SFPD’s Sanford Explains His Evolving Views on Bicycling and Traffic Priorities

John Sanford rode a bicycle yesterday for the first time in an untold number of years. Then, he sat down for nearly two hours to have an insightful discussion with a couple of his staunchest critics. Streetsblog’s recorded interview with Sanford is posted at the bottom of this article.

SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick
SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The new-ish captain of SFPD’s Park Station is taking strides to build relationships and learn from safe streets advocates after his short-lived crackdown on innocuous bike violations at stop signs last week, which led to dozens of protesters packing a community meeting Tuesday.

By the end of the hours-long meeting, Sanford announced an end to the bike crackdown (at least for now). After listening to compelling explanations as to why people on bikes treat stop signs as yield signs, he also promised to refine his enforcement efforts to account for differences between bikes and cars. (Supervisor John Avalos has since proposed it as a policy.)

Sanford paused the bike crackdown after two days, and then reached out to me and the SF Bicycle Coalition for one-on-one meetings. At Tuesday’s meeting, he told the crowd that his intention was to “get the attention of the cyclists. I think we got the attention of the cyclists.”

I caught up with the captain yesterday after Katherine Roberts, a longtime advocate for safer streets in Cole Valley, invited me to tag along on a neighborhood walk that Sanford had arranged with her. Roberts planned to point out the daily dangers of using crosswalks on streets like Stanyan, where drivers routinely fail to yield to pedestrians.

Sanford preparing for his bike ride down Haight Street. Photo: @SFPDPark/Twitter

Roberts and others at Tuesday’s meeting said that complaints about dangerous driving behaviors and locations, which SFPD has pledged to focus on, rarely seem to get the kind of attention from Park Station that Sanford gave to complaints about bicycling behaviors after becoming captain in April.

When we met yesterday, the walk ended up being tabled for our sit-down conversation in the same room where the community meeting was held. Roberts and I asked the captain to address some key questions to get to the heart of the matters behind his views on safer streets, bicycling, and “Focus on the Five.”

The 80-minute recording of our conversation with Sanford is below. (Note: It’s broken into two parts because the meeting was expected to end, but the discussion continued.) Here are some highlights:

  • On the “Idaho stop” — letting bicycle riders treat stop signs as yield signs. “As the law reads, everyone is required to stop at a stop sign. Now, in addition to that, officers do have what’s considered discretion, so that also can be very subjective,” Sanford says in part 1, starting at 5:20. On Avalos’s proposed ordinance: “We have to really be careful, because the police department does that already. We often make a decision on how are we going to manage our resources, and I don’t know any captain… that would say we’re going to make traffic a priority over a shooting, over a stabbing, over a robbery,” he says starting around 10:00.
  • From there, Sanford argued that the bicycle crackdown was not a diversion of limited enforcement resources from “Focus on the Five,” and said there was a new target for the department to issue 37 percent of citations to the most dangerous traffic violations by the end of the year. At about 23:00, I pressed him on why police couldn’t meet the 50 percent goal set in January 2014, which Richmond Station has long exceeded. “There are a variety of reasons,” Sanford explained at about 25:00, insisting that SFPD’s non-traffic priorities often take precedence.
  • I pressed Sanford further on why more than 70 percent of Park Station’s traffic citations are still being issued for non-“Five” violations. At 31:00, he said he couldn’t refer to any of the traffic enforcement data, and said I should ask Traffic Commander Ann Mannix for it. (See data from the latest quarter here [PDF].)
  • From most of the rest of the interview, Sanford argues that officers “consistently” cite drivers for violations that aren’t the “Five” most dangerous, and that the presence of patrol cars deters dangerous driving violations from occurring. I asked him how we can measure that effect, and he explained that it’s “difficult.”
  • Starting at about 11:30 in part 2, Sanford weighs in on the Wiggle “stop-in” demonstration: “I think it’s safe to say that was a manufactured setting” because demonstrators proceeded through stop signs one at a time, Sanford said.
  • At 22:00, Sanford talks about his first bike ride in as long as he can remember. At about 25:30: “I can understand why people want to just roll through… and nine times out of 10, that person is probably going to make it. I’m concerned about the time when they don’t.”

Stay tuned for more coverage next week about Tuesday’s community meeting and views on bicycling at the SFPD.

  • StrixNoctis .

    That sucks. I hope your leg & ankle healed without permanent damage.

