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Pedestrian etiquette guide: How to use SF sidewalks like a good person

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Step up your game

People walking on Powell Street, a large crowd looking around and clogging a sidewalk during the middle of a sunny day. Shutterstock

Being a pedestrian in San Francisco is rough. In fact, it’s deadly. More people are on the road. Drivers are killing us in record numbers. Ride-hailing companies, who have helped make SF a more congested place, have turned city streets into cash cows—and them as testing grounds for driverless cars.

It wasn’t always like this, especially on Market Street where, over a century ago, as evidenced in 1906’s A Trip Down Market Street, cars were the interloper—not pedestrians.

Yet now more than ever before, drivers and transit agencies scold and shame ped-only commuters. From victim-blaming ads by Caltrans to West Hollywood’s absurd musical PSA, pedestrians are being told to yield to deadly gas and metal machines zipping by at 40-plus mph.

You, the pedestrian, have the right of way. Always. No qualifiers or conditions. Bikes and cars should always be on the lookout for you. I won’t infantilize you by telling you to look both ways before crossing (you already know that) or chide you for using your phone on Market Street.

But some of you need to do better. Some of you could sharpen your pedestrian etiquette. Here’s how.

Stay to the right

When using an escalator, stand to the right to allow people to pass on the left. Most of you know this doctrine. Some do but don’t follow it. Do it.

Stay to the far right when using your phone

When texting or using your phone, veer off to the right so that the people behind you can pass. Do not come to an immediate stop; veer off to the right and pay mind to pedestrians behind you.

Do not use your phone while walking down into a BART/Muni station

A thoughtless act in and of itself, pedestrians who use their smartphone while heading into a station also run the risk of getting knocked over by pedestrians rushing to catch their car. This is rude behavior. Stop doing it.

Groups of slow walkers need to stop this tomfoolery

No one likes a meanderer, especially a group of them waddling four abreast. The pace of walking in San Francisco, save for the impaired or the disabled, should be brisk. Sunday-afternoon-in-Carmel strolls have no place on busy sidewalks. If you are in a group that’s taking up the entire sidewalk and you see someone coming in the opposite direction, move out of the way to let those people go around you.

But be careful while slaloming down the avenue, slick

Some people move slow, and it’s beyond their control. The elderly, people with disabilities, or kids move at a slower pace. Be courteous.

Pedestrians walking across a massive crosswalk to get into the Ferry Building. Photo by Thomas Hawk

Standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk

Knock it off. The plague of standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk, seen often on Valencia or Divisadero, is bad—but is curable. It’s privileged behavior. The world is not your living room. Stand to the side, please.

Using the timed crosswalk

Three seconds left on the clock isn’t enough time to cross major streets without leaving you in the path of an automobile. In an ideal world, drivers would have to wait at crosswalks, not pedestrians. But until then, be careful.

It’s illegal to ride scooters on city sidewalks

Razors, hoverboards, or electronic unicycles on our sidewalks are verboten in business districts. You shouldn’t do it. Scooter company Lime recently introduced technology to catch you in the act. Per the Chronicle, “Scooter riders who spend more than half of their trip on what appears to be the sidewalk will get a notification and a map in the app saying that their activity was illegal. The company will follow up with an email. There are no penalties, at least not yet: the company says the pilot program is about educating riders.”

Cyclists, do not ride on most sidewalks

It doesn’t matter if an Uber is in the bike lane, that doesn’t give you the right jump on the cement. Get off your bike and walk it. (Note: It’s legal to ride your bike along the Embarcadero, but you still must ride slow to avoid pedestrian collisions.) Please read our guide on what’s up with the newfangled electronic scoters.

A word to skateboarders

You do you.

Display effort to cross a crosswalk as quickly as possible

Unless you are disabled or holding a toddler’s hand, do not slowly stroll across the street in a crosswalk. People could be coming behind you. Don’t leave your fellow pedestrians caught in the red-light zone. We’re all in this together!

Look behind you from time to time

Make sure you’re not blocking the path of someone moving at a faster pace. It’s a lot to remember, I know, but these tidbits of info will become second nature.

A note to foodies waiting in line for the latest food trend

No one likes you.

Sidewalks are not gyms

Newfangled outdoor exercise is great. However, some classes have seeped onto busy city sidewalks. Jogging is one thing. Sprints, marathons, group workouts on the sidewalk are beyond the pale. Knock it off. Passersby need not be forced to inhale your dirty sweat essence.

Photo by Patricia Chang

Be willing to move your umbrella

Umbrellas are space hogs. Get ready to move them a bit while moving in order to be at harmony with your fellow pedestrians. Once folded, aim your umbrella at the ground.

People with strollers could use help

“Parents with kids in strollers do want your help at difficult curbs, with the door to stores and restaurants, etc.,” says Curbed Boston editor Tom Acitelli. “I used to think otherwise, until I was put in the position. Pitch in!”

Remember: Drivers kill pedestrians

Unintentional or not, drivers and their vehicles hurt pedestrians. Often fatally. But in lieu of slowing down to save lives, drivers continue to demand pedestrians follow a litany of rules (e.g., make eye contact, don’t talk and walk, don’t listen to music and walk, don’t use phone and walk, don’t do anything other than watch out for cars) for walking in a public space. And in San Francisco, it’s not getting better.

Also remember: Drivers stop in the middle of crosswalks with impunity

Terrible behavior that’s rarely, if ever, cracked down on by police.

Is there a good resource for pedestrian safety in action?

Yes! Vision Zero aims to end all serious and fatal traffic injuries by 2024. In 2013, a near-record of 21 pedestrians and four bicyclists were killed by lethal traffic crimes, including a 6-year-old girl and an 86-year-old man.

According to Vision Zero, “Over 50 percent of the people killed in traffic crashes in the city are pedestrians (even though only 20 percent of the trips taken in the city are by foot); the national average for pedestrians killed in traffic violence is only 14 percent.”

Learn more, take to the streets, and be a proud pedestrian.