San Francisco has a long way to go to become safe for people on foot. Half of all people who die in traffic crashes are people who walk — that’s about four times the national average.
What can The City do about the massacres happening on our streets, which now outweigh the number of violent crimes at a rate of 2.5 to 1? It can choose to invest in proven tools to reduce traffic crimes, like curb extensions (or bulb-outs), which increase the visibility of people in a crosswalk (tackling one of the top reasons pedestrians are hit by drivers). It can also support medians, which provide a safe place to wait, reducing the risk of a crash by nearly 50 percent. These upgrades help seniors and people with disabilities cross the street by shortening both travel distances and exposure times to traffic.
Recently, The City has been doing better, with almost every agency trying to make our streets safer — except one: the Fire Department, which is blocking treatments like bulb-outs, which would reduce serious injuries and deaths. Ironically, many of these same street designs would also improve emergency vehicle access, the Fire Department’s primary complaint. Bulb-outs improve emergency vehicle access by keeping intersections clear of parked cars and allowing fire vehicles to mount the curb, and bike lanes create more room for cars to move out of the way of emergency vehicles.
All of these proposed techniques calm traffic. At slower speeds, drivers actually have a wider field of vision, allowing them to not only see a child stepping into a crosswalk, but also stop more quickly in response — the difference between a near hit and a deadly crash. The science is clear: speed matters. At 20 mph, a person hit by a car has only a 5 percent chance of dying. At 40 mph, the death rate jumps to 85 percent.
So why is the Fire Department blocking these street improvements? After all, the majority of emergencies the Fire Department responds to aren’t fires — 75 percent of their responses are for medical emergencies, often related to traffic crashes. At 2010 budget levels, San Franciscans are paying more than $200 million in taxes for the Fire Department to respond to preventable collisions.
Wouldn’t it make more sense for an agency focused on safety to spend that $200 million (the same amount called for in the Mayor’s Pedestrian Strategy) to prevent collisions, rather than treating the tragic outcomes?
Instead, the Fire Department continues to stall street improvements across The City. They cited false data that pedestrians are responsible for getting hit by drivers in 74 percent of crashes, though thankfully they clarified that they were misinformed.
Regardless of who’s at fault, The City has figured out how to reduce a sobering fate for about 1,000 victims of traffic crimes every year. Walk San Francisco’s members worked to advocate for the Pedestrian Strategy, a plan to cut the number of people who are hit by drivers in half. That plan will only come to fruition if everyone can work together.
The status quo is just not good enough if we want to make it safer to walk in San Francisco.
Nicole Schneider is the executive director of Walk San Francisco.