Safer Streets: Community-Driven Commuting

This past Friday morning as I stopped at a light on my bicycle, another cyclist rolled up next to me and commented on the unusual number of drivers using the bike lane as another travel lane and making thoughtless turns. Living in San Francisco’s historically working-class but rapidly gentrifying South of Market neighborhood, where there have been a number of high-profile cyclist fatalities in the last year, this isn’t just a comment on rule breaking so much as a discussion of personal safety: watch your back today, people are acting a fool.

This particular day was notable because a pedestrian in Redwood City had been hit by a CalTrain car. The commute was stalled up and down the Peninsula with trains delayed in both directions and people opted out of public transit in an effort to get to work on time. As a result, more car commuters, and in particular, more car commuters who were unfamiliar with the rules of shared streets and the routes where bikes are funneled — and more opportunities for collisions. And where normally my ride is a remarkably chill, six urban miles, on Friday my fellow commuters were treated to my surprisingly extensive vocabulary of profanity.

The Bay Area has some of the longest commutes in the nation, but despite the California car culture we still need to think about the people on the ground. Cities are full of people who walk and bike to work (and those who walk and bike to transit), and those are disproportionately people who are lower income. As a result, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities disproportionately affect the working poor, helping to contribute to disparities in accidental deaths. The more cars on the roads, the more crucial it is that the drivers of those cars are properly educated on the rules of the road.

San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee suggested that city’s pedestrians — who can range from “accustomed to courteous drivers” to “utterly oblivious” — take a more defensive stance when walking, “be nice, look twice”. The mayor’s victim-blaming tone led to an uproar in the bike/ped advocacy community, who are currently pushing for Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate traffic deaths in the city over the next 10 years. While hand-held-technology-absorbed hipsters (cue eyeroll) should be more aware of the space that they occupy in this city, most of the high-profile car-involved traffic deaths in the past year have been the result of gross negligence on the part of drivers, not reckless pedestrians and cyclists (and, yes, we all know about that terrible guy in the Castro, but that’s a very very rare exception). Moreover, most of the deaths have been working class women, men and children, not those gentrifying kids with their wild abandon and their handlebar mustaches.

Ultimately, much of the policy that drives bike and pedestrian enhancements is driven at the regional level, by the metropolitan agencies tasked with allocating federal transit dollars. (Local governments are welcome to spend their own funds on enhancements over and above that, but those local dollars are typically distributed according to neighborhood and that’s a whole other can of worms.) As such, advocates tend to operate within the municipal and regional sphere, largely by pressuring cities to implement complete streets policies. But they should take into account the spatial and socioeconomic distribution of pedestrian deaths in a region, and work on building community buy-in for complete streets policies in those neighborhoods.

While bike- and ped-forward policies are well-meaning at their core, their implementation in poor neighborhoods wind up being just another way these communities are acted upon by outside forces. A neighborhood organization’s involvement in the planning of pedestrian enhancements or traffic calming measures will ensure that residents feel empowered by the process. Even better, this kind community-driven change is what helps to shift normative behavior and ultimately ensure that car and transit traffic continues move safely through neighborhoods where there are more pedestrians. Nothing is going to get you to slow your car down faster than your neighbor knocking on your door to call you out on rolling through the stop sign she petitioned the city to put in.

Most cities have a long tradition of civic involvement on the hyper-local level: block units and neighborhood organizations. Active living advocates would build the diversity and the power of the movement considerably by listening to the concerns of those groups. In turn, this will help build their own belief in their ability to make change. Rather than the learned helplessness that is pervasive in many poor and minority communities where civic engagement is low, there is a sense of being tied to something greater, and access to the tools they need for success.

After all, building livable communities is more than just the infrastructure and the flow of traffic within, but about strengthening the people who live in them and the interactions between them. Most cyclists and pedestrians would much rather give a courtesy nod to a driver who waves them through a stop sign than to bang on the hood of their car.

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