When Mark Morey wanted to know how often people were speeding past his South Van Ness home, he didn’t rely on mere estimates. The 49-year-old Mission resident equipped himself with a cheap radar gun, posted up near a few busy intersections, and took aim.
“Almost everyone who drives down that street is driving too fast,” said Morey. “And anyone who has to cross the street is fear-stricken. It’s no surprise that there are so many accidents there.”
So many, in fact, that South Van Ness is among the worst of the worst when it comes to dangerous streets in San Francisco. Beyond casual field observations like Morey’s, hard evidence attests to the dangers of traffic on South Van Ness. Although the city has taken some steps in the last two years to make it more pedestrian-friendly, accidents still frequently occur, and residents want to see drastic changes, residents said.
In a city that ranks as one of the most dangerous in the nation for pedestrians, South Van Ness is at the top of the list in severe or fatal injuries per mile, according to a 2012 report by the Department of Public Health that looked at accidents between 2005 and 2009. The Pedestrian Safety Task Force worked with the Department of Public Health and came up with a list of so-called high injury corridors that included South Van Ness.
Compared with citywide rates, South Van Ness has 55 times more injuries than any other street, according to the report. Specific causes for each accident are not listed, but public health epidemiologist Megan Wier underscored what many residents already know.
“Speeding is the number one reason we have accidents, and all of South Van Ness is one of the city’s most dangerous streets,” said Wier. “There are a lot of factors that cause accidents, but that’s the main problem.”
The report showed that South Van Ness between Market and 12th streets ranked first in severe or fatal injuries per mile of all high injury corridors in the city. Even compared to the other dangerous corridors, South Van Ness – from Market to Cesar Chavez – has six times as many incidents, according to the report.
The city experiences about 800 pedestrian injuries each year. Additionally, accidents have increased every year since 2010, the report says. South Van Ness has already taken the lives of three people this year, and several other non-fatal injuries have occurred.
On August 5, four girls between the ages of 9 and 14 were injured when a semi truck, attempting to make a left turn, crashed into a light pole on South Van Ness and 24th Street, causing it to fall onto the victims. While most of the accidents on the street occur because of speeding, residents have pointed out that many large trucks use the street as a quick shortcut through the Mission because it moves more quickly than more commerce-heavy streets with bus lines.
The injuries were not life-threatening and it is unclear how this accident could have been prevented, unless the city were to implement Morey’s suggestion of not letting trucks use the street at all. Mainly, the accident reignited the anger many residents feel over perceived lack of action on the city’s part to make the street safer.
“I’ve been writing, calling and challenging the powers that be on this issue for a few years,” Morey wrote in an email. “It’s not in my nature to be a NIMBY/neighborhood crank, but within the last few years…South Van Ness has become the highway of the Mission.”
To address some of these concerns, the city has taken measures to improve the safety of South Van Ness as part of a citywide effort.
Between 2010 and 2011, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency conducted a report to document long-term collisions trends, using data from the California Highway Patrol and Statewide Integrated Traffic Record Systems. Following its publication in August 2012, the city embarked on a number of safety improvements, officials said.
“A lot of work is actually being done to address this issue, “ said Ben Jose, Public Relations Officer for the MTA’s Livable Streets Program. “But it takes awhile to see how things change. Every new accident makes people wonder.”
He said the transit agency has installed pedestrian countdown signals at the intersection of 21st and South Van Ness as part of a citywide installation effort, and the countdown heads were also increased from eight to 12 inches. The intersections of 17th, 20th and 22nd streets were also upgraded with better signal heads after the collision review. Similar efforts are planned for 14th through 19th streets.
Additionally, the transit agency recently submitted a grant application for the Cycle 6 Highway Safety Improvement Program, which will ensure funds to design and construct new pedestrian countdown signals, install ADA curb ramps and replace all existing traffic signals above and below ground at South Van Ness.
“These measures might not be as obvious to the average pedestrian as a speed bump or traffic island, but anyone who is on South Van Ness is using them every day,” said Jose.
Currently, engineers who worked on the safety improvements are evaluating the effectiveness to the improvements, but Jose said it is too soon to accurately comment on whether they have made the street less dangerous.
Even with these improvements, however, residents want to see more.
“Having some brighter crosswalks or a temporary flashing sign showing drivers their speed isn’t going to change things the way removing lanes and putting in more timed lights will,” said Morey.
Changes of the caliber Morey would like to see would involve major overhaul and restructuring of the street, which Jose said would take years of studies and planning.
Hardly the bustling business corridor that streets like Mission or Valencia are, Morey pointed out that South Van Ness doesn’t get the attention it deserves to make it drastically safer for pedestrians. Yet, with nearby on-ramps at Cesar Chavez and Division, it is a main thoroughfare that enables people to drive too fast.
In the meantime, every new accident reawakens the fear in residents that nothing is being done, but the city says that is not the case.
“It’s a slow process, but we’re working with all city agencies to get the ball rolling, “ said WalkSF’s Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “The most effective way to do that is by bringing everyone together using data-driven proven methods; from engineering to cops to beautification committees, and that takes a lot of time and effort.”
Mayor Ed Lee’s Pedestrian Strategy, released in April, lays out a series of benchmarks towards getting the streets as safe as possible, with a goal of reducing injuries by 50 percent by 2021.
The strategy aims to bring together all responsible agencies to use data-driven proven methods to address the safety issues with plans to upgrade 44 miles of streets where injuries are must concentrated. Traffic slowing studies, engineering, more police patrols and possibly even more bike lines are all on the table for discussion.
But critics say that so much organization, meetings and collaboration between agencies makes them start to wonder when all of the improvements will actually happen, and they question the feasibility of the efforts.
“Putting more cops on the street to catch people speeding isn’t going to change things the way putting in more lights or taking away a lane will,” said Morey.
While the city conducts more studies and holds more meetings, Morey plans to lead a grassroots effort to put pressure on city officials to address the problem quickly. He’s canvassing his neighborhood with flyers to garner support to create a task force to incite change on a level he’s not seeing from government agencies.
“Until we reach a day where there are zero collisions, there will always be work to do,” said Schneider. “These are the unfortunate outcomes of walking on streets that were designed in an era when car was king.”