The Fire Department is pushing for modifications to major traffic redesign projects intended to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, as it opposes widened bike lanes and bulb-outs at crosswalks because they reportedly slow down emergency vehicles.
Long opposed to roadway changes that it feels could affect response times, the Fire Department last summer tried to quietly remove a provision in San Francisco’s fire code that gave city planners greater freedom to widen sidewalks, according to Supervisor Scott Wiener. The ploy was discovered and the provision was reinserted, but the Fire Department and pedestrian-safety advocates like Wiener remain at odds over how to best fix streets to make them safer.
Some 948 pedestrians were hit by cars in 2012. Those kinds of medical emergency calls are 75 percent of the Fire Department’s workload, and The City has put itself on notice to reduce serious pedestrian-auto accidents by half over the next decade.
On Second Street — where at least two pedestrians have died crossing the street since 2005 — traffic planners have proposed putting in separated bike lanes and building round extensions of the sidewalk at intersections, called bulb-outs.
But some of the extra lanes and bulb-outs might not get built because of Fire Department concerns, and “several other projects” aimed at pedestrian safety remain “in limbo,” Wiener said.
“There’s just a lot of different viewpoints on what makes The City safer,” Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said at a Fire Commission meeting last month.
As many as 74 percent of pedestrian injuries result from jaywalking, other citable offenses or pedestrians being “inattentive,” the chief added.
At places like Bacon and Goettingen streets, which is in front of an elementary school in the Portola district, larger trucks could have difficulty getting around bulb-outs. And on Bartlett Street in the Mission district, proposed sidewalk objects such as newsstands were removed because fire officials were worried about aerial ladder trucks’ ability to deploy their stabilizing outriggers.
However, the Fire Department has yet to produce data or studies that show bulb-outs or bike lanes slow down fire trucks, said Wiener, who went on a ride-along with firefighters recently to see firsthand what slows down response times.
And “bulb-outs weren’t a problem,” he told The San Francisco Examiner. “Double-parked cars are a huge problem for them.”
The improvement project on Second Street — where the Fire Department headquarters is located — is large enough to qualify for federal funding. It’s not clear how Fire Department concerns could change it. Construction isn’t scheduled to begin until 2015, but some “concerns” from the Fire Department were received, according to Department of Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon.
For now, the aversion to bulb-outs and bike lanes isn’t going away, “which is a shame,” said Nicole Schneider, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group. She estimates pedestrian-auto incidents cost The City $34 million in medical expenses alone.
“We’re all working on public safety here,” she said. “What we need to be doing is building safer streets. These sort of improvements reduce deaths.”
Some pedestrian-safety projects may be redesigned at the request of the Fire Department. It says bike lanes and extended crosswalks hurt response times. Targeted streets include:
Fifth Avenue and Kirkham Street
Bacon and Goettingen streets
Sources: Department of Public Works, Supervisor Scott Wiener’s office