    By chance, was the vehicle that the hit & runner drove a white mini van (or possibly a short/low SUV) with a tinted rear window (possibly also other tinted windows)? Back in October or November of last year (can’t remember exactly), an angry motorist in a vehicle of that description deliberately tried to hit me on Mission St, between Precita & Caesar Chavez blvd (the incident is what convinced me to get a camera for my bike).

  • “I believe the law is the law.” – Picky
    “If neither party was attempting to occupy the same space at the same time how was the pedestrian right of way violated?” – Picky


  • It’s all common sense. The bike should slow down and watch for any potential crossing pedestrians and any motor vehicles or any other vehicles already at the other stop signs that have the right of way. The bike can go through only when all situations are cleared, otherwise the bike should wait. It’s wordy to put on paper, but in practice, this only takes a few seconds. This is what most cyclists do. There are times when cyclists misjudge, but as long as we are at very low speed to begin with, things should be manageable.

  • the_greasybear

    It was almost 4 years ago. Good to know Wiener has been able to pressure Mission Station to do its job since then.

  • Many places, its already a separate violation to enter a crosswalk while other vehicles are stopped at the same crosswalk. I don’t know about California or not.

  • kceem

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve complained many times about this behavior on Frederick between Clayton-Ashbury-Masonic and the SFPD has done nothing, even though there’s an elementary school right in the middle. You’re lucky if the right-turners even slow down, or if you make it across an intersection without the waiting car driving up to your shins.

  • It is according to PBB, haven’t seen the specific CVC line myself.

  • Remember that scene in Ken Burns’ Civil War epic, body piled next to body as far as the eye could see? Verily, that’s what all the people nearly-hit by bikes look like on whatever sidewalk this epidemic is taking place on, except right next to it is a pristine and completely empty bike lane.

  • @Pontifikate – You can think whatever you want, and clearly do, but that’s not Vision Zero at all. Vision Zero is not about “vehicles” and is barely about enforcement. The whole point of Vision Zero is to use data (not anecdotes and only certain types of biased complaints) in order to change the built environment (not to rack up citations).

  • Picky

    I am not sure if you are aware that laws can be changed and amended. But until that is done, it is what it is. Don’t like it, don’t get caught or move somewhere where the law if more to your liking.

  • Picky

    Maybe the rules are different where the video was filmed. In California, pedestrian right of way is covered by CCVC 21954(b), CVC 21950 and CVC 21455. The CCVC states that both parties, driver and pedestrian, should use caution. The video does not show the pedestrian’s safety was ever put in jeopardy. Both parties assessed the situation and decided it was safe to proceed. It is obvious that they both arrived to the conclusion that would not collide with each other. I am sure if the driver slowed down he would have collided with the pedestrian. Or if the pedestrian decided to speed up. However, the driver kept same speed, so did the pedestrian. With their speeds being constant, there was no way they would have collided.

  • Picky

    I beg to differ. Many California Vehicle codes were implemented to keep pedestrians safe (CCVC 21954(b), CVC 21950 and CVC 21455). Drivers, cyclists and pedestrians should all be held accountable. However, on almost all collisions, the pedestrian is on the losing end. Don’t forget that a bicycle is a vehicle as well. And there has been cases of pedestrian fatality involving bicycle pedestrian collisions. More importantly, while everyone should obey the law, everyone should also use common sense.

  • Picky

    That is very true. That’s why the police department usually does not enforce motorcycles or bicycles and put their focus on bigger vehicles. While that is very understandable, it is nice to see that once in a while they enforce laws that also do apply to them as well as pedestrians. It serves as a reminder that the laws are there to protect us, the pedestrians, as we cross the street. While I might not die from being hit by a bicycle, others have.

  • Picky

    Yes, the law is hard to understand. That’s why neither the general public nor the police is equipped to interpret the law. It is up to the judicial system. When it comes to the law, I guess I am as dumb and you are and could be incorrect as well.

  • jd_x

    The laws aren’t there just to protect you since, if that was the only goal, there would be no cars allowed on any streets unless they were emergency vehicles. Thus, the laws are there to sacrifice safety for convenience and where we draw this line is very much up to debate. And when you further consider that this safety-convenience trade-off was considered primarily with motorists in mind and pedestrians secondary and bicyclists completely neglected, this further indicates that the laws are suspect when it comes to pedestrian and bicyclist safety let alone convenience.

  • That’s taking primary school government class information a bit too literally.

  • “But until that is done, it is what it is. ”

    “Yes, the law is hard to understand. That’s why neither the general public nor the police is equipped to interpret the law. ”

    *smoke billows*

    Welcome to lesson #2 at the James T Kirk School of Home Computer Repair.

