NoPa Neighborhood Fights to Calm its Residential Freeway

Fell_street_4.jpgCars regularly block the bike lane on Fell Street near the Arco Station. Photo: Bryan Goebel

In a city where people and cars regularly jostle for space, it's not uncommon to have speeding traffic just inches or feet from pedestrians, homes, and parks. This spatial conflict is especially pronounced on Fell and Oak Streets, which serve all at once as de facto residential highways, major bike thoroughfares, and densely built-up residential and commercial streets, their sidewalks bustling with people on their way home or visiting the Panhandle.

For years, even decades, residents have fought to calm traffic along the corridor. Cars routinely speed down Fell and Oak, which were converted to three-or-four-lane one-ways half a century ago as a compromise with planners who wanted to build an east-west freeway, linking the Central Freeway to the Golden Gate Bridge, by demolishing the homes between them and wiping out the Panhandle. The compromise saved the homes and the park, but has left the neighborhood plagued with freeway-like traffic.

Now, some neighbors worry that new overhead information signs for drivers, which are being installed as part of the city's SFgo traffic-management program, will encourage speeding on the already fast one-way couplet. Residents are wary of anything that contributes to a freeway mentality on the street. Earlier this week, a 24-year-old San Francisco woman was killed by a driver while crossing Fell Street at Broderick.

"It's been treated as a freeway by the city, much to the peril of everyone who lives along the densely-packed residential corridors that are Oak and Fell," said Michael Smithwick, chair of the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association's transportation committee. "They're obviously not designed for freeway use, and have kind of been force-fed" the high traffic volumes.

AAB_3661.jpgFell Street between Shrader and Stanyan, before it was converted to a one-way street. Photo: San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection
In recent years, neighborhood associations and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi have campaigned hard to scale back some of the freeway-like elements. They've had victories, like adding a bike lane to a stretch of Fell and getting rid of peak-time tow-away zones on Fell and most of Oak, returning a buffer of parked cars where there were once curbside lanes of speeding traffic.

Because parking wasn't available on the street, Smithwick said, residents parked their cars on the sidewalk in front of their homes. "The sidewalks there were perilous, and sometimes completely impassible, because you'd have a car parked on it, and then the only way to get by was to step out into an active lane of speeding traffic curbside. So, obviously, no one walked on the street, it was just a mess."

"The city removed that fourth lane of morning traffic on Oak, and they predicted Armageddon, and it didn't happen."

Smithwick also points to traffic light changes as a hard-fought victory and improvement. For a long time, stoplights on Fell and Oak were disabled late at night, and simply flashed yellow. Semi trucks rumbled down at high speeds, shaking the buildings in their wake and setting off car alarms. About six or seven years ago, that finally changed.

Neighbors and Mirkarimi said they've struggled to implement the incremental changes, which are improvements, but none have fundamentally changed the streets. "Fell and Oak is a freeway, for all intents and purposes," said Mirkarimi, who fought for removing the tow-away zones, and installing the bike signal at Fell and Masonic. "Unless we are willing to radically calm Fell and Oak down, then we're just dancing around the edges."

3890829846_8741707330.jpgIt could have been worse: in the 1940s, planner envisioned a Panhandle Freeway. Flickr photo: Eric Fischer
BIKE NOPA's Michael Helquist thinks that radical calming should involve returning Oak and Fell to two-way streets. "I think further consideration needs to be given to whether Oak and Fell should remain one-way, or not, whether the speed limit should be reduced, whether even reducing the speed limit would in itself be enough," said Helquist.

Smithwick also likes the idea of two-way streets, but suggested crosswalk pedestrian bulb-outs as an immediate measure. "Now that you've got parking on both sides of the street" because the tow-away zones are gone, Smithwick said, "there's no reason, other than cost purposes, that you couldn't do a sidewalk extension into that parking lane at each of the corners."

Supervisor Mirkarimi strongly supports traffic calming measures on Fell and Oak, but said the issue needs to be examined in the context of the broader traffic impacts the NoPa neighborhood has experienced as a result of the tear-down of the Central Freeway in Hayes Valley, which was replaced by Octavia Boulevard.

