On Monday, April 11, a speeding motorist blew through a red light at Masonic Avenue on Grove Street. The car slammed into a jogger in the crosswalk, breaking her leg, and came to a stop only by slamming into an SUV just in front of me and my daughter aboard my tandem bicycle. The most peculiar thing about all this was how ordinary it seemed.
Anyone venturing into San Francisco streets routinely sees red-light running and speeding cars, near misses with pedestrians and cyclists, and, occasionally, collisions. Last year, a typical 800-plus pedestrians were hit, according to advocacy group Walk San Francisco. Watching a gray compact sedan send a woman flying and then bash another car seemed chillingly close to an everyday scene.
"This is a neighborhood with families and children, yet motorists treat it like a highway," says Annika Ehrlich, a UCSF nurse who lives a couple of blocks from the intersection where emergency workers had just picked up the jogger. The same could be said for myriad thoroughfares crisscrossing this densely populated city. Every year or so, a San Francisco newspaper or television station will report with hair-on-fire urgency that this famously walking-friendly city is actually deadly for walkers, and end by quoting politicians saying little can be done.
But this supposed civic helplessness may change. City politicians from the mayor on down have been making noise lately about improving pedestrian safety, just as academic researchers are finding that this goal might not be that elusive after all. Recent research suggests that a mere 5 mph reduction in citywide traffic speed might halve the number of fatalities. San Francisco pedestrian injuries cost millions of dollars each year in health care costs alone, suggesting that money spent up front on safety fixes — such as one proposed for Masonic Avenue — wouldn't just reduce human suffering. It might save taxpayer money.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in cooperation with our city's Department of Public Health, is conducting a study of pedestrian injuries on San Francisco streets, with final results to be released following peer review. Preliminary findings show that if motorists citywide were to slow down a mere 5 mph, the number of San Francisco pedestrian deaths — typically about 20 per year — could decrease by half. The number of total traffic collisions, thousands of which result in serious injury, could drop by 20 percent or more.
Recent trends suggest enacting such a change might be feasible after all. The April 11 collision happened just as city officials added finishing touches on a long-overdue proposal to calm traffic along Masonic that includes bike lanes, a landscaped median, widened sidewalks at bus stops, and hundreds of new trees. It will go to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for final approval in a few months.
Another part of the equation is law enforcement. Preliminary results from the Centers for Disease Control study suggest that a similar 50 percent reduction in pedestrian deaths might result if only San Franciscans all began obeying the speed limit.
However, citing motorists in order to encourage such obedience is one of the most annoying duties San Francisco cops face, says Denis O'Leary, police captain of the Park Station, which covers Masonic at Grove. The result is a type of inertia where cops might overlook violations, and motorists might break laws with impunity.
"The verbal abuse that comes with issuing a citation, that's often ignored," he says. "You give somebody a ticket, and you get a hard time."
The motorist who blew through the light at Masonic and Grove on April 11, for example, argued to police that she had a green. In reality, full seconds had passed between the light turning red and her hitting the SUV.
In order to, in O'Leary's words, "spread the joy" of ticketed motorists' dissembling and whining, O'Leary says he encourages cops to issue citations in groups and run operations in which multiple officers cite motorists for violations. "I'm trying to change the culture here at Park Station, and get more enforcement operations on a routine basis," he says.
Mayor Ed Lee, for his part, has told transit activists that he wants to move toward reducing pedestrian fatalities by 50 percent by 2021 through such measures such as reducing speed limits around schools. That would be hasty by the standards of San Francisco's molasses-slow bureaucracy. But it would also mean another decade tolerating needless deaths and injuries.
That same morning the jogger was hit on Masonic, transit planners presented a Board of Supervisors committee with UCSF research showing that between 2005 and 2008, 3,598 pedestrians were injured, costing governments $56.5 million in health care expenses.
Pedestrian safety fixes might seem like cheap medicine. Street overhauls cost about $1 million per block. On Valencia Street, workers widened sidewalks and bike lanes; similar measures are planned for Cesar Chavez and Market, as well as streets in the Tenderloin, Mission, and elsewhere.
Funding remains elusive nonetheless. "People will say, 'I went to all these meetings about a plan, and we decided to do this in the Tenderloin, and then I never heard anything more about it,'" says Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk San Francisco.
Taking action would require reversing half a century of political momentum in which streets were widened to swiften cars. In the middle of the last century, it was widely assumed San Francisco would follow the way of freeway-blanketed Los Angeles. While the 1980s anti-freeway revolt threw sand in that engine, safety fixes that involve slowing rather than speeding up traffic on the city's most dangerous streets remain unfunded, despite the mayor's rhetoric. The government is spending $1.4 billion on the Doyle Drive freeway onramp in the Presidio, in part to raise the speed at which cars can safely drive.
Michael Helquist, who has lived a block from Masonic Avenue near the Golden Gate Park Panhandle for 18 years, writes the blog Bike NOPA and is a member of the neighborhood advocacy group Fix Masonic. He suggested that the balance may be tilting toward calming San Francisco's streets.
"Masonic is not the most dangerous street or corridor in the city," Helquist told me. "But what you saw this morning happens frequently enough that we should ask the question: 'If there are this many incidents, should we try to fix them?'"