridiculously cheap if one is going to park for about 4,000 hours a year.

  • mikesonn

    How will the Central Subway help Nob Hill?

  • voltairesmistress

    Karen, I don’t disagree with your overall point that there are many, many reasons cars are not the best means of transport in a dense city.  Any look at Sao Paulo or Beijing shows what happens when cities break down over car use.  And that’s just the most dramatic scenario.  Multiple pedestrian injuries by incautious drivers is a hidden scourge, because are experienced individually.  These can be addressed not by banning car use but by design changes, red-light cameras, increased red-light dwell times for speeding cars, etc.  I’ve seen cities with remarkably civil drivers (Helsinki) and few injuries, and they are still using cars. Air and water pollution and climate change and noise are even less visible, but I think those problems will decrease almost to zero as we change over to renewables.  If we keep arguing against car-use on a mostly pollution basis or a pedestrian safety basis, we will lose the public transit infrastructure argument in the long run.

    Right now, people look around and see that car use in SF does work, pretty well most of the time for the car users.  If one makes car use difficult without otherwise making pedestrians safe or making the transit system superb, drivers will simply drive longer distances and erratically and illegally to get what they want. I know you advocate often for making car use difficult as a way to build a critical mass of public opinion for transit infrastructure construction.  But you employ untruths (constant congestion) to support that end.  People see through that, and it undermines progress, in my opinion.

  • voltairesmistress

     Mike, Central Subway will help Nob Hill residents too.  From the top of hill it’s 4 blocks to the Washington/Stockton entrance, less if you live on the east side of Nob Hill.  CS will definitely help in getting to work in South of Market or Mission Bay, or Caltrain to Peninsula, or to Giants games.  More friends are living in the Southeast portion of the city, so visiting them for dinner via the CS will be really helpful. Right now, the Muni #27 crawls through South of Market, Tenderloin, then lumbers up Nob Hill.  It has taken me 45-60 minutes from Bryant street or Mission Bay to my home, so I either walk it, bike it, catch a taxi part of the way, or drive when our shared car is available.

  • mikesonn

    But there are 30/45 also available at that stop intersection in Chinatown. If bus only lanes were enforced (or better yet a transit only Stockton), you’d see your travel times greatly reduced while not also reducing bus service to the rest of the Northeast (CS will remove buses from the 30/45 routes which also serve North Beach, Marina, Cow Hollow, Russian Hill, Presidio).

    Also, don’t forget, once you get to Wash/Stock, you’ll have to go down 70+ feet to get to the station platform then wait for LRV which will have slower head-ways than the current bus fleet on the surface of Stockton.

  • Voltaire, I don’t understand. How is San Francisco not congested? The average car travels now in this city at 12 mph. Congestion is the prime reason Muni has slowed down in speed over the decades. Having spent thousands of hours over the last decade shuttling kids all over this city, from the Richmond to the Mission, from the Presidio to the Excelsior District, primarily between the hours of 7:30 – 9 am and 3 – 7pm, my experience is that San Francisco is highly congested. My average travel speeds, depending on the destination, ranged from 10 mph to 17 mph. And for Friday afternoons, subtract another 3 mph from that. I do not believe characterizing San Francisco traffic as congested is untrue at all. Furthermore, as San Francisco grows in population, if people own and drive cars at current levels, how will it not get more congested?

    Maybe we mean different things when we use the word “congestion?”

    As to what will happen if driving is made more difficult without a superb transit system being put into place first:  Amsterdam has made driving across town remarkably difficult. The parts of Amsterdam I visited had no underground lines.  There were some remarkably quiet and smooth street trams, but these have only moderate (less than SF Muni) mode share. Everyone bikes. Making driving difficult reduced congestion there and made biking extremely safe and the preferred mode of transport.

    A few years ago, Vienna divided their central ring area into five pie-shaped wedges and made it impossible to drive from one pie wedge to another. You have to go out of the central area, drive the perimeter and then enter another pie wedge from the perimeter road. People there thought the world would end, but actually it made the neighborhoods much calmer and has encouraged walking and bicycle use. Vienna does have a truly excellent underground transportation system that runs with remarkable frequency, but it actually doesn’t serve the central ring area with many stops. People are expected to walk up to half a mile to get to one of the underground stops. In addition, over a dozen blocks blocks of the inner ring area, including the four major shopping streets, have been turned into car-free pedestrian zones. The result? Almost zero congestion in the inner ring, a thriving central commercial district, and a city that tourists love. Vienna has been named the world’s most livable city three years in a row and has been recognized as the European city with the highest quality of life.

    Paris in the last few years has eliminated thousands of on street parking spots to make room for Velib stations and bike lanes, instituted substantial permit fees for all on street parking, and is now going to permanently close the two-lane expressway along Seine to cars “to give Parisians back their river.” Of course Parisian car drivers–who have access to one of the best metro systems in the worlds and choose to drive anyway–are upset about this. Of course mass congestion is predicted. I will be very interested to see the results.

