| Hospital Tackles Construction Commotion
By Fran Taylor, Member Walk San Francisco Oct 26, 2009
The diagnosis was clear: San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center faced massive disruption during construction of the new hospital mandated by state earthquake standards. Signs and symptoms included traffic congestion, which would affect vulnerable patients and other pedestrians, loss of about 100 on-campus parking spaces at the same time an army of contractors would be bringing in their own vehicles, and worsened air quality.
In true medical fashion, the hospital conducted some tests—an Environmental Impact Report and a staff survey—and came up with a prescription for preventive treatment. The hospital’s Transportation Coordinator, Christina Foushee, was hired a year ago in response to mitigation findings of the EIR. These recommended several measures that Foushee and the Transportation Demand Management program have since been implementing, starting with the survey sent to 4550 staff. About 30% responded.
The report summarizing survey results emphasizes the good that may come out of the difficult: “Each designated parking space may be viewed as an automobile trip generator. The loss of at least 100 parking spaces during the rebuild, though anticipated to create increased short-term congestion and parking demand, also serves as a critical opportunity for SFGH to support employees in the transition from driving alone to utilizing more sustainable modes of transportation.”
The hospital has taken several steps to forge a solution. It held a transportation fair in September 2008 that featured information about local and regional public transportation, carsharing, vanpooling, ridesharing, and bicycle safety and parking. It also installed NextBus monitors in the main lobby and created free offsite parking with shuttle service for contractors and staff displaced by the loss of campus parking.
“We know that parking is already a big issue in the neighborhood,” Foushee said. “While we can’t solve the whole problem, we are committed to preventing the rebuild from making it worse. In fact, we are hoping to use the opportunity to change behavior and create a safer, cleaner, and more sustainable environment.”
The survey found that about half of the hospital staff typically drive alone to work, while about a quarter take public transit. Vanpools and carpools, cycling, and walking divvy up the rest. A higher proportion of residents drive alone from San Francisco’s westside neighborhoods than from Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The hospital’s proximity to BART and the hassle of crossing the Bay Bridge may account for this discrepancy.
Reasons for not cycling, walking, or taking transit were varied, but time and convenience topped the list. Within San Francisco, workers reported that transit took twice as much time as driving. Plans to implement a shuttle to Civic Center BART, where westsiders could catch Muni Metro, have stalled.
Liliana Diaz, a social worker at the hospital, used to walk to work from Bernal Heights. When she moved to the Richmond, she began driving.
“I would love to take public transportation to SFGH,” she said. “It would be much better for the environment and would save me from dealing with rush hour traffic. I’m an avid reader, so I would have the chance to speed up the return of my library books! And I’d have the opportunity to chat with fellow commuters.
“Now, it takes the same amount of time that it took me to walk from Bernal Heights, approximately 35 minutes, to drive from the Central Richmond District. The current Muni options would require at least an extra hour, if the two buses I need to take were on schedule, which is uncommon.”
Workers being asked not to drive alone during the rebuild responded positively, however: 13% said they would leave the car at home one day per week, 14% volunteered to do so two days, and 16% would avoid driving three to five days. Most would take transit or carpool instead.
Some workers avoid transit because of worries about safety walking to it. A UCSF shuttle to 24th Street BART has been discontinued, and the remaining shuttle to 16th Street BART is often overcrowded.
Biking to work was considered unsafe by 10% of respondents, but bike lanes have been approved for 23rd and Kansas streets in front of the hospital, and other bike improvements are on tap throughout the City. About 30% of workers live within five miles, or cycling distance, and survey respondents expressed interest in an onsite bike safety course.
Education is one of the first steps the TDM program is taking to lure staff from their cars. The survey found that fewer than half of workers knew about the Commuter Check program, which could save them up to 40% of their transit costs. Only 12% knew about the Emergency Ride Home program, which offers a safety net to transit users who must rush home in a crisis or are kept late unexpectedly. Many respondents stated they would like to learn more about Emergency Ride Home, commuter benefits, and carpooling.
Cost is often not the most influential factor in transportation choice. Convenience and reliability of alternative options is, according to Foushee. When asked if free transit passes might influence staff to not drive alone, fewer stated this would help (26%) than voted for reduced time on transit (36%) and improved reliability (27%). Unfortunately, the Transit Effectiveness Project has been put on hold, and instead both Muni and SamTrans face cuts to service. San Mateo County has a smaller percentage of workers at the hospital than San Francisco and the East Bay, but a higher proportion of those workers drive alone (75%).
The survey focused on hospital staff, but the earlier EIR also measured trips by patients and visitors and found a much higher percentage of transit use: 47% for patients and 34% for visitors, versus drive-alone percentages of less than 20%. These findings likely reflect the economic status of the bulk of SFGH’s patient population, which is largely poor, uninsured, and/or immigrant, people less likely to own cars than the hospital workers.
Drive-alone percentages for staff have dropped significantly, however, from 72% in 1987 to 59% in 2007, according to the EIR. Foushee, hoping to build on that momentum, plans to repeat the transportation fair and conduct a follow-up survey.
The hospital’s interest in reducing driving goes beyond the construction of the new building. The very busy emergency room reports that 75% of its cases are blunt trauma victims, many from car crashes. Reducing that statistic would be just what the doctor ordered.
Fran Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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