In the afternoon of Aug. 14, Gregory Blackman, 65, hopped on his bicycle and made his way up Taylor Street in the Tenderloin. As he biked north across Turk Street, a man driving a gold BMW hit him, hard. The car was traveling fast, and according to witnesses, Blackman flew through the air before landing on the asphalt near Aunt Charlie’s Lounge. He was taken to the hospital, but died from his injuries. The alleged driver, 41-year-old Michael Smith, was arrested and charged with the crime.
Four days later, on Aug. 18, another pedestrian was left with life-threatening injuries after a driver hit him on Jones Street, just two blocks from where Blackman was killed. That suspect is still at large.
Two such incidents so close together could be considered a coincidence, but if you zoom out from those two corners a terrifying pattern emerges: Every single street in the Tenderloin is considered a high-injury corridor, part of the 13 percent of San Francisco streets where 70 percent of all serious and fatal traffic collisions occur.
The neighborhood has been on the high-injury network since 2014, when the city first adopted the Vision Zero plan to eliminate all traffic-related fatalities by 2024. It’s a bold and important goal, but if you break it down by neighborhood, it doesn’t look like much work has been done in the Tenderloin. Every year, every street in its 50 square blocks shows up on the high-injury network map. From 2011 to 2016, 109 collisions occurred on Taylor between Market and Sutter streets — the stretch where Blackman was hit — 69 of which involved pedestrians and cyclists. In that same time period, drivers hit pedestrians 67 times on Eddy Street, with 87 percent of those incidents resulting in injury or death.
Meanwhile other, wealthy areas of the city get their sidewalks and streets renovated it all begs the question: Is the Tenderloin being left behind?
Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, thinks it is. It’s an issue he’s written about on Beyond Chron since 2012. Time and again, he argues, community meetings have been held and designs for street improvements drafted, yet nothing actually breaks ground.
“The Tenderloin delay can solely be blamed on SFMTA folks who treat the low-income Tenderloin residents as a second-class community,” Shaw says. “They would never deal this way with the city’s affluent neighborhoods. SFMTA can dispute this all they want, but the proof is in their still placing in doubt a project that should have been completed years ahead of other projects.”
It’s an attractive narrative, and one can find innumerable examples to justify it. Just one day before Blackman was killed, city leaders gathered to celebrate the renovation of Masonic Avenue, a major north-south route that runs past single-family homes. Millions of dollars were recently spent on the Wiggle Neighborhood Corridor, a now-beautiful pedestrian-and-cyclist network that snakes through Duboce Triangle and Lower Haight.
But the narrative that the Tenderloin is being left behind is not entirely true; a lot of the street-safety changes in the neighborhood are nearly invisible, discoverable only if you have a keen eye. The truth is that the triangular cluster of blocks has been quietly undergoing changes for years.
“You don’t have to look for more than three seconds at the high-injury network map before you say, ‘We have a problem in the Tenderloin,’ ” says Chava Kronenberg, an SFMTA employee who runs the pedestrian-safety program for the department’s Livable Streets group, which has done outreach in the neighborhood for years.
“From the Tenderloin CBD and Central City SRO to longtime Tenderloin residents and merchants, the neighborhood has been actively engaged in the city’s work to increase traffic safety and advance Vision Zero,” she adds.
While protected bike lanes and lane reductions are easy to spot, one of the major recent improvements in the Tenderloin involves the removal of something, not its installation. In 2015, the agency striped red curbs at more than 80 intersections, effectively eliminating 170 parking spaces. Called “daylighting,” this elimination of obstacles near crosswalks aids both pedestrians and drivers’ visibility, whether they’re driving toward an intersection or peering past a parked car to see if it’s safe to cross the street. According to the SFMTA, preliminary analysis shows that these daylighted Tenderloin corners have a 14-percent reduction in collisions.
Traffic lights have gradually been replaced around the neighborhood; many of the old “lollipop”-style signals on the west side of Eddy and Ellis streets, for example, have been replaced by the type held up by mast arms that stretch over the intersection. The light bulbs are larger, and with each change, the signal times are adjusted. All this makes the traffic lights easier for drivers to see, and hence, harder to run.
Pedestrian-signal crossing times have been adjusted in the past five years as well. This change is fairly hidden, but it includes leading pedestrian intervals — which give pedestrians a walk signal before vehicle lights turn green — and longer crosswalk times to accommodate children and people with disabilities.
The majority of these mostly invisible tweaks were done on a limited budget. But an influx of funds in the past few years means bigger changes are on the way.
“Prior to Vision Zero, we had a murkier plan around pedestrian safety, and really limited dollars,” Kronenberg says. But with its launch came vital assistance: The $500 million Prop. A transportation bond, which voters passed in 2014.
“For the first time, we had a lot of new dollars, and when we were asked what we could do with them, we had a clear roadmap: Spend time in the Tenderloin,” she says.
These larger capital improvements are in various stages. Efforts are underway to complete the conversion of Eddy Street from one-way to two-way, calming high-speed traffic by eliminating one-directional lanes in what’s commonly referred to as a “road diet.”
The Safer Taylor Street project received community approval in April, offering some solutions for the stretch of road where Blackman died. Renderings show wide sidewalks with benches and grass, and thick bands of white paint to turn the three lanes of traffic into two, with wide buffers for parked cars to load and unload on each side. The SFMTA Board of Directors will vote to approve the final design this fall.
So the narrative that the Tenderloin is being left behind isn’t exactly true, at least in regards to Vision Zero-related traffic improvements. While people (not unjustly) rage on Twitter about the lack of protected bike lanes and the latest cyclist fatality, it’s clear there is work being done, as neighbors and SFMTA talk late into the night at community rooms around the neighborhood. And now, next time you’re in the neighborhood perhaps you’ll notice the mast arm traffic lights, the red curbs near intersections, and the leisurely pace with which you can cross the street before the red hand flashes.
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
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