    It’s interesting that for all three of these cities, high gasoline taxes weren’t enough to reduce driving to a level that made these cities livable, though the high taxes did finance public transit improvements and encouraged much more efficient cars.  Plus, in Vienna’s case, having an excellent public transit system wasn’t enough to diminish car use to a livable level. Making driving less convenient was what made the real difference. The majority of bicyclists in Amsterdam and Copenhagen say they bike not because it is inexpensive or good for the environment but because it is more convenient than driving a car.

    I have never called for banning cars altogether (although I do think some areas, like Grant Street in Chinatown, should become pedestrian plazas similar to Vienna’s approach.) San Francisco has a large number of wealthy people, so even after peak oil hits us hard, there will likely be some electric cars around. (One positive of peak oil–congestion for car drivers that can still afford to drive should drop substantially!) However, even if car use dropped by 75%, I still don’t think San Francisco should be designed so that the convenience of private cars takes precedence over the convenience (and safety) of pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit.

    Because we’ve designed our lives around car use and the cheap energy that oil has up to now provided, peak oil will likely be a socially destabilizing force in the US. Giving San Franciscan’s back their streets for walking, biking, shopping, public plazas, outdoor cafes, neighborhood interaction, and community space can actually improve San Franciscan’s quality of life in the face of peak oil and so alleviate social discord and reduce the potential for upheaval that could be violent and dangerous. We simply cannot wait until we have a superb transportation built before we begin to do this. Frankly, because the US has been so short-sighted we will be lucky to build out a decent, moderate speed rail system between major cities to partially replace the air travel that will necessarily go away. A superb transit system takes underground tunnels, and again, because we’ve left it too late, we’re not going to have the money to build many of these. I frankly don’t think the Central Subway will ever be completed as it is currently designed.  The money will be needed for transit measures that are far more useful and effective in moving people. We are more likely get a BART tunnel that extends to the Golden Gate Bridge then rides along the surface of 101 to service Marin. These may seem like extraordinary predictions. I think there are extraordinary times ahead.

    I want San Francisco to thrive and prosper the next two decades. I think it can. (I am not so optimistic about the United States as a whole.) The worst solution (and the one most US cities are likely to lumber into unless attitudes towards driving rapidly change) is to do nothing to discourage car use, keep walking and bicycling dangerous marginalized activities, make half-hearted attempts to provide a little mass transit here and there, and wait until 80% of people can’t afford cars due to peak oil and economic crisis. The way to beat peak oil is to do what Denmark, Austria, France, Sweden, and Germany are doing–drive down oil consumption *before* it destroys our economy (and while there is still money to spend on infrastructure.) Increase the ratio of GDP to energy input by eliminating inefficient energy use. The countries with a high GDP to energy input ratio will be the success stories of the twenty-first century. (In addition, once climate change effects become too painful to ignore, the countries who’ve already built out a sustainable energy supply and a robust electrical grid will also have a huge advantage. Germany and Denmark will have their supply finished probably by the end of this decade.)

  • voltairesmistress

     Hi Guest, I would agree that turning vehicles hit the most pedestrians in SF.  But I would hazard a guess that high speed impacts (on the arterial streets) probably kill the most pedestrians.  I don’t know, though.

  • voltairesmistress

     Hi Karen,
    I really like all the examples you gave of cities that have restricted automobile usage — Amsterdam, Vienna, etc.  I think three things will make such restrictions a non-starter in American cities, even relatively compact San Francisco.  The first is the vastly under-built U.S. intercity rail system, combined with the underbuilt subway and tram system in nearly every city. The second is political/cultural politics gridlock and lack of funds (which you mentioned).  The third is the geography of American cities.  San Francisco is too hilly for many to ride.  Other cities like Los Angeles and Houston are so vast that they are hard to travel across without a car.  Maybe electric bikes will be the answer to geography.  I don’t know.

    I think peak oil is a chimera.  Many fuels can substitute for oil and already are being so used.  I have no doubt near future generations will be using all renewable energy and all recyclable materials for nearly everything.  They will look back in wonder/horror at us and our plastic-polluted oceans, bulging landfills, and belching airplanes, as we do now at the pre-antibiotic, high-childbirth mortality days of our great grandparents.

    As to congestion . . .  I can get anywhere within the City in under 20-25 minutes , except sometimes at rush hour trying to get OUT of the city.  A 12mph(?) avg speed gets me everywhere in a 47 sq mile city pretty well, though I think using the arterial streets I average something a bit swifter without speeding.

