Green City: People versus death monsters

Pub date July 3, 2007
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY Pedaling or walking along a Panhandle pathway is the essence of green, a simple act of sustainable living and connection to a natural area within an urban core. It’s a calming, transformative activity — at least until you get to Masonic Avenue and the telling words painted on the path: "Death Monsters Ahead."

The death monsters, a.k.a. automobiles, that bisect this three-quarter-mile-long green runway into Golden Gate Park would be jarring even if traffic engineers had made that intersection the best it could be. Instead, it’s closer to the opposite — dangerous, illogical, and frustrating for all who must navigate it, a testament to what happens when the primary intersection-design criterion is moving cars rapidly.

After getting word of a rash of bicycle- and pedestrian-versus-car accidents at the Masonic-Fell intersection in recent months, Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition reinitiated (two years ago, it was the same story) a voluntary crossing-guard program on Saturdays and weekday evenings and lobbied City Hall to finally do something.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi took up the cause, announcing at the June 26 Board of Supervisors meeting, "I find it simply unacceptable that the city has ignored the problem to the point where a volunteer program has become imperative. Traffic safety is a baseline city responsibility."

Mirkarimi is asking the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which has responded to years of complaints about this dangerous intersection with only minor and ineffective tinkering, to finally make a substantial change. He and the activists want a dedicated signal phase for pedestrians and bikes and a dedicated left-turn lane for cars coming off Fell.

It doesn’t take a traffic engineer to see what’s wrong with this intersection. Cars trying to turn left onto Fell from busy Masonic regularly get stranded by a red light and are stuck blocking the crosswalk. Even more dangerous is when bikers and walkers cross on their green light only to find cars — which also have a green light — turning left from Fell Street, cutting across their path.

The problem is vividly illustrated with too much regularity. I can still picture the female bicyclist who flipped through the air and crumpled to the ground a few feet from me after getting hit hard by a motorist. It was almost three years ago, but it remains a vivid, cautionary memory.

I was riding my bicycle west on the Panhandle trail, even with the motorist. Our eyes locked, his anxious and darting, and I knew he might try to cut me off, so I slowed. Sure enough, the driver made a quick left in front of me and hit the bicyclist coming from the opposite direction, who assumed that the green light and legal right-of-way meant she could continue to pedal from one section of parkland to the next. Instead, she joined a long list of Fell-Masonic casualties, to which attorney Peter Borkon was added May 19, a few days shy of his 36th birthday.

Borkon was on his road bike, training for the AIDS Life Cycle ride, when he cautiously approached the intersection, slowed, and unclipped from his pedals. When the light turned green, he clipped in, crossed into the intersection, and then, he says, "I was run over by a Chevy Suburban."

He was hit so hard that he broke his nose and gashed his face on the car, an injury that resulted in 15 stitches, and was thrown 10 feet. The fact that he was wearing a helmet might have saved his life, but he nevertheless went into shock, spent a day in the hospital, and is still waiting for the neurological damage to his face to heal.

How dangerous in that intersection? When I asked the MTA for accident statistics, a response to the criticisms, and a plan of action, public information officers Maggie Lynch and Kristen Holland first stonewalled me for two days and then said it would take two weeks to provide an answer.

Maybe Mirkarimi will spark a change, or maybe the MTA will just keep doing what it’s always done: plod along at a bureaucratic pace with tools ill suited to an evolving world that must do more to facilitate walking and bicycling as safe, attractive transportation options, even if that means delaying the death monsters.*

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