Why you should look both ways before crossing San Francisco streets

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Remember when your parents told you to look both ways before crossing the street? It’s good advice – and not just for kids. In San Francisco, crossing the street can be pretty dangerous. Pedestrian-car collisions account for almost a quarter of the city’s trauma patients. Why are our streets so dangerous? We sent KALW’s transportation reporter Casey Miner to find out.

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JOHN ALEX LOWELL: Casey, I advise you when crossing the street to always look left and right... 

CASEY MINER: When John Alex Lowell crosses a San Francisco street, he doesn’t just look both ways. He looks left, then right, then left again, then over his shoulder, to make sure no one’s coming from behind him making a turn. He’s also keeping tabs on the countdown of the walk sign.

LOWELL: Only if it’s a double digit, or at least an “8,” should you start walking, and not have it become “1” and you’re right there in the middle of the intersection.

Lowell says you might think cars will stop for you, but they won’t. San Francisco has more pedestrian collisions per capita than New York City. He was in one.

LOWELL: So we are, at the moment, a block away from where the collision happened on Friday, March 23, 2001. It was at around 12:15.

Lowell was out jogging on his lunch break. He remembers getting to the intersection of Mission and 14th, looking up and seeing the white walk signal.

LOWELL: This is only what witnesses told my family, I’m not sure if my family saw the minivan. The left side of my head hit the windshield. With the momentum, I was flung through the air around 20 feet and then landed on Mission Street. This is where I landed, my head landed here. That’s where I sustained most of the brain damage.

Lowell talks about his accident like someone who’s memorized facts in a history book. He doesn’t remember any of it. Other people had to tell him, later, that the minivan ran a red light and hit him. That after he hit the ground, he rolled under a parked bus on Mission Street. That thankfully, the bus didn’t move. And that some other drivers, who saw the collision, called 911 and reached under the bus to hold his hand.

LOWELL: She said, "You’ll be okay, we’re calling 911, the police are coming, the ambulance is coming."

A lot of people get hit by cars in San Francisco. 800 a year at least – and those are just the ones that get reported.

ELIZABETH STAMPE: That’s two or three people a day getting hit by cars.

Elizabeth Stampe is executive director of WalkSF, a pedestrian advocacy group.

STAMPE: We have streets that are designed for the rapid movement of cars instead of for people to be able to get around safely on foot.

Stampe works at 6th and Market, one of the worst intersections in the city for collisions. During rush hour on a recent evening, it was easy to see why.

STAMPE: It’s rush hour and we see a lot of cars trying to cross Market and go along 6th street and probably get to the freeway. A lot of cars are not making it across the intersection, pedestrians are having to weave their way between cars. We have someone in a wheelchair trying to get across, it’s going to be hard for her to make the curb on the other side.

It’s not just 6th and Market. SoMa is more dangerous than almost anywhere else in San Francisco. Chinatown and the Tenderloin are bad too, with almost three times as many accidents as the rest of the city. These neighborhoods all have a few things in common. For one, they’re some of the city’s densest areas. And a lot of that density is due to SROs – single room occupancy hotels – and senior housing. Those living spaces are small, so people hang out outside. And most people don’t have cars, so they walk to get where they need to go.

SYLVESTER GUARD: What we do is this thing we call the “dip and run”; you’ve got to try to get past here as fast as you can without getting hit by a car.

Sylvester Guard is a tenant organizer at the Seneca Hotel on 6th street. He started working on pedestrian safety issues after he got hit by a car a year ago. And the “dip and run”? That’s where you start at one edge of an alley, where it intersects the main road, and walk into oncoming traffic to get to the other side. Technically, these kinds of intersections are legal crosswalks. But they’re not always marked – no signs, no white paint. Guard got hit in one of those alleyways, right at the corner of 6th and Stevenson, by a woman driving the wrong way. He says he wasn’t hurt too badly – but he doesn’t have insurance, so he never actually saw a doctor.

GUARD: My back does go out occasionally still, matter of fact, my back went out like last week. It goes out like every four months or so. I had any issues with my back before then. But, since then, I have issues with my back.

Read the paper for just a week, and you’ll probably see more stories like Guard’s. But pedestrian advocates like Elizabeth Stampe say there are easy things the city can do to fix the problem. Things like eliminating one-way streets, painting crosswalks more brightly, and extending sidewalk corners so crossings are shorter. She says a good example is Valencia Street in the Mission, where the city has made a lot of these kinds of changes.

STAMPE: This should be a priority for the city, and we should commit resources to it. Right now, pedestrian funding is a very, very tiny part of what we spend on transportation in this city and this country. And that needs to change.

In the year after his accident, John Alex Lowell had 30 surgeries and stayed in six hospitals. His doctors told him he was lucky – they thought he’d be in a persistent vegetative state. Now, ten years later, he’s more or less okay. He can walk, he went to grad school, he can even drive if he wants to, though his vision’s a little off. There’s also an artificial substance in his skull – an ironic little reminder.

LOWELL: That is a material called methyl methacrylate. It’s what orthopedic surgeons use to replicate bone mass. It’s also what dentists use when they create teeth. It is the same material – and my common phrase is, my jaw dropped when I heard it – also the same material I am pointing to on the street. Road paint.

The city is working with groups like WalkSF to try and make things safer. In District 6, which includes SoMa, Supervisor Jane Kim has been especially involved. But so far, there’s no official plan. So whether you’re walking or driving, in any of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, the best rule of thumb is probably the one your parents taught you: look both ways.

In San Francisco, I’m Casey Miner for Crosscurrents. 

What’s it like when you take a walk in the city? Or What about driving in neighborhoods with a lot of pedestrians? Tell us your story at 415.264.7106. Or find us on Facebook; we’re KALW News.