On New Year's Eve, six-year-old Sofia Liu was struck and killed when a driver using the Uber rideshare app allegedly failed to yield to her and her family as they progressed through a crosswalk. The girl's mother and brother survived, but their tear-stained faces were soon all over news networks in heartbreaking reports of their loss. No less sad, 86-year-old Zhen Guang Ng was struck and killed that same night by a driver who allegedly failed to stop at a stop sign in the Crocker-Amazon district. These incidents aren't isolated.
In 2012, 16 pedestrians were killed in vehicle collisions in San Francisco. That number jumped to 21 in 2013, according to the SFPD, and the new year has brought new collisions and more pedestrian deaths.
Already, the SFPD and other city agencies are scrambling for political cover, and advocacy groups are rushing in to call for changes they say will save lives. On Jan. 16, myriad groups will try to sell their version of safer city streets at a joint meeting between the Board of Supervisors' Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee and the city's Police Commission.
As the debate continues to unfold, the road to pedestrian safety looks to be bumpy, and the first pitfall may be the Police Department itself.
At the Jan. 8 Police Commission hearing, the SFPD played defense.
A host of groups were calling out the cops: Cabbies wanted more enforcement against rideshare drivers, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition wanted more incident tracking. Nobody seemed happy with the current state of affairs around pedestrian safety.
Cmdr. Mikail Ali, tall and broad shouldered, approached the podium to give what amounted to the SFPD's rebuttal. His presentation boiled down to this: Fewer cops equals fewer traffic citations, and fewer citations are dangerous.
"We did see a decrease in traffic citations issued last year," Ali said. On the screens around the room, he displayed a chart showing two sloping red lines, one representing police staffing levels and another representing total citations. The charts showed a drop of 127 officers, and 20,000 fewer traffic citations, 2012-2013.
All told, the SFPD had 1,644 officers and issued 87,629 traffic citations last year.
But the idea that bringing on more cops is the only effective strategy for pedestrian safety seemed out of sync with a different aspect of Ali's presentation, in which he conveyed a plan to "Focus on Five."
Under that plan, police station captains are urged to boost traffic enforcement around the five intersections in their districts that have been identified as most dangerous. Though Ali said the approach was showing progress, the SFPD has yet to release data on how this enforcement approach has played out.
"Right now we don't have full transparency into their reporting," said Natalie Burdick of Walk SF, a pedestrian advocacy nonprofit. "We do have data showing they are issuing citations. What we don't know yet ... is has there been an increase in citations from Focus on Five?"
To be fair, it's a new program, but data is key to many efforts geared toward improving pedestrian safety. The SFPD's data shows that Focus on Five represents 22 percent of their citations, but it's still unknown where they occurred and what incidents spurred the citations.
The Bike Coalition also wants more enforcement data from the SFPD.