A crossing guard outside of St. James Elementary.

At Fair Oaks and 24th, cars pull up, doors open, and schoolgirls in kilts dart out, racing across the street to St. James, the Catholic school across the street. A crossing guard in a neon DPW vest races out into the street, waving her sign to stop the early morning traffic that comes sailing down 24th from the hills of Noe Valley. The minute the girls are safely escorted across, the guard races off to shadow two more girls who have just been deposited on another corner.

At a public meeting this Friday, SFMTA will hold a public meeting to discuss whether the streets around this school, and two more in the Mission (Edison Charter Academy at 22nd and Dolores, St. Charles, Marshall Elementary at 18th and Van Ness, Immaculate Conception at 24th and Guerrero) should have their posted speed limits lowered from the city default of 25 miles per hour to a more sedate 15. The SFDPH’s own accident files show no major accidents at that particular intersection in recent years, but SFMTA and sales tax revenue from Proposition K are set to pay $361,700 over the next sixteen months to install 1,000 new speed limit signs around schools like this one.

The plan, which has the support of the mayor, the SFMTA, the SFPD, the SFUSD, district supervisor Scott Wiener, and pedestrian advocacy groups like Walk San Francisco, is – legislatively – small potatoes. But it’s also the first step of a much broader plan drawn up by the mayors office last year to shift power away from drivers and hand it over to walkers – essentially re-pedestrianizing a city that was reshaped in the 1940’s and 50’s to move car traffic along as quickly as possible.

This particular change comes, in part, because of changes to the California vehicle code that now explicitly allow local authorities to implement 15 mph speed limit zones within 500 feet of schools when children are present.

Plus, the changes are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. But, according to Rajiv Bhatia, head of the Department of Public Health, money that the city puts out to prevent collisions between cars and pedestrians will save the city money in the long run. Health Department figures show San Francisco General, which has the city’s only trauma center, spends about $15 million a year patching up victims of car accidents.

Bhatia has publicly cited both London and New York as role models for the changes being implemented in San Francisco. In areas of London where the speed limit was lowered to 20 mph, he says, saw deaths from car/pedestrian collisions drop by 42 percent over the next two decades. In New York, a series of small-scale pedestrian safety initiatives aimed at senior citizens, like longer crossing signals, brought pedestrian fatalities in the city to an all-time low.

A few blocks away St. James, small groups of middle schoolers weave through the early morning traffic, clutching backpacks and skateboards, and wearing the self-consciously tough expressions of kids trying to look older than they area. When they reach the doors of Buena Vista Horace Mann School, they race up the stairs, and disappear.

In San Francisco the sight of children walking to school is still a rare one. But the city’s goal – which seems both innocently wholesome and thoroughly impossible – is to get all the children of San Francisco walking to school again. There is no speed reduction near Horace Mann – traffic is slower here. But there is a shiny new stop sign at the intersection of 23rd and Bartlett – set into pristine concrete. It, too, is new.

Until recently, the vagaries of the lottery system meant that children were not necessarily assigned to schools that they can walk to. A new school assignment system that prioritizes neighborhoods is intended to change that – as is the SFMTA’s boosterism of projects like the speed limit reduction, which occurs under the umbrella of the Safe Routes To School.

At Fair Oaks and 24th, none of the children approaching the school are doing it on foot. Will new speed limits change that, or make it safer for the few children that do? It remains to be seen whether a reduction in the speed limit will even be followed, given that the school is located near the bottom of an especially enticing hill.

The hill is the reason why, long before the change in speed limits was even a twinkle in city planning’s eye, neighborhood residents have tried to get a stop sign at this very intersection, with no success. People have tried, says Gillian Gillet, Wiener’s legislative aide to Supervisor Scott Wiener, “SFMTA has said no to this forever.” The reason? It would slow down Muni.

Public comment on the changes will be held at 10 a.m. on Friday, September 16th, in room 416, at City Hall.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Marshall Elementary is at 15th and Capp and has amongst the highest rate of scholars who walk to school in the district.

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  2. I see kids everyday walking to and from Galileo High School. So seeing kids walking to school is not rare at all.

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  3. My in-laws live a block away from Edison and people just race through the streets. Posting speed limit signs aren’t going to be effective. What they really need to do is put in speed bumps. My mother-in-law’s street used to have speed bumps and that was really helpful, but they repaved the street and didn’t reinstall them. I occasionally have to yell at people to slow the hell down.

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