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.

  • djconnel

    A key justification for the crack-down is the assertion that ticketed behaviors are universally unsafe. That simply was not the case. This is why it’s critical we support Avalos’ proposal so it can serve as a demonstration of the efficacy of an Idaho stop law at the state level, at least for stop signs if not red lights.

  • As the law reads if there’s any pedestrian anywhere in the crosswalk, no one, not even 3 lanes away, is allowed to drive or ride across said crosswalk. Never seen any level of pedestrian right-of-way sting or enforcement uphold ‘as the law reads’.

  • Mountain Viewer

    The Mountain View Police department has a pedestrian decoy program to enforce such right-of-way. In this video, a car was the culprit but the law most likely applies to any vehicle.

  • grrlfriday

    I noticed that Captain Sanford readily understood the value of deploying his officers in an ad hoc fashion as the situation demands, instead of using a one-size-fits-all managerial style. But he had a harder time understand applying this principle to bicycling. I thought the two situations are remarkably similar. There are safety risks in being too hide-bound in either. As many people have pointed out, sometimes stopping at a stop sign is the most dangerous thing you can do. I think people’s survival instincts in general are pretty strong, and we will naturally make choices based on that. When you limit our options, you can actually make us less safe. This is what concerns me the most about Captain Sanford’s approach.

  • 1976boy

    I give him credit for wanting a dialogue. Let’s hope he can refocus on effective solutions, not petty harassments.

  • murphstahoe

    I hear about how so many cyclists roll through, by the thousands. If only nine times out of ten this was successful, there would be no more cyclists – we’d all be dead.

  • murphstahoe

    Stanley Roberts has rode along for many of these stings, including in SF (Sunset I believe), frequently in Daly City (including a pretty asinine one near Daly City BART)

  • alberto rossi

    Daly City BART is one of the most pedestrian unfriendly places around, almost impossible to walk to. Then they give tickets to the few who show up and Stanley craps on them for “behaving badly”.

  • Richard Rothman

    In reference to the report for the police can you post a a list of what station the letter refer to Thanks

  • Richard Rothman

    Yes there have been a number of sting of not giving the right of way to pedestrian in the Richmond.

  • To increase safety on the streets of San Francisco, the most effective thing the SFPD could do is to ticket drivers and bicyclists who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. The three most effective things the SFMTA could do is daylight all intersections next to crosswalks, reduce travel speeds on all non-arterial streets to 20 mph, and add speed humps to most residential blocks to keep mid-block speeds under 20 mph. (Currently, San Francisco drivers love to accelerate to speeds up to 40 mph in between stop signs and then slam on their brakes.)

    If San Francisco were serious about increasing street safety, this is what would be implemented. Instead, San Francisco focuses on controlling what an older generation views as anarchistic bicycling behavior that annoys them. The issue is not safety, it’s about an older generation controlling the behavior of a younger one, of car drivers insisting the streets should serve them above anyone else. Both our traffic laws and our streets were created for car convenience, not the realities of bicycling. Enforcing car laws that are nonsensical to bicyclists is the same as enforcing car (and generational) dominance.

  • Willie D

    Karen you said it best. Car generation making fun of bikes and controlling and dominating the roads. Mentality must change.

  • thielges

    Well said and I agree though am not sure it is such a clear cut generational issue. Over the last decade bicyclists’ numbers have grown and their presence is bumping up against motorist convenience more and more. The motorist majority gets annoyed and looks for any reason to pick on “them” whether it be perceived scofflaw behavior or unfounded claims that bicyclists don’t pay for the roads.

    Motorists are annoyed at the idea that somehow bicyclists get a “free” pass. Misunderstandings bounce around in the echo chamber, reinforcing those falsehoods. They’re fooling themselves, sometimes willingly. Complaining is easier than accepting the shifting status quo.

  • Jesse

    It’s disheartening to see that this police department has done nothing to address the speeding on masonic, despite my complaints over the months. After seeing the resources they wasted on The Wiggle I complained yet again and got this response “Per Captain John Sanford, he have asked me to document the exact locations, time, dates where cars are speeding. Can you please provide me with those information?” They seriously don’t know there’s a problem on Masonic Avenue? Or they just choose what they enforce?

  • Morgan Fitzgibbons

    Not even 3 minutes in and he’s already calling collisions “accidents”

  • Pontifikate

    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?

    That makes a lot of sense to me!

  • Pontifikate

    I think the Captain is right to enforce “Vision Zero” by citing bicyclists who don’t stop at stop signs. Vision Zero is about vehicles, not just cars. And there are many corners where the vision is literally zero as far as bicyclists seeing pedestrians is concerned. An SUV or truck parked near the corner is all it takes.

