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Neighbors, Activists Join Forces to Fix a Notorious Intersection

Roads in U.S. cities are crowded with cars, buses and trucks, leaving little room for bicycles and even less for pedestrians. During May, National Bike Month in the United States, a lot of attention is given to ways to share the road safely. In San Francisco, promoting equal access on city streets is a year-round effort… especially at one busy intersection.

In the heart of downtown San Francisco is one of the city's most dangerous intersections, where Fell Street crosses Masonic Avenue. The large number of cars rushing to turn left from Fell Street makes it difficult for drivers to see pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the intersection.

"I always have to be defensive when crossing the street here," says Jen Hope who has lived on Masonic Avenue for 5 years. Crossing the street is a challenge she has to face every time she steps out for a walk. So Hope happily signed a petition urging the city to put a traffic signal at the intersection.

"Just to create a light (traffic signal) specifically for crossing that street of you are on a bike or if you're walking, that way it's safe," she says.

The petition is from Fix Masonic, a coalition of community groups advocating for equal rights for all on neighborhood streets. The coalition's Ben Caldewell says he hopes the petition will lead to redesigning the intersection.

"We've been out there a few times and people I talked to today have already said you know cars have started to notice now," he says. "So raising awareness is the first thing. Another thing is signatures. Signatures matter. Politicians and people in power, people who are in the transportation authority they pay attention to the number of signatures they get and this sort of things."

What makes this intersection especially dangerous is it cuts through Panhandle Park. The one-block wide, one-kilometer long park runs along Fell Street. With a basketball court, playground and walking and biking paths, it's a popular gathering point for the neighborhood. Fix Masonic volunteer Rachel Kraai says the group has frequently organized rallies and guarded the crossing so people can move around safely.

"Fix Masonic brings volunteers, crossing guards out to this intersection periodically to remind drivers coming to the intersection that this is bicyclists and pedestrians right of way," she says. "And also to educate the bicyclists and pedestrians going that way that until we get a safer intersection, they need to watch out."

33-year-old landscaper Sam Sapoznick is a volunteer crossing guard. He stands at the intersection with a stop sign, halting traffic on Masonic to free the crossing for bikers and pedestrians. He says he hopes the group's efforts will help eliminate this serious problem.

"It's nobody's fault in particular except for the people who planned this intersection originally," he says. "They really planned it with car priority in mind not with safety of bicycles or pedestrians in mind."

Neighbors, he says, feel relieved when they see his group at the intersection, slowing down traffic.

"It's very nice to receive a 'thank-you' or 'you're doing a great job'," he says. "We get that frequently from people, pedestrians and bicyclists. At least for this short period that we are out here, they feel little bit safer when we're guarding the intersection for them."

Neighbors support whatever changes will make this intersection safer all the time, not only when the group members are around, according to Susan King, another member of the coalition.

"This is a big issue," she says. "People are really concerned. There has been a lot of injuries. One of the young men that just walked by today was hit earlier today on his bicycle. He said I wish you guys were here earlier because he was injured just today."

Fix Masonic's Rachel Kraai says bringing about change is a process that seems slow but does move forward.

"Last year, we collected over 550 neighborhood signatures, asking for improvements up and down the Masonic corridor, including improvement here at the Fell-Masonic intersection," she says. "In response to that, our city's Transportation Agency is working to draw up plans for change. And the city agencies are also listening to other requests we have for Masonic Avenue. Just 2 weeks ago, they made a move to lower the speed limit 5 miles per hour on Masonic, which we see as a major victory towards our goal of safe pedestrian, bicycle and transit travel on Masonic."

Kraai says heavier traffic has been seen as an inevitable byproduct of modern life. But when cars start to threaten people's lives and interfere with the community's life style, she says concerned citizens have to speak out… and act. Through the Fix Masonic coalition, they're doing that, determined to slow down traffic so the roads become safer and the whole city more livable.