Last Thursday, Mayor Ed Lee launched the WalkFirst Capital Improvement Program (PDF link) as a means of addressing the city’s pedestrian safety crisis. The WalkFirst Program is the first step toward implementing the city’s pedestrian strategy, which seeks to reduce serious or fatal pedestrian injuries by 25 percent by 2015 and by 50 percent by 2021 while making all neighborhoods safer and more walkable. WalkFirst has prioritized $50M in pedestrian improvements over the next five years, approximately 1/5th of the estimated $240M needed to implement all necessary pedestrian projects and programs to meet the city’s goals.

WalkFirst is the product of an interdisciplinary team of staff from the Municipal Transpiration Agency (MTA), Office of the Controller, Planning Department, and Department of Public Health. The team began with an extensive review of pedestrian safety data, summarized in the graphic below:

Each one of these statistics is telling, but a few in particular are worth highlighting. The statistic that 6% of streets in San Francisco account for 60% of severe and fatal pedestrian injuries speaks to the fact that much of San Francisco is actually fairly walkable and pedestrian friendly; it is a handful of automobile-oriented corridors, sometimes affectionately referred to as “traffic sewers,” that represent the most unsafe and unwalkable places for pedestrians. Crash severity increases exponentially with vehicle speed—50% of vehicle-pedestrian crashes at 40mph are fatal, whereas 10% are fatal at 25mph—so it’s no surprise that corridors that are designed for higher vehicle speeds like Geary, Columbus, 6th, Van Ness, and Sunset are consequently some of the most dangerous places to walk in the city. Many of the high-injury corridors are concentrated on the fast-moving one-way streets in SoMa and the Tenderloin, as shown by the map below:


The WalkFirst Capital Improvement Program identifies safety improvements on San Francsico’s most dangerous corridors for pedestrians


It is also worth noting that motorists were deemed at fault in nearly 2/3rds of vehicle-pedestrian collisions. It is not uncommon for media reports to hold a “windshield bias” which blames unruly pedestrians for crashes, such as ABC7’s recent #didntlook segment. The reality is that drunk, distracted, and reckless drivers, along with the automobile-oriented street environments that encourage reckless behavior, pose the biggest threats to street safety in the city.

WalkFirst conducted three months of outreach to San Franciscans, who provided feedback on what kinds of pedestrian safety improvements should be prioritized. A major emphasis of respondents was for MTA to implement temporary “tactical” improvements as quickly and cost effectively as possible, in advance of more capital and labor-intensive improvements that can take years to come to fruition. For these reasons, pedestrian safety countermeasures are broken into two categories: quick/cost effective improvements, and comprehensive/long-term improvements. There are a lot of great design ideas in these lists that have already been proven to succeed in San Francisco and elsewhere; a few are highlighted below:

  • Leading Pedestrian Intervals: improve visibility by giving pedestrians a head start to cross the street before a traffic light turns green for cars
  • Reduced Lane Widths: reduce speeding and calm traffic. Drivers tend to travel faster in wider lanes (12 feet) than in narrower lanes (10-11 feet).
  • Continental Crosswalks: provide superior visibility (especially at night and in poor weather) compared to standard double-line crosswalks.


Continental crosswalks in San Francisco (image via Streetsblog)


  • Pedestrian Refuge Islands: reduce crosswalk distance and provide a safe zone in the middle of the street to avoid getting stranded. Refuge islands are particularly effective for wide, two-way streets. Like bulbouts, they can be implemented quickly via low-cost materials (paint, planters, etc.) and transitioned to permanent fixtures over time.
  • Pedestrian Countdown Signals: create certainty in crossing intervals and reduce risk of pedestrians getting stranded in a crosswalk
  • Road Diets: reduce excess or unnecessary road capacity and reallocate space for buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. A prime example of a road diet opportunity is Columbus, which has considerably more road capacity than is necessary and encourages drivers to speed through dense centers of pedestrian activity in North Beach and Chinatown.


A conceptual rendering of a road diet on Columbus Avenue (image via Streetsblog)


In addition to these design measures, WalkFirst includes educational campaigns and increased enforcement to encourage better awareness and behavior for both drivers and pedestrians.

Overall, WalkFirst represents a good step forward for San Francisco to become a safer, more walkable city. Yet despite this increased funding commitment, many still argue it is not enough: pedestrian improvements will still represent less than 1% of the entire MTA budget, and WalkFirst only outlines funding for $50M of the necessary $240M in pedestrian safety improvements. For sake of comparison, Mayor Lee’s proposal to end free parking on Sundays will cost the city roughly $6 million per year, money spent toward subsidizing driving and reducing parking turnover for local businesses. In a city where only some trips include driving, but all include walking, a strong commitment to pedestrian infrastructure is necessary. Let’s hope the WalkFirst program is accelerated so that San Francisco can improve pedestrian safety and become a world-class city for walking.


Jason is a regular contributor to the GJEL Accident Attorneys Blog.