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Look both ways, twice, when crossing San Francisco's streets

“I advise you when crossing the street to always look left and right,” John Alex Lowell tells me.

When Lowell crosses a San Francisco street, he doesn’t just look both ways. He looks left, then right, then left again, then over his shoulder, to make sure no one’s coming from behind him making a turn. He’s also keeping tabs on the countdown of the walk sign.

“Only if it’s a double digit, or at least an 8, should you start walking, and not have it become 1 and you’re right there in the middle of the intersection,” Lowell advises.

Lowell says you might think cars will stop for you, but they won’t. San Francisco has more pedestrian collisions per capita than New York City. He was in one.

“We are, at the moment, a block away from where the collision happened on Friday, March 23, 2001. It was at around 12:15,” says Lowell.

Lowell was out jogging on his lunch break. He remembers getting to the intersection of Mission and 14th, looking up and seeing the white walk signal.

“This is only what witnesses told my family,” he says. “I’m not sure if my family saw the minivan. The left side of my head hit the windshield. With the momentum, I was flung through the air around 20 feet and then landed on Mission Street.”

Lowell points out where he landed on Mission Street.

“That’s where I sustained most of the brain damage,” says Lowell.

Lowell talks about his accident like someone who’s memorized facts in a history book. He doesn’t remember any of it. Other people had to tell him, later, that the minivan ran a red light and hit him. That after he hit the ground, he rolled under a parked bus on Mission Street. That thankfully, the bus didn’t move. And that some other drivers, who saw the collision, called 911 and reached under the bus to hold his hand.

A lot of people get hit by cars in San Francisco: eight hundred per year, at least – and those are just the ones that get reported.

“That’s two or three people a day getting hit by cars,” says Lowell.

Elizabeth Stampe is executive director of WalkSF, a pedestrian advocacy group.

“We have streets that are designed for the rapid movement of cars instead of for people to be able to get around safely on foot,” says Stampe.

Stampe works at 6th and Market, one of the worst intersections in the city for collisions. During rush hour on a recent evening, it was easy to see why.

Cars are trying to cross Market and drive down 6th Street, likely to get to the freeway, but many of them don’t make the light and block the crosswalk. Pedestrians weave between them to get across the street.

“We have someone in a wheelchair trying to get across,” Stampe points out. “It’s going to be hard for her to make the curb on the other side.”

It’s not just 6th and Market. SoMa is more dangerous than almost anywhere else in San Francisco. Chinatown and the Tenderloin are bad too, with almost three times as many accidents as the rest of the city. These neighborhoods all have a few things in common. For one, they’re some of the city’s densest areas. And a lot of that density is due to SROs – single room occupancy hotels – and senior housing. Those living spaces are small, so people hang out outside. And most people don’t have cars, so they walk to get where they need to go.

“What we do is this thing we call the ‘dip and run,’” explains Sylvester Guard. “You’ve got to try to get past here as fast as you can without getting hit by a car.”

Guard is a tenant organizer at the Seneca Hotel on 6th Street. He started working on pedestrian safety issues after he got hit by a car.

Guard got hit trying to cross 6th Street at a legal crossing that wasn’t marked. He says he wasn’t hurt too badly – but he doesn’t have insurance, so he never actually saw a doctor. Read the paper for just a week, and you’ll probably see more stories like Guard’s.

Pedestrian advocates like Elizabeth Stampe say there are easy things the city can do to fix the problem, like eliminating one-way streets, painting crosswalks more brightly, and extending sidewalk corners so crossings are shorter. She says a good example is Valencia Street in the Mission, where the city has made a lot of these kinds of changes.

In the year after his accident, John Alex Lowell had 30 surgeries and stayed in six hospitals. His doctors told him he was lucky – they thought he’d be in a persistent vegetative state. Now, ten years later, he’s more or less okay. He can walk, he went to grad school, he can even drive if he wants to, though his vision is a little off. There’s also an artificial substance in his skull – an ironic little reminder.

“That is a material called methyl methacrylate – it’s what orthopedic surgeons use to replicate bone mass,” Lowell explains.

It just so happens to also be the same material that goes into road paint.

The city is working with groups like WalkSF to try and make things safer. In District 6, which includes SoMa, Supervisor Jane Kim has been especially involved. But so far, there’s no official plan. So whether you’re walking or driving, in any of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, the best rule of thumb is probably the one your parents taught you: look both ways.

This story originally aired July 14, 2011. 

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