Sixth and Mission streets is one of San Francisco’s meanest intersections. The sidewalks are bustling with pedestrians while the streets are jammed with cars, buses and trucks, especially during commute hours. Many drivers making turns ignore the battered white safety posts and fading pedestrian zones installed by the city.
But on a recent Friday evening, a trio of safe streets activists wearing brightly colored safety vests arrived on their bicycles with a trailer of orange cones. They spruced up the intersection with an eye toward making it friendlier for those on foot: Cones were placed to slow drivers making the turn and to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians.
“There’s a psychological effect of the orange cone on the automobile driver, and we wanted to bring that to the street,” said one of the activists, who wants to remain anonymous because the installation isn’t legal. “We want the city to have more urgency protecting bikers and pedestrians in San Francisco.”
The activists say they’re inspired by similar guerrilla actions in Seattle, Portland and New York, and that they’ve been spurred to action by the high number of deaths and injuries on San Francisco streets.
They point out that despite the city’s Vision Zero effort, which has a goal of ending all traffic deaths by 2024, 26 people have died in traffic collisions so far in 2016.
City statistics from the last seven fiscal years — a period from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2016 — show a total of 214 fatalities, an average of 30 a year. Pedestrians accounted for 126 of those killed, along with 68 people driving or riding in motor vehicles and 20 riding bicycles.
The safety activists came together after the deaths of two bicyclists, Heather Miller and Kate Slattery, who were killed the evening of June 22 after being struck by hit-and-run motorists.
Responding to what they saw as a lackluster response by the city, they decided to take action. They call themselves the “San Francisco Transformation Agency,” or SFMTrA, after the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, taking a page from a similar group in New York.
“SF Transformation Agency is the clear voice of San Franciscans who have had it with the cumbersome bureaucratic process, hand-wringing, and lip service to the Vision Zero resolution,” said Madeleine Savit, a sustainable streets activist who supports the actions.
“The only right choice for people of conscience is to take it upon themselves to stop the road carnage and the destruction of our public health that’s caused by our streets made for cars, not humans,” she said.
The group placed orange cones on a section of a buffered bike lane recently installed on Golden Gate Avenue after photos of cars obstructing the lane appeared on Twitter. The group argues the city needs to install more protected bike lanes, with physical barriers that separate bikes and cars, instead of standard bike lanes that are frequently obstructed by double parkers and delivery trucks.
We’ve added some more cones to Golden Gate Ave. Enjoy your commute tomorrow!pic.twitter.com/xNkPKsmapY
Another installation is meant to help make the street safer for bicyclists at Howard and Seventh streets, where Kate Slattery was killed, and on a section of Folsom near Division Street.
We’ve installed a protected bike lane pilot on Howard and 7th, the intersection where a cyclist was recently killed.pic.twitter.com/OZi6LFm0jQ
The activist group, which says it has no leaders, has held a few gatherings, one of which drew Brad McManus, a 27-year-old software programmer and bike commuter who witnessed the collision that killed Slattery. He says that incident, which involved a driver who sped through a red light, turned him into a bike activist. Shortly after the collision, he wrote an open letter to Mayor Ed Lee.
“It’s become really clear to me, after seeing that crash, that I need to speak up about this. It’s something that I largely didn’t really care about,” said McManus, who adds that he went back to the scene to study the intersection and has become “obsessed” with safe streets issues.
“I am feeling a real sense of urgency on this cause. I want the city and tacticians such as the SFMTrA to be making incremental improvements so that we can start making our streets safer today,” he said.
Though he has not taken part in an action, McManus is planning to donate money to support the SFMTrA’s work.
The group has gotten support from Supervisor Jane Kim, among others.
“I think it’s great what they’re doing,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of Walk San Francisco. “The group is looking at some of the inadequacies of our streets and how simple things like cones … can start to make our streets safe.”
Street safety activists have criticized Mayor Ed Lee and city transportation officials for what they’ve characterized as an inadequate response to pedestrian and cyclist deaths — criticism that reached a crescendo after the deaths of Miller and Slattery in June.
That tone changed somewhat last week after Lee announced he was “accelerating” some Vision Zero projects and ordering improvements in the areas where the two cyclists were recently killed. They include protected bike lanes on Seventh and Eighth streets and improvements on JFK Drive in Golden Park. The San Francisco Bike Coalition called it a “bold commitment.”
As to the guerrilla street cone project?
Paul Rose, a spokesman for the SFMTA, said the cones would have to be removed because they might cause confusion and because only the transportation agency and its contractors are authorized to place infrastructure on the streets.
“We hear the calls for better bikeways and we couldn’t agree more,” said Rose. “We do know that we can do more and do it better and faster, and we’re getting there.”
Rose said that since 2010, when a judge lifted an injunction that had stalled a city plan for improved bike infrastructure, the agency has installed more than 13 miles of protected bikeways and 14 miles of buffered lanes.
Despite that progress, the San Francisco Transformation Agency activists say much more needs to be done — especially when it comes to making the city’s many high-injury corridors safer. That’s why they plan to continue their guerrilla street actions.
“What we want is a real commitment top down in the city government to address this, and we want them to stand up and say pedestrian safety and bicycle safety is incredibly important in San Francisco,” said one of the activists. “It is central to the quality of life.”