Demonstrators breathed new life into the push for a diagonal pedestrian crossing at Kearny and Clay streets in San Francisco’s Chinatown this past November. Over 50 Chinatown community members, young and old alike, occupied the streets.
The intersection is one of the busiest and most dangerous corridors in the city, according to Vision Zero, San Francisco’s official road safety policy.
The protest, which was organized by Supervisor Aaron Peskin and Phil Chin, the co-chair of Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project (TRIP), gathered about 50 Chinatown residents and their families to form a “human scramble” at the intersection.
According to Connie Chan, Peskin’s legislative aide, the protest was to demonstrate the importance of pedestrian safety and the importance of a full diagonal “scramble,” which would allow pedestrians to walk diagonally across the Kearny and Clay streets intersection without the threat of illegal turns from cars.
“I can’t understand why the city is so hesitant about the crossing because the right turn is deadly,” said 68-year-old Harvey Louie, a former member of Chinatown TRIP. “I drive into Chinatown everyday, so I see the problem and thought ‘Jeez. Why don’t we have a scramble system so pedestrians can cross safely.’”
Founded in 1976 by a group of MUNI bus drivers, Chinatown TRIP has led efforts to implement pedestrian scrambles for years, according to the Chinatown Community Development Center. Scramble street lights, also known as “partial scrambles,” extends the pedestrian crossing time, in hopes to reduce pedestrian-automobile collisions.
Chinatown TRIP was successful in pushing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to install scramble street lights on most Stockton Street intersections except for one. Tragedy struck when a 78-year-old, Pui Fong Yim Lee, was killed by a car at the intersection of Stockton and Sacramento streets on Sept. 20, 2014. Three days later, another Chinatown senior was hit at the same intersection.
After her death, Lee’s son, Geen Lee, worked alongside Chinatown CDC to install scramble street lights at the dangerous intersection. The SFMTA implemented the partial scramble in January 2015, according to the Chinatown CDC.
“The saddest part is meeting people that have either lost someone or been injured themselves,” said Becky Hogue, chair of the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee, recalling her interactions with Geen Lee.
Lisa Yu, Peskin’s youth commissioner, shares the same sentiments about meeting Geen Lee. “It was putting it in perspective,” said Yu. “We were outsiders. We only heard the stories.”
Before Peskin hired her in 2014, Yu worked with the Chinatown CDC to improve pedestrian safety. Now, Yu continues to work closely with Peskin to construct future plans for a district-wide “full scramble.”
Now, the Chinatown community and Peskin’s office turn their attention to the Kearny and Clay streets intersection. The idea for a scramble was raised in a participatory budgeting meeting held by former Supervisor David Chiu in March 2014, according to The Barbary Coast News. However, another Chinatown senior was struck and killed by a car at the intersection before SFMTA implemented the partial scramble.
Ai You Zhou, 77 years old, died at the scene on June 17, 2015, according to the Green Street Mortuary.
Since then, community activists have pushed for a full scramble at the intersection of Kearny and Clay. According to the SFMTA, the SFMTA implemented a “right angle scramble” in April 2016. Currently, the stoplights are timed during a specific interval to allow pedestrians to cross in all four crosswalks. Cars are banned from turning during this interval.
“They did put a ‘no right turn’ sign right there. It’s a blessing in disguise. The sign has allowed more people to cross with confidence that they won’t get hit,” said Louie.
However, the Chinatown community and Peskin are demanding more. According to the media advisory that was sent out from Peskin’s office, the “human scramble” was a “protest against pedestrian safety infrastructure at the intersection.” The media advisory said the community and Peskin’s office have been negotiating with the SFMTA for the past year.
“With our protest in November, we hope SFMTA will see that we need the scramble,” said Yu.
Although hopeful, community leaders doubt that the SFMTA will deliver the full scramble anytime soon. Hogue is one of them.
“I don’t think MTA will do any more scrambles unless they are forced to,” said Hogue. Though hopeful, Hogue said only more injuries or deaths will force SFMTA’s hand.
Louie shares the same doubts as Hogue. “They’re waiting for an accident,” said Louie. “And I wish they would do a full report on the near misses that occur. It’s money.”
Paul Rose, the spokesperson for SFMTA, explained to The San Francisco Examiner that the cost of the right angle scramble was around $30,000. A full scramble on the Kearny and Clay streets intersection, like the one on Stockton and Montgomery streets, would cost about $350,000.
The SFMTA is also hesitant because a full scramble at the Kearny and Clay streets intersection may cause MUNI delays, according to Yu. Bus lines numbers one and eight go straight through the intersection.
Some Chinatown community members are wary of the idea of a full scramble. Among them is Janice Villanueva, the manager of Hotel North Beach. Hotel North Beach is a single room occupancy living space with a combination of tourists and Chinatown seniors.
“I think it’s a good idea for certain streets, but it goes both ways. The pedestrians would have to be considerate to the drivers too. It goes both ways,” said Villanueva.
The SROs is one of the reasons why the intersection is so important, said Yu. The Kearny and Clay streets intersection is right across from Portsmouth Square park. “Lots of seniors hang out [at Portsmouth Square park] because they can’t bring their friends back to their rooms.”
Other seniors, like 82-year-old Cheng Zhong Ceng, have seen too many of their friends and acquaintances come and go to risk another chance of an untimely death.
Despite the obstacles, Yu suggests that the Chinatown community should continue going to SFMTA board meetings and community hearings. “Watching Mr. Lee inspire others inspired me. I work in the community, and it is my job to share the story and help make the community better,” said Yu.