By John Entwistle, Jr.
Initial premise: the majority of what we call vehicular accidents in San Francisco are due to negligence on the part of The County. People are being killed because The County isn’t doing anything to fix a whole lot of known to be hazardous crossings and roads.
Most traffic accidents are preventable. We know where they are most likely to occur and where they can be expected to repeat. And we know how to modify these spots to prevent these accidents from happening. Complacency is unacceptable. We need to be proactive and create genuinely safe streets here in San Francisco. In that spirit I have put together a list of ideas for the consideration of Mayor London Breed’s support staff and policy makers.
I recently had the opportunity to work closely with our city’ traffic engineers on bike safety and disability access upgrades for several nearby neighborhood streets. As we discussed various ideas I did additional research to understand better the issues involved. Our traffic engineers are really great people here in San Francisco. They care deeply and approach their work as a science, much like doctors treating a patient. I learned of several tools they have at their disposal to protect our more vulnerable street users while still facilitating the movement of large vehicles.
17th Street was a perfect laboratory to observe what can happen when everyone works together. We worked with SFMTA and Everett Middle School to address the classic parent drop off conundrum. We hit that one right out of the park and today that school is a great example for the rest of the city of how to do it right. Then we worked with the Muni Rail Division & Safe Streets Divisions of SFMTA & the SFDPW folks to solve the 17th Street bike path streetcar track problem which had sent countless bicyclists to the hospital. The result was a series of short protected bike lanes that have completely ended that terrible situation and in fact have improved our street in several specific ways.
“We can design safe streets any where in the city, no problem. It’s just a matter of political will.” That’s what SFMTA Engineer Alan Uy told me when I thanked him for his work on my block. I suggest herein that popular support exists citywide for simple measures to improve the pedestrian and bicycle experience.
To begin with the Mayor’s Office has direct influence over all the other participants in the process of improving our transport grid so it is important to have some dedicated motivated staff prosecuting realistic objectives. Some of this is as simple as providing administrative follow through to ensure that our transport agency delivers on the Mayor’s objectives in a timely manner. Some involves regional coordinating or work with state agencies. And some involves public leadership encouraging safety for it’s own sake and promoting some common sense infrastructure to make it easier to cross the street.
In the paragraphs that follow I will be introducing the following ideas: Reverse angle parking, citywide parking enforcement equity & transparency, parking meters & drop off zones for stores, limiting free neighborhood parking permits for teachers & transiting the large city entities away from car dependency, day-lighting intersections, curb bulb outs and raised crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, crossing guards for the kids, curb ramps for the disabled, lethal intersections & the City response to loss of life accidents, SFFD providing SFMTA with certain accident response data for safety improvements, FedEx/Ups using bikes for deliveries, USPS respecting bike lanes, expanding the tourist “safe biking” zone, bike to SFO, bike to Genentech, protected bike lanes in the Hub, The Mayor’s “bully pulpit” and the role of peer pressure in creating safe streets.
Let’s start with safe parking. In the Castro on Sanchez Street we have several blocks of pull-in facing the curb perpendicular parking. The advantage is that it stores a lot more cars than traditional parallel to the curb would accommodate. But no one likes backing out into traffic blindly which is the most clear disadvantage to that. On Sanchez it is even worse because we have people backing out blindly into an important and heavily used bike route. We are trying to get more people to bicycle yet riders report that they do not feel safe here. The solution is called reverse angle parking and it is just starting to gain traction in San Francisco.
Angle the parking space and back in so that our trunk opens to the curb and a whole slew of safety advantages kick in. Most importantly we eliminate all blind driving completely from the entire process. It is also safer to load and unload passengers because the doors open so as to guide the passengers toward the sidewalk. It is not quite as efficient as the more dangerous face first perpendicular parking because the angle costs a space or two but it is infinitely safer. To their credit SFMTA is starting to employ this configuration (most notably on Polk Street across from City Hall) but they need to be encouraged to go further with it and they could use some help educating the public about how to use these new spots and why they are better.