The freeway environment on Oak and Fell needs to be tamed, Mirkarimi said, "but the question can't be answered unilaterally without talking about the blowback of Octavia Boulevard. That's also what's causing the small side streets that are becoming the alternative corridors for people to try to get where they want to go by not being on Fell and Oak."

The Board of Supervisors commissioned the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to complete a study "to assess all the positives and negatives due to Octavia Boulevard," said Mirkarimi, "because of traffic fluctuations and changes that travel westward because of the new boulevard." The study is due in mid-2010, but Mirkarimi said a similar study should have been completed before Octavia Boulevard was built.

The bulb-outs and wider median being installed on Divisadero Street, which intersects Fell and Oak, are part of broader efforts to calm traffic in the neighborhood, Mirkarimi said, but he's frustrated with the MTA's spotty approach to planning in the area. "The challenge I want to spotlight is the way it's incrementally being patchworked, and the way answers have been slow-coming," he said.

Both Helquist and Mirkarimi identified the Fell Street Arco Station, where long queues of cars that spill out onto the street and block the bike lane, and the new Falletti Foods market, which has encouraged dangerous turns into its parking lot, as especially hazardous situations that need to be addressed immediately. The latest concern, though, is the installation of new freeway-style overhead information signs on both Fell and Oak, which are part of the SFgo traffic-management program. The signs are intended to give drivers information like garage parking availability and congestion-causing events to avoid.

Blog+pics+054-1_1.jpgInfrastructure for new SFgo signs over Fell Street. Photo: Michael Helquist/BIKE NOPA
"Once the neighbors noticed these new SFgo signposts on Oak and Fell," Helquist said, "they wanted to find out what was going on, since we hadn't been adequately notified ahead of time." Kevin Rafter, the president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association (NOPNA), contacted Cheryl Liu, the program manager for SFgo, and arranged for the MTA to send a speaker to NOPNA's meeting tonight.

"The intent is, one, to get information from SFgo," said Helquist, "but also, finally, for them to get some input from the neighborhood about what these are. We're really hoping the presentation that they give will last about five minutes, and then they will address either some of the questions that I listed on my blog, and certainly questions from the neighborhood."

Mirkarimi said there is some support from neighborhood organizations for the Fell Street sign, but he has yet to hear a strong argument for the signs on Oak Street.

"To be honest with you, I'm not sold [that SFgo signs are] needed both on Fell and Oak," said Mirkarimi. "Some make a better or stronger case for Fell, but nobody's made a good case to me on Oak at all."

Walk SF's Manish Champsee said the SFgo program is moving in the opposite direction of state-of-the-art traffic calming techniques. "Cities are moving away from that whole idea of giving people information and giving them a false sense of security," said Champsee. "Traffic calming is going in the direction of let's give people a sense of danger," so they pay greater attention to their surroundings.

The meeting tonight will give neighbors a chance to discuss the SFgo program with its staff. In addition, Judson True, a spokesperson for the MTA, said the agency is open to hearing ideas from the community about the full range ideas for improving conditions on Oak and Fell. "We're always open to talk to any neighbors about ideas to improve our streets," said True, who cited numerous changes the MTA has already made. In addition to retiming the signals to slow traffic, said True, "We've reduced green light time overall, installed newer pedestrian countdown signals on the street, improved visibility of signs and added more speed limit signs."

True added: "We would be open to conversation about other ideas. We'd be open to bulb-outs."

The Alamo Square Neighborhood Association's Smithwick said neighbors have fought hard for all of those changes. It's a fight for every single bit of accommodation to safety and pedestrian equal access," said Smithwick. "It's a struggle, and it has been for the twenty years that I've been involved in this, all along the way."

Supervisor Mirkarimi echoed that sentiment. Converting Fell and Oak back to two-ways "would be fantastic," said Mirkarimi, "but at the very minimum, in the areas that also intersect Fell and Oak, like Masonic, that's exactly what we're trying to aim towards, is significant traffic calming, and I think the MTA has yet to produce any substantive answers."

The fundamental message for the city," said Helquist, "for DPT and MTA and SFgo, is that congestion is not the problem. Speed is."

The SFgo presentation at the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association meeting will be held tonight from 7-9pm at Poleng Lounge, 1751 Fulton Street.