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.
  • “For a neighborhood that doesn’t really drive much, we really are making a fairly big concession to automobility with that tunnel,” he said.

    Um, which tunnel? I think the concessions made on the Stockton tunnel are much worse.

    Also, that bike messenger rides 50 mph through the tunnel? Cause that is how fast people fly through that thing. There is no speed control what so ever. Not to mention that once out of the tunnel, the speed continues down Broadway through the Stockton and Columbus intersections. Cars rarely slow and usually speed up to make the lights.

  • Thanos

    It’s fine the way it is.

  • Thanos, what is fine the way it is?

    It’d really help if you added more then just some random opinion. Maybe some reasons you feel your opinion holds water. Maybe something more then a sentence you know will only rile people up. If you gave reasons, we could even possibly have a conversation.

  • The solution has to be to take out one lane of traffic on one of the sides. I wouldn’t even call it a solution–this is an opportunity. There isn’t so much a problem here as a missed opportunity–to really open up a bicycle and pedestrian corridor in the city between Nob Hill/Polk and China Town/NB. The flashing light sign thing would be a real waste of money and seems way too pacificatory to me. We need to advocate a fully protected (with cement) two-way bike lane–that is what Andy was hinting at. Why can’t we just come out and say things like this in this town? In the meantime, this will be the story: I have to drive to x or y through the tunnel because it is not safe or pleasant to bike there because there is just a little walkway and there are too many cars and so I have to keep on driving through that tunnel. Close Stockton to cars, add BRT, and put a protected lane in the Broadway tunnel and all of a sudden you’ve got a much different mobility flow in this part of the city.

    It is high time we start systematically and institutionally ranking the priorities of the motoring public below those of current and potential pedestrians, cyclists and transit users. Their opinions simply cannot and should not count for as much. I think we’re starting to get there, but it is a slow process.

  • Justin – agreed agreed agreed.

  • i’ve ridden through the broadway tunnel a couple times..both ways. pretty scary. Of course cars like to honk…but it’s like where am i supposed to go? you have 2 lanes! go around! share the road!!! AND one time my shoe laces got eaten by my cog. It wasn’t fun. luckily cars were scarce. a bike solution is def needed….

  • Brennan

    I occasionally ride through the tunnel on my way home from work, but usually opt to take Bay or North Point instead of Broadway. In fact, I’d probably still take those routes even if there were a full bike lane through the tunnel; the noise and car exhaust would be just as bad even with a protected lane.

    @Justin, I disagree with your statement that “[Motorists’] opinions simply cannot and should not count for as much.” Why is that? It seems to me that pedestriants, cyclists, transit users, and motorists should all have equal sway.

  • As the epitome of featureless, there is almost nothing in this tube to bring caution and quell a driver’s inherent urge for speed. It is built for that and that’s what we’re getting.

    Anyone ever tried traffic calming a tunnel..?

  • also…stockton tunnel isn’t that sketchy to go through, but once you get to the bottom..going..er south? yes….that RIGHT turn lane going onto sutter is a bitch. Cars JUST can’t wait..and have to zip around bicyclists and skateboarders that want to proceed to go straight. I got swiped by a car and it sucked… be patient…

  • Agree with Brennan – it’s the noise and exhaust more than anything. I deal with obnoxious drivers all the time, but part of riding a bike is fresh air.

  • Brennan – cars by far lay the biggest burden on all road users. Trying to equally prioritize cars, bikes, transit, and peds is to ignore tons of factors, and is like trying to flatten the hills of SF… (a bit cheesy, I know).

  • Joseph E

    How much car traffic is there in the Broadway tunnel, anyway? Google Maps suggests I drive on Columbus and Bay or Van Nuys and California between Downtown and the Golden Gate bridge, for example. With no cross-streets, it seems like 1 lane for cars in each direction would provide plenty of capacity. The real problem for drivers is all the cross-traffic and pedestrians in Chinatown, which takes away some of the advantage of the tunnel, versus alternate routes north and south.

    Perhaps one side of the tunnel could provide two-way traffic for cars, with the current walkway turned into a buffer, and the other side would be for bikes and pedestrians only. This would somewhat lessen the noise and smog, at least in the western, separated section of the tunnels.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I can fix this with paint and signs alone. Close the north tunnel to cars and make the south tunnel two-way. There isn’t anywhere near enough auto traffic to justify four lanes anywhere on Broadway. Reduce Broadway to two traffic lanes along its entire length, with pocket turns at the busy Van Ness, Polk, and Chinatown intersections. This solves the tunnel problem, the turning delivery traffic problem, and the private school double parking problem all in one swoop, for less than a million bucks.

  • Yeah, good luck getting rid of any traffic lanes into/out of Chinatown. The powers that be seem to think cars are the only way people get to their part of town. What a joke.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    You’re right, mikesonn, the community “leaders” of Chinatown will not be happy until they put the Embarcadero Freeway back up. Fortunately there will come a time when they will all be dead and most of us will still be alive. Sorry to put it that way but sometimes progress has to wait for the know-nothings to pass.

  • Run more Sunday Streets in the neighborhood. People can change.

  • Totally agreed. And I think the CCDC is coming around to transit, but they also believe the answer is the Central subway. Once again this morning I was on the 45 behind an 8x as it pulled up to Market/4th and saw 95% of the bus pile out. These poor people are going to lose their Market transfer when they build the CS, but some politicians will get fancy photo ops.

    But I’d be all for making the Broadway tunnel in the way that Jeffery and Joseph suggest. There really is no reason to have that much traffic capacity through there.

    But I do take issue with google directing people down Columbus via Bay/North Point.

  • One more here for segregated tunnels.

  • Sean T Hedgpeth

    Pacific isnt that much of a climb, and its sunny. If only more streets only had 1 lane of parking. About the tunnel, I think improvements to east Broadway would need to be fixed at the same time, the drivers seem to laugh at the sharrows. Also, a diagonal light needs to be added to the VERY busy pedestrian crossing at Stockton.

  • Disco Burritos

    I’m going to agree with people who just avoid the tunnel when on bike or on foot. Not everything needs to be made bike friendly, and I don’t think the Broadway tunnel would be that appealing to use even if it did have a dedicated bike lane. It already has a dedicated pedestrian path, but I don’t see very many people using that ever. Additionally, a zippy automobile-friendly route might help to keep cars away from quieter streets that are more enjoyable to pedestrians and cyclists.

  • Not everything needs to be made car friendly either.

    But it is a flat east/west between Polk/Russian Hill and Chinatown/North Beach. I say that in itself is worth any effort to make it more accessible to peds and bikes.

  • turtles

    Disco Burritos: “Not everything needs to be made bike friendly… a zippy automobile-friendly route might help to keep cars away from quieter streets”

    Yeah, and why DO black people want to eat at the front counter and share water fountains with white people…? Why can’t they be satisfied eating in the kitchen, sheesh.

  • Commute

    I ride the elevated pedestrian gangplank going eastbound (downhill) at least 3-4x/wk on my commute. Never have done it westbound as I usually take a longer/more leisurely ride home.

    It can be pretty sketchy riding the metal plating at speed, worried about clipping a handlebar on the railing or when passing pedestrians (which happens pretty rarely). You just have to slow WAY down and give them a heads up and they step aside. It’s tight but that’s life.

    I can’t realistically see them closing one of the tubes for pedestrians and cyclist–plus the ped friendly tube would probably end up more litter, urine and homeless ridden than it already is.

    All that really needs to change in my mind is to improve the railing somehow to reduce the risk of clipping a handlebar-maybe face it with plexiglass so it is smooth and goes to a cyclist shoulder height.

  • mcas

    Commute– besides the bars catching the railing, the other side of the path is covered in exhaust gunk. A friend of mine and I were walking, and his light-colored jacket brushed the side and was ruined.

    If they aren’t going to make the path wide enough for two people to pass each other, they could at least keep the walls clean enough to avoid stains.

  • Nick

    Broadway Tunnel is unsafe even when filled with only cyclists (think CM). I remember a girl who crashed in the tunnel circa Sept 2008. She crashed near the railing and had blood coming out of her mouth and was gasping for breath.

    ————–

    San Francisco has done a pretty good job of not mixing high speed streets with bike traffic. Take a trip to the South Bay and you’ll see plenty of bike lanes next to 2 auto lanes marked “50 MPH.”

    Broadway is a unique case in that it gives us a little taste of backwards bike planning.

  • Jon

    I rode that tunnel daily for 2 years. I followed the law and rode in the street until the risk of my life wasn’t worth it to me anymore. Then I stuck to the raised path and dismounted and walked if I encountered any pedestrians. If traffic was heavy, I could easily travel at the speed limit. I did not lane-split, because I wanted to behave as if I was in a car and be treated with the same respect as a car.

    The other commenters are correct. The fumes in that tunnel are a huge problem. The other problem is the high probability of drivers gunning it up to 70 in the tunnel. (They are the reason I eventually abadoned the street.)

    My advice: remove one lane of traffic and the north pedestrian path. Then widen the west-bound lanes and install a moving barrier. Open the second lane to eastbound traffic in the morning and open the 2nd lane to westbound traffic in the prevening. This is the model used by the GG bridge and Caldecott, so why can’t it work on a city street.

    Expand the south walkway to allow 2-way bike paths and separated ped path both on a raised surface above car traffic.

    You’re welcome.

  • Glenn

    I’ve biked through the tunnel probably 2,000 times. Riding in the street (either direction) is a non-starter; I don’t see that as safe under any condition short of removing a car lane. What would help is to have pedestrians walk counter to traffic flow. That way, I can stop and let them by, rather than startle them by wheeling-up from behind.

  • yentu

    I take the tunnel several times a week. Eastbound I take the street, westbound the sidewalk. Eastbound, I wait for the light at Polk or at Larkin to change, then go as hard as
    I can. On the scary side, but doable.

    At the very least, a Bikes Okay sign for the sidewalks seems in order.

    And Sean, I wouldn’t dismiss the Pacific hill westward so lightly, especially in work clothes.

  • CCcyclist

    FYI: what follows is NOT a rant:

    Thanks, SF Streetsblog, for addressing this issue. I hope to see more press about it soon, and strongly urge the SFBC and SPUR will partner with Chinatown and Russian Hill neighborhood groups to improve pedestrian/bicycle access and widen the safety zone around schools, day care, playgrounds, and the bustling produce markets and restaurants. Installing a middle island, such as along Divisadero, in the “red light” section of Broadway would also help calm the street, and may even make for a more savory tourists destination and place to live.

    I bike through the west-bound tunnel once a week, always sticking to the elevated sidewalk. Most pedestrians are good about moving to the side to allow cyclists to pass, but it has happened more than once that a disgruntled or belligerent pedestrian would not move aside (even with friendly “hellooooos,” “pardon me, miss,” or “excuse me,” and friendly bell rings). It would be great if pedestrians and cyclists could both fit on the path, with cyclists not having to interrupt the pedestrian’s thoughts to ask them to flatten against the wall so the cyclist may pass.

    A section of the guardrail is crumpled in around the midway point of the westbound tunnel. Every time I ride through the tunnel, I have panicked, anxious thoughts of being crushed by a speeding car (by the way, EVERY car speeds through the tunnel). How about installing cameras (like at red lights) for cars speeding more than 5 miles above the posted limit? How about rerouting Van Ness traffic through Bay Street or another busy north shore street, instead of allowing it to accelerate through the city’s densest neighborhood?

    Dropping the tunnel down to one lane of traffic would significantly curtail speeding (to echo the article above). A widened pedestrian/bicycle path could be wide enough to allow for emergency responders to access the tunnel and any car accident. To further entice pedestrians and cyclists, a heavy duty cement barrier between the single car lane and the pedestrian/bicycle path could be installed.

    Thanks!

  • 25 mph speed limit, camera enforcement enforcement (easy enough: shoot ’em going in; shoot ’em going out; speed = Δx / Δt).

  • Robert Chin

    Can they lower the pedestrian side path and then install an elevated bike path above the pedestrian path?

  • Caitlyn

    Multiple SPEED CAMERAS in the tunnel to enforce a 30 mph limit would do the trick. I’ve seen this in Germany in a very long tunnel and it was extremely effective– people very carefully followed that speed limit.

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