| Disabled Communities Tackle Sidewalk Parking
By Fran Taylor, Member Walk San Francisco Dec 29, 2008
San Franciscans plowing through the voter handbook saw graphic proof after Prop H of a vexing problem. A full-page ad shows one woman in a scooter, a second using a walker, and another pushing a stroller, all struggling to get past cars blocking the sidewalk.
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Complaints that the City winks at drivers hogging sidewalks are nothing new. But the sponsors of the ad, Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco, along with Senior Action Network, are taking a fresh approach to change that cavalier attitude.
“The issue is one of the top concerns for blind pedestrians,” said Jessie Lorenz of Lighthouse.
She heads a new project that has already created a public service announcement she hopes will be picked up by local TV. A pilot effort funded by the Department of Public Health and coordinated by Lighthouse is helping the groups conduct outreach in the Sunset. Lighthouse is offering “train the trainer” sessions that will teach disabled advocates and seniors how to speak about the issue of sidewalk parking.
“The speakers will explain what happens when sidewalks are blocked and why it’s not okay,” Lorenz said.
Besides educating drivers, the project aims to help the speakers move beyond frustration. They will address churches, merchants associations, and community groups, starting in March.
The pilot dovetails with a larger project for 2009 being funded by a joint grant of DPH and the Municipal Transportation Agency, according to Ana Validzic, Pedestrian Safety Project Coordinator with DPH. The citywide project will target all sidewalk obstructions, mainly cars, but also street furniture and signs. This campaign will use media outreach and provide additional mini-grants, so the Sunset pilot may expand to other neighborhoods.
“I’m hoping it will take off,” Validzic said. “Behavior hasn’t changed yet: The 19th Avenue sidewalk is a wall of cars; no one can walk up and down those blocks because drivers pull their wheels up to avoid being dinged. But I’m beginning to see momentum to address this issue.”
A DPH focus group of drivers found that they were willing to risk a $100 sidewalk ticket but considered changing their behavior when they learned about the impact it had on neighbors who were blind or used wheelchairs. The fact that drivers express willingness to change their behavior when confronted with the human consequences of their actions belies the common excuse that scarcity forces them to park on the sidewalk.
Once respecting sidewalk users becomes a priority, other options are always available, even if this means some inconvenience. Solutions could be as simple as cleaning out a garage used to store household junk.
“A lot of drivers honestly don’t see what a problem sidewalk parking is until it’s explained to them from the perspective of limited vision or mobility,” Validzic said. “People consider it a matter of personal safety if they drive home late at night and don’t feel safe parking five blocks away. But it’s their safety versus other people’s safety.”
One outreach tool will be an “awareness ticket” that explains to drivers how their behavior affects disabled users of the sidewalk.
Several complications remain, however. One is lack of political will. Supervisors whose driver constituents complain may ask the MTA to back off on issuing tickets. Violence against parking control officers (PCOs) may discourage them from issuing sidewalk tickets, as the perpetrators often lurk close to the blocked spot, which they may refer to in a rage as “my driveway.” PCOs become sitting ducks.
Another problem advocates have is getting the truth about City policies. Even groups working with the City have a hard time getting hard facts.
“They don’t give us a straight answer either,” Lorenz said.
Enforcement has long been a sore point, but change may be creeping ahead. Dedicated PCO teams of three that target sidewalk parking now circulate twice a week, according to MTA spokesperson Judson True. The teams began in 2007, the same year that a memo from the deputy director of enforcement spelled out a new policy: Sidewalk parkers should be cited on sight and not just when complaints are called in. Tickets for the offense went up over 18% in the past year, though they still amount to only one-fifth the total for residential parking permit violations, which endanger no one.
Education may offset the slowness of enforcement improvements. Lorenz is hopeful that spreading the message will defuse current tensions.
“Our approach has to be a broad community approach,” she said. “This is about your elderly neighbor using a walker or the parent pushing a child in a stroller. This is about the folks who live on your street. This isn’t us versus them.”
All those interested in applying for DPH’s round of mini-grants in 2009, please contact Ana Validzic at email@example.com or 415/581-2478. For more information about the pilot project, call Jessie Lorenz at 415/694-7361.
Fran Taylor can be reached at 415/874-4570 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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