Monday, November 17, 2008

The dangerous streets of San Francisco

It's not clear on what Rachel Gordon is basing her Chronicle article last Saturday on traffic safety in SF. She writes as if she has an MTA Collision Report for 2007, which may be the case, but the report hasn't yet been posted on MTA's website.

In any event, traffic injuries in SF are apparently way up from 2006. In part this may be an unintended consequence of city policy that encourages people to get out of their cars:

City officials caution that the grim statistics don't necessarily mean that the streets are more dangerous. Instead, they say, there appear to be more people walking and riding their bikes. Last year, vehicles hit and killed 32 pedestrians---an increase of more than 50 percent from the year before, according to data compiled by state and local authorities. Eight of the deaths involved Muni vehicles, double the number from 2006. Nearly 800 other pedestrians suffered nonfatal injuries last year. In two dozen of those incidents, the walkers collided with bicyclists, not cars. In the same period, the number of reported collisions that injured bicyclists spiked to 451, a jump of 31 percent. There was one fatal collision involving a cyclist. (emphasis added)

People drive recklessly, both in cars and on bikes. Pedestrians are often heedless and distracted: "An increase in distracted people using cell phones and iPods has not improved safety, [Nathaniel] Ford said."

In both its citywide collision report---which counts all accidents involving cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians---and its separate collision report for cylists, the city fails to define its terms. Since most cycling accidents are "solo falls" that don't involve other vehicles, are those accidents also included in the city's "collision" totals? The problem with failing to make this distinction is that it encourages the city's bike people to jump to the unwarranted conclusion that cyclists are being systematically mowed down by motor vehicles, thus feeding their self-pity and sense of victimhood.

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17 Comments:

At 10:33 AM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

Rob -

I'm very glad that you added some emphasis to the statement that "Walkers collided with bicyclists". We really need to put a leash on those walkers, they keep running into cyclists.

 
At 11:25 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yes. Pedestrians really should slow down. But the whole question of who is colliding with what is something the city doesn't make clear in its collision reports.

 
At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It amazes me that MUNI vehicles were involved in 1/3 of the pedestrian fatalities. MUNI is something that we have much more control over than the city's other motor traffic, so is this a case of people jumping in front of buses or a case of poor driving by MUNI's operators (or both)?

I'd like to posit an idea that isn't accounted for in the article: general craziness. It seems like the level of road rage and recklessness, speeding, etc., have all been way, way up this year-- from aggressive drivers to reckless cyclists to careless pedestrians to distraced MUNI operators. I don't think this can be explained away by city policies, but more by social forces (weakening economy, political divisions, fuel prices, crowding, high rents, etc.)

The traffic conflicts we see every day seem Hobbesian.

Now, New York City has the highest pedestrian fatalities of anyplace in the US, so it must be the most dangerous place to be a pedestrian, right? Wrong. If you consider how many people walk in NYC (Manhattan especially), you see that it's the safest place to be a pedestrian.

Also, only one in ten people in Manhattan even keeps a car, so the motor traffic is comprised of vehicles that come from elsewhere, public transit vehicles, delivery trucks, and taxis.

What does that have to do with SF?

800 pedestrian injuries means that there had to be at least 800 people walking around in the first place, the fact that two dozen (or three percent) involved bicycles means there had to be 24 people riding bicycles. But that doesn't tell us much, does it? So what accounts for the other 97 percent of non-fatal pedestrian injuries (I'm sure aggresive pigeons and overfed beach mice are in there somewhere)?

As pedestrian and bicycle traffic increases, more pedestrians and cyclists will become potential 'targets' for motor vehicles and more pedestrians will become potential 'targets' for bicycles. Also, more bicycles will become 'targets' for other bicycles. But this also means there will be less driving, so the amount of fatal accidents should go down even while the nonfatal accidents go up.

So if bicycling roughly doubles every year (as it has been described), we would expect the number of bicycle accidents to double as well, right (both the number of bicycles colliding with cars and the number colliding with pedestrians)?

So what if the 451 injured cyclists were driving cars instead? Well, the injury done to themselves in the collisions may have gone down with the protection of the car around them, or it may have gone up with the extra speed available from the car. One thing is certain-- if one of the 24 pedestrians who was hit by a bike was instead hit by a car, we'd very likely have another fatality to add to the 32.

 
At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Shawn Allen said...

This really seems to contradict your assertion that pedestrians are in serious danger of being, as you put it, "mowed down" by reckless cyclists. Two dozen out of 800 is 1.5%, a nearly statistical insignificance.

As for your comment that "this may be an unintended consequence of city policy that encourages people to get out of their cars", that's pure conjecture on your part. And it's not supported at all by the fact that auto vs. pedestrian fatalities are up 50%, whereas there was only one reported cycling-related death in the same period. If these numbers are accurate, you should be rallying against the dangers of walking--not cycling.

