S.F. Truck Drivers Are Getting Sent to Pedestrian School – Next City
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S.F. Truck Drivers Are Getting Sent to Pedestrian School

A cable car passes a UPS delivery truck in San Francisco. (AP Photo/John M. Harris)

Driving in San Francisco is not easy. The streets are narrow and hilly, lost tourists stumble out into the street, and there are plenty of cyclists (including bike-share users, who may be newer to cycling and thus less familiar with the rules of the road). Now picture driving a truck in San Francisco.

Trucks and other large vehicles are involved in only 4 percent of collisions in the city, according to John Knox White, a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency planner, but 17 percent of fatalities. In 2013, there was “a whole spate of people getting hit; we had a park truck that ran over somebody.”

As part of San Francisco’s Vision Zero program, which aims to completely eliminate traffic deaths by 2024, the city is rolling out a training program specifically for drivers of trucks that enter San Francisco. The program, developed in partnership with numerous stakeholders like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and the California Trucking Association, consists of a video (that SFMTA will be filming soon) helping truck drivers learn what to be aware of when a cyclist nears, and educating them on some of the city’s new bike lanes.

“There’s a lot of confusion on city streets,” Knox White says, “especially as we are reengineering them and redesigning them in new ways. We’re stepping away from, ‘There’s a bike lane or not a bike lane.’” Instead, the city has green-painted bike lanes, “regular” lanes, sharrows and more. “There’s a lot of confusion out there … . People could use some understanding of what to expect from bicyclists or pedestrians. Sometimes they do things, even if they’re not supposed to, that are surprising.”

The city and SFMTA convened a group to figure out how to address this confusion. They surveyed hundreds of truck drivers about their experiences on the road and their knowledge of San Francisco’s “newfangled treatments,” Knox White says. Among the most surprising findings? Green-painted bike lanes are confusing. “I’m hearing from a lot of people, ‘If it’s a green bike lane, can I drive in it?’” says Knox White.

So in the short term comes the video and training program, which will be mandatory viewing for any drivers who work for the city or contract with the city, and available to any other drivers who work in the city. (FedEx and UPS have already said they will share the curriculum, when available, with their drivers.)

Eric Sauer, vice president of policy and government relations at the California Trucking Association, estimates that about 50 member companies have drivers who enter the city and thus could benefit from the program.

One of those companies is Lawson Drayage, a firm that has been in business since 1919. Dispatcher Matt M. Smith says that while his company has a great safety record, driving — and parking — in the city is a challenge, and he thinks the training could help. “[Some of the] unique things these days are pedestrians with headphones on, pedestrians with cell phones.” Lawson is going to be working downtown on the Transbay Terminal redevelopment project, “and one of my guys mentioned we may want to get a head start” on the training, Smith says.

The training video is the first recommendation made by the group the city convened; later on, Knox White says, SFMTA will be “looking at both the temporal and physical separation of large vehicles and vulnerable users. Where we can do signal timing to separate large vehicles from people walking and biking, the better. Similarly, where you can have protected bike lanes and not sharrows, it’s better for the users in the long run. Or have streets designed for bikes in one place and the next street over be designed for cars.

“I think the key takeaway for me is as we are doing these new, innovative things, most of which are great to have, we have to be really careful that we’re bringing people along,” Knox White says.

One thing is certain: It might be tough to get around in a truck in San Francisco, but they’re not going anywhere any time soon. Says Smith: “If we don’t bring stuff, people don’t live.”

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.

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