    All you have to do is think of all the tourists in this city who see a “Stop” sign at the corner and will expect bicyclists to stop. I get that many, if not most, do at least slow down and look, but sometimes that’s not sufficient and it’s all about expectations and visibility.

  • murphstahoe

    Oh come on, you know this is the burden that Sanford placed upon people who complained about cyclists, right?

  • murphstahoe

    “And there are many corners where the vision is literally zero as far as
    bicyclists seeing pedestrians is concerned. An SUV or truck parked near
    the corner is all it takes.”

    Well then, Pontifikate, I presume you will be mailing the SFMTA and asking them to daylight those intersections by removing parking and putting in bulbouts! Because you clearly are all about pedestrian safety! Right?

  • Pontifikate

    Though you sound somewhat snarky, I HAVE and WILL CONTINUE to do so. Though cars continue to park at the red spot I requested on my corner years ago, I still do it. I care about pedestrian safety and cyclist safety. Maybe you find it impossible to believe, but some people are not out to get you.

  • murphstahoe

    Excellent. Not enough people push for daylighting.

    Perhaps what is needed is for Sanford to stop cracking down on the cyclists who can’t see around the illegally parked cars – and start cracking down on the illegally parked cars!

  • Pontifikate

    That would be good. And crack down on the zombies driving while talking or texting on phones. Most cyclists are fine, but I still believe the outliers should be cited. I still think “yielding” is a gray area and that’s where trouble lies. As the captain said, he’s not talking about people who don’t put their feet down.

  • phoca2004

    I applaud the frank discussion, but, I wonder about all the excuses his station isn’t making the focus on the five goals while Richmond station apparently can manage to pull it off. The circumstances cited in the interview seem like they would be no different in the Richmond district, yet, Captain Silverman seems to be able to pull it off. Could it be because Capt. Silverman rides a bike and Capt. Sanford doesn’t?

  • the_greasybear

    Might it be those same older people fail to perceive reality, which–as the data proves–is motorists cause the most harm to the most people on our streets? Bias, bias, bias.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Where does this happen?

  • Picky

    Not sure what the video is trying to show. The pedestrian was able to cross the road without having to slow down or stop. The same can be said for the vehicle. Both parties were able to continue on their way as they were not on a collision course. At the speed they were both traveling, they would have never ended up at the same location at the same time. If neither party was attempting to occupy the same space at the same time how was the pedestrian right of way violated? The concept of yield would not even apply.

  • Picky

    To increase the safety of streets in San Francisco would mean that everyone obeys the laws of the road. That means cars should stop running red lights and do a complete stop at stop signs. So should bicyclists. And pedestrians should stop jaywalking. Any violation that puts your life and the life of others in danger should be ticketed. Pedestrians should also bear responsibility. Didn’t their parents teach them to pay attention when crossing the road? Instead they have earphones in their ears, texting on their cellphones. End of the day if a pedestrian dumb enough to think that “right of way” will somehow alter the laws of physics when a car/bicyclist hits them, there is always evolution. The same applies to bicyclist who zoom through traffic with a total disregard for their own safety. When they started riding the bicycle, didn’t their parents teach them to watch out for cars?

  • Picky

    I believe the law is the law. Pedestrian jaywalking gets hit by a bicycle or car? Bicycle running a red light, stop sign getting hit by a car? End of the day it doesn’t matter who has the right of way. If you break the law, you are putting your life and the life of others in danger. Cross the road when it is safe to do so, regardless of what the light says or what rights you believe you may have. Someone should have taught us that when we were young. It’s time to use some common sense.

  • Pontifikate

    Certainly, everyone has his/her bias. Cyclists want to get around faster. Pedestrians, especially older pedestrians, must watch for every threat because they can’t get out of the way fast enough and one fall could mean the end for them. You might think of that.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Hey at least you get a reply. When I email The Mission Station about double parkers on Valencia, I don’t get even get a response.

  • dat

    Do it!

  • the_greasybear

    Mission Station wouldn’t even take a report on the hit-and-run motorist who broke my leg and ankle and left me immobilized for several months. They have no intention whatsoever of holding even the most harmful motorists responsible for their bad decisions, let alone the motorists who selfishly choose to effectively eliminate Valencia’s bicycle infrastructure.

  • the_greasybear

    I think about the data–and you should too–which proves motorists are responsible for causing the most harm to the most people on our streets. Peoples’ false perceptions to the contrary should not drive policy.

