Caution: Seniors Crossing

More than half of the pedestrian fatalities in S.F. this year have been people over age 65.

Officers investigate a scene at Geary and Franklin streets, where Lurilla Harris, 86, was killed by a Paratransit bus while on her way to a Senior and Disability Action meeting, June 9, 2016. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

On Jan. 11, 76-year-old Jeanie Yee stepped off the curb into the crosswalk at Union and Buchanan streets.

It was shortly after noon, and the hectic rush-hour traffic had dissipated. As Yee — who witnesses on the scene called “petite” — crossed the street, she was hit by a the driver of a large black truck hauling a trailer with a small bulldozer on its bed. The truck was so large, and Yee so small, that the driver didn’t realize he’d hit her until witnesses flagged him down. By that point, Yee was trapped under his trailer. Despite paramedics’ speedy response, she died of her injuries later that day.

Yee’s tragic death is another tick mark in the growing list of pedestrians over age 65 who have been killed on San Francisco’s streets. Seniors make up 15 percent of the city’s population, but they accounted for 44 percent of traffic deaths in 2016. They are also four times more likely than people under 65 to be killed by a traffic collision.

Of the five pedestrians who’ve been killed by drivers so far this year, three were over 75. Yee was the first. A 93-year-old man was killed by a cable car at Filbert and Mason streets in March. Ten days later, Meda Hacopian, 77, died after being hit by a driver at Lake Merced and Font boulevards.

While San Francisco has made debatable progress in its Vision Zero campaign to reduce the number of traffic-related fatalities to zero by 2024, senior-specific safety tactics are missing from a lot of the city’s marketing and data. A buried document online made mention of a Safe Streets for Seniors Program, that provides money from by the Department of Public Health which community groups can apply for. Other than that however, it’s up to local nonprofits to push the safety concerns of the city’s older population into the hands of policymakers.

“Senior voices are not well represented when it comes to advocacy,” says Natalie Burdick, outreach director at Walk SF. After Thu Phan, a 38-year-old Department of Labor employee, was killed as she crossed Market Street in her wheelchair in 2016, the Vision Zero Coalition — which is made up of 35 advocacy groups in S.F. — created a Senior and Disability Subcommittee to advocate specifically for infrastructure improvements that would increase the safety of seniors and people with disabilities.

There are several tactics the subcommittee is pushing, all of which contain proven results. First, crosswalks need to be shortened to reduce the time that seniors spend in the middle of the road. (This can be done through the sidewalk expansions called “bulb-outs.”) Second, traffic-countdown signals should be present at every intersection, to alert seniors on how much time they have to cross the street. Third, leading pedestrian intervals — where the walk sign goes on before cars’ green lights do — can increase the visibility of those of petite stature, as they make it into the street before cars do — a move which has been shown to reduce crashes by up to 60 percent. And on big traffic arteries, such as Geary Boulevard, a wide central median is helpful for seniors who may not be able to make it all the way across four lanes of traffic in one cycle of the light.

Finally, overall city traffic speeds need to be reduced.

“A city is inherently a place where people walk,” Burdick says. “The slower the driver is going, the less likely it is that they’ll hit someone.”

And in the case of seniors, that point only becomes more important: According to Walk SF, speed is the leading factor for serious injury and death — causing 10 times the number of injuries as drunk driving. For seniors, that is catastrophic: Pedestrians over age 65 are five times more likely than younger people to suffer a fatal injury when hit by a vehicle.

Some progress has been made.

“The community in Chinatown has been good about galvanizing around issues,” Burdick says. In 2010, the Chinatown Community Development Center teamed up with the Chinatown Transportation and Research Improvement Project (ironically called “TRIP”) to plan pedestrian-friendly networks in the neighborhood. In the years since, the plan has been used to garner support for safety improvements along Broadway and Kearny streets. In 2016, the city added in leading pedestrian intervals, constructed bus bulb-outs, and raised several crosswalks along Broadway. And on Kearny and Clay streets, where Ai You Zhou, 77, was killed while crossing the intersection in 2015, a “pedestrian scramble” was installed, which completely stops traffic so pedestrians can cross the intersection in any direction they please. This tactic is commonly used at intersections in China, so it’s a familiar system for many of the neighborhood’s residents.

But the work is far from over. Walk SF has begun partnering with senior homes in San Francisco, and has recently turned its attention to the large fast intersection of Laguna, Market, Hermann, and Guerrero streets, where a new senior-housing project — 55 Laguna — is nearing completion.

But nothing in San Francisco happens quickly, and a recent CEQA appeal almost stalled safety improvements planned for Upper Market Street. For Burdick, this is unacceptable.

“Delays to installing safety treatments like the approved bulb-outs and concrete medians proposed in the Upper Market Street Safety Project, which both shorten crossing distances and crossing times for seniors, invite future tragedy,” she says. “Every decision that delays an improvement that we know is going to save lives is putting people at risk.”

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