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A Q&A with Walk San Francisco’s Executive Director

Walk San Francisco ED Jodie Medeiros taking a stroll on Linden Street.

Walk San Francisco announced the appointment of its new Executive Director, Jodie Medeiros, last month. Readers will recall that last April Nicole Ferrara left the helm to take over Vision Zero plans at Oakland's newly formed Department of Transportation. The organization's advocacy efforts were temporarily left in the capable hands of Cathy DeLuca, Policy and Program Director.

Medeiros already has a full plate of issues to deal with. Mayor Ed Lee, under pressure from Walk SF and the SFBC, is hashing out the details of "Black Spot" Vision Zero teams to do quick safety fixes at locations where people are seriously injured or killed. Advocates are still waiting to see the details, but, so far, they are cautiously optimistic. And this Sunday, Walk SF, along with Families for Safe Streets and the Vision Zero Coalition, will be hosting the annual World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims walk to SF City Hall.

Streetsblog got some time to sit down with the busy Medeiros for a long-form interview to hear about her vision for moving and growing Walk SF and making our streets safer.


Streetsblog: I know this work can get pretty overwhelming sometimes, especially after a spate of deaths and serious injuries. How will you stay optimistic leading Walk SF?

Jodie Medeiros: I know the work that we’re doing is necessary so that’s how I keep forging forward. Probably one of the most poignant meetings I’ve been to so far was with Families for Safe Streets.

SB: These are the survivors of traumatic crashes and relatives of those killed?

JM: Right. And they are now planning the World Day of Remembrance on Nov. 19th, which is this Sunday. Just talking about their loss and sadness and how they’re moving forward with their lives as best as they can; they hold their heads up high and come together to fight for what is really necessary. To me that is inspiring. That is one of the beautiful things about Walk SF in terms of the organization being the collaborators and community builders among such diverse groups of people.

SB: During your years with the Bicycle Coalition, what was your greatest accomplishment?

JM: Getting past the injunction.

SB: The Rob Anderson environmental lawsuit? That really jammed things up, but it also forced some creativity, didn't it?

JM: (Nods) We weren’t able to paint anything on the street. We weren’t able to put up a single bike rack. It was really an interesting time in our city’s history. Out of that period came the Great Streets program at the SFBC--and that lead to Sunday Streets, and parklets, and institutionalizing the parklets program. These are now things that we see every day in San Francisco. Parklets are flourishing. We’re using our streets for better uses than just car parking. That period was the greatest in my transportation history. I’m very proud of it.

SB: If that was your brightest accomplishment, what is your biggest disappointment?

JM: Change in San Francisco is too slow. That’s definitely something that I’ve learned in my career in the SFBC and the Housing Coalition. Unfortunately, policy and engineering takes time.

SB: We aren't on track to attain the Vision Zero goals either.

JM: (nods) It’s horrible, it’s tragic--what’s most tragic is it’s preventable. We know just 13 percent of our streets are responsible for over 75 percent of severe and fatal injuries, so our streets are dangerous by design. It's not rocket science. We have the tools to re-engineer our streets.

SB: For example?

JM: The recent fatality on Sloat. The city and Caltrans know it's a dangerous street, but because it is Caltrans property, it's a complicated situation. The city and Caltrans were working together to make minor changes, like adding HAWK beacons--they're planning on doing them in January.

SB: Too late for James Samiere, the man who died there. Why can't we act faster? Are the city and state just broken?

JM: We would like the city to act much more swiftly, especially in areas where something has just happened and a plan is in place to make a fix. There’s no need for the city to wait on those fixes. It's inexcusable, not prioritizing the clearly dangerous intersections.

SB: Streetsblog has called on the city to adopt a "Black Spot" type response. The mayor is proposing Vision Zero teams to act quickly on known danger spots.

JM: That seems like an easy fix to a broken system. It’s something I think San Francisco should implement. I was talking to Megan Weir, our Vision Zero representative--we do now have a “crisis response team.” The Department of Public Health, the District Attorney, the Police Report are getting more complete reports on what happens. This, again, is another step in getting closer to what we need to do to fix these intersections. But a traffic engineer/SFMTA needs to be added to that mix.

SB: SFMTA is slow to put in fixes, but quick to pull them up if they're made by frustrated safety vigilantes. So we know they can act quickly when they're motivated. The question is what gets them to be motivated sometimes, but not others.

JM: I don’t know. Is it shaming? Is SFMTrA a public shaming mechanism? Maybe we should all be doing a little bit more of it. It’s a form of rebellion, but maybe it can work.

SB: It sounds as if you want to take Walk San Francisco rogue?

JM: We’ll see. Walk San Francisco will do a strategic plan in 2018. Next year will also be our 20th year, and so who knows? We could have some guerrilla tactics in our future.

SB: Why are some cities so far ahead of us in the realm of public safety? New York seems to have made great strides.

JM: Leadership. Janette Sadik-Khan. I hate to continuously bring this up, but Janette had the leadership behind her to do bold actions.

SB: You mean Mayor Bloomberg, who backed her up?

JM: That’s how they got big boulevards like Broadway and Times Square drastically transformed, which led to behavior changes, which led to an improved city environment. We can be bold here in San Francisco too. And we need to be bold about what we’re doing and invest in the infrastructure and engineering and projects that are going to lead to significant safety improvements and meeting our Vision Zero goals by 2024. What’s crazy about Vision Zero is that we only have six years left in this goal, and I don’t think that we have a lot to show for it yet.

SB: It seems as if cities never make big breakthroughs until they get a "Bicycle Mayor," such as Bloomberg or Gregor Robertson in Vancouver, Canada.

JM: I’m very pleased that Ed Lee has adopted Vision Zero and he has made it one of his priorities. But we are having trouble with inter-agency conflict, and that’s stalling projects. Our letter to him asks him to be bold, and to be a leader, and to fix those conflicts. Projects should not be stalled; there’s no reason for that.

SB: Do you have a street treatment that's a personal favorite?

JM: I love the scrambles in downtown. We also have them in Chinatown in Oakland. I think they’re very effective and also very fun. They’re a nice creative way for people to walk outside the lines. My friend recently visited from NY and he was in Chinatown in Oakland and was talking about how fun the scrambles were and that they don’t have those in New York, so look at that! The Bay Area is doing something more creative than New York. I also like the biking infrastructure in Copenhagen. I went in 2010 for a bike conference, and it definitely gave me a brand new perspective on what can be done in San Francisco. I came back with a renewed vigor for change.

SB: What’s your favorite street in San Francisco?

JM: There are so many different neighborhoods that provide interesting places to walk. That is what I love about San Francisco. At Walk San Francisco we talk a lot about safety and fatalities and the scariness of streets, but what I want to inject into the organization is that walking around San Francisco is what makes the city so much more livable. It’s a beautiful city and a great place to walk. Neighborhoods with tree-lined streets--

SB: But do you have a street in particular?

JM: The first one that comes to mind is Page. I don’t even mind walking up the big hill to Divisidero.

SB: How will you address the connection between poverty and safety?

JM: Equity should absolutely be front and center of our work. When you look at how many high-injury corridors are located in the Tenderloin, for example, that signals to me that Walk SF’s emphasis should be on improving the streets in that neighborhood, hands down. That is why we are doing community outreach for a safer Taylor Street. It’s one tiny project ,but we are also working with Supervisor Kim’s office to see if there’s anything we can do to focus on these high-injury corridors, with wider sidewalks, slower traffic, bulbouts, painted crosswalks--these are all simple design fixes that can be done cost effectively. Walk San Francisco brings diverse communities together, so we work with Tenderloin Safe Passage, we work with senior groups... I had a great conversation with Donald Falk, Chief Executive Officer of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation.

SB: What did you talk about?

JM. About how he wants to work with Walk San Francisco more and learn about Vision Zero. That’s key to our work: bring groups together so we are all pushing in the same direction. We don’t just need to join with transportation advocacy groups--there’s so much work that can be done with other community organizations.

SB: How do you thread the needle when local communities hamstring and fight safety improvements? Think about Chinatown's opposition to a car-free Stockton, or the Bayview pushing to remove bike lanes from Paul Avenue. I mean, Paul Avenue is having a recently installed bike lane removed because of local opposition.

JM: It's all about advocacy. The Supervisors need to hear from other communities--disability advocates, parents, maybe more than just bike advocates on one side and a church on the other. Walk San Francisco is part of the city’s Safe Routes to Schools program and we’re working with several schools in the Bayview to create parent task forces to help energize parents to speak up for the changes they want to see in their neighborhoods so they’re not afraid for their children to be walking to school buses. One of the good projects coming out of Walk San Francisco's participation in the Stockton Street project is car-free Powell. Granted it’s just a couple of blocks, but it’s start. Parklets on Powell street was a start, and look what it’s led to. Demonstration projects often work. It's about pilot, pilot, pilot.

SB: Let's talk about Automated Speed Enforcement.

JM: It’s at the state level. David Chiu’s legislation would give us a five-year pilot in just San Francisco and San Jose, so we need to do our state lobbying to help pass this through committee in early January. We are doing our homework and pulling our forces together to try and get this moving. Speeding is the leading collision factor, causing ten times more fatal and serious collision injuries than drunk driving. We have to have a public education campaign about speed like we've had on drunk driving. And we need enforcement, like the cameras, to help change behavior.

SB: How are you feeling in your new job, now that you've had a few weeks to settle in?

JM: I’m feeling energized and exhausted. I’m humbled by the warm welcome I’ve received from so many people. And it feels really great to be back in transportation advocacy.

SB: Thanks Jodie. See you Sunday at the World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims.

This interview was edited for space and clarity.

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