Sidewalk Drug Dealing Ignored in “Pedestrian Safety” Plans

by Randy Shaw on April 15, 2013

San Francisco held a “Walk to Work” day last week, and Mayor Lee vowed to fund the Draft Pedestrian Strategy to reduce pedestrian injuries and deaths. The plan includes such measures as sidewalk widenings, greening and new traffic lights, re-opening crosswalks, narrowing lanes or road diets and countdown crossing signals. While these steps are needed, the plan and the entire debate about “pedestrian safety” ignores the thousands of San Franciscans who cannot safely walk down their streets due to the constant presence of drug dealers. This omission is surprising because even in high-priority, high-profile areas like Market Street there are far more pedestrian complaints about drug dealers than about the need for traffic engineering upgrades. There’s something seriously wrong when drug dealers are allowed to deny pedestrians safe access to walk city streets, yet the strategic plan does not address this core pedestrian safety crisis.

Working in the Tenderloin, where low-income families have to walk around entire blocks and avoid key corridors like Leavenworth Street in order to avoid public drug dealing, I see pedestrian safety as much broader than reducing car violence against walkers. I certainly understand the importance of the traffic engineering side of the problem, and to this end have spent a truly ridiculous amount of time trying to get the city to protect pedestrians by finally implementing the Tenderloin-Little Saigon transit plan (enacted by the Board of Supervisors in 2007, the two-way streets component is now slated for completion…in 2016!).

Cars have long hit Tenderloin pedestrians with regularity, which is why the community came together in 2005 to create the traffic calming Tenderloin-Little Saigon plan. So I support the Draft Pedestrian Strategy—but believe it misses the critical issue of pedestrians who have no risk of being hit by a car because they are afraid to walk on the sidewalks in front of their homes and in their neighborhoods.

“Pedestrian Safety” should mean that all San Franciscans should have the right to walk the sidewalks in front of their homes without fear of confronting drug dealers, but in the Tenderloin and along Mid-Market this right is denied. And while Market Street’s wide sidewalks makes it easier to avoid crowds of drug dealers, the Tenderloin has areas—like the 200 block of Hyde at Turk where the adjacent sidewalks to the unsupervised SEIU Local 87 parking lot are blocked by overstuffed shopping carts—which literally require wheelchair users and others to choose other streets in order to pass (the Mayor’s Office of Disability should address this ongoing civil rights violation).

A Police Responsibility?

Some define the drug dealing/blocked sidewalk problem as a police responsibility, which may explain why the city’s Draft Pedestrian Strategy ignores these problems. But even if the sidewalk-blocking situation at Turk and Hyde and other areas is a crime, we certainly shouldn’t have our scarce Tenderloin police (whose numbers are down substantially over the past two years) spending time on these cases. And if the police are responsible for unsafe pedestrian conditions on Market Street, why is neither Chief Suhr nor anyone else held accountable?

The police have many priorities, and unlike in New York City, Boston and other cities in which crackdowns on public drug dealing had great success, that strategy has not often been used in San Francisco. My organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, has put together an anti-violence coalition that is working with the Tenderloin police on such a crackdown that begins on Leavenworth Street today. We believe this will improve pedestrian safety in the longterm, and actually help restore pedestrian access to a corridor many families with kids avoid.

But since much of the problem confronting walkers on Market Street and other areas are not high-priority crimes, we also need to look at non-police solutions. And that’s why we need to reframe these obstacles to pedestrian safety as part of our “Pedestrian Safety Strategy,” rather than shunting them off to a separate category labeled “crime.”

I spend a lot of time talking to people about Mid-Market between 5th-8th Streets, and everyone recognizes that many do not find walking down that stretch a positive experience. Segregated bicycle lanes and other traffic/landscape/street design changes will make a difference. But until the city sees the open drug dealing at Jones and Market and other areas as something that must be stopped, “Pedestrian Safety” in the Central Market area will remain a mirage.


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