  • Gneiss

    Voltaire, I beg to differ. Unfortunately for us, there are no other liquid fuels available that can substitute for the energy density of fossil fuels. And a lot of people have been looking J.  If you think for a minute that ethanol is a viable option, ask yourself why are car makers making hybrid and electric cars rather than towards ethanol conversion. As Karen pointed out, we either become better about how we use energy, or see our GDP and personal disposable incomes significantly reduced.
    As for new fossil fuel resources here in North America, the reason why we are mining the Bakken oil field and Alberta tar sands is that all the easy oil on our continent are played out.  As the spot market for oil from the middle-east heated up with increasing demand from China and India, and the middle-east could not pump enough to satisfy this growing demand, those fields in North America became economical. But make no mistake – it’s a desperate move on our part as those resources are perilously close to the point where it costs more energy to extract then we get out of them, and they are a drop in the bucket relative to the amount of oil we use daily. We’ll see more of these moves, with suitable trumpeting by the MSM, from the oil industry as people continue to bid up the value of a barrel of oil. So long as our economy is heavily invested in oil, there will be quite a bit of money to be made in oil and gas in the next 20 to 30 years before it become more energy intensive to extract the oil than the use of it provides us.

    I believe it’s what we do as families and communities that will make the difference.  The places and people who adapt to the new paradigm will be best positioned to take advantage of this reality and will be richer for it.  Those who cannot see this will become poorer and have harder lives.  It’s certainly the reality the Europeans are living out right now.
    Finally, if you believe switching to electric cars is the answer, just remember that they require far more resources to produce than gasoline powered cars.  They will most certainly be only for the wealthiest in our society rather than something most people can afford.

  • voltairesmistress

     Hi Gneiss, good points and great moniker. Perhaps I am thinking of something different from you and Karen when I say “peak oil”?  I simply mean that peak oil seems unrealistic because: 1) oil is still being discovered, particularly under the ocean.  It seems, for better or worse, that we humans will have a bit longer to harness other sources before oil runs out; 2) oil is already getting replaced with other fossil fuels like natural gas which is rather too abundant for our own developmental good; 3) oil and possibly natural gas will be replaced with other energy sources — electricity, hydrogen, hopefully produced through harnessing renewables.  So, I don’t see the price of oil becoming impossible, or if it does skyrocket we will simply tap into other sources of developing energy.  The apocalypse does not appear imminent.  But, heck, what do I know?

  • Gneiss

    I too don’t see an apocalypse. But what I *do* see is that communities that have invested heavily in the single mode share approach to personal transport decision (which includes most of suburbia and a good chunk of cities that retrofit their streetscape for cars) will become increasing poor as more of their citizens are forced to spend a greater percentage of their disposable income on fuel for their vehicles rather than good and services. Those places that make the investments to offer people alternatives to cars will be richer and more resilient to fuel price spikes as a greater percentage of people can switch to alternatives and continue to have income to spend on discretionary consumables that people who have cars are spending on fuel and other car related costs. We are already seeing some of this trend where house prices in spread out cities and suburbs have not come back after the real estate collapse, but pricing in urban cores with good public transportation remained stable.

    As for natural gas being a viable alternative, I again beg to differ. While there has been a lot of hype about new discoveries, if you look at price charts for the past 10 years we actually have had rising prices for NG from $6/tcf to $9/tcf in California. And that’s only with residential heating, electricity generation, and industrial uses like making fertilizer for our food. Currently, less than 1% of that is going towards use in vehicles. Imagine if we then tried to add cars in mass numbers to the demands – it would make heating and cooling and our food far more expensive, which is not sustainable by any stretch, particularly given that we’ve been switching many of our power plants from coal to NG to comply with clear air regulations, and have not been building any new nuclear power plants.

    It makes far more sense from a policy perspective to provide people with alternatives to cars rather than try and move to another fuel source that’s got the same issues as oil. That’s certainly what the Europeans realized about 20 years ago, and is what we should be working towards here in the US. To do otherwise is to impoverish large segments of our society that don’t live and work in dense communities where they can walk, bicycle, and use public transport to get around.

  • Gneiss is right. It’s already playing out. Money makes money. People with money can afford to live in San Francisco, and by doing so they save money. People who can’t are pushed out and fall further behind as they do not realize these savings.

    I’m starting to worry we left it too late, but this is human nature. We are just now starting to build SMART, negotiate HSR and improve Caltrain, discuss BRT, and move people to bikes. If we had seen this coming 10-15 years ago and moved with urgency we’d be sitting fat and happy.  

  • Gneiss is right. It’s already playing out. Money makes money. People with money can afford to live in San Francisco, and by doing so they save money. People who can’t are pushed out and fall further behind as they do not realize these savings.

    I’m starting to worry we left it too late, but this is human nature. We are just now starting to build SMART, negotiate HSR and improve Caltrain, discuss BRT, and move people to bikes. If we had seen this coming 10-15 years ago and moved with urgency we’d be sitting fat and happy.  


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