  • “That’s why neither the general public nor the police is equipped to interpret the law. “

  • It’s also nice to see that “That’s why neither the general public nor the police is equipped to interpret the law. “

  • NoeValleyJim

    I wouldn’t go that far, but at least they reply to his email.

  • Picky

    We however, must be aware that the police is in charge of enforcing the law. If one believes that they are enforcing it incorrectly, they can file a complain and even challenge it in a court of law.

  • Picky

    I fail to see how the driver was threatening the pedestrian. The driver didn’t speed up nor slow down nor taunt the pedestrian. The pedestrian showed so signs of being threatened as he continued crossing in the same speed he did when he started to cross.

  • Picky

    The video assumes that cyclist will yield to pedestrians. That is rarely the case in downtown San Francisco.

  • Don’t try to interpret the law. The law is the law.

  • pablo_skils

    In practical terms, the correct answer is: It depends. If the cyclist actually is unsighted, then the safest procedure is to stop. Often when there is a bike lane and a car to the left at a crosswalk, the cyclist has a good view of the crosswalk and can safely proceed with caution through it without stopping.

    One thing you might not understand is the matter is more one of energy/fatigue than convenience. Motivating yourself from stopped takes a lot more effort than accelerating from 3-5 mph. This might sound trivial, but with experience you will learn it is not.

    To a lesser degree, there is also an issue of safety. Many newer cyclists wobble a little during the first few pedal strokes when moving from a stopped position. In a crowded street this increases the hazard for all users regardless of transport mode.

  • Common sense is a misnomer. It doesn’t actually exist. Which should be obvious if you’re an adult. However it is possible to make informed risk assessments based on the best data that we have at the time.

    Don’t forget that in the US car drivers kill 32,000+ people a year with their automobile vehicles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year It’s so common it isn’t even news. I’ve looked for similar reports on how many pedestrian fatalities were caused by someone riding a bike and I can only find a handful of news reports. If you can manage to cite your sources, I’d appreciate a link that demonstrates the magnitude of the cyclist-responsible pedestrian fatality problem.

  • Picky

    I do have to agree with you. If a pedestrians risk assessment concluded in them stepping in front of a non-stopping car, motorcycle or bicycle, there is no law in any book that will prevent him from getting hit. I am also pretty sure if such pedestrian ends up surviving the ordeal, he will not only look twice but think twice before stepping in front of any moving object. But in the event that he survives the collision, I am glad there are laws in the books so he can sue for all the money they have. As such, I am hoping the law is as harsh on the cyclists as they are on the car, truck, bus drivers. Especially in SF, the pedestrians always have the right of way. Even if we jaywalk!

  • This is an anecdote, but a pedestrian jaywalked (without looking) in front of me while I was biking. Guess who was knocked over, scraped, and bruised and who remained upright and uninjured?

    Car drivers feel impervious to damage from pedestrians and people on bikes. How do you think that affects driving habits?

    People on bikes are more vulnerable (than cars) to cars and pedestrians. Which is why I don’t mind if I’m walking through a crosswalk and a person on a bike comes within three feet of me. They’re as threatened by me as I am by them. It’s in their own self-interest to avoid hitting me. And self-interest is obviously more powerful than any law on the books.

  • @Picky – No, the pedestrian does not always have the right of way. That’s a great guideline for less-vulnerable road users to follow, and it’s how I conduct myself while biking, but it’s not the law.

  • SF Guest

    I don’t follow your understanding that pedestrians don’t always have the right-of-way. As @Picky pointed out if a pedestrian jaywalks he/she automatically gains the right-of-way with motor vehicles who must yield or stop. The only difference with a pedestrian jaywalking in front of a cyclist is they have an additional option of going around the jaywalker.

  • Mountain Viewer

    Cars have the same option of illegally “going around” the pedestrian. Yield is Yield for all street users.

  • SF Guest

    True, but not on many of SF’s clogged streets.

  • Alicia

    Might it be that older people rightly perceive bicyclists who don’t slow and don’t look and don’t stop at stop signs a real threat?

    No, it’s not a real threat. Look at actual traffic injury and deaths. Bicycles are rarely a threat to third parties.

  • Pontifikate

    Tell that to my friend who died by being hit by a bicycle and another friend who was in a coma for three weeks after being hit by a cyclist riding/speeding on the sidewalk.

  • That’s how the law should work in theory, but motorists are not typically found at fault for hitting a pedestrian who jaywalked, or one who dared to cross the street at an intersection when they had the light, at a stop sign, etc. http://freakonomics.com/2014/05/01/the-perfect-crime-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/


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