Construction begins this week on a nine-month project that could periodically disrupt Valencia Street’s bike lanes. The result, residents hope, will be a greatly improved streetscape for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The Valencia Streetscape Improvements project, which spans Valencia from 15th Street to 19th Street, is intended to provide a safer, more inviting environment for the street’s users. Moving block by block over the next nine months, Department of Public Works crews will remove the striped center median, widen the sidewalk, add bulb-outs at some intersections and in the middle of some blocks, and add pedestrian scale lighting, art elements, bike racks (assuming the injunction is lifted), and new street trees. Parking lanes will also be widened to prevent dooring of bicyclists, and curbside loading zones for trucks will be reconfigured.
The crux of the project is "six to nine feet of sidewalk widening," said DPW project manager Kris Opbroek. "The sidewalk widening eliminates the center median," said Opbroek. "It should have a traffic-calming effect which would then benefit cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists, just in having everyone slow down basically."
The $6.1 million project is funded through a combination of federal Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) funds as well as two Transportation for Livable Communities (TLC) federal grants with local matching funds.
The final design is largely the result of neighbors’ input, says Livable City’s Tom Radulovich, who also lives in the neighborhood. "I and a bunch of neighbors went to some of the meetings," said Radulovich. "We designed the street we wanted, mostly. There’s still some things missing from the street, but the good news was we had a design and then a few pieces of funding that nobody had anticipated came forward."
One feature of the project will be unfamiliar to most San Franciscans: mid-block bicycle oases. "On the mid-block bulb-outs and a few of the other corner bulb-outs, we’ve actually planned bike oases," said Opbroek. "There’s an example of this up in Portland, where they’ve done a space on the sidewalk with rows of bike parking."
If the bicycle plan injunction isn’t lifted before the project is completed, however, there’s a chance the bike oases could be jettisoned. In that case, "they’ll have to be installed at a later date," said Opbroek. "If for some reason that didn’t happen – I expect that it will, but if it didn’t – that space could also be used for tables and chairs or additional merchants spilling out."
In other locations, the extra space created by bulb-outs and widened sidewalks will be left with "informal programming," said Opbroek. "Because of the heavy pedestrian activity here, we’re not putting in additional landscaping. We’re leaving the space kind of free for merchants to use."
Radulovich was hopeful that Valencia could serve as a model for many of the ideas that are in the Better Streets Plan. "We’re really hoping we can point to Valencia as, ‘well, here’s our new standards, here’s the city’s new commitment to better streets, and here’s what a neighborhood commercial street ought to look like," said Radulovich.
Some concerns remain, however. Chief among them are loading zones and enforcement. "It’s a poorly-enforced street now, there’s a lot of double-parking in the bike lanes, there’s a lot of double-parking in the median," said Radulovich.
"We’re getting rid of that median, replacing it with left-turn pockets in a few locations, so definitely there’s going to have to be an emphasis on enforcement. I’m a little more worried about double-parking than I am about speeding, just seeing how the street works now."
Radulovich would also like to have seen more bulb-outs added, though he said that traffic engineers are reluctant to make improvements that would make it difficult for deliveries by large trucks and trailers. "That kind of giant trucks obsession that a lot of the traffic engineers have compromised the design somewhat," said Radulovich. "We feel like it’s a missed opportunity to have done them on the numbered streets."
On the whole, though, the project should bring a streetscape virtually unrivaled in San Francisco, and one that can serve as a model for future design. In the meantime, however, bicyclists may have to contend with intermittent bike lane interruptions.
During other construction projects, DPW’s response to bike lane obstruction has "largely been complaint-driven," says San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Community Planner Neal Patel.
Valencia Street will require extra vigilance, because it’s one of the most popular routes in the city for bicyclists. "We really need to make sure that it’s not a complaint-driven requests, and the city and contractors understand that they need to maintain the bicycle right-of-way. They seem to be on par with that, they agree. DPW has had special talks with the contractors to say, ‘make sure that you do everything according to the law.’"
During construction, crews are legally required to maintain all existing bike lanes, or to post signs stating "Bicyclists Allowed Use of Full Lane" or "Bicycle Route Detour" when the lane must be obstructed.
Alex Murillo of DPW vowed to keep the lane open as much as possible and to stay in touch with the SFBC. "Our goal is to keep it open 24/7," said Murillo. "There may be a time or two where we need to detour traffic on that block. I can assure you that we are going to keep it open as much as possible."
Murillo said that any bicyclist who finds that the lane is closed or obstructed without proper signage should call him immediately: "I will be on it like you have no idea, because, trust me, my goal is to keep that lane open."
Bicyclists are encouraged to contact both DPW’s Alex Murillo and SFBC’s Neal Patel if they encounter an obstructed bike lane without proper signage during the nine months of construction. Murillo can be reached by phone at (415) 437-7009 or email at alex.m.murillo (at) sfdpw.org. Patel can be reached by phone at (415) 431-BIKE x312 or email at neal (at) sfbike.org.