DIY traffic control
Volunteers protect cyclists and pedestrians at dangerous S.F. intersection

By Christian Soderholm

Frustrated with the Department of Parking and Traffic and hoping to make things a bit safer for pedestrians and cyclists, members of Walk S.F. and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are now volunteering as crossing guards at the dangerous intersection of Fell and Masonic Streets.

The intersection rose to prominence during community outreach for the original S.F. Bike Plan in 1997 and was brought up again and again by a concerned public at the hundreds of meetings and conferences for updates to the plan.

"We asked people what changes might be made to help you try to bike, and as in '97, the people identified the intersection among the top 20 of over 2,700 identified problems," SFBC executive director Leah Shahum said.

Pedestrians and cyclists crossing Masonic on the Panhandle bike path are frequently cut off at the intersection by drivers turning left from Fell, who share a green light with them yet can't always see them. Even though cyclists have the right-of-way, they must gamble with their lives that cars will yield. City officials say there have been 23 collisions at that intersection since 2000. Five of those involved cars hitting bicyclists, and in three of those, the bikes were in the path with the right-of-way when they were hit by left-turning cars.

The DPT has acknowledged the dangers but has chosen an incremental approach to the problem. It has applied for transportation funds of $50,000 for only preliminary improvements of increased signage, the creation of a no-parking zone (to increase visibility), and a high-profile, striped crosswalk.

Feeling that the department's response doesn't go far enough to solve the problem, Josh Hart, program director for the SFBC, and several other members of the group have vowed to stay at the crosswalk during rush hour until a separate bike and pedestrian phase in the traffic light is approved.

"What we have is essentially two separate roadways crossing each other. If cars traveled on the path, there would be no question [an improved light] needed," said Hart, who claimed the DPT is unwilling to do anything for safety if it has an impact on automobile traffic.

Maggie Lynch of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the DPT, said they're trying to deal with the problem but there are limits to what they can do.

"No matter how much you legislate, some drivers just won't look," Lynch told us.

For their efforts, the volunteer guards have been receiving more surprise than anger from drivers, and many complimentary nods from cyclists on the Panhandle bike path.

"Reaction to our efforts from drivers has been minimal," volunteer guard and SFBC member Michael Cobb said. "Nobody wants to hit someone with their car, so this is as much for the drivers as pedestrians."

Yet some drivers have called police about the volunteers' unauthorized presence, and cruisers have been sent out to investigate. But because the groups made prior contact with the police concerning their plans and have only entered the street when pedestrians had the right-of-way, the cops have so far been supportive of their efforts.