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Vision Zero Project: Rethinking “Safe” Pedestrian Infras...

Vision Zero Project: Rethinking “Safe” Pedestrian Infrastructure in San Francisco

Walking through downtown San Francisco can have an appeal similar to a game of Russian roulette. But in this game of chance, the bullets are one to two ton cars. Within half an hour, I had the unfortunate privilege of witnessing a bicyclist get run off the road and a skateboarder slam face first into a

Walking through downtown San Francisco can have an appeal similar to a game of Russian roulette. But in this game of chance, the bullets are one to two ton cars. Within half an hour, I had the unfortunate privilege of witnessing a bicyclist get run off the road and a skateboarder slam face first into a driver’s side door. Even I was given a round as a service truck nearly flattened me as I crossed the street and proceeded to yell and curse in my direction. These circumstances are a common thread in any large city dynamic, but San Francisco’s injuries and fatalities involving pedestrians has reached an all time high. Over eight hundred people are injured each year with over fifteen incidents resulting in death. 

Pedestrians in Chinatown, San Francisco, California.

So how is San Francisco taking action? They are implementing a plan to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024 called "The Vision Zero Project." This project is led by the principle that a human life should never be secondary to the city user’s vision of personal priority. It calls for an increase in numbers of traffic enforcers, the improvement of infrastructure by adding traffics lights in higher risk locations, and educating the public, both driver AND pedestrian alike. These three approaches are all progressive steps forward, but when it comes to setting forth a wave of dramatic shifts in statistics, there needs to be more than just a few extra crosswalks and after school crossing guards. A shift in the paradigm of public awareness and the potential for urban design needs to take place.

Segregated bicycle lane, San Francisco, California.

How can you resurrect the conscious driver or pedestrian? Design of course! In a world of infinitely tight budgets, rethinking a city’s pedestrian infrastructure may be reserved for the idealist, but simple design solutions can make the difference between life and death. Here are just a few examples:

  • The integration of visual cues such as color-coded and distinctly marked bicycle lanes, car lanes, and pedestrian ways.
  • Setting barriers (i.e. posts, vegetation) between car lanes and bicycle lanes.
  • Develop raised sidewalks reserved for bicyclists and foot travelers only.
  • An elevated pedestrian and bicycle highway that weaves above and within the city fabric.

The elevated highway may lie slightly more on the optimistic side, but when you turn on the Bay Area news to see two more pedestrian incidents each day, the city, along with its users, needs a dramatic shift. San Francisco has made steps with incorporating bright green lanes for bicycles and the occasional set of barriers, but they are few and far between. Taking Amsterdam as an established precedent for harmony between pedestrian and vehicle, you can see some of these similar tactics working congruently to the city’s pulse. Elevated or completely separate bicycle lanes separate pedestrian walkers from vehicle lanes. Even bicycles and cars are considered more as equals, abiding by the same rules with their own stoplights and crosswalks.

Market Street pedestrians and bicyclists, San Francisco, California.

Although daunting, these circumstances provide an exciting opportunity for designers and urban planners to transform the city’s future pedestrian framework.

What solutions do you think could be utilized in re-imagining safer pedestrian infrastructure?     

Credit: Images by Lauren Golightly. Data and images linked to sources.

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Lauren Golightly is a graduate of the University of New Mexico with a degree in Architecture and Art History. Her studies in art history are based in architectural history, theory and criticism, and focus on modern and contemporary influences. A back...

  • Robert Poole

    Great post Lauren! The protected bike lane along Polk Street, between City Hall and Market, is my favorite example of safe pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure. I was told, however, that the project was approved in 2006 and as just completed a month ago. Unfortunately, politics and money get in the way of needed civic improvement. Right now, only 1% of the MTA budget is spent on bicycle infrastructure, even though a lot of people would agree biking is the best way to get around in the City.

    That will rise to 2% if voters approve a couple of ballot measures this coming November. Make sure you get out an vote!

  • Lauren Golightly

    Thanks Robert! I definitely agree with you. Simple elements of added infrastructure can make a world of difference between feeling secure and feeling like an open target for traffic. I’ve read that on average 2 -3 pedestrians are injured in San Francisco every day. This ends up costing the city an extra $75 million+ a year, the majority in health care costs. Seems the city could balance this out by increasing the budget (saving a few lives in the process would be nice too!). But yes get out and vote! I’ll spread the word.

  • The following is one facet of a more complex solution that should just be thought of as a brainstorm. The devil is in the details so whether or not these ideas would have any practical applications in SF I have no idea.

    Key concepts

    1. Think intermodal transport on a city/regional level.
    2. Personal rapid transport.
    3. Personal transport sold as a service.
    4. Self Driving Cars.

    The problem statistically, at least in Sweden, is me…the 40 something male who was indoctrinated into the car culture and is as reluctant to leave it as a newborn baby is from its mother….lets look at integrating those problem children and everyone else into a more sustainable transport system.

    Zip cars was a great idea but its selling products designed for sales as opposed to renting. Meaning, a car is built with components with distinctly different development costs and life cycles. Therefore, design a car for rental that’s modular, where the base chassis (expensive to design and long life cycle)will be deployed for a long time with shorter aesthetic and performance upgrades.

