SF Transbay District Plan Offers Lofty Vision for Growth and Livable Streets

transbay_park_small.jpgElevated Transbay Park. Images: Planning Department
The recently released Transbay Transit District Draft Plan is the culmination of two years of detailed work by the many city agencies and consultants that had a hand in it, and its objectives for creating a vibrant, walkable public realm and its goals to promote transit and reduce automobile traffic make it a valuable mission statement for growth in San Francisco's downtown over the next 25 years.

The Planning Department's Joshua Switzky, one of the lead authors, said like any draft plan this one will fluctuate based on the public and the Planning Commission's feedback, but the principles espoused in it should remain intact.

"The plan that we put out is clearly the one we think is the best plan. Depending on what the Commission wants to do, we will potentially make changes. It's kind of really open to the process," said Switzky.

Switzky pointed to several key recommendations, ones that could prove contentious several years down the line when more detailed proposals are hammered out. One is assuring the quality of pedestrian accessibility with the objective in the plan to maintain, on average, 21-foot sidewalks, 15 feet for circulation and 6 feet of curbside amenities, such as bike racks, benches, street trees, or news boxes.

"That will mean different things on different streets," said Switzky. "On some streets, the only way to achieve that will be to eliminate on-street parking. Sometimes it might mean eliminating a travel lane." Sometimes, he said, it could be a combination of both. "The future of this area is probably a lot less on-street parking than there is today."

Rather than include specific measurements for every sidewalk in the plan, which Switzky said they had at one point considered, for the sake of buy-in from the many agencies cooperating to produce the draft, the Planning Department deferred to general policy objectives. Switzky also noted that nothing specific would happen for several years until after an environmental review is complete and that significant changes would require an economic rebound and renewed investment in the city.

transbay_skyline.jpgClick to enlarge: A conceptual image of a new San Francisco skyline.
Although the plan is massive and many have only just seen it, Jamie Whitaker, President of the Rincon Hill Neighborhood Association, gave the the Planning Department high praise for its inclusiveness, transparency, and community outreach. He was particularly happy that the Transbay plan incorporated so many elements meant to improve pedestrian safety.

"The Plan's emphasis on creating a pedestrian-oriented Transit Center District is very encouraging. Attention will be paid to making the area safe for people of all ages and mobility challenges to get around on foot," said Whitacker. "The Association will be vigilant about trying mitigate 'dangerous by design' elements that detract from the pedestrian experience along our residential core on Harrison Street."

Manish Champsee, Executive Director of Walk San Francisco, also praised the plan. "The thing that I really like about this plan is that it considers the pedestrian first. Usually when there is a plan to greatly increase the usage of a particular area, the first thought is to create more auto capacity to deal with extra traffic in the area," said Champsee. "This plan takes a completely different approach: it says there will be lots more people in this area, lets increase the sidewalk space to accommodate them. A stark difference."

Another plan objective likely to inspire debate is the proposal to reduce maximum parking allowances in the plan area by half. Currently, said Switzky, commercial space in the downtown core allows 7 percent of gross floor area to be parking, which works out to about one parking space for every 5,000 square feet of office space, or one car for every 20 workers. If the plan's objectives are adopted, the limit of one car for every 40 workers in the plan area would put San Francisco close to the limits set in Manhattan, the strictest anywhere in the country (In Manhattan below 60th Street, commercial developments have to cap the total new parking spaces to 100, no matter the size of the building).

The final plan objectives guaranteed to bring about disagreement are travel demand management proposals, including congestion pricing and other restrictions on personal automobiles into the plan area. In addition to pricing private driving into the downtown, the plan proposes mandating mode-split targets by requiring commercial property owners and managers to keep records of how their employees traveled to work. If the split didn't meet overall travel targets, property owners and businesses would have to provide incentives to employees to reduce overall driving into the area.

Regardless of whether or not San Francisco ever sets up a congestion pricing cordon or further limits parking supply in downtown, the plan sets ambitious targets for creating a dense downtown to rival any large city around the world.

Whitaker looked at the long view of the neighborhood. "I believe it is a good reflection of San Francisco's aspirations to continue to be a jobs center, the hub for regional transit, and a model for sustainable urban planning, [while] minimizing air pollution and other negative impacts on our environment," he said.

Living_Street_schematic.jpgClick to Enlarge.
The following are selections from the policies and objectives proposed in the Draft Plan:

Pedestrians and the Public Realm

"To create a public realm worthy of a great city, as well as accommodate the increased number of pedestrians and transit users, the balance of space must shift more toward people on the street. Unavoidably, this step involves certain tradeoffs between pedestrian improvements and space for automobiles.... Giving priority to pedestrians and the Transit Center District’s place in the city means difficult choices in view of space limitations in the rights-of-way."

  • Policy 3.8 - Designate Plan Area streets where no curb cuts are allowed or are discouraged. Where curb cuts are necessary, they should be limited in number and designed to avoid maneuvering on sidewalks or in street traffic. When crossing sidewalks, driveways should be only as wide as necessary to accomplish this function.
  • Policy 3.14 - Convert the western portion of Natoma Street between First and Second streets on the south side of the Transit Center to a primarily pedestrian-only street.
  • Policy 3.13 - Close Shaw Alley permanently to vehicles and design it as a pedestrian-only open space for thru-connection to the Transit Center.
  • Objective 3.6 - Enhance the pedestrian network with new linkages to provide direct and varied pathways , to shorten walking distances, and to relieve congestion at major street corners.
  • Objective 3.8 - Ensure that new development enhances the pedestrian network and reduces the scale of long blocks by maintaining and improving public access along existing alleys and creating new through-block pedestrian connections where none exist.
  • Objective 3.9 - Ensure that mid-block crosswalks and through-block passageways are convenient, safe, and inviting.

Encourage Transit and Limit Automobile Congestion

"Data compiled from the 2000 Census by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) for the broader downtown, encompassing the entire C-3 zone and adjacent areas showed that 49 percent of workers took transit, 41 percent of commuters came by auto (including 29 percent who drove alone to work) and about 10 percent took other means (primarily walking and bicycling).... Moreover, vehicle occupancy trends (i.e. number of people per vehicle) also appear counter to the intentions of the Downtown Plan.... Evidence reviewed in the 2004 Downtown Monitoring Report indicate that vehicle occupancy on both major bridges into the City have declined since 1985."

  • Policy 4.11 - Study the feasibility of and implement, as feasibility and necessity determines, congestion pricing of roadways as a primary tool to reduce overall traffic levels in the Plan area, particularly peak-hour bridge and freeway queues.
  • Objective 4.1 - The district’s transportation system will prioritize and incentivize the use of transit. Public transportation will be the main, non-pedestrian mode for moving into and between destinations in the transit center district.
  • Objective 4.2 - The district’s transportation system will implement and require transportation demand management strategies to minimize growth in auto trips and reduce volumes as necessary. Actively manage the transportation system to optimize person-carrying capacity. 
  • Objective 4.4 - The district’s transportation system will prioritize pedestrian amenity and safety. Invest in circulation modifications and urban design measures that support the creation of an attractive and memorable public realm.
  • Objective 4.5 - The district’s transportation system will build on successful traffic and parking management programs and policies that are in place. Expand and strengthen existing adopted policies (e.g. Downtown Plan, C-3 parking controls) and current planning initiatives (e.g. Transit Effectiveness Project, SFPark).
  • Objective 4.6 - The district’s transportation system will require management of bay bridge queues to reduce and mitigate impacts of regional traffic on transit circulation and the public realm in the district.
  • Objective 4.9 - Prioritize transit movements through and within the district over all other transportation modes.