Advocates Call on SFMTA to Take Immediate Steps to Fix Masonic Avenue

_2.jpgA ghost bike at Masonic and Turk in memory 21-year-old Nils Linke, who was killed by a drunk driver one week ago. Photo: Michael Helquist of BIKE NOPA.

A week after a 21-year-old German tourist on a bicycle was killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver on Masonic Avenue, the first death of a bicyclist in the city this year, advocates who have been working for years to calm the major arterial are calling on the SFMTA to make immediate safety improvements.

The SFMTA recently unveiled four long-term options to fix Masonic, but in light of Nils Linke’s death Friday night, and with the bike injunction finally lifted, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Michael Helquist of BIKE NOPA and other advocates are urging the agency to take action sooner rather than later.

"We’ve been really happy and encouraged to see the long-range vision the MTA is putting forward in terms of the four options that have been presented at the community meetings. We think this is really going in the right direction but with the recent tragedy this past weekend we feel like it really underscores the need to make some immediate improvements," said Renée Rivera, the SFBC’s acting executive director.

She would like to see buffered bike lanes installed immediately, on a trial basis, in both directions of Masonic Avenue between Ewing Terrace and Fulton Street.

"This section is important because it is a section that is the steepest. Bicyclists are either going fast downhill on that section or going very slowly uphill, so in either case, it would really make the street much safer to put bike lanes with a buffered space between vehicle traffic just on that section. We think that by itself, done immediately, would make a significant improvement on this dangerous street," said Rivera.

For long-term improvements, the Bike Coalition has endorsed Option C in the SFMTA’s plans, a street redesign that includes no parking, four traffic lanes and a cycle track.

IMG_1547.jpgA bicyclist rides northbound on Masonic near Turk where Linke was killed. He chooses the sidewalk. Photo: Bryan Goebel.

Pedaling up or down Masonic, Bike Route 55, can indeed be a risky ordeal because of the wide road and zooming traffic. Jerry Oliver, who works near Geary and Masonic, sometimes opt for the sidewalk, fearing for his safety in the traffic lane.

"Masonic is crazy. It’s just nuts. It’s a four-lane road and just everybody uses it," said Oliver, who uses the sidewalk on Masonic to get to a calmer side street on his way south to the Panhandle.

"People think it’s the autobahn," said Melissa Fernandez, who was
waiting for the 43-Masonic at the Muni stop near Golden Gate Avenue.
"People are going 50 miles an hour when they’re supposed to be going god
knows what."

For many bicyclists, Masonic is a main north-south connection, and the
flattest route. On Monday afternoon, I saw plenty of bicyclists
traveling in peak traffic in both directions of Masonic despite the
dangers, and spotted a few on the sidewalk, especially going uphill. 

Mariana Parreiras, who lives on nearby Central Avenue and has been involved in the Fix Masonic efforts for three years, said neighborhood activists were disappointed with some of the original designs for improving the street because there weren’t enough traffic calming measures in them. Even though the SFMTA lowered the speed limit in 2008 from 30 mph to 25 mph, most drivers ignore it and it’s rarely enforced. Lowering down the speed limit is the first bureaucratic hurdle a neighborhood must achieve before the SFMTA can tame a street.

"We knew when we asked for the reduction in speed limit that just that wouldn’t have any impact in how people actually behave on the corridor. Changing the sign out from 30 to 25 doesn’t make people go any slower but it means that there are more things we can do to it to actually make people move slower," said Parreiras, a transportation engineer.

In a paper last semester on calming Adeline Street in Berkeley for her UC Berkeley city planning class, Parreiras noted how changing an urban street’s speed limit to 20 mph, a number that cities such as London and New York have begun implementing in campaigns to make the streets safer for vulnerable users, can make a significant difference.

Many studies show that a small decrease in speed corresponds to a large decrease in both the risk of collision and the severity of injury and risk of fatality of a pedestrian. This suggests that constraining the speed on Adeline to 20 mph instead of 25 mph can have great benefits for pedestrian safety, and by extension, the safety of all other road users.

