Apr 19, 2016

I write this after having been almost run over this morning in a crosswalk. Again. Inattentive motorists are a problem as old as time, but in SF we’re not just dealing with drivers who are not paying attention to the periphery, they’re not even looking straight ahead of them. To add insult to injury, in all cases, these subhuman scumbags give me an apologetic wave of the hand, as if this is somehow supposed to be some sort of adequate penance for almost killing me.

Anyone who drives will tell you that traffic has been getting worse in San Francisco, which isn’t surprising given increased economic activity. This is bad for drivers, but even worse for pedestrians cyclists trying to use the same roads. You see, drivers have realized the dirty little secret of SF: that traffic regulations are not enforced, especially during rush hour, and bad behavior doesn’t have consequences.

If you walk through SOMA or the Financial District during one of the busier parts of the day, you won’t see a single pedestrian crosswalk, dedicated bicycle lane, or intersection that isn’t gridlocked by cars whose drivers have realized that if they the traffic rules of SF are elastic; even if stretched to their extremes, there isn’t a breaking point. If you block an intersection after ignoring a red light, you’ll get honked at, but nothing worse will happen. If you lock down a crosswalk for an entire light rotation you’ll get some dirty looks and maybe a middle finger, but again, nothing will happen. If you stop a pedestrian in a crosswalk in their tracks by refusing to yield to them, the only net effect is that you’ll get to make your turn a little faster.

The city’s occasionally run some symbolic traffic enforcement campaigns to ticket it a few drivers blocking intersections or doing 50% over the speed limit on a busy urban street, but you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be caught by one of these operations. The rational actor should break the rules all the time to move a little bit faster, and just pay those occasional dues when they come in 1.

The real question is how much further it’ll go. Drivers will eventually realize that if they can run a red during rush hour, then they can safely run a red at any other time too 2. Stop signs and uncontrolled crosswalks are already ignored with wild abandon. Any resident of one of the SOMA alleys can tell you that it’s already not unusual to see people taking shortcuts the wrong direction down these one-way streets.

The most frustrating part of all of this is that the problem could be solved if we wanted to solve it. Take some of the considerable forces of SFPD and the SFMTA out of their cars, put them on the streets, and give them an easy electronic way to flag violations. Once motorists start to see an average of 5-20 tickets rolling into their mailboxes every month, this whole problem disappears overnight. As a bonus, you even take traffic off the road as you start to transfer more of the real cost of this expensive activity away from the public and onto the inner city drivers themselves.

But it will never happen. Instead, Ed Lee will continue to take measures towards achieving Vision Zero which are known to be ineffective, but which have the advantage of being politically inert, like pasting ad campaigns all over city streets. Under his tenure, we will continue trading lives for convenience, a practice which has become the hallmark of North America’s urban design.

1 Even if a malevolent driver happens to push it a little too far and kill a pedestrian by accident, the paperwork might be heavy, but the sentence will be light or non-existent.

2 Even the precious few red light cameras in operation can be beaten with some basic knowledge of SF’s street geography, and if that doesn’t work out, relatively easily in court.

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