Seriously, what were you thinking when you posted this?

 
At 9:01 PM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

Shawn - Rob is actually making a syntactical modification to a quote from the Chronicle article. The Chron says "unfortunate consequence". If you take a dictionary out, they do mean different things, but I don't think that is Rob's intent.

It's sort of like me snarking on "walkers colliding with bicyclists" - it isn't intended to imply that the walker was at fault, but it DOES imply that. Rob didn't write that either, it also comes from the painfully poorly written Chron article.

The substantive point Rob is trying to make is that he thinks the "bike nuts" will try to massage the numbers to make some point, because he sees the "bike nuts" as keenly intelligent subversives, just like Fox News would put the whammy on Obama and the Media for working the refs as to why McCain unfairly lost the election by 7 points. I think this post is very ignorable, as is the stupid Chron article.

 
At 9:31 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I assumed this post would be non-controversial, since the point of Gordon's story is that the streets of SF got more dangerous in 2007 because there are/were more people using them, especially cyclists and pedestrians. And there's enough blame to go around, as even pedestrians, who are on the bottom of the transportation food chain, behave recklessly. Hence, Anonymous seems to be right that a "general craziness" seems to prevail on our streets.

Shawn Allen seems to be assuming I emphasize the role of cyclists in threatening pedestrians. I don't and neither does Gordon. It's surely worth mentioning, however, and I've mentioned the bad behavior by a significant minority of cyclists before. And it's Gordon who introduces the idea that more injured cyclists and pedestrians may be a consequence of the city's push to get people out of their cars; it means that there are more people on the streets to be injured.

I don't think anyone---not even the SFBC---claims that the number of cyclists on city streets "doubles every year." The city's annual count doesn't produce those numbers.

But one of the main points I make in the post is that the city doesn't define what it means by "collision." As I remind readers, most accidents to cyclists are "solo falls" and don't involve other vehicles. The city's definition doesn't make clear whether such falls are included in its count.

But the city's collision report for cyclists---available online from the MTA's website---notes that more cyclists on city streets means that more cyclists are going to be injured.

The unknown factor in all this is the recession we're now entering. If the dotcom bust and the post-9/11 bust are any indication, the city will again lose population, which will mean fewer people on the streets and fewer traffic injuries.

 
At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Shawn Allen said...

"Shawn Allen seems to be assuming I emphasize the role of cyclists in threatening pedestrians."

You have a long history of overstating the danger that cyclists pose to pedestrians, so don't even try to backpedal (so to speak) on that one. In this very post you added your own emphasis to a wholly unremarkable statistic which underscores that, yes, cyclists do hit pedestrians... just not frequently enough for it to be considered a problem, and certainly not enough to merit your ridiculous stereotype of reckless cyclists mowing down pedestrians left and right.

Yeah, solo falls suck. I broke my rib in one because I was doing something stupid; I take the blame for that. But the only other time that I've been seriously injured on a bike was when a motorist failed to stop at a signal and I had to brake so hard to avoid hitting him that I flew off my bike. I broke an elbow and cracked a tooth in that one, and probably would've been in much worse shape if I weren't wearing a helmet.

But you know what? Solo falls don't belong in the MTA Collision Report. They're not necessarily "collisions", first of all; and secondly, my (very educated) guess is that the majority of solo falls are so minor that they don't warrant reporting anyway. People who slip and fall in the rain don't call the police and make a big deal about it. They get embarrassed, maybe a little bruised on the butt, then they get up and keep walking.

It's the same exact thing on bikes. Every once in a while serious accidents happen; this is a fact of life. Cyclists are reminded of it every time they're grazed by an opening car door or nearly run off the road by a driver who fails to look in their side mirror before turning. The fact of the matter, though, is that unless you've ridden on the city streets for a while you're not qualified to make any assertions about the relative safety of cycling. So stop playing the "solo fall" card as if you know what you're talking about, because you don't. There are many ways for cyclists to minimize the likelihood of personal injury on their own bike, but the best way for the city to ensure cyclists' safety is to provide them with the infrastructure they need to ride confidently on city streets.

The MTA report (or, at least, the numbers cited in the article) do state one thing very clearly: Cars are hitting pedestrians and cyclists with increasing frequency in San Francisco. Traffic calming measures and street modification can only do so much to change driving habits; the long-term solution is to encourage alternative means of transportation so that there are less cars on the road, and safety in numbers for both cyclists and pedestrians.

 
At 2:03 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I do not in fact "have a long history of overstating the danger that cyclists pose to pedestrians." Whenever I mention how many city cyclists behave badly on city streets, I get a response from the bike people, who are apparently in denial on the issue. Anyone who does a lot of walking on city streets knows the reality. I only emphasized the sentence in Gordon's article because the point she was making is that reckless cyclists too are now part of the problem for pedestrians, along with cars and buses. Nowhere did I write that "reckless cyclists[are] mowing down pedestrians left and right."