  • the_greasybear

    Ticketing every infraction by every road user is literally impossible. The SFPD must necessarily pick and choose, so they should pick the behaviors the data proves cause the most harm to the most people. Motorists speeding, making illegal turns, violating pedestrians’ right of way and similar violations are the most harmful, and so that is where SFPD should focus enforcement.

  • the_greasybear

    The video shows a motorist violating the pedestrian’s right of way. If you don’t understand how, you need to do your homework. And this isn’t a mere abstraction–the data proves motorists violating the pedestrian right of way is literally one of the five deadliest infractions any road user ever chooses to commit.

  • “We should change the law so cyclists have to yield at stop signs, not necessarily stop.”
    “No can do.”
    “Why not?”

  • NoeValleyJim

    How long ago was that? I have had good luck by getting Supervisor Weiner involved. They don’t completely ignore him.

  • Nancy Cooper Frank

    As a pedestrian, I think that all vehicles including bikes should stop at stop signs. If a bike comes up to an intersection from behind a car stopped at the stop sign while a pedestrian is crossing, the bike rider will not necessarily see the pedestrian and the pedestrian will not necessarily see the bike–until it’s too late. If we were pitting pedestrian convenience agains bicycle rider convenience, that would be a different question. But we are pitting pedestrian safety against bike rider convenience. Safety ought to trump convenience.

  • The traffic laws aren’t there for safety, they are there to keep private automobile traffic moving through the city. Jaywalking used to be known as “crossing the street” and was not a crime until car companies launched a public relations campaign to criminalize normal behavior, all to clear the streets of human speed bumps. http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-76-the-modern-moloch/

  • phoca2004

    Hi Namcy, nobody is advocating throwing pedestrian safety under the bicycle wheel. Here is a link to a video explaining the idaho stop that some people here are advocating:

    (this video was produced during a campaign in Oregon. I think this may help illuminate that noone is advocating diminishing anyone’s safety for convenience.

  • murphstahoe

    I believe the law is whatever a bunch of old white guys decided it should be at some time in the distant past. Whether or not they had a clue is very much up for debate.

  • Yeah, but no. I’m talking going after the grey car heading right-to-left as well as the silver SUV going left-to-right. Full letter of the law, not just grabbing the easy car blasting past a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk.

  • I repeat: ” Never seen any level of pedestrian right-of-way sting or enforcement uphold ‘as the law reads’.” I’ve seen all the stings on People Behaving Badly, but I’m talking full letter of the law. Regular legal crosswalks, not just marked crosswalks. Cars turning right when a pedestrian is JUST ABOUT to step up onto the sidewalk on the far side but not quite there.

  • Mountain Viewer

    Are you referring to the car on the other side of the median? (that particular crosswalk has a median island). My understanding is that when there is a median island, the right of way rules apply only to the side of the crosswalk a pedestrian is on (or about to step on).

  • Mountain Viewer

    That’s a great video showing that in situations where one has to yield one has to stop.

    BTW: to be fair, the first part of the video seems to be about convenience (avoiding loss of energy/momentum)

  • I see no mention of medians in the CVC. https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/?1dmy&urile=wcm:path:/dmv_content_en/dmv/pubs/vctop/vc/d11/c5/21950

    I’m talking letter of the law: don’t do this if you’re driving while black and there’s an officer tailing you for the past 3 blocks looking for any (legally legitimate) excuse to pull you over.

  • So as long as I menace you enough, we’re good. It shows 1, likely 2 vehicles violating the pedestrian’s right of way.

  • Anthony R


  • StrixNoctis .

    In that situation of a bicycle reaching an intersection with a car stopped at the left side of the bicycle, I agree with you, Nancy, that it’s unsafe for a bicycle to roll through without stopping–because there’s not only a risk of a cyclist not seeing a pedestrian crossing from the left side (including short people and pets), but there’s also the risk of the motor vehicle proceeding to make a right turn without signaling and without merging into the bike lane if there is one. A bicyclist shouldn’t pass on the right side of a vehicle, including a double-parked vehicle. I’m a cyclist, and I never do. I wait for the motor vehicle to go first.

    However, I don’t see the Idaho stop as dangerous if a cyclist isn’t passing on the right of a stopped vehicle (when there isn’t a vehicle, for example) and if the cyclist competently observes it’s safe before proceeding.

  • StrixNoctis .

    I believe Valencia Street–at least from 22nd up to Market St. is a deliberately unenforced traffic area. Not only have I witnessed SFPD ignoring traffic violations on that street when they’re there and see the violations, but I also recall Stanley Roberts mention something about “unenforced traffic areas” in one of his PBB video segments that was about some traffic violations here in SF.


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