At the corner of Fell Street at Divisadero it’s frightening to witness the minute-by-minute close calls between drivers and cyclists on a one-way arterial that resembles the freeway it was once proposed to be. Some drivers, on a speeding high from their descent down the hill to the problematic stretch that precedes the intersection, jostle for space, lean on their horns, yell expletives and generally have no regard for the right of way of bicyclists, let alone each other, as they queue up to turn left onto Divisadero or get gas at the ARCO BP station, which has now become the scene of weekly protests.
Other drivers, especially those tourists or out-of-towners unfamiliar with the troubled location, are often confused or checked out (i.e. talking on a cell phone). Suddenly they become faced with split second decisions: How do I turn left? What’s with these bicyclists? I need gas, how do I get in? They are decisions, sometimes injurious and even fatal, that are largely guided by how the street has been designed for its users.
For years, bicycle advocates, neighbors and the SFMTA have been trying to devise an engineering solution that would eliminate the frequent lines of cars obstructing the 10-year-old bike lane (Bike Route 30) on the south side of Fell Street. The route is used by hordes of daily bicyclists because it is the flattest way to pedal to Golden Gate Park, the Richmond District, and other westward neighborhoods.
Now, the SFMTA has begun to implement what the agency thinks will be a solution. The new configuration has been designed to allow cars to queue sooner, and to the left, so that the bike lane remains clear. The engineering changes include a tow-away zone from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on a portion of Fell so that drivers wanting to turn left can queue up in the curbside lane. A 24-hour parking restriction has been implemented along the curbside closest to Divisadero.
In addition, three left-turn arrows have been painted in the curbside lane, and crews have actually shaved some of the bike lane back so cars queue earlier and narrowed it so they have more room curbside. A "Do Not Block Sidewalk" sign has been installed alongside the ARCO entrance in an effort to clear a path for pedestrians. Also, there is now a bicycle symbol in the portion of the bike lane closest to the intersection. None of this, however, eliminates the need for left-turn drivers to cross over the bike lane.
"These changes are all to clarify who we want where. So, if cars are making a left turn or going into ARCO we want them to be queuing in the curb lane, not blocking the bike lane. Cyclists continue to have their bike lane and continue on to the intersection, and then drivers that are going straight should be outside of the bike lane," explained Bridget Smith of the SFMTA’s Sustainable Streets Division.
In a month, the SFMTA hopes to paint the bike lane green and add a dashed green lane across the section where drivers are supposed to enter the turn lane. Until that time, we likely won’t get to see the full results of the configuration.
"This is going to be an ongoing process of intervention, evaluation, adjustment and more evaluation," said Andy Thornley, the program director at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. He said the configuration is bound to be confusing for drivers and they will need more guidance.
“We would like to see MTA and/or the police out there explaining it to people, and whether it’s the MTA parking control officers or police officers, it’s not enough just to rearrange the stripes and stand back and expect people to understand how it works. This is going to require a little bit of explanation and education, and I would say we don’t expect the cops to write citations for motorists instantly. I think it’s enough for them to explain it.”
The early reaction from bicyclists Streetsblog spoke to on their commute home this week indicate a mixed feeling about the changes. Cars are still lining up and obstructing the bike lane.
"The drivers are going to be confused going into the gas station, as you can see," said David Bach, who bike commutes to his job at the LGBT Center from his home near the zoo. "I think this is a good beginning, but more testing needs to be done. I really think on the far end of the gas station driveway there needs to be something in the road, some words that tell the drivers what’s going on because otherwise they have to figure it out for themselves."
"It’s pretty sketchy. Anything they’ve done is an improvement," said Bert Sawicki, who lives in the Upper Haight. He normally takes Page Street to get home but on this day was tired, and chose the flat route. "I think they should have more no parking all the way down to allow a longer queue of people."
For Josh Hart, a former SFBC staffer and activist who has been leading the weekly protests at the ARCO station, the ultimate solution, short of closing the station down, would be for the MTA to install a separated bike path and not allow drivers to turn left. He believes the new configuration has actually made the situation worse.
"It’s just madness. Absolute madness. And day after day you have the police department ignoring the enforcement of a law that says you are not supposed to block any bike lanes in San Francisco," said Hart. "You have people waiting to get into the ARCO gas station every day and you just sit there and you watch this unfold and it’s like this recurring nightmare."
Hart would like to see both Fell and Oak turned back into two-way streets, like they were before the freeway revolt. "It’s a pretty horrible unpleasant spot that used to be really nice. It was a pleasant two-way street with streetcars and wide sidewalks and shopping and this is what our 1950s traffic engineering did."
Short of turning Fell back into a two-way street, Hart said "they need to remove all the parking on that one side of Fell Street from Scott to Baker and put in a two-way bike path, separated with greenery, or buffers, and close those two entrances to the ARCO station on Fell Street and prohibit left turns onto Divisadero."
"The absurdity of this is that, if you chose to get out of your car and you wanted to bring your family to Golden Gate Park on a Sunday on a bike, instead of driving your car, you would run into this cluster of danger," said San Francisco State Geography Professor Jason Henderson, who has participated in the Friday protests.
"This curb cut is a public health nuisance. If this was a nightclub that had operated for years and years and then got out of hand, the city would shut it down, or tell it to clean up its act."
Henderson added: "We’re telling people the best way to respond to the gulf disaster is to drive less, but you have to provide alternatives. It’s not convincing. The city needs to be more convincing."