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Walkers Winning Uphill Battle

San Francisco: Activists gain ground in making the city safer for pedestrians. New rules hike parking fees, add crosswalks, stop some right-on-red turns.


SAN FRANCISCO — Gleaming bridges and jam-packed cable cars are the most famous symbols of this crowded, bustling town. But after enduring decades of perceived indifference, the pedestrians of San Francisco are gaining significant ground in their efforts to make the city more walkable.

Steeper parking fines, especially for drivers who block the sidewalks, took effect Jan. 1. Crosswalks have been painted brilliant yellow near schools and other areas with heavy walking traffic. Even the coveted right-on-red turn light, a nearly sacrosanct California institution, has been stripped away at a handful of intersections to help walkers scoot across more safely.

Pedestrian advocacy groups, PTA activists and senior citizen organizations attribute their recent successes in San Francisco to a growing walkers' rights movement statewide. Five years ago, the only pedestrian group in California was L.A. Walk, said James Corless, California director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a nationwide group that promotes safe and clean transportation alternatives.

Now there are more than a dozen throughout California, including a handful in the Bay Area, and traffic-calming measures are on the agendas of city councils statewide.

"I do think the tide has turned," Corless said. "So many people are jumping on board in San Francisco, things have started to shift."

In 2000, 36 pedestrians were killed in collisions in San Francisco. It was one of the deadliest years in decades and helped galvanize support for the current reforms. Activists took to dramatizing the deaths by furtively stenciling body outlines in white paint at intersections where pedestrians had been killed.

The body count dropped to 26 in 2001, although the number of pedestrians injured has remained relatively constant over the years--at about 1,000 per year, said Michael Smith, president of the group Walk San Francisco.

Across the bay in Berkeley, meanwhile, unconventional new approaches to walker safety are afoot--with mixed results.

The city trotted out a funky new plan last month to place bins of bright orange flags at busy intersections. Pedestrians are encouraged to pick up a flag, wave it high as they cross the street to make themselves more visible to oncoming traffic, and put it in another bin when they reach the other side.

But just two days after city officials debuted the flags at the busy intersection of Claremont Avenue and Russell Street, a 53-year-old Berkeley woman holding a flag was hit by a Jeep in the marked crosswalk. The woman was not seriously injured, but the irony of the incident made it news.

In San Francisco, where 10% of residents walk to work, pedestrians for years have felt like they face an uphill battle.

"San Francisco is a very political city," said Smith, whose group was instrumental in pushing for the recent hike in parking fines. "Everybody says we want to slow down traffic, but there's not that decision to be spending more on pedestrian safety."

The parking crunch in San Francisco, where registered vehicles outnumber on-street parking spaces by more than 130,000, led some motorists to park on sidewalks. With the fine just $25 and enforcement hit and miss, it was cheaper to risk a ticket than to pay for a garage or spend time driving around looking for a legal place to park, Smith said.

But the fine was doubled to $50 on Jan. 1, and will increase to $100 over the next three years. The penalty for parking in a school bus loading zone more than doubled to $50. And parking too close to an intersection will cost $50, up from $28.

At several intersections across the city, safety groups have successfully lobbied traffic officials to prohibit motorists from turning right on a red light--a privilege that Woody Allen once quipped was "the only cultural advantage" to living in Los Angeles.

Turning right on a red light is illegal at as many as 10% of San Francisco's 1,100 traffic signal intersections, estimated traffic engineer Bond Yee. "You mention something like that in Orange County and you'll probably get lynched," he said.

In front of the towering St. Mary's Cathedral on Geary Boulevard at Gough Street in San Francisco, the road is four lanes in both directions. Pedestrians have to stop on a traffic island midway because the light doesn't stay green long enough to make it across in one attempt.

In addition to the church, there are several retirement homes and a 1,200-student school within a block of the intersection. It is illegal to turn right on a red light there, but about 1 in 10 cars in the right-turn lane on a recent afternoon did so anyway.

As an elderly man with a walker crossed the street with Father Julian Gonzalez, a Franciscan monk who teaches at the nearby school, a yellow motorcycle in the right lane zipped in front of them to turn on the red light.

Gonzalez admitted that he too frequently turns right against the red light at the intersection he had just crossed.

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