In addition, she points out the street becomes more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and more people are encouraged to travel by foot and on two wheels.
Advocates in San Francisco would like to see the city explore a 20 mph campaign.

_1.jpgA majority of the collisions on Masonic Avenue involve cars versus cars. "We know that there are a lot of collisions that happen on Masonic and they are not just with pedestrians or bicycles they’re with everybody. We are interested in making it safer for everyone," says neighborhood activist Mariana Parreiras. This photo by Jim Herd shows a March 26, 2008 collision on Masonic near Grove involving three cars.

Parreiras said measures such as signal timing on Masonic present challenges because the length of the blocks vary and it’s a two-lane arterial (it works easier on a one-way), but she would still like to see the SFMTA investigate it, and the agency appears to be listening.

In response to Linke’s death, and the calls by advocates to take quick steps, SFMTA Chief Nat Ford sent a letter (PDF) Thursday to the SFMTA Board of Directors updating them on the agency’s efforts to improve Masonic. He recounted everything the agency has done the past few years and said immediate measures will be considered:

The fatal collision has raised questions about what can be done in the immediate short-term to improve conditions on Masonic Avenue. Traffic signal timing will be reviewed with particular emphasis on controlling speeds on vehicles traveling in the southbound, downhill direction of Masonic Avenue. We will also review interim measures that could be implemented in the short-term.

Ford listed a number of changes the SFMTA has made on Masonic, including new pedestrian countdown signals, a new traffic signal on Grove Street at Masonic, the removal of the double left turn lanes from Oak Street onto northbound Masonic, the installation of "YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS AND BIKES" and "BIKES ALLOWED FULL USE OF LANE" signs, upgrades of yellow school crosswalks and signage "to high visibility," and an expansion of the "NO LEFT TURN" peak hour restrictions.

"The SFMTA will continue to work with the community to improve Masonic Avenue," Ford added. He did not respond directly to the SFBC’s call for bike lanes to be added immediately. 

Even though the SFMTA has made a number of changes over the years, the community is not satisfied with the pace of change or the results.

In 2006, Mark Christianson started the group Fix Masonic to lobby for significant changes. In 2008, he and other neighbors gathered 500 signatures asking the SFMTA to initiate a traffic calming study. That study was delayed for up to a year, according to some advocates, because SFMTA staff was too busy working on the Bike Plan EIR. The SFMTA would not comment directly on why the process has taken so long.

The agency has held two community meetings on Masonic this year, including one earlier this month, and plans another in September or October. The traffic calming study is not expected to be complete until late this year.

"The process from then (2008) to now with a traffic calming process underway is either painfully slow or about right depending on your view of the MTA’s response to making traffic design changes," Helquist wrote on his blog, BIKE NOPA. He noted that some of the traffic modifications the SFMTA has suggested in its redesign proposals are "needed now" and "can be implemented without disrupting the eventual design and involve minimal-to-moderate expense."

Reverend Will Scott, an associate pastor and cathedral missioner at St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on Turk Street, got involved in efforts to fix Masonic about three months ago and agrees there is an urgent need for speed management.

"It’s like a freeway in the middle of the city, and I think there are ways that we really need to ask ourselves is speed really a value when there are human lives at stake, and there are many different uses of these streets other than cars," said Scott, who added that he became especially sensitive to the issue after his mother was hit by a driver while walking to a museum in Washington D.C. a few years ago. She is still recovering.

Crossing Turk Street the other day, with food in hand for a potluck, the pastor said he was "terrified." Turk, a wide street that has not been calmed, has a higher speed limit, at 30 mph.

"We need to just be more conscious of just how valuable one another’s lives are and the kinds of work around safety both from a long-term ecological perspective but also in the short-term," said Scott. "How do we make sure that we’re attentive and aware of one another, and that our city systems recognize that and honor and build streets and roads and buildings that really hold those values and respect those values."

