Bernal and Glen Park Neighbors Seek Traffic Calming in “The Cut”

The_Cut_1.jpgLooking south on San Jose Avenue from Randall Street. The southbound direction narrows to two lanes, but the northbound direction remains three. Photos: Matthew Roth
By the time the political tides had turned against ripping up neighborhoods to make way for freeways in the late 1950s, the result of the San Francisco freeway revolt, many areas had already been substantially altered to make room for the footprint of enormous future roadways.

The remnants of one of the more significant proposed freeway routes, The Mission Freeway from I-280 to Cesar Chavez (where it would have met up with a spur of the 101), has left wide city streets that essentially function like urban freeways, inviting motorists to speed through them and create hazards for pedestrians, cyclists and anyone who doesn't want to use a street as a speedway.

One of those streets is San Jose Avenue north of Randall Street. Residents like Gillian Gillett of Greening Guerrero have mobilized to reduce the number of lanes on San Jose while adding bike lanes and now the trial plaza at San Jose and Guerrero.

The more troubling problem is the portion of San Jose south of Randall that essentially serves as an on-ramp or off-ramp to the freeway. It runs for nearly one mile with two and three lanes depending on the direction with no traffic signals and speeding traffic that neighbors report often hits sixty miles per hour or higher.

This stretch of San Jose is nicknamed "The Cut" for the channel that was originally sliced between the two hills to make way for the railroad. At one point it even had housing along it, though that was removed to make way for the planned freeway.

Efforts to calm the traffic there have been unsuccessful for numerous reasons, from two supervisorial district boundaries splitting control of the street in half between the J-Church Muni tracks, to large neighborhood plans like the Glen Park Community Plan focusing attention on the BART station, to the section of San Jose Avenue south of Rousseau being controlled by Caltrans, an agency notoriously resistant to calming traffic if it reduces vehicular throughput.

Rick Mordesovich, a resident living on the Bernal Heights side of San Jose, has been trying to get the attention of traffic planners and politicians for over a year to find a resolution to the speeding problem. Short of significant engineering changes, like reducing lanes or adding a buffered bike lane, Mordesovich would like to see more speed limit signs at a minimum, or speed boards that show drivers how fast they are going.

"There are no speed limit signs until you get to the Shell Station on Randall," said Mordesovich, describing the conditions from the I-280 San Jose off-ramp up to Randall Street. "It feels like a freeway."

The_cut_2.jpgThe DPH signs in English and Chinese along San Jose southbound, asking drivers to slow down.

Mordesovich cites two incidents that galvanized some of his neighbors. The first happened when one neighbor ran across San Jose after his dog had escaped and was killed by a northbound J-Church train on the tracks in the middle of The Cut. The second was a vehicle making an illegal turn up a one-way street, where it crashed into a parked car and sent it into the side of a house.

Mordesovich said his neighbors shuddered to think what could have happened to their children had they been out playing that weekend day. 

In the planning process for the Glen Park Plan, various options for major engineering changes were brought to the community, including one option that transforms San Jose Avenue into a boulevard with fewer lanes,  landscaping and a physically separated bicycle lane. Much to the chagrin of some neighbors, the Planning Department is not currently looking at the boulevard option because of the prohibitive cost for constructing it.

Mordesovich understood the street wouldn't be transformed completely, but said he only wanted small fixes that were entirely in the realm of possibility.

"We understand that the city is under budget constraints. We came up with reasonable solutions," he said. 

The neighbors sent a proposal to the San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency (SFMTA), which manages the portion of the San Jose Avenue north of Rousseau, including flashing yellow signs, speed boards to indicate driver speed, rumble strips in the pavement and street trees to narrow the freeway feel of the route, and a reduction in northbound lanes from three to two, as happened in the southbound direction.

The SFMTA has said it is preparing a detailed response to the neighbors' concerns and will present it to them this week. SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland was spare on details, saying she wanted the neighbors to hear from them first and not read about it in the media, but she confirmed that they were considering each of the requests made by the community.

"The primary issue is there is [the Glen Park Plan] for the neighborhood. Our staff thought [San Jose Avenue] was part of that," said Holland. "They went back through with the Planning Department to be sure the various things the community has asked for won't interfere with the environmental review process."

One concern with eliminating a lane is the cost of conducting full environmental review for reducing capacity, said Holland, though she said the SFMTA would do an internal study on the feasibility of lane removal.

As for the portion of the street controlled by Caltrans south of Rousseau, Holland said they would follow up with Caltrans to discuss the matter. "We have an ongoing relationship with them," she said.

One of the simpler solutions, and one Mordesovich said his neighbors were intrigued by, are signs produced by the Department of Public Health lining street lamp poles on the southbound side of San Jose with photos and lettering that reads, "We Live Here, Please Slow Down."

like_a_freeway_small.jpgAnother view of the city street engineered like a freeway. Photo: Rick Mordesovich.
Ana Validzic, a Pedestrian Project Coordinator for the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH), said the signs were the continuation of a project started in 2004, when the DPH and the SFMTA received a Caltrans grant to address pedestrian safety in the Mission and the Tenderloin. The signs were one piece of a larger plan and their value, according to Validzic, is as much a tool for the community as it is an effective method for reducing speeding.

"What I find is that this is a really good community organizing tool," said Validzic. "It brings community members together to address the issues of speeding and that brings about the longer-term infrastructure changes."

Gillian Gillett, who fought a protracted battle to reduce street capacity and add a bike lane on San Jose Avenue north of Randall Street and who used the "We Live Here" signs along Guerrero, said in her experience signage is less effective than engineering solutions.

"It's signed like a freeway; it smells like a freeway; it must be a freeway," said Gillett.

"That's way too much right-of-way," she said about the three lanes northbound on San Jose. "It was down to two lanes for a couple of months in 2003 [for construction]," she noted, and there was no traffic chaos as a result.

Gillett worried that the failure to remediate speeding would not only conflict with efforts upstream to make the neighborhood more livable, including the objective to make the intersection of Randall Street and San Jose Avenue safer for children walking to Fairmont Elementary School.

Gillett and Mordesovich were happy to meet as a result of this proposal, however, and intend to conduct community meetings and potentially bring in Supervisors Bevan Dufty and David Campos to find more funding for improving the roadway.

Mordesovich said the neighborhoods around San Jose are only going to add population with time, and the city has purported to improve its streets and promote transit, pedestrian safety and bicycle connectivity. Without a significant change to San Jose, he said, they will not succeed in their goals.

"They are adding more pedestrians and children in the neighborhood," said Mordesovich, "but they're not doing anything to keep us safe."

San_Jose_in_GP_Plan_small.jpgClick image to enlarge: a proposal in the Glen Park Community Plan to transform San Jose Avenue into a boulevard that slows traffic. This proposal is not in the current EIR for the plan due to construction costs. Image: Planning Department.
trash_dump_2_small.jpgAnother problem with the street is dumping, which neighbors say happens routinely and requires a weekly DPW trash run. Photo: Rick Mordesovich.