Dismissing SFFD’s Irrational Protests, SFMTA Approves Bulb-Outs at School

The SF Fire Department continues to make increasingly bizarre claims in opposition to sidewalk bulb-outs and narrower roadways. Last week, the SFMTA Board of Directors dismissed SFFD’s protests against six-foot bulb-outs at E.R. Taylor Elementary School in the Portola neighborhood. According to SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, one of SFFD’s claims was that fire truck drivers would be ticketed by the SFPD for entering an oncoming traffic lane to make a wide turn.

Bacon and Goettingen Streets, in front of E.R. Taylor Elementary, where SFFD attempted to downsize corner bulb-outs planned by the SFMTA. Image via ##http://www.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/fire-department-sounds-alarm-on-pedestrian-safety-measure-near-school/Content?oid=2672912##SF Examiner##

The SF Examiner reported on the dispute yesterday, though the paper didn’t question SFFD’s claims about the supposed hazards of six-foot bulbs (SFFD pushed for five feet). According to the Examiner, SFFD spokesperson Mindy Talmadge said “the department has been ‘vilified’ for voicing concerns on pedestrian safety.”

This is a misleading way to frame what’s been going on. SFFD has not been “voicing concerns” about pedestrian safety — the department has been interfering with street redesigns that improve pedestrian safety.

And the inexcusable part is that SFFD’s pushback against measures to calm traffic and make it safer for people to cross the street appears to be based on unfounded fears. The department hasn’t offered any hard evidence to support its claims that roadways narrower than 20 feet are unfit for fire trucks, even though plenty of cities use lower minimums, and lots of SF streets are already much narrower (SFFD has not, however, called for the removal of car parking or more enforcement against double parking). And the notion that SFPD will ticket siren-blaring fire trucks for the common practice of using oncoming traffic lanes defies belief (indeed, such an incident would probably spark public outrage).

“It’s troubling to see the Fire Department — a public safety agency — becoming the chief impediment to improving pedestrian and bicycle safety on our streets, especially in light of the recent surge in pedestrian deaths,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich. “SFFD needs to drop their specious arguments and begin to educate themselves about pedestrian safety, and how other cities are making streets safer for walking, cycling, and driving while maintaining emergency response times.”

Although SFFD claims it supports pedestrian safety measures, it has long fought to water down projects to narrow streets, which reduces the very injuries that the department responds to. As noted in a 2009 report [PDF] from the Congress for the New Urbanism on how better street design can improve safety and emergency response times, a 1997 study of 20,000 crashes in Colorado found that “the most significant relationship to injury accidents” was street width. “As street widths widen, accidents per mile per year increases exponentially, and the safest residential street width are the narrowest (curb face).”

The study out of Longmont, Colorado found that an increase in street width from 24 to 36 feet led to a 485 percent increase in injury crashes, on average. “Speed is the defining factor of a safe street,” CNU’s report says. “Reduce the speed and you reduce the frequency and severity of collisions.”

Following an SF Examiner op-ed penned by Walk SF calling on SFFD to support sidewalk extensions, the department issued a statement responding to what it called “allegations being made by special interest groups.” Although SFFD’s Talmadge told the Examiner yesterday that “we don’t want to be the cause of a pedestrian fatality,” the December statement indicated that SFFD officials don’t comprehend how sidewalk extensions improve pedestrian safety.

“We haven’t seen pedestrians being hit by vehicles on sidewalks because the sidewalks are too narrow,” said the SFFD statement from last month. “Proposals such as these cannot possibly make our streets, pedestrians and bicyclists safer.”

SFFD Fire Chief Johanne Hayes-White also made the erroneous yet unchallenged claim in a recent Examiner article that 74 percent of pedestrians were at fault for their own injuries, though she later said she was “misinformed.” SFFD also tried, unsuccessfully, to quietly nix a provision in a piece of legislation last year that allowed the city to approve street widths of less than the state guideline of 20 feet. At hearings on pedestrian safety issues, Hayes-White and other officials have neglected to comment on these matters, though a representative is scheduled to make a presentation to the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee tomorrow evening.

SFFD’s tactics have led many street safety redesigns to be watered down, but its specious claims don’t seem to carry weight with SFMTA Director Reiskin. At the hearing on the SFFD’s latest protests against the bulb-outs intended to make streets around E.R. Taylor Elementary safer for students, Reiskin said, “I believe we have bulb-outs that have the same geometry in the city, and I don’t believe they’ve been known to cause a problem.”

“We have looked at this very thoughtfully and carefully, and don’t believe, from our standpoint, that there would be any diminution of fire response or fire service, even with a six-foot bulb,” he said.

“We know that bulb-outs improve pedestrian safety — a shorter crossing distance, slower turns by vehicles, as well as improved visibility between pedestrians and vehicles,” Supervisor Scott Wiener told the SFMTA Board last week. “We have a crisis in our city” of pedestrian crashes, he said. “And I don’t use that term lightly.”

  • mcas

    Why isn’t the SFFD advocating to ban all curbside parking spots across the entire city in order to improve response times and widen the usable space for their trucks? Aren’t all those parked cars a much bigger impediment than a 1-foot-high curb?

  • I generally don’t believe that a fire truck driving partially on top of a bulbout or slightly into an oncoming lane, *during an actual emergency*, is a huge issue, given that it would occur relatively infrequently, and the truck would presumably have its siren and lights on. Even if that was a concern, it would need to be balanced against the 24/7 benefit that a bulbout provides to pedestrians. Bulbouts are a proven tool, embedded throughout the Mayor’s Pedestrian Strategy.

  • Chris J.

    The SFFD’s position seems emblematic of our tendency in the United States to focus more on treatment (responding to accidents) than on prevention (preventing traffic accidents) when it comes to health issues, etc.

  • voltairesmistress

    Fire Chief Hayes-White has a business degree from Santa Clara University and rose through the ranks at lightning speed. Her advance was mostly due to her accomplishments and her alacrity in taking on leadership roles. (Never discount, however, the power of networking and cosying up to the right people along the way.) She has served as chief for ten years and is generally well-liked in her department.

    That said, she is dead wrong on pedestrian safety and continues to spout off like an ignoramus. Why? Why can’t an educated and otherwise accomplished fire chief read the latest research on street design, pedestrian safety, and the true inhibitors of emergency response time (car/truck traffic + double-parking)?
    I hope the safety of San Francisco’s residents finally moves this fire chief to school herself and face facts. Her refusal thus far to do so smacks of intransigence, not intelligence.

  • SFnative74

    I find it strange how much the SFFD is going out of their way to oppose projects for people that walk. In this case, the project is for KIDS that walk. There is an elementary school and a public library here. And each time they oppose or try to water down a project, it seems the argument gets a little stranger. Here, they are concerned about going over the center of a small road in a quiet neighborhood and getting a ticket from the SFPD (???) – the same people that drive down the wrong way on Market St whenever they feel like they need to are concerned about this?? Who is in charge here?

  • Justin

    Are children being struck on the sidewalks here? I fail to see how making the sidewalk larger will keep the kids from standing in the street waiting for the light to change. I recall a study recently that showed bulb outs did not significantly reduce vehicle speed, that a raised crosswalk with overhead light works best. So where is that argument? Perhaps our time could also be better spent teaching bike riders about stop signs?

  • murphstahoe

    “Perhaps our time could also be better spent teaching bike riders about stop signs?”

    Interesting. I am a bike rider. What is this “stop sign” you talk about? I have never heard of these things, so I brought it up at the bike rider meeting and nobody seemed to know what it is. Can you describe it?

  • jwinstonsf

    A rep from SFFD came and spoke to PSAC last night. He explained all of the needs of the Fire Dept to accommodate their big equipment, most of which seemed reasonable. And, to his credit he said he was in favor of daylighting crosswalks and even would support most bulb outs if they have ramped curbs that trucks could drive over quickly.

    The telling moment came at the end, when we asked why response times have lengthened over the past years from under four minutes to as much as seven. He had no answer, especially as it relates to traffic calming. My off the cuff guess is that it might have something to do with congestion related to the 70,000 people who moved to the city over the last decade.

  • Sprague

    As explained in this article, bulb-outs increase pedestrian visibility and shorten the crossing distance. This is of benefit to all pedestrians but especially to those who are most vulnerable (young children and people with mobility impairments). Also as mentioned in the article, bulb-outs slow turning vehicles. The benefit of this should be obvious, however it is important to remember that vehicles travelling at slower speeds are less likely to cause fatalities when colliding with pedestrians.

  • M.

    At last night’s PSAC meeting, the SFFD spokespeople were at pains to defy the realities of relative risk, e.g. describing a scenario in which a bulbout forces an SFFD truck into oncoming traffic consisting of blind and deaf drivers who didn’t see/hear it coming (otoh…). However, PSAC members skillfully challenged their cause and effect presumptions to bring them around to conceding that clogged traffic *might* play a role in increasing response times. Still, the SFFD spokespeople would not confirm that that was *definitively* true since they’re ‘too busy’ driving to notice what actually, usually impedes them. Ultimately, all reached consensus that if SF’s car population continues to grow along with its human population, response times will skyrocket. Yes!
    SFFD has no more than its share of dummies, but they think the general population does. Thank you and xo, PSAC and esp. M. FitzG; a pleasure to watch a job so elegantly executed.

  • sforick

    Let’s just keep dismissing experts and keep making safety a big community anarchist effort, San Francisco.

    SFMTA has taken away street design from professional engineering experts and made it a fragmented “community” and committee process at the will of politicians and lobbyists. The results are unsafe streets. Bicycles
    should be given routes of their own on a network of streets dedicated to
    bicycles and local traffic only. Mixing cars, bicycles, and buses on major streets (e.g. Van Ness, Division, 3rd, Potrero, Caesar Chavez,
    etc.) is dangerous. The street designs being rubber stamped all over
    the city under the euphemisms of “traffic calming” and “streetscaping” are
    misguided in their application.

    Studies have shown traffic calming costs over 4 lives lost through delayed emergency response for every pedestrian saved, yet our politicians fight input to these projects by SFFD. These lives lost are as important as those of
    pedestrians. I am an engineer and I believe in engineering solutions, not
    political solutions. Let the experts do their job if you want better

  • Nathanael

    Makin’ shit up. Citation needed. You’re simply lying about the nonexistent “studies” which you’re jabbering about.

  • Jamison Wieser

    Are children being struck on the sidewalks here?

    Does a child really need to be injured or worse before making safety improvements? Let’s not go down that rathole.

  • murphstahoe

    you know who you sound like? that’s right – one of those cyclists dismissing all the potential collisions from sidewalk cycling…


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