Walk San Francisco is one of our favorite organizations at GJEL. In fact, this winter we’re contributing to a $5,000 match for their end of year donation drive (donate now!). They have been extremely active and effective in their street safety advocacy, helping to make San Francisco safer for all.

They are also one of the five street safety charities participating in GJEL’s Winter Charity Contest (Vote here!). We’ll be interviewing someone from each organization this week, starting yesterday with MADD California Executive Director Gary McDonald.

To learn more about Walk SF, we chatted with Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe about the organization’s growth and impact in 2011, their big plans for a pedestrian safety action plan in 2012, and how relatively minor improvements to our streets and policies can save lives.

GJEL: This was a big year for your organization, tell us about what you’ve been up to?

WALK SF: One of our major victories this year was creating safer walking environments around all San Francisco’s schools. We’ve gotten 15mph zones around about 60 schools, and our goal is to get almost 200 by the end of the school year.

GJEL: That’s great, why do you think it took so long for this to happen?

WALK SF: San Francisco is the first big city in the state to do this; some smaller towns have done it, but because this a big city I think we really saw the impact this could have on making many streets and neighborhoods safer all throughout the city. Now that we’ve got the ball rolling, lots of people are responding, and other places like San Jose are considering doing it as well.

GJEL: What are your big plans for next year?

WALK SF: We are focusing on creating a pedestrian action plan. New York actually created one of these and that city has been very effective in making changes. They identified clear things to do to make streets safer and committed to fixing 60 miles a year!  It’s a similar situation in San Francisco. Last year over 800 people got hit by cars, and those are just what is reported. So with a task force the Mayor created, we mapped out where people get hit by cars here, and found that over half of the worst crashes happen on just 7% of streets. So our goal is to get the city to be strategic and effective by making 10 miles of streets a year safer and more walkable. It’s totally doable, it will transform our city, and it will save many lives.

GJEL: That’s a really smart use of data, how important is  analyzing that sort of data in making manageable suggestions and improvements?

WALK SF: We can’t fix everything all at once. But when you look at this and say, “10 miles a year is all we need; in under a decade we’ll have transformed our city and saved hundreds of lives,” that’s both manageable and inspiring. We are lucky that the department of public health and the police both keep good data — Walk SF then works to make that information public — most people have no idea that three people a day get hit by cars here!  We use the data to make the problem clear — and the solution: this is preventable.

GJEL: Right, it’s that accident versus collision distinction.

WALK SF: Yes, “accident” presumes that it was unavoidable. Which of course, most collisions are not. When you look at this data it’s clear that certain areas are more prone to have accidents. So then you ask “why?” and can figure out ways to prevent these collisions and save lives — often just with small changes that help folks slow down and see each other.

GJEL: What else is in your action plan?

WALK SF: We are looking at a big toolbox of ways to make streets safer, calm traffic, and reclaim streets as shared public space. Many people know about the new “parklets” in San Francisco — turning a parking spot into a park! There are a lot of great creative ways like this to make low-cost quick fixes — as simple as painting lines in the street to visually narrow the street, so drivers go at a safe speed and see pedestrians. There’s a national movement now to rethink our streets. In San Francisco, streets take up a larger square footage than parks; streets are public space too, where folks can be outdoors, get together, and enjoy this beautiful city.

GJEL: Are there cities that you see as a model for that kind of thing?

WALK SF: Oh certainly. New York, as I mentioned, has been very forward thinking and active in creating safe streets and making the street a place, not just a throughway for cars. The pedestrian plaza in Times Square — I can’t even see how cars used to fit there, it’s so full of people now! Portland has great “greenways” that we’re looking to emulate, and Sacramento has turned many fast one-way roads into two-way streets that are more comfortable and appropriate in a downtown. Places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam are also doing exciting things to prioritize walking as well.

GJEL: Outside of the action plan, what’s on the agenda for 2012?

WALK SF: One project I’m excited about focuses on neighborhoods with very little green space and parks. We’re helping residents design a network of walkways to reach parks safely along paths that add ecological benefits and natural beauty to the city.

GJEL: Sounds like a very ambitious year! Good luck with that, and with the contest!

WalkSF: Thank you!

Be sure to check back this week for more interviews with some of California’s most important street safety organizations, and don’t forget to vote to help your favorite one win $1,500!


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Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.