It will now be up to the SFMTA to determine what immediate changes need to be made on Masonic, an issue that will likely be discussed at the SFMTA Board’s next meeting September 7th.

“Ultimately, they’re the experts and we expect them to tell us how they’re going to address it. All we want is for the speeds to come down. How exactly they’re going to accomplish that is what they need to tell us," said Perreiras.

  • janel

    Yes! We need these physically separated bikeways on Masonic asap and all major bike routes in the city. Come out to Fell and Divisadero tonight 8/20 5:30-7:30 to express your support for safer streets. Bring a sign: Cycletracks on Masonic Now! Slower Speeds on Fell! There will be bands, Ross Mirkarimi will speak, and other fun activities! http://fixfell.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/a20-is-this-friday/

  • How would these “solutions” have made any difference in the fatality that happened recently? I ask because in this case the driver was drunk. All the bike lanes in the world won’t help if someone is committing the crime of driving while loaded.

  • @Greg – While there’s no way to protect bicyclists 100% from drunk drivers there are ways to reduce the chance that a drunk driver will hit a bicyclist. Buffered bike lanes are one way to do it. Creating buffered bicycle lanes makes it much less likely that an impaired driver will rear-end a bicyclist who wasn’t seen (because they’re not traveling in the same lane of traffic) or that small drunken swerving will take-out a bicyclist riding next to the car (because there are clearer demarcations between lanes). From what I’ve read about this tragedy, buffered bike lanes would very likely have prevented this death.

    It’s also important to remember that there are variants of drunken driving, from the “just over the limit” swerving and carelessness to the level of “completely shitfaced and driving-into-a-storefront.” Both actions are dangerous and criminal but better street design can certainly help reduce the dangers of the former and may also help reduce the danger of the latter.

  • I’m still not sure I completely understand the “Option C” that we’re all supposed to be supporting. It seems like it’s nothing but a bike line with a tiny buffer (no physical separation) and the pavement raised up a few inches.

    I don’t see how this is any safer than a regular painted, buffered, green bike lane, and in fact it seems it could actually be more dangerous: there is still nothing to keep people from illegally parking/stopping in the bike lane, and now when they do bikes will have to go down the inclined buffer into speeding traffic.

    Why aren’t we pushing to reject all four options and create a new one that eliminates the useless central median and devotes that space to planter boxes or small medians that physically separate the bike lane?

  • Nick

    Jack, a friend of Nils Linke, wrote in another thread “Why didn’t anyone tell him this street was too dangerous to ride on?”

    It’s a very important ethical issue. Should bicyclists be encouraged to ride on streets that are known to be hazardous? I view those “Bikes Allowed Full Use of Lane” signs as such a do-nothing solution. One could even argue they are detrimental to individual safety by luring unsuspecting cyclists onto dangerous roads.

    Enough with the half-measures. Fix it completely or install “Bicycles Not Advised” signs like they have over on San Jose Avenue.

  • cyclotronic

    nick – i would have told him, but i never met him. i speak with tourists several times a week, on bike or on foot, to steer them in the right direction. those bike maps from the rental places are a joke. good practice as a city citizen is to pull over when you see someone staring at one of those maps, or heading in an odd direction on a rental bike, and have a chat, it makes everyone’s day better. sf cyclists should be known for that sort of hospitality. nils’ death haunts my dreams, at least it was instant so he didn’t suffer.

  • dmd

    Why should cyclists and/or pedestrians for that matter ever be encouraged NOT to use a street b/c drivers behave badly. That is absolutely ridiculous and unacceptable. Get to the root and start removing the bad drivers. post patrols at intersections such as geary and masonic – INSANE!! – and other volatile areas and pull drivers for violations. these roadways are there for ALL and ALL should be able to use them safely any time of day OR nite. especially since its school zones. hello drivers- is this the example you want to set for your children? do unto others wether on bike, foot or car. a little consideration and coexist will go far. that driver that caused vehicular murder should have had his license immedialely revoked. this needs ot stop NOW -not in anotehr 3 or meetings.

