Guest Commentary: San Francisco Needs Pedestrian Refuge Islands to Save Lives

Senior's Death at 19th and Quintara Highlights Another Shortcoming of SF Street Design

Refuge islands, such as this one seen in New York, can save the life of someone in a crosswalk. Photo: Julie Margolies via West Side Rag
Refuge islands, such as this one seen in New York, can save the life of someone in a crosswalk. Photo: Julie Margolies via West Side Rag

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Yin Ching Tam, 69, was crossing 19th Avenue at Quintara when she was struck and killed Saturday by a motorist driving a blue Toyota sedan. It was just two months ago that David Grinberg, 90, was killed on another notorious crossing, at the intersection of Baker and Fell.

“Seniors are five times more likely to be killed in traffic crashes in San Francisco, so it’s not an accident that two seniors were recently killed on San Francisco streets. These crashes are predictable, which means they are preventable,” said Cathy DeLuca, Walk San Francisco’s Policy & Program Director. “We can make dangerous high-injury corridors like 19th, where Ms. Tam was killed, safer for everyone.”

It is tempting to blame the timing of the traffic lights for these deaths. The signal at the intersection where Tam was killed gives a pedestrian only 31 seconds to cross the 80 feet; the countdown is too fast for senior citizens and the disabled. But that’s only part of the problem.

Many elderly and mobility-impaired folks need a break after twenty or thirty feet.

That is where pedestrian refuge islands come in. These are small bolstered safe areas in the center of the street. They’re placed midway so folks crossing the street can pause, thus breaking the crossing down into two smaller segments. An excellent example of this can be found on Market Street at Dolores between Whole Foods and Safeway. And Oakland recently installed one at Harrison and 23rd, albeit out of paint and bollards, at another location where a senior was killed. There are other instances of this life-saving traffic engineering tool in San Francisco but not nearly enough. We need refuge islands at all crossings that are multi-lane.

Curb bulb-outs help by shortening the distance, too. To their credit, the SFMTA installed painted (read: much, much cheaper than doing it right using concrete) curb bulb-outs to shorten the crossing distance at the corner of Fell & Baker Streets after Grinberg’s death. But curb bulb-outs are not enough on multi-lane streets.

The scene where Tam was killed on Saturday night. With proper refuge islands, this scene could have resembled the lead photo--a damaged car instead of a life lost. (The photographer requested his name be withheld).
The scene where Tam was killed on Saturday. With proper refuge islands, this scene could have resembled the lead photo–a damaged car instead of a life lost. (The photographer requested his name be withheld).

Tam’s death cannot be undone. But we can make minor changes to 19th Avenue (State Highway 1) that will help prevent others from being killed crossing this San Francisco Street. The State of California should spend a few dollars to install 30 pedestrian crossing refuge islands on 19th Avenue immediately. Considering the billions spent on computerized traffic signal systems, freeway widening, and highway ramps all over the state, this seems like a minor expense to keep seniors and the disabled safe.

And if you doubt that refuge islands really work, check out this article from Streetsblog New York (source of the lead photo). If properly designed, refuge islands don’t just give people a place to rest, they physically prevent inattentive or impaired motorists from making dangerous, sweeping turns through the pedestrian space. They’ve shown their worth in Chicago and other cities as well.

Everyone becomes slower and less agile at some point in their lives. Shouldn’t we build a world that doesn’t require us to cross more than two lanes of traffic at a time in San Francisco? As Walk SF’s Deluca put it, “We have the solutions to make sure seniors–and all people who walk in San Francisco–never lose their life simply crossing the street.”

  • bike_engineer

    “Considering the billions spent on computerized traffic signal systems, freeway widening, and highway ramps all over the state, this seems like a minor expense to keep seniors and the disabled safe.”

    19th avenue/Highway 1 is under the jurisdiction/responsibility of the SFMTA in San Francisco. The funds would not come from Caltrans but need to come from the MTA.
    Great article!