On the "solo falls" issue: your personal experience does not settle the issue, since even bike people admit that most cycling accidents have nothing to do with other vehicles. By not clarifying the definition of "collision" in their reports, the city in effect overstates the safety of cycling in general, which is misleading.

According to the 2005-2006 San Francisco Bicycle Injury Collision Report, published on Feb. 8, 2008:"Overall, San Francisco has experienced a significant decline in bicycle-related injury collisions over the past decade. It is also worth noting that there has been a significant increase in bicycling on San Francisco streets." (page 3). According to the same document, injury collisions to cyclists have held pretty steady at around 350 a year since 1999. The 450 injuries in 2007 cited by Gordon represents a spike. But it may be an anomaly in the overall trend to fewer injuries, which we won't know until the numbers are in for 2008.

Your refer to "alternative" means of transportation. That means Muni for most people in SF, not bicycles.

Bike experts---like Bert Hill, the SFBC's safety guy and Robert Hurst---tell us that most cycling accidents are solo falls. I'm supposed to get on a bike to prove that this is true? Not me, pal.

Hurst's book (The Art of Cycling), by the way, is mostly about how to ride a bike safely in the city: "Collisions with motor vehicles are potentially more damaging but account for no more than about 15% of all cycling accidents." If the 450 injury collisions cited by Gordon are only 15% of cycling accidents, that would mean that there were nearly 3,000 cycling accidents in SF in 2007, a pretty big number, which wouldn't surprise me.

 
At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Shawn Allen said...

Are you really that dense? The numbers that this article cites directly contradict your assertion that cyclists pose a serious threat to pedestrians. Clearly they pose a much greater threat to themselves, but that's another issue entirely.

I've never denied that cyclists behave badly on the street. In fact, I've agreed with you several times that there are a bunch of asshole cyclists out there making a bad name for those of us that ride legally and respectfully. What you seem to think is that these people are representative of all cyclists, which is complete and utter bullshit.

Most motorists drive safely and respectfully, but the ones that don't stand out to me because they put my life in danger. Cyclists, on the other hand, apparently put only their own lives in danger when they engage in reckless behavior. As I see it, that's merely evolution at work. You have an axe to grind, though, and use irresponsible riders as straw men in your argument against anyone who rides a bike responsibly and wants the city to address their needs.

Not once have I denied that most bike accidents are solo falls; in fact, I admitted as much in my last comment. Anecdotal evidence based on my own experience and that of many friends and acquaintances that ride on a regular basis, however, confirms my suspicion that most solo falls are pretty minor, and not even worthy of mention in an MTA Collision Report. It seems to me that you're just grasping at straws in an attempt to prove this whacked out theory of yours that cycling is so inherently unsafe that the city just shouldn't bother putting resources towards making cycling safer, let alone encouraging it in the first place.

Your argument is, essentially, that cars are here to stay and that changing the streets is wrong because more people drive than bike, and doing so would thus inconvenience the majority. Of course, neglecting to build bike infrastructure makes it impossible for cycling to ever become what you'd consider a "serious" mode of transit--ironically, in the same way that roads needed to be paved in order for cars to become the dominant one. Round and round the circular argument we go; with EIRs, an outdated LOS, and self-righteous cyclists thrown in as justifications for a shortsighted worldview that advocates maintaining the status quo. No wonder you haven't even come close to winning an election.

 
At 5:19 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Are you really such a poor reader? Your commitment to the Great Bike Revolution makes you a bad reader. I'm only saying what Gordon's piece said---that cyclists too are a threat to pedestrians, though obviously a minor one compared to cars and buses. Nor do I claim that most cyclists behave badly, but there are enough of them to represent a serious PR problem for cyclists in general. You are the one who keeps propping up straw men. I really have nothing against making cycling safer; I just think it can't/shouldn't be done at the expense of everyone else, that is, the more than 90% of the public in SF that rides Muni or drives a motor vehicle. How is LOS "outdated"? Do you really think the city shouldn't have to do an EIR on the Bicycle Plan?

 
At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that cyclists are an unfair menace to pedestrians.* The best thing we can do to remedy this situation is to create more bike lanes on the roadway.

The reason we find people riding on sidewalks and endangering pedestrians is that we have failed to give them a place they feel safe to ride in on the roadway.

*I also belive that it's very easy to operate a bicycle in such a manner that you don't endanger pedestrians, should you ever find yourself on the sidewalk with your bike.