    Combine that with ICT in cities, sharing programs, tax incentives for people that share cars and reduce car idle time from 95% to just 80%. What does this mean for a car company that can pull it off? It means selling 1/4 of the cars but generating more revenues for car companies who move to this model and they will be the next Tesla of the car industry, or maybe it will be Tesla, especially if Vehicle to Grid takes off.

    Now take PRT, but instead think of a kanban system that picks up cars and transports them around the city. The case is a user is driven to the city, boards a prt cart on a rail or similar, is dropped off near their destination, the car is taken to a parking center parks itself and then can be recalled by the driver. This works for either shared or personally owned cars. Integrate that system with a port system to move shipping containers to warehouses and distribution centers outside the city (or within for local consumption) and for intercity delivery. With auto transport utilized capacity of road networks can be optimized.

    Revert the streets back to how they were used before the automobile. As a place for people to move, communicate, organize…and for mass transit. For SF, and bicycles, this will require the eqv. of skilifts for people using bicycles as transport (see Trodnheim Norway as one example).

    San Francisco is close to the epicenter of one of the most technologically disruptively innovative areas of the world. Now, what needs to be done is more social, economic, and environmental disruptive innovation all working together to create highly livable and sustainable cities. Check out what is happening in Manchester with Bicycling or in Malmo with the Western Harbor…they are good examples of transition management handling wicked problems just as SF and any other city that let the automobile/engineered solutions dictate their development (which is most cities). Good Luck!

  • Lauren Golightly

    Thank you for your insightful brainstorm. Like a child born into a religious cult, I too was indoctrinated into the car world, unwillingly I might add. I grew up in the sprawling city of Albuquerque, New Mexico where car is the ONLY means of getting around. I am ecstatic to be living in a city where I can commute by bicycle, where having a car can be a ball and chain. But I do agree that altering perception on sustainable transport systems and integrating those “problem children” would be a way to attack the source. I also believe that the automobile has developed into an extremely accessible object we see as priority rather than privilege. Zipcar, city-car share, Uber, Lyft, etc. are pretty well rooted within San Francisco and the surrounding bay area (I am a zipcar member for those occasional grocery trips that refuse to fit on my bicycle). Since you’re talking about PRT I take it you’ve heard about the Masdar City of the UAE? In this sustainable city PRT runs beneath the city and away from pedestrian foot traffic.
    I have never seen the bicycle lifts before, but that would be a fantastic option in San Francisco. The city is known for its torturously steep hills which tend to scare off everyone except for the most intense bicyclist. The issue with this in San Francisco would be the number of cars littering potential installation of the lifts. Cars within the city seem to have a sense of entitlement, giving them the right away to blast through crosswalks and block bicycle lanes. With the right minds, motivation, and money of course SF could redefine pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure, but these topics never seem to be set too high on the city’s priority list. It is definitely exciting to see cities with similar problems rise above and take the initiative to progressively address these issues through creative and sustainable methods. I’ll have to look some of the cities you have suggested!

  • Gonzalo Monfort

    First of all, congratulations! I love this post, so here you have my humble contribution.

    Although at first glance the solution of providing a specific lane for cyclists seems the most appropriate to reduce accidents, I do not believe in ‘unique solutions’ because each place, due to its own characteristics, especially cultural, has a different problem.

    For example, in the case of Valencia, my city, the latest data show an increase in the number of accidents although there is less movement of cars. What is the problem?

    The cyclists associations may have part of the answer. As bicycle users are able to obtain much information on traffic problems and accidents that can certainly help the planner to find a good design solution.

    In our case, seems to be having a greater number of accidents at intersections, because drivers do not see the bike lane next to the crosswalk. So cyclists are asking for proper signaling intersections with bike lanes as the primary measure.

    Other measures include prevent high speeds, putting speed bumps on the road (there are lots of types), and promote the use of public transportation with reasonable prices.

  • Very interesting post Lauren, there are similar problems here in Cork with bike infrastructure and pedestrian-ism, both of which are getting more attention now-a-days!

    I’m just starting to look into these but the problems seem very much the same as yours in SF and the challenge lies in making the routes more cyclist/pedestrian friendly!

    As well as helping the motorists realize that they are not the only ones using the roads/streets! The comments here are very interesting also!

    Great fruit for thought!:-)

  • Lauren Golightly

    Thank you so much for all of your great comments! One element which makes San Francisco unique, and somewhat tricky in redefining infrastructure, is the city’s high density and fluctuating topography. It is amazing to me that there is even room for cars within the narrow and steep streets of San Francisco. Cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists are already bumping shoulders.

    In areas with the highest reported number of incidents, primarily downtown and on market street, infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists seems to be the most established. Surprising right? I believe that a lot of the issue is related to poor visual cues and a lack of public education regarding street/pedestrian etiquette. I have encountered some very close calls due to cars turning into or driving too close to the bike lane. Speed bumps or even the dreaded “rumble strips” near areas of overlap between cars, bicyclist, and pedestrians could serve as an effective element.

    Part of the danger also lies within the large bicycle lanes, which are divided by barriers but taxis are given privilege to drive within them. Part of this is to allow traffic to continue circulating in a high density space, but it is also somewhat terrifying when a taxi speeds by nearly clipping your handlebars. Again, overall you can add visual signals etc. which will help, but then it comes down to reconditioning the users to encode that visual language and awareness into their everyday practice. This is definitely a continuous (and exciting) project for San Francisco in redefining their city’s fabric.

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