ISCOTT: Taking a Closer Look at Street Closures

3524772632_fed7d6d7f4.jpgOrganizers of San Francisco's numerous street festivals, including the How Weird Street Faire pictured above, must get a street closure permit from ISCOTT. Flickr photo: kempo101
If you've ever tried to organize a block party, a parade, or a farmers market, or you're planning your next party in the middle of the street, you need to know Cindy Shamban. Shamban is the MTA's staff administrator for the Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation, or ISCOTT, the intersection of every city agency that might be interested in or concerned by an event that necessitates the disruption of routine automobile traffic in San Francisco. 

In a city that loves to meet and fete in the streets, Shamban oversees hundreds of street closure requests every year, a job she clearly loves, though she takes her responsibility quite seriously.

"There are a lot of events and a lot of the events are connected to cultural traditions," said Shamban. "San Francisco being a city with so many rich cultures, that has something to do with it. That all adds to the complexity of the special events calendars."

"We have certain rules and regulations and they need to be followed," she added.

Take a block party, for instance. If you don't live along a transit line, you're in luck. Likewise if you're not on an arterial like Fell or Van Ness, though you might really want that street to be calmed while you and your neighbors play hopscotch in the middle of it. If you are on a block that can be closed for a small event and there is a transit line, the MTA might consider re-routing the transit for the duration of the event, though you will need to recoup the cost. This year, they are charging eight dollars per coach per hour, so depending on your line and the duration of your event, it could run up to 500 dollars or more.

That price will go up by two dollars an hour next year, another two the year after, because it actually costs the MTA more to divert the buses. Given the state of the MTA's operating budget, though, we can't begrudge them the fee. Muni will even consider re-routing the electric trolleys, assuming your event is only a block or two long, as each electric trolley has a battery with enough power to allow minor diversions while unattached to the wires.

In preparing this story, we heard from several organizations and groups that they had difficulty navigating ISCOTT, though most of them didn't want to go on record for fear of hurting their chances of getting a street closure permit in the future. One of the central complaints had to do with perceptions of fairness and objectivity at the meetings among the agency representatives.

How Weird Street Fair organizer Brad Olsen offered this mild criticism of the process: "My opinion is the system is generally fair, but there are times when the objectivity of the voting panel can be swayed by one member's opinion (right or wrong) or the vocal opposition by a small minority of residents. I think the ISCOTT panel is aware that outdoor events are a vital part of the social fabric that makes living in San Francisco so appealing to many residents."

Organizers of events that are unique and don't fit into a traditional permitting procedure, such as Park(ing) day, don't go before ISCOTT at all, preferring to take their chances on the streets with police that may or may not be forgiving of the unusual use of parking spaces. MTA spokesperson Judson True said there wasn't a lot of "hand-wringing" over Park(ing) day within the MTA.

sb_party.jpgWhen Streetsblog considered having its party after Sunday Streets, we also skipped the ISCOTT process, leaving it up to chance that we could be shut down by the SFPD, which nearly happened. Photo by Myleen Holero.
A more serious criticism leveled at ISCOTT was that the body had over-reached its statutory role as defined by city code, that it was no longer just dealing with street closures, but matters of policy related to bicycles and pedestrians or engineering standards like double-turn lanes.

Andy Thornley, the SFBC's program director, called ISCOTT's record "uneven," saying at some ISCOTT meetings, "bike and pedestrian projects were often distorted, delayed, or killed without compelling reference to adopted policy and standards, rather based on the opinions and attitudes of whatever unaccountable cop or fireman was sitting in the meeting."

The MTA's True acknowledged that some issues around the use of streets were policy matters and should not be dealt with at ISCOTT. "ISCOTT had begun handling traffic and engineering issues that were not part of the statutory language. There was a feeling that this was not a good use of ISCOTT's time."

As a result, the MTA created another interdepartmental committee, the Transportation Advisory Staff Committee (TASC), to manage issues that have policy implications before bringing them to public hearings or the MTA Board (more on that committee in another post).

Susan King, who works for Livable City and is the chief organizer for Sunday Streets, felt that the process could be amended to function smoother.  "In the case of Sunday Streets, we have been strongly supported by MTA and City staff in getting the permits we need and have not been stymied. I understand the process better, but still find all the various sub permits- Sound (Entertainment Comm), Rec & Park (for use of city park property), Port (use of Port property), National Park (ditto), and other (Dept. of Public Health for food vending) to be a lot of moving parts to coordinate."

She also said the process could be "demystified and made more available to grassroots organizers. More people will find creating events less daunting. There is a lot of paperwork and it discourages potential partners. The expenses for these permits can add up and be discouraging if there are not a lot of hands on deck available to help manage the work."

True defended the agency's role in the process, saying they made every effort to be transparent to the public in any process that would effect policy. "We have to protect the city; there are legal requirements; that is part of our job. But I think San Francisco and the SFMTA have an incredibly open process, all the way up to [MTA Chief] Nat Ford. We may not be on exactly the same page every step of the way, but we're reading the same book."