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Sidewalks are for people, not robots

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A Marble delivery robot rolls down the sidewalk near 18th and Valencia streets on July 21. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Here in San Francisco, we walk a lot. A quarter of all trips last year were made on foot, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Our city is great for walking because it’s dense, so our destinations tend to be close together, with lots of interesting things to see along the way. Still, too many people are killed crossing the streets of San Francisco. Now, we have to worry about a new threat: robots.

Have you seen them yet? Machines driving along our sidewalks, delivering take-out orders. For now, these “autonomous delivery vehicles” are chaperoned by a person who (hopefully) keeps them from crashing into anyone. But some day soon, they could be unleashed to travel on their own. And that would be a very bad idea.

Sidewalks are for walking. Thus, the name. We all use and need the sidewalk: We are all pedestrians at some point in our day. Sidewalks are the only dedicated space that is solely for people walking — and they should stay that way.

We already have to dodge cars when we cross the street; on sidewalks, we should be free from dangers. Just picture your grandmother walking along the sidewalk, carrying her groceries or pushing a cart, trying to dodge these vehicles. What about someone with disabilities? Shouldn’t they have a safe place to walk? And what about families? Parents know it’s harrowing enough walking anywhere with a toddler without some big metal box whizzing toward you.

Vehicles should not be allowed on the sidewalk. We have laws that already set this precedent. Vehicles like Segways and bicycles aren’t allowed on the sidewalk, and for good reason. Machines move faster than people and they often weigh more, which means they can cause harm.

Lobbyists for the restaurant industry might suggest that “the rules of the road (and the sidewalk) for the old economy have become obsolete almost overnight.” We disagree.

People have walked since the beginning of human history, and the emergence of autonomous delivery vehicles doesn’t mean that everything is different now. We get to decide if the rules should change. We get to decide what sort of city we want to live and work in.

That’s what we did when Segways came out years ago. We didn’t just say, “This is the future. We have to adapt.” Walk San Francisco helped fight to keep these vehicles off the sidewalk. We fought for the city that we all value and for the safe space that people walking deserve.

Sidewalks are the living, breathing circulatory system of our city: where we see each other, where we talk, where we meet, where we move. Our shops and restaurants thrive because people walk by and stop in. If robots replace walks to the corner store, we will lose opportunities to talk to our neighbors. We will lose what makes us human and what makes San Francisco a great place to be. We will lose our community.

All of this is why Walk San Francisco supports Supervisor Norman Yee’s proposed legislation to ban autonomous delivery vehicles from our sidewalks. This is a sensible, proactive move to protect our public space.

Let’s not fill our public space with private robots. Let’s keep our sidewalks for people.

Cathy DeLuca is interim executive director of Walk San Francisco.

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