 
At 4:05 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

But bike lanes do not necessarily make cycling safer, except marginally in a statistical sense. You are still out there on the street with cars, buses, and trucks. Of course there are ways to operate a bike safely on a sidewalk, including stopping and getting off your bike when there are too many people to ride safely. But the ongoing PR problem for the city's bike people is that there are a substantial minority of cyclists who behave like buttholes on the streets and sidewalks in relation to motor vehicles and pedestrians. They are evidently motivated by a egotism and self-righteousness---out of my way! I'm not burning fossil fuel! The political problem the city has with the upcoming EIR on the Bicycle Plan---due out later this month---is how and where to implement the report's recommendations. How far can the city go in accommodating---taking away precious street parking and traffic lanes---a minority of citizens who are widely perceived as obnoxious?

 
At 4:27 PM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

Motorist allegedly killed teen while texting

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/11/19/state/n083520S34.DTL

The other night I saw a guy with no lights, no helmet, and dark clothes riding UP Gough from McCallister - that is the wrong way up Gough. Probably on HIS way to a drug deal.

These two brainiacs are cut from the same cloth. Yet the prevailing wisdom does not lump them together. The drunk texting motorist is dismissed as a loony, and the dopehead cyclist is lumped in with... ME - a middle manager at a Silicon Valley Hardware company. Meanwhile, the Stanford Professor who collided with me while texting and driving on Monday is *not* lumped in with the drunk texting driver.

This makes no sense to me.

 
At 11:26 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I feel the same way when, as a Democrat, I'm lumped in with Chris Daly. Electing Democrat Barack Obama President of the United States is a great consolation for the indignities of being associated with people I loathe politically. I can't think of any similar consolation for you bike people, who are lumped in with some outrageous jerks.

 
At 12:08 PM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

Fortunately it's mostly Bill O'Reilly who lumps you (and me) with Daly, and Billo becomes less relevant with each passing day.

 
At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether bike lanes are safer or not, if you have them people will ride on the sidewalks much less (especially the inexperienced cyclists who make up the vast majority of sidewalk riders).

Also, riding in a bike lane is much safer for the cyclist than riding on the sidewalk, anyway.

 
At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Shawn Allen said...

How is LOS "outdated"? Do you really think the city shouldn't have to do an EIR on the Bicycle Plan?

LOS is absolutely outdated. CEQA's definition of "significant impact" to LOS doesn't account for improved pedestrian or cycling throughput, let alone safety. This document (which you should really read in its entirety, as it addresses several of your other EIR-related arguments) proposes the following amendment to CEQA:

As a standard, a finding of LOS E, F will not be considered to be a significant impact if the change is caused by creation of, or improvement to, pedestrian, bicycle and transit facilities. The term facilities includes all projects that create dedicated right of-way or re-allot traffic signal timing to improve pedestrian, bicycle and transit safety and efficiency.

And no, I don't think that the city should have to do an EIR on the entire Bicycle Plan. If anything I think it's a problem that the Plan was bought into as a take-it-or-leave-it package deal, because its review put a freeze on totally uncontroversial improvements like the installation of new bike racks. Bike parking is actually a big problem in some parts of town as a result of your lawsuit.

Everything that I've read makes me confident that the EIR is going to thoroughly dismantle your technical and legal objections to the Bicycle Plan. Then you can use all the clout that you've accumulated in this ordeal to lobby the city on behalf of San Franciscans Against Progressive Smugness.

Look, my point is this: You've got a huge chip on your shoulder, and it's clearly clouding your judgement. Of course you can't think of any similar "consolation" for "bike people"; you can't seem to recognize a single good thing about cycling. You see the world through this distorted lens of the lone stalwart fighting the big, dumb, progressive system. You associate everyone on a bike with the SFBC because they're a convenient enemy in your battle against politically motivated self-righteousness. It's the same us-versus-them mentality that you find so abhorrent in politically active cyclists fighting for their right to the city streets.

And you know what? I find that totally annoying, too. The difference is that I can look past self-righteousness and see all of the good things that happen when you encourage people to get on bikes. Most of the folks who you mockingly refer to as "bike people" don't give a shit about the SFBC. (At their peril, I think; they do a lot for cyclists beside political advocacy.) Their motivations for riding a bike are as varied as anything else. And by lumping all of them in with the small fraction of cyclists that ride illegally and/or act disrespectfully, you're lowering the level of discourse around the issue. It's like saying that the city should take car lanes away because of a very visible minority of rude, aggressive, and antisocial drivers. Sorry, jerks! You don't deserve that infrastructure!

When all is said and done some very interesting things will have been said for and against the city's attempt to improve bike facilities and encourage their use, but mostly we'll just have wasted a lot of time. And what makes me more angry about that than anything is that your Machiavellian delay of the Bicycle Plan seems--judging by the way that you refer to and interact with cyclists on this blog--to have been motivated almost entirely by your disdain for smug progressives and jerks on bikes. And that's just really sad.

 

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