The Broadway Tunnel: One of SF’s Meanest Streets for Biking and Walking

IMG_2145.jpgThe Broadway tunnel's pedestrian path. Photo: Michael Rhodes

The Broadway tunnel, stretching from Hyde Street in Russian Hill to Powell Street in Chinatown, is one of the scariest places in San Francisco to ride a bike, and it's no walk in the park for pedestrians, either.

With two wide lanes of auto traffic in each direction of the double-bore tunnel and not a single stop sign or light for five blocks, even many experienced cyclists fear it. The amplified roar of traffic alone is enough to leave a pedestrian on the narrow side paths shaken.

"If I was actually in the street, this would be the worst, probably, because it's just so closed," said Caroline, a bike commuter who rides on the side path to avoid the treacherous road. "If there was an accident, there's nowhere to go. You can't try to get off the road. You'd be crushed. It'd be pretty terrible."

Chris Whitacre, a seasoned bike messenger who rides all over the city in the course of his work, felt the same way. "Oh yeah, it's sketchy," said Whitacre, who rides on the side path on his way uphill -- westbound -- through the tunnel, and braves the street on his way downhill, when he can keep up with traffic.

Neither cyclists nor pedestrians are thrilled with that arrangement, since the side paths are already very narrow for people on foot or in wheelchairs. While the city has big plans for other bike network improvements, major upgrades to the tunnel remain the stuff of dreams.

IMG_2103.jpgA pedestrian walks along the Broadway tunnel's narrow pathway.
"It's definitely a bottleneck and a constraint in the bike network and in the pedestrian network," said the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's Andy Thornley. One of the SFBC's earliest successes as an organization was securing the right for cyclists to ride through the tunnel at all, but getting physical improvements has proven tougher.

The only notable improvement for cyclists is a plan to install a sign that alerts motorists when cyclists are riding eastbound in the tunnel towards Chinatown. The sign will have flashing lights, and will be tripped by cyclists passing over a loop detector in the pavement, or by pressing a button. Cyclists who've traveled to Marin County might recognize that design from the Bunker Road tunnel in the Marin Headlands.

"That's a little bit of comfort," said Thornley, "but honestly, that's not going to get cautious folks on bikes much."

The cyclists Streetsblog interviewed yesterday all said that a flashing sign would be nice, but wouldn't get them riding on the street. "Honestly, it's still a tunnel," said Caroline, who'd be more comfortable if there were bike lanes. "I don't know if I would feel safe going through it on the street, personally. I've seen guys do it. I don't think I could do it."

The planning team at the Chinatown Community Development Center is currently working on improving the stretch of Broadway just east of the tunnel for pedestrians, and has also been counting bicyclists at intersections around Chinatown. On a recent weekday morning, CCDC counted 32 male cyclists at the intersection of Broadway and Powell, by the tunnel's entrance, and just two female cyclists in a two-hour period. During a two-hour stretch on a weekday evening, the split was 30 male cyclists and four women.

sign.jpgA drawing of the proposed sign. Image: SFMTA

Andy, a Richmond District resident who last took his bike out on Bike to Work Day, was on his way yesterday to visit his mother-in-law in North Beach. He normally drives to his job in South San Francisco, but yesterday he was looking for exercise, and took his bike for the crosstown journey. This was his first journey ever biking through the tunnel, and he planned to stay on the sidewalk. A flashing sign still wasn't going to cut it.

"It's the speed in the tunnel that's a problem, 30 to 40 miles per hour," he said.

Long-term solutions will either be more expensive or require sacrificing some automobile capacity. That might include widening the raised pedestrian path and making room for a mixed-use path. But short of taking a lane of traffic, there simply isn't room for comfortable coexistence of bikes, pedestrians and cars.

"I'm guessing engineers would say 'there's not enough capacity,' but as with so many other questions of mobility and transportation, it's really a political question rather than an engineering question," said Thornley. "If the city decided it wanted to allocate more room for bike right-of-way in the tunnel, it could certainly do that."

IMG_2082.jpgIn case it's not clear, this sign by the entrance to the tunnel reminds drivers of a basic rule.

If that sounds radical, said Thornley, it's worth considering what a sacrifice the current tunnel design is for a a neighborhood like Chinatown, which is one of San Francisco's most transit-and-walking-oriented.

"For a neighborhood that doesn't really drive much, we really are making a fairly big concession to automobility with that tunnel," he said.

Yesterday, cars zipped through the tunnel as usual, speeding up as they approached the eastern exit into Chinatown. There, drivers pass right in front of a school and nursery, before entering the dense pedestrian zone along Broadway as it passes Stockton, Grant, and Columbus. Over at the western exit, cars zoom right past a playground that bustles with children.

As a driver, it's hard not to fall into a freeway mentality in the tunnel, before plopping down in the city's densest neighborhood.

Whitacre, the bike messenger, doesn't own a car, but said he understands why cars get going fast with the current tunnel design. "I would fly too," he said.

How do you navigate the Broadway tunnel -- or do you simply avoid it altogether? And what are the other scariest spots in San Francisco's bike network? Let us know in the comments section below.

IMG_0885.jpgBroadway tunnel traffic meets dense pedestrian traffic in Chinatown.