The Long and Winding Road to Traffic Calming the Bernal Cut

like_a_freeway_small.jpgPhoto: Rick Mordesovich.

When a group of Bernal Heights and Glen Park neighbors began discussing the need for traffic calming last year on San Jose Avenue between Interstate 280 and Randall Street, a one mile segment known as the Bernal Cut, they had no idea it would take so long to get the attention of city and state traffic engineers. Many of the neighbors in the fledgling Bernal Glen Neighborhood Organization also didn’t realize other residents on San Jose Avenue just to the north had been lobbying both the SFMTA and Caltrans for traffic calming along the length of the corridor from I-280 to Cesar Chavez since 1994, with mixed success.

The San Jose Guerrero Coalition to Save Our Neighborhoods, which is made up of neighbors living predominately on San Jose between Randall and Cesar Chavez, successfully fought a protracted battle and in 2005 compelled the city to
narrow San Jose Avenue north of Randall from three lanes to two, and recently lobbied the city to close a segment of street where San Jose and Guerrero converge to construct a trial Pavement to Parks plaza, Guerrero Park.

While the two groups of neighbors have different baseline conditions and distinct traffic calming requests, they both agree the crux of the problem is the San Jose exit from I-280 northbound, which Caltrans widened from one lane to two lanes after Loma Prieta when portions of the freeway were badly damaged. Caltrans officials were looking to encourage alternate routes for commuters into San Francisco and as a result the agency re-striped the off ramp for two lanes, removing the shoulders, and promoted the already highway-like section of the Bernal Cut as an alternative to the 101.

Caltrans even sent brochures to Peninsula drivers encouraging the route, which essentially turned the stretch of San Jose Avenue into a surface freeway, according to Gillian Gillett of San Jose Guerrero Coalition.

Gillett and her neighbors have kept a meticulous record of correspondence with city and state traffic engineers since 1994, when Toby and Jerry Levine, who lived on Guerrero Street, sent a letter complaining that Caltrans was undermining San Francisco’s Transit First Policy by encouraging freeway traffic to use a residential street as a pass-through. There are letters from neighbors like the Levines and there are a number of letters from Bond Yee, then with the Department of Parking and Traffic and now the Sustainable Streets Director for the SFMTA, and even one from then Assemblymember Mark Leno, all requesting Caltrans reduce the two lanes to one, as had been the case before the earthquake.

Caltrans has repeatedly denied requests to narrow the lane, citing traffic statistics and arguing the current peak volume of cars in the morning would overwhelm the off-ramp and lead to back-ups on I-280, potentially causing safety hazards. Despite making the policy decision to add capacity in the early nineties, Caltrans’ has been using traffic data and capacity standards as the rationale for not changing it back. Gillett noted, however, that the capacity standards Caltrans has cited have repeatedly changed.

In a July 28, 1997 letter to Bond Yee, then Caltrans District 4 Director Harry Yahata wrote the single-lane off ramp before Loma Prieta had a capacity of 2100 vehicles per hour. In 2004, in a letter to Mark Leno, Caltrans District 4 Director Bijan Sartipi wrote that a single lane can only accommodate 2,000 vehicles per hour. In an email to the Bernal Glen Neighborhood Organization from August 11, 2010, Caltrans’ Roland Au-Yeung said a single lