Waymo Cars, Way Less Safety

As first reported by Mission Local, on February 6th, 2024, a driverless Waymo struck a cyclist at the intersection of 17th and Mississippi in San Francisco. Waymo's description of the incident is just murky enough that it could have unfolded a few different ways. We've been waiting for the video to drop, but ultimately it doesn't matter. What does matter is that the cyclist is okay, and where we (and you) put energy to prevent worse in the future.

And it will get worse: so far, Waymo has driven less than 1% of the average expected "VMT per pedestrian death" for human drivers. AV boosters expect this number to be much higher, but we just don't know yet. We know some of our bike friends feel safer around these than humans, but the data says Waymo specifically has a bike problem: they hit cyclists twice as frequently among all non-car road users (57%) compared to human drivers (26%).

Chatter has focused on who may be at fault, or insisting that a human driver could have done no better. Unless you're an insurance adjuster, finding fault isn't your job. As for AV vs human, would you rather spend your time moving goalposts, or actually solving the problem? Because here's the problem: cars are dangerous, human or AV. Unless AVs are perfect, adding them to the mix only adds to the number of dangerous things on the road. We know from 15 years of Uber that these things just add traffic and strangle transit.

Diagram of "The Hierarchy of Controls". On the left is an inverted pyramid, with safety concepts going down from "Most effective" to "least effective". On the right, a table describes these concpets applied to streets. From most to least effective: elimination (remove the hazard) - ban cars, substitution (replace the hazard) - walking biking transit, engineering (isolate people from the hazard) - curbs bollards barriers, process (change behavior) - signs education enforcement, and PPE (use personal protective equipment) - helmets hi-viz shameflags. Under the inverted pyramid, in "meme" style font, is "Adding hazards" - "Adding more cars (don't do this)"
The Hierarchy of Controls was developed for occupational health and safety, but it applies just as well to traffic safety. Safety regulations, like street improvements, are all too often written in blood.

So what's the solution? *~infrastructure~* 17th and Mississippi is full of unprotected bike lanes and weird mixing zones, wildly unpredictable for even the most rule-abiding, attentive cyclists or drivers. That's right, better bike infrastructure will make things better for drivers, too!

Compare the current conditions at 17th and Mississippi, with 3/4 sets of doorzone paint-only bike lanes and mixing zones where right-turning traffic is encouraged to cross into the path of cyclists:

Screenshot of Google Maps satellite view of the intersection of 17th St and Mississippi St in San Francisco. There are wide painted crosswalks, and paint-only bike lanes on three sides of the intersection. The bike lanes have dashed lane markers on the approach sides, indicating that drivers turning right should cross into the bike lane. Though there are few cars in the image, it appears that all of the bike lanes have parking between the bike lane and the sidewalk, meaning drivers must cross the bike lane to park.
17th and Mississippi, in all its unprotected glory

To a Dutch-style protected intersection, with curbside lanes, continuous bike lane markings through the intersection, and turn protections. This diagram doesn't have parking lanes on it, but they're not mutually exclusive (not that we'd cry about parking loss):

Design of a generic "Dutch-style" protected intersection. Green bike lanes are between the traffic lanes and sidewalks, with no parking spots that require crossing a bike lane to access. In the intersection, the green bike lanes continue all the way adjacent to the crosswalks, making an uninterrupted ring around the box of the intersection. Floating curbs off the corners complete the protection, keeping turning cars out of the bike lanes and further out of the crosswalks.
A Dutch-style protected intersection

Unfortunately, SFMTA's planned 17th St Quick Build Project ends right here, and only touches one corner of this death trap that happens to be a linchpin of the SOMA-Mission-Potrero-Eastside bike network.

Screenshot of the 17th and Mississippi intersection schematic from the linked SFMTA project page. It shows a new, proposed parking-protected bike lane on the eastbound approach of 17th St, with turn protection in the intersection at the end of that bike lane. The westbound exiting side of 17th appears to have parking removed, so the bike lane is protected by paint and plastic. Mississippi St has no changes, and the eastern side of 17th has no changes and no bike lanes.
SFMTA proposed changes to 17th St

So what would you rather spend your energy on, defending a trillion dollar company that just wants to make money off of our horrendously broken public space, or demanding better from your own city?

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