  • LA Cyclist

    I’m all for extending the curb and getting bicyclists into the safety of a sidewalk bicycling lane buffered by a curb. Sure pedestrians may get hit by bicyclists, but that’s not a lethal collision.
    A trucks momentum even at 5 mph can kill. The proper solution is to limit heavy vehicles, not progress bicycles into traffic. Get all heavy trucks limited to interstate and frontage roads linked to industrial zones. Layer a business front right next to it to take advantage of truck shipping. From there outward from the interstate it should only be light commercial and residential, with tree lined parkways, stop signs at every corner, and uninterupted bicyle/jogging paths running alongside or underneath automated electric vehicle transit lines. For mixed city streets where light signals are used, bicyclists and pedestrians should share an extended sidewalk raised on a curb. Streetside parking should be limited to parkways only, where the speed limit should be 15 MPH with speedbumps. Two way streets can be reduced to one way streets with parallel or angled parking and room to spare for bicycling protected by the parking curb. The rest of the parking should occur at parking lots and bus transit substations. Anywhere the speed limit is over 25 MPH in the city there should be no parking, and room should be made for a protected bicycling lane. By controlling parking you can control the amount and speed of traffic throughout the city!

    The problem is cities are very badly designed and they are trying to make up for it by zoning every street for mixed use, which should come with the constraint of a very slow speed! But these planners seem to have the opinion that bicyclists and pedestrians are expendable. LIVES ARE AT STAKE. In 2005, of the 39,189 fatal vehicular related accidents 4,881 pedestrians were killed and 784 bicyclist were killed.

    There are a lot more bicyclists sharing high speed country roads for longer durations than city streets. Yet pedestrians despite their raised curbs are dying at a much higher rate. The problem is where they must cross the street. Intersections are overly complex and over used. There is too much obstruction of a drivers view by parked vehicles and competing traffic. Drivers gun it through yellows/reds as the opposite crosswalk opens up. Speed limits are too high, and there should always be speed bumps placed alongside cross walks. $200 in asphalt versus a person’s life. 15 seconds of driving slow versus a life. This is what we are talking about. LIVES ARE AT STAKE. Not the time it takes to get to a market.

    Incidentally if traffic were mediated by a surplus of parking garages strategically placed within walking distance of the city core, you would see a huge reduction in gridlock. And the health benefits of a brisk 15 minute walk you would have otherwise spent trying to find a parking spot at the Super Crazy Mart…

    One thing that drives me nuts… Putting a bicycling lane to the left of a parked car is a cruel joke, I must simultaneously look for people opening doors while hoping no cars are swerving the double lane highway with intent to make me into a metal sandwich. That is about the dumbest place for a bicycling lane I have ever seen.

    Signs don’t do jack. If a driver sees a sign with a bicycle on it, it doesn’t apply to him. How is that sign going to stop 2 tons of metal at 50 MPH from sending me 50 feet into the air? The most dangerous drivers already ignore signs. And if they get caught speeding, it’s just a ticket. There’s no middle ground fender bender with a bicyclist or pedestrian. Flesh cannot be protected by laws and regulations against high speed steel. We need effective road design, and enforcement practices (like speed bumps and curbs) that work 24/7.

  • Alex

    @LA Yeah… no. Welcome to why people with bicycles need an attitude adjustment more than people with cars. Your life and safety as a bicycle rider is not more important than mine as a pedestrian. Keep the damn bicycles off of the sidewalks.

    I was chilling at Ocean Beach today and over the course of about 90 minutes I’d say about 1/3 of the bicycles entering the intersection of Great Highway and Taraval nearly clipped a pedestrian. I saw one near miss with an automobile. And, yes, near misses count.

    And, hey, speed bumps are great. Except for that whole dramatically slowing down emergency vehicles (fire trucks, ambulances).

  • “Welcome to why people with bicycles need an attitude adjustment more than people with cars” – you don’t think Joshua Calder needs an attitude adjustment? And the 1000’s who were unlucky