  • Indigo

    The irony is that safety activists often oppose the use of medians on high-speed, high-volume roads even thought they clearly provide such refuges for pedestrians. An example was the opposition to medians on the new Masonic design, even though they clearly will help those crossing that vital but busy artery.

    Maybe the streets crowd need to agree among themselves before taking both sides of the debate and then wondering why nothing gets done?

  • p_chazz

    Increasing the walk time on countdown signals would help too. I recently returned from a visit to Washington, DC. where the countdown signals are 45 or even 60 seconds and the countdown begins while the white walk sign is displayed, before it changes to the flashing hand.

  • Roger R.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d14aeee93d176b8565c63f638da4ec42388971227d47ede8e11500d1b22fe5a6.png What’s the irony? Here’s a look at the refuge island mentioned in NYC. Refuge island, but no median divider.

  • Sean

    Refuge islands were all over Germany. One added bonus is that they can insert these smaller crossing segments into the signal cycle. At places like Market and Church, I always thought it was a waste that I could cross to use the median as an island when only one direction could turn. It would require a light pole on the island to show that one can only cross halfway for that light cycle. No brainer on Church: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/095fba229a144cf172bde5e970a35ef6f561b5849b680a5d083c34fa868e3a8a.png

  • snobum

    I used to live in DC. I loved that it counted down for the full cycle. DC is an exception to the rule/standard though. MUTCD says countdowns should only be on when the don’t walk signal is flashing. There really should be a clause in there that permits it to be shown during the walk time for places that have fixed signal timing. I believe it’s not there since many locations have vehicle sensors that only change the lights when a vehicle is present. The standard shouldn’t prevent the countdown from being used for the full cycle though.

  • Earl D.

    It’s an outrage, the way in which it’s SF pedestrian’s own responsibility for keeping themselves alive while performing routine tasks necessary for daily life in the city. Nearly, all of us are going to be old someday with diminished reflexes, visual, auditory and mental acuity. That will also coincide with increasing dependence on public transportation and walking. I’m certain that that had I been had been advanced in years, I would already have been in an accident resulting in serious physical injury over the last five years. Accidents that were only averted because I was able to leap out of the way or was able to discern a driver’s inattentive and erratic behavior early enough to stay out of their way.

    Really to activate the protected bike lanes that SF is already putting in place, particularly SOMA, we need protected intersections too. SF is to be congratulated for putting real infrastructure behind its Vision Zero project, but those physical improvements need to continue.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    There are so many dangerous and dumb intersections in SF that need this. We have a gross number of monster-sized intersections that are stressful and deadly to navigate on foot or bicycle. The American approach of making intersections huge so there’s as much room to navigate as possible actually makes them much more dangerous because it creates ambiguity; people are uncertain where they should be, who should go first, or who yields to who and the result is chaos at intersections, which can be deadly.

    Polk & Mcallister is a shining example of a dangerous and stupid intersection design.
    It requires pedestrians to walk 75′ just to cross 3 lanes of traffic. Traffic often gets completely blocked by a couple of turning vehicles which are fighting for the same streetspace as pedestrians trying to cross, and cyclists are left playing roulette around them all. Because of all the extra room in that intersection, it’s constantly blocked by Trucks Taxis and Ubers blocking the crosswalks. Despite all of the room there are often huge blind spots causing near misses for pedestrians dodging turning vehicles. We need smarter intersection designs because there shouldn’t be any ambiguity where people should go. Intersections should be instinctively obvious who should go where and should be designed to minimize conflicts between vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. Our dangerous and dumb intersections do precisely the opposite.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Who are the safety activists opposing safer intersections?

  • Indigo

    The opposition is to central medians, refuges or islands which, they claim, encourage vehicles to go faster. Obviously some other activists disagree with that view.

  • Cynara2

    I would suggest they put rails to hold onto there. And maybe some protective bollards. Cars and cyclists who lose control could end up on the island and injure the peds. Also, it is very scary to be there with vehicles whirring around you, especially if you have limited use of hearing or seeing. A handrail to steady yourself makes it less intimidating. The bollards could even be attractive, plants, etc.

  • Cynara2

    This was a nice article. But, when you talk about cyclists weaving in between peds in the crosswalk, you are gonna lose peds.

  • Cynara2

    See my post above, please.

  • It is often impossible to navigate that intersection on a bicycle without weaving through vehicles or pedestrians because of the piss poor design which leaves southbound cyclists going straight or making a right turn no other choice.

    Obviously I always yield to pedestrians as every cyclist should. I slow to a walking speed when I’m crossing a crosswalk with pedestrians on it and I always pass behind pedestrians. But when a huge Snapple truck blocks the crosswalk like it does every single weekday morning at 7:45am for the past 3 years, it creates a hazard for everyone else trying to navigate that intersection.

    The only reason the delivery truck blocks the crosswalk is because it can. If there was a protected intersection with a dedicated right turn lane and refuge islands, walking and biking would be far safer because drivers wouldn’t see this huge open space to park their vehicles in. That whole intersection is a dangerous mess and its right in front of city hall at the intersection of two major bicycle routes.

  • I think anyone who thinks that refuge islands cause cars to drive faster is full of shit! How could this possibly be justified???

    Any vehicle can drive much faster on solid pavement then it can hopping over a refuge island curb. In fact I’m pretty confident that most vehicles attempting to drive through a pedestrian refuge island will probably need to be towed away, and the pedestrian who was standing at that refuge island will probably survive a drivers mistake that undoubtedly would’ve been fatal without the refuge island.

    Secondly, most drives tend to drive slower when there are obstacles they have to navigate around.

    The argument that pedestrian islands make our streets less safe because drivers will go faster is ludicrous! Whoever these “activists” are, please share with us what your smoking. I’d love to try something that can make me that delusional!

  • Indigo

    Actually at a crosswalk with pedestrians on it you should be coming to a dead stop, and not just slowing down. Vehicles are not allowed to enter a crosswalk if there is even one pedestrian on it.

  • Indigo

    You keep attributing comments to me that I never made. I said nothing about drivers “hopping over a refuge island curb”. That is pure fantasy.

    What I said (or rather repeated from what others here have said) is that when you create distance and barriers between two opposite flows of traffic then that increases the confidence of drivers that there is a low risk of a head-on collision, and therefore creates the perception that it is safe to drive faster.

    Look at the photo that Roger provided. It’s not just an island – it’s an extended central buffer zone with no traffic. This places opposing traffic further away from me than otherwise, thereby tending to increase my speed. And that is why some here opposed the central medians on the new Masonic design (which I personally support, by the way).

  • Coming to a complete stop at a green light while the nearest pedestrians are 50′ away on the other side of the street will cause conflicts between me and vehicles behind me also trying to make a right turn. This can effectively prevent anyone from ever making a right turn at that intersection!

    Having experienced too many near misses at the hands of impatient motorists, I firmly believe that riding safely and responsibly means spending as little time in intersections as possible because that’s where most conflicts and collisions occur. Creating potential conflicts with motorists by deliberately obstructing them when there’s no safety reason to do so just to follow the letter of the law is stupid and dangerous!

    I always yield to pedestrians as every cyclist should. But nobody should ever put their lives in danger just for the sake of strictly following rules of the road, which most of us agree are only designed for vehicles.

    No pedestrian is put in danger by me making a right turn on a green light when the only person crossing is 50′ away on the other side of the street. That’s exactly why the intersection of Mcallister and Polk and all the monster sized intersections like it needs to be redesigned with refuge islands. People shouldn’t have to walk 75′ just to cross 3 lanes of traffic!

  • I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth. But i still don’t believe that argument because I’ve seen first hand vehicles driving slower when lanes are narrower and there’s a median. The width of the lane has a much greater affect on how fast people drive on it than whether or not there’s a median or a refuge island. Refuge islands save lives because building them means the lanes will be narrower, which makes people drive slower.

  • Indigo

    I actually do not believe it myself either. But I have heard transit activists arguing against medians.

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