On the Horizon: A Slower City?

Photograph courtesy of Justin Beck

En Español.

This past year, the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) began to compile and link data about pedestrian/automobile collisions to a degree unprecedented in the department, and then to publicize it. It’s a decision that could have dramatic consequences for city planning.

“What happened was, New York did something progressive,” said Rajiv Bhatia, director of the DPH, at a presentation to the San Francisco Health Commission yesterday. “We had a progressive mayor, and he said, ‘We need to do something progressive before I leave.’ So I came up with something.” What Bhatia came up with is nothing less than a fundamental shift in the city’s transportation priorities — one that gives the safety of people on foot equal weight as the safety of those in cars and buses.

“Walking shouldn’t be more dangerous than driving in San Francisco,” said Bhatia. “Walking should be safest. On principle.”

Instead, according to Bhatia, drivers in San Francisco are much less likely to be injured in car accidents than the national average, while San Francisco has the highest level of pedestrian fatalities for a city its size.

“You might think, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad. More people walk in San Francisco,'” Bhatia said. But according to the DPH analysis, even when the numbers are calculated per walking trip, or on the basis of city residents hit versus tourists, the risk of being hit by a car while walking in San Francisco is 30 percent higher than the national average. On the whole, walking in San Francisco carries four times the risk of death relative to driving here. (The safest? Riding the bus.)

Which raises the question — what exactly is the DPH going to do about it? Everything transit-related in the city — pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, traffic, parking, taxis, streets — falls under the jurisiction of the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). The DPH’s jurisdiction has, historically, been limited to the business of fixing people up after they run into cars.

Department staff aren’t exactly thrilled about this. San Francisco General, as the city’s only trauma center, gets about 98 percent of such cases, and spends about $15 million a year patching them up. Andre Campbell, a trauma surgeon at SF General, sees several patients a day who’ve been hit by cars. There’s an unpleasant math to how much work an accident will cause for him. “If you’re hit at low speed, it’ll just break your leg,” he said. “If you’re thrown into the air, it all depends on how hard you’re hit before you’re thrown, and where you land. If you hit the curb and break a rib, or land on the car hood. If you hit your head, then you have head injuries. Then you get the ones that are run over.” He paused. “Then there’s hit and dragged.”

So the DPH is, in essence, running a public relations campaign. But it also has simplicity of objectives on its side: The DPH only has to worry about people’s health. The MTA needs to juggle many different objectives; as Bhatia says, “Are they going to make Muni run faster? Are they going to make streets safer? Are they going to make them smoother for drivers? Are they going to make more parking spaces?”

There are signs — like the unbidden insertion of bike lanes on Folsom —  that the MTA is far from making all of its decisions based on what makes vehicles move faster. It’s still unclear, though, whether it will be on board entirely with the DPH’s recommendations, which state that the most efficient way to deal with pedestrian deaths from a health perspective is simply to slow traffic down. The injuries that surgeons like Campbell deal with become far more minor as the speed of collision declines. In London, in areas where the speed limit was lowered to 20 mph, deaths from car/pedestrian collisions dropped by 42 percent over the next two decades.

The Executive Directive on Pedestrian Safety [PDF] signed by then-mayor Gavin Newsom in December calls for reducing speed limits around the city in the upcoming year, especially around school zones (children and the elderly are disproportionately likely to be both injured and severely injured by cars). It also calls for more research into why San Francisco’s streets are so dangerous for pedestrians, and how that can be changed.

The question remains, why now? But later in the Health Commission meeting, another controversial topic came up — the possibility of opening an injection center like the one in Vancouver. That idea was shot down. “I think it’s a valuable program, but for us to take on an injection center when we are about to cut other programs — we just can’t,” said Sonia Melara, the commission’s vice president, to Commissioner James Illig. “I’d rather have more methadone programs, more needle exchange, than two years of fighting over where to put it. If we were the overdose capital like we were 10 years ago, then I think this would be on the table.

“Being the worst at something creates a reason for action.”

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