Making 18th Street More Bike, Pedestrian and Commerce Friendly

2427291704_b669aa237a.jpgFlickr photo: tacopoet99
The crowded sidewalks on 18th Street between Dolores and Guerrero in the Mission are usually packed with foodies inching their way into renowned eateries like Tartine Bakery and Cafe or Delfina Pizzeria and Restaurant. Couple that with a high volume of bikes and a scarcity of bike racks and the block screams for improvements to benefit the public realm. 

"I think everyone looks at 18th Street as this great pedestrian-oriented street with these really amazing businesses on it where the sidewalks are too narrow and too crowded," said Tom Radulovich, a neighborhood denizen and Executive Director of Livable City, who is working with other advocates and merchants to make the block near Dolores Park more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

"You see so many more people walking or bicycling through the neighborhood than driving, and a lot of them are locals."

As a first step, the MTA is considering -- and is likely to approve -- eliminating the 7-9 a.m. tow-away zone on the south side of 18th Street eastbound between Dolores and Treat, which would help calm speeding automobile traffic during peak morning hours, and hopefully reduce the amount of collisions in the area.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, while gathering interviews for this story, I witnessed a car collision on Guerrero at 18th, followed by a chorus of "whoas" from Tartine patrons. No one was hurt, but a Tartine employee said she's witnessed or heard at least six collisions in the last year.

According to the MTA, there were 23 collisions on 18th Street around Dolores and Guerrero between October  2003 and September 2008, the latest date figures were available. Four of them involved motor vehicles hitting pedestrians and four involved cars striking bicyclists. None of the crashes was fatal but almost all resulted in injuries. It's also important to note these statistics don't include the number of injury and non-injury collisions that went unreported.

Radulovich said traffic engineers have typically prioritized high-volume, high-speed automobile traffic on Guerrero, a "classic traffic sewer street," and 18th, without considering the walkability, bikeability or commercial vitality of the neighborhood.

guerrero_car_collision.jpgA car collision last week on Guerrerro at 18th Street. Photo by Bryan Goebel.
"The city's historic priorities for that neighborhood have been through-traffic, not livability," he said. "I think [getting rid of the tow-away zone] is a nice step toward livability and putting those two groups of users in better balance."

Additional steps being envisioned for the block include building bulbouts on the corners to narrow the crosswalks for pedestrians, taking over a few parking spaces for a pilot project (similar to the plaza at 17th and Castro streets) that would test out temporary, wooden sidewalk extensions, and using one or two parking spaces to build a secure on-street bicycle parking pen, which would create more bike parking while freeing up sidewalk space. Such ideas are only conceptual at this point and would eventually require backing from the MTA.

Marc Caswell, the program manager at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition who also lives in the neighborhood, said his organization is trying to secure a community challenge grant that would help fund a mix of bicycle parking, greenery and public seating on 18th and 24th Street.

"The SFBC is planning to work closely with merchants, residents, government agencies, and other stakeholders to improve the streetscape and create sufficient bike parking while improving pedestrian access by moving bike racks off the sidewalk and into the street," said Caswell. 

bikes_on_18th.jpgBikes parked outside Bi-Rite Creamery on 18th. Photo by Marc Caswell.
Sam Magonnam, the co-owner of Bi Rite Market, said he's been trying for awhile to get a parking space removed to create on-street bicycle parking in front of his store, "which I think should be a no-brainer now." He said a majority of his customers walk to Bi-Rite, but many also come on their bikes. He was planning to conduct a survey of customers to get specific data on how they arrive to shop.

"I also know a lot of people who work on this block do bike in. We provide eight parking spaces for bikes in our backyard but once those are full, staff has to find spaces up front, and a couple of people have lost their bikes because they have to park around the corner on Oakwood."

There are currently about ten bike racks on the block. Craig Stoll, the owner of Delfina, said his bike-commuting employees usually pile their bikes in the back patio, against a wall and stacks of wood, because the racks are rarely available. 

Stoll both drives and rides his bicycle to work and said he supports making the block more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, but he believes many of his customers drive to the restaurant. Still, he said he would rather take away a few parking spaces and give them to pedestrians and bicyclists than preserve them for automobile parking.

“When I mention it to people, and I talk about it, some people’s first reaction is like, 'oh great, now there won’t be any parking.' And some people are really jazzed about it. I myself, I’m excited about it. I hate to inconvenience [anyone], obviously, that’s not what I want to do, but on the same token, I think it’s a great experiment and fun for the city as a whole, for this neighborhood.”

Creating temporary sidewalk extensions has been discussed in the Mission Streetscape Plan process, according to Andres Power, an urban designer at the SF Planning Department.

"There would be areas, perhaps in front of Bi-Rite, Delfina, and the Bi-Rite creamery that would have a platform constructed to allow for cafe seating and public seating in the parking lane," said Power. "Landscaping and other elements would likely also be included."

He stressed that the Planning Department has not done any official outreach, though Radulovich has discussed it with the owners of businesses on 18th Street, many of whom support it. Stoll said he saw similar sidewalk extensions in front of an Irish pub in Florence and on the Amalfi coast in Italy.

2840637826_1fcbf66c7c.jpgThe crowded sidewalk scene outside Bi-Rite Creamery. Flickr photo: jen maiser
Chad Robertson, who, with his wife Elisabeth Prueitt, owns Tartine, said he loves to see customers, especially families, walking around the neighborhood or filling the chairs and tables on the sidewalks.

"When we moved in here seven years ago it wasn't really like that. And now it's really a lively neighborhood block," he said, adding that most of his customers are walkers. "I see the same people walking all over this neighborhood."

Kyle Foley, who lives in the neighborhood and was about to dig into a piece of coconut passion fruit Bavarian cake outside Tartine, said she thinks it would be "fantastic" if the improvements were made. She said the businesses attract a lot of people to the neighborhood, including "outsiders who wouldn't necessarily come here as often as they do."

"I think it would be awesome to have more space for pedestrians and more tables outside. I mean, these tables are always packed, there's always a wait, and there's tons of bikers. I don't see any down sides to that plan but I'm also someone who doesn't have a car and I don't worry about parking and that kind of thing."

tartine_line.jpgA line outside Tartine. Flickr photo: oieseau678