Imagine a news report where Our Mayor reverse angle parks her SUV and talks about the challenges and benefits of this emerging new system of parking that San Francisco wants to see more broadly employed. Promoting a better safer way to park is easy work and good civics. And when that improved parking is along a bike path like Polk St. or Sanchez St it’s really wonderful because you can see the cars and bikes in the street as you make your decision to pull out of your parking space.
We are starting with parking because it is important. It’s a source of conflict and the need for more parking is continually cited as the main argument against any number of street safety works in San Francisco. But the proclivity toward squandering and mismanaging this finite and massively subsidized resource is strong. While avoiding the contentious issues of removing or making massive changes in the overall system of street parking management there is some low lying fruit in this area that ought to be harvested.
First is the need for transparency and citywide parking enforcement equity. In my neighborhood merchants suffer because their patrons who drive cannot park and as the spouse of a disabled veteran who received in home care services I can attest that it was often difficult for caregivers to park while they were here working. Yet in this same area I can point to numerous cases of folks just storing cars that they never use for months on end in city supplied practically free spaces. This is only possible because of lack of meaningful enforcement. Free curbside parking does not work without effective management. In order to prevent a few freeloaders from ruining this resource and in order to provide the parking that commerce requires the Mayor’s Office should urge enforcement agencies to provide parking management services in a uniform and transparent manner throughout all our city’s neighborhoods.
Stores have special parking needs. Both ends of my block have numerous small but thriving businesses. But they don’t have any special parking options for their customers. Even the spaces in front of their stores are just neighborhood spots where anyone with the area sticker can park all day free and not even shop. And then pickups and deliveries end up double parking out of necessity. This is a source of trouble without end. Stores and businesses need parking meters and drop off zones. These enterprises are important to all of us, and in turn The City should be helping them with this.
The final parking issue is perhaps the most interesting. It concerns the Unified School District and the free neighborhood parking permits that SFMTA provides for teachers and school district employees. Living right next to three large public schools (Sanchez Elementary, Everett Middle School & Mission High School) I see a lot of school district employees drive into our neighborhood every morning. It has an impact locally and the program as a whole needs to be watched carefully to prevent mission creep.
Obviously there are those for whom it was originally designed because they live in non transit accessible areas and need to get to school on time but equally obvious is the fact that giving away free parking encourages folks to drive to work who would otherwise take BART or one of the bus companies.
Inquiring into this and encouraging the Unified School District as well as San Francisco’s other large city entities to lower their carbon footprints by looking creatively at their transportation needs is a job best done from the Mayor’s Office. From electric assist bicycles such as DPW currently offer their employees for use at work to transportation network companies there are many means that city agencies can use for getting workers to job sites that don’t require free parking permits and fleets of dedicated vehicles. This is admittedly delicate civics but it is the lord’s work in that it both reduces our city government’s carbon footprint and reduces the negative impact of city employees parking private vehicles in small neighborhoods. Done right it will lower the pressure on parking which reduces congestion because a lot of the vehicles rolling around are actually looking for parking.
Good parking management is directly related to reduced congestion, street safety and is appreciated because it creates and maintains a viable supply of readily accessible parking for those who really need it. The Mayor’s Office should be encouraging best parking management practices throughout San Francisco.
The ability to cross the street is fundamental and yet crossing the street is an ongoing cause of injuries and in some cases even fatalities here in San Francisco. These are a source of great shame and unnecessary expense in both medical and legal costs to our community. And this problem disproportionately impacts senior citizens over virtually every other sector of society. Fell Street, Oak Street, 19th Avenue, and similar wide fast moving roads are deadly for slower walking older residents who simply can’t cross more than two lanes in a normal crossing time allotment.
There are several tools which are very low cost and relatively easy to employ which go a long way to mitigate the dangers inherent to intersections. Advocating knowledgeably for these treatments to be applied appropriately to our city’s intersections in the locations where they can provide the greatest utility is a way in which the Mayor’s Office could accelerate the pace of the aptly named Vision Zero program.
Day-lighting is a wonderful expression that is used to describe the idea of clearing parking from the area immediately adjacent to the crosswalk. By opening up that space it radically increases the visibility between motorists approaching the intersection and pedestrians stepping into the crosswalk. This allows for a much more realistic reaction time and is known to reduce negative contacts between cars and persons crossing the street. Generally speaking the city doesn’t use this technique very often citing the need for parking. Instead we see far too many corners where pedestrians are blocked from view by large parked vehicles and they in turn can not see cars approaching until it is too late. Likewise drivers complain of pedestrians stepping in front of their cars seemingly “out of nowhere.” The mayor’s Office should be continually encouraging SFMTA to day-light dangerous intersections.
Curb bulb outs and raised crosswalks. On some of our larger streets we can reduce the overall crossing distance by two whole lanes by simply bulbing out the sidewalk at the corners. This is a great trick that is super cheap and easy to do virtually anywhere. It massively increases the profile of the pedestrian by elevating that person and bringing them right out to the moving traffic lanes. At the same time it gives the pedestrian a superior viewing position for the entire intersection allowing for much more situational awareness as they decide to cross. Curb bulb outs also have a very positive influence on the dynamics of the intersection by physically preventing parking maneuvers (a traumatic source of interference) at the corners which encourages a better flow of vehicles and people. And, because they do significantly shorten the crossing distance that means they also shorten the time needed for crossing which allows for slightly shorter red lights and slightly longer crossing intervals.
In some very special cases, particularly on our smaller neighborhood streets and intersections there is a need for physically emphasizing the crosswalk areas as pedestrian space by maintaining the sidewalk elevation all the way across the street. Instead of persons stepping down into the street to cross, cars slow to a stop and then proceed over a raised crosswalk. These can be used in combination with curb bulb outs or on their own but the effect is very calming for automobile traffic in these small isolated neighborhood hot-spots.
If we employed this low cost easy treatment to the corner of Hartford Street & 17th Street for example, it would both improve the pedestrian experience massively and it would also increase property values locally by making the corner more desirable for residents. So what would it take to make that happen? Not much. Just a wee bit of coordinating to reach out to the Safe Streets Division and the Rail Division folks (due to the proximity of their tracks) at SFMTA and a tiny bit of encouragement for SFDPW to plan and schedule the work. For the record, (at this location) District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and his staff are supportive of this. This one small safety upgrade would make Mayor London Breed a lot of friends in this neck of the woods. And there are a few other locations in various neighborhoods in San Francisco where this tool could come in handy.
Pedestrian refuge islands are another tool used with great success to protect walkers who are not fast enough to make it across the street in one signal cycle. The idea is to carve out a small protected highly visible space every two lanes or so along the crosswalk on our wide streets, especially those that contain four lanes of moving vehicles. Our city hosts several high quality facilities that house large numbers of senior citizens and some of these are immediately adjacent to major roadways that are terrifying for older people to cross. We lost a man at Fell and Baker last year to that story. We lost a woman crossing 19th Avenue earlier this year to that same problem. These, and several other specific locations in San Francisco are screaming out for pedestrian refuge islands and with a little bit of leadership from the Mayor’s Office this problem could be solved in the very short term.
Installing high quality pedestrian islands on 19th Avenue and encouraging San Franciscans to work together to make them work is actually a very political mission due to the need to coordinate with state agencies to make changes to that state roadway. It provides a great opportunity to team up with our elected state representatives to get the job done as well as to introduce the concept to the public. Unfortunately, this important project will require a slightly longer time frame due to the higher level of planning involved. To install on Oak and/or Fell Streets at Baker would take some real effort at SFMTA to fit it into that intersection and lay out the lanes to make it all work. Likewise, 19th Avenue would start by identifying which corners are most in need of this particular infrastructure. Then there would be the design considerations. But the good news is that this Mayor is going to be around long enough to see it through.
Day-lighting, curb bulb outs, raised crosswalks, and pedestrian refuge islands are all great infrastructural ways of making intersections safer. They work 24/7 day and night saving police, fire and medical resources continually by decreasing the number of negative contacts that these agencies need to respond to at these intersections.
Crossing guards. This is the most cost effective method of delivering safe passageways to schools ever developed. That is why the Automobile Association of America used to organize (out of pocket) the entire school crossing guard program in San Francisco until they sold their building a few years ago and moved out of town. It was great PR for them and they ran that program joyously. SFMTA has done a good job of continuing this work but they need some real support in this area. I’d recommend throwing some of the Mayor’s charisma behind the program. Mayor Breed is a natural ally to our school crossing guards and her office should be doing whatever little things that can be done to encourage and promote the growth and well-being of that program including the occasional cameo on the front lines at 7:45 in the morning with the stop sign and bright colored uniform.
Curb ramps. Access is a major disability issue that directly affects a lot of San Franciscans, as well as tourists and our visitors from out of town. Just the simplest things like properly installed curb ramps on the corners lined up correctly with their respective crosswalks can make the difference between being able to cross the street or not. As we get older (or suffer from any number of injuries) we grow to love these ramps all the more. Yet there are corners in my neighborhood where disabled folks in wheelchairs requested curb ramps years ago that we are still waiting for.
Some of these are really important corners like Church Street at 17th Street where they are needed to keep wheelchairs out of the streetcar tracks or Hartford Street at 17th Street where the North Side of 17th Street is a foot high curb. Disabled people literally went to City Hall, waited and testified to the SFMTA Board which agreed and passed the measure that included those two sets of ramps. Yet they are still waiting more than a year later. The Mayor doesn’t have a magic wand that can expedite all infrastructure projects large and small overnight but it would be the right thing to do and good politics to urge SFDPW and SFMTA to push a little harder on a few of these projects in various neighborhoods throughout the city.
Specific intersections need attention such as South Van Ness and Howard Street or Baker and Oak, both of which have been the scenes of recent pedestrian fatalities. When Russell Franklin was fatally impacted crossing Howard St this past September 13th the SFMTA responded to community demands for protection by day-lighting the intersection, adding some signage and upgrading the crosswalk.
But in the recent case of October 3rd when Norman Tanner lost his life while crossing Oak St. there was no reaction from The City at all. Other political issues dominated the transportation agenda that week and the ability to even address the SFMTA Board about this tragedy was lost in a din of horns from a very high spirited demonstration by our cab drivers. This illustrates the difficulty in responding to these regrettable situations relying exclusively on community volunteers waiting for the public comment time in the board’s biweekly meeting. I believe we have a civil obligation as a city and a community to send someone from the Mayor’s Office to recognize the severity of the occasion, express condolences and urge for actions to be taken so that when life is lost some lesson is learned from that and corrections are made.
The San Francisco Fire Department is an important participant in making our streets safer and they have a unique perspective. They participate in street design work to insure access for their equipment in the event of a fire or other emergency. And their paramedic units are the first responders for the vast majority of transportation related medical emergencies. For this reason those paramedics are a goldmine of information about where the worst intersections and most hazardous points are in our local transportation grid. It should be city policy to facilitate feedback from the paramedics to our SFMTA traffic engineers to alert said engineers of where they need to focus additional resources or make adjustments.
For many people bicycling is the most efficient and cost effective means of transportation available. With the electric assist bikes and all the innovative bike rental companies and new cargo bike designs people from all walks of life are rediscovering the bicycle as their main transportation option. And they are right. A good ebike is cheaper than a fast pass and can reliably move you from the Castro to the Pyramid building in less than 15 minutes, door to destination. It is also a better way to get to the airport and back. The fact is that we are seeing the very beginning of a trend which could take a lot of pressure off our existing roadways by replacing single person automobile trips with bicycles. Bicycle infrastructure is unbelievably cheap to create and extraordinarily high capacity in the ability to move people. Build it and they will come. Polls all tell us the same thing: from parents riding their kids to school to tech workers commuting to Silicon Valley once people embrace bicycling they generally stick with it. The trick is getting them to ride.
The main number one impediment to getting people to ride bikes instead of insisting on cars (or buses) for every trip is safety concerns. People are terrified of sharing roads with cars. A quick glance at the accident statistics for the past decade tells us that this trepidation is wise and infinitely self preserving. And fortunately for us, as we learned from 17th Street, this problem is easily addressed and mitigated. Separate the bikes from the cars and the world is a wonderful place. No one gets hurt and all ages can ride. We also know from experience that as bike traffic picks up motorists exhibit much more caution and deference toward bicyclists. And there is more good news! San Francisco already has a core group of traffic engineers who have been passionate about developing protected bike lanes for over a decade and are internationally recognized as leaders in the field of bike infrastructure development. Give these engineers and their associates the word and they are more than capable of quickly laying out many miles of high quality safe bike routes that will be fast, reliable, and so fun & efficient that people will not be able to resist using them.
Logistics companies such as UPS, FedEx and their various cousins provide a crucial service to all of us but the big trucks they need to use are challenging especially when they block bike lanes or double park to make their deliveries.
These companies have paid unfathomable amounts of money to study their businesses and design their equipment. They have some great people and highly specialized knowledge and a tremendous variety of options right there at their fingertips. In some other places these companies use modern bicycle based delivery vehicles instead of those large trucks that we are so familiar with. So why don’t they do that here? The main reason they don’t use bike style delivery trucks in SF is our local land use laws prohibit certain support functions that enable bike based delivery systems to work at the level required by business. Land use laws? Surely that is something worthy of a bit of follow through from the Mayor’s Office. Perhaps a discussion with the folks running those companies and a few well versed questions for the City Attorney might uncover some areas of commonality or some particular legislative tweak we can attempt to make happen.
The United States Postal Service is a particularly interesting logistics company. They also use fairly large vehicles and park as they see fit. While first recognizing that their reputation for safety precedes them, The USPS does not have a uniform policy for parking or a policy in place asking their delivery people in the field to respect bike lanes. Some drivers are very sensitive to bicyclists and some are less so. This has caused consternation amongst our local bicycle riding community. It seems that the Mayor’s Office could help get to the bottom of this and perhaps do a favor to countless bike riders. How? Reach out through our federal representatives to Congress or the Senate or directly to the correct member of the Federal Postal Commission requesting clarification of this policy. I suggest the outcome of that process is likely to be very amicable and that merely initiating that inquiry will begin to catalyze a higher degree of consideration for the safety of bicyclists as shared road users from postal delivery people.
Tourists love bicycles and the interconnected areas in San Francisco available to them to safely ride in need to be vastly expanded, particularly to the South and throughout the downtown areas right up into the Castro, the Haight and Golden Gate Park. The Mayor’s Office can help this process by promoting this goal among the downtown tourist providers and working with them to attain it. SFMTA engineers can design safe bike lanes but they can not install them without consensus as to their desirability. This ambiguity has left us with thick rolling platoons of tourists riding bicycles along our city’s Northern Shoreline but they are reluctant to continue rolling much further than South than the Ferry building (or the ball park at the furthest).
For tourists Market Street and all the North of Market North-South thoroughfares are very uninviting to ride a bike on. It should be the policy of the Mayor’s Office to encourage the installation of safe bike lanes on Embarcadero Street, Market Street and a few North-South connector streets in that area as well as the continual development of additional bike infrastructure such as rental spots and safe bike parking throughout downtown to facilitate employees commuting to work, tourists, and shoppers.
Bike SFO! The airport is actually a really short pleasant bike ride from San Francisco on a route that is mostly flat and runs along some beautiful waterfront right down by the San Francisco Bay. It takes just under an hour and part of that is because it is hard to resist stopping for a few minutes just to gaze at the scenery. While admittedly not for everyone or every occasion this is a transportation option that urgently needs expansion. The good news is that the Airport Commission could really help us and we could help “green” the airport a bit while we are at it. Specifics: We need cheap secure parking for bikes out there.
The five bike parking areas available now at SFO need to be upgraded. Bike lockers would be one option. Repositioning a stand or two to be directly under observation by guards (as opposed to nearby a guarded area) would be another. SFO, to their credit, has looked at the issue of bike paths and largely done a good job of separating bicyclists from cars on the airport area roads but there is still more work to be done.
Encouraging the various companies renting electric assist bicycles to make their products available at SFO would be a major innovation as well as a great place for them to launch cargo bike variants which will be hitting the rental markets soon. The final issue is upgrading and maintaining the largely excellent series of of paths that are in our jurisdiction that serve this purpose. Adding an airplane graphic to the bike routes leading to the airport should be considered as well.
The SFO bike route plan has an additional element or two that merit inclusion herein. The full vision is to take those tourist platoons of bikes that are dominating the paths along East Beach and Marina Green and extend their route seamlessly from the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to and through the airport to Burlingame right at the base of the San Mateo Bridge. That is the regional aspect that would benefit from some outreach from the Mayor’s Office to our neighboring cities encouraging certain improvements such as better separation on Tunnel Avenue or Sierra Point Parkway and parts of Airport Road. The good news here is that much of this route, especially the area’s outside our jurisdiction, really is up to snuff, has great amenities and spots that people would enjoy discovering. It could use a little promotion.
Genentech employees and the Silicon Valley tech workers are another group that uses the South Eastern bike routes through San Francisco. They roll up Bayshore Blvd using Paul Avenue to jump over to San Bruno Avenue then they head out on Tunnel Avenue (right past Recology). The Genentech folks just duck under the bridge and they are at Sierra Point/Oyster Point ready to start their day. Many tech workers keep going South from there, right on past the airport. This is an easy infinitely doable ride especially for the Genentech workers who are rewarded in cash for riding to work and have bike storage, showers and other facilities waiting for them at the office for this specific purpose. But a quick ride to Sierra Point and back is all it takes to understand why so many still persist in using those 50,000 pound buses for this same short trip. There are a couple of stretches that are just a bit raw and still feel dangerous to riders. This could be improved with a little ongoing attention from SFDPW and a bit more safety engineering from SFMTA. It should be the policy of the Mayor’s Office to see that series of South Eastern bike routes be brought up to a very high level so as to better serve the local community as well as tourists and tech workers.
The Hub area needs a unified street level makeover including protected bike lanes for overall safety. This is an opportunity that really needs to be taken. That area is going through metamorphoses in all ways. Many properties are being enhanced with more people working and living there and more vehicle storage of all types. SF Planning has done well by including bicycle amenities and storage in these new buildings. What is still needed is a plan for bike paths, curb bulb outs, curb ramps and the entire toolbox of traffic safety devices to ensure that this project is a model of how to do it right. We can facilitate many modes of transportation for lots of people in that project area as we replace curbside parking with larger lots inside the buildings leaving the curbs available for protected bike paths, safe drop off zones, and places where logistics vehicles can stop. One exciting aspect of this project is that we can transform a low density area that is surprisingly dangerous for bikes and pedestrians into a super high density civic area that is state of the art in terms of street level traffic engineering and counter-intuitively ends up being safer for everyone including disabled and mobility challenged individuals. The Office of the Mayor could ask SFMTA engineers to draw up such a plan for the Hub development zone and urge the board to implement that plan.
Promoting the transportation policies of the Mayor and hearing from the public at large is the final but perhaps most important work the transportation team can assist with. Working with everyone from the neighborhood democratic clubs to BOMA and communicating effectively while listening carefully it is the best way to catalyze change and by necessity that is what must be done. A big part of the job is articulating the vision, both the goal and the way we will get there. This not only helps build consensus to get the small neighborhood-based safety projects built in a timely manner but also spreads the gospel of shared responsibility for creating safe streets here in San Francisco, engaging peer pressure to reinforce all our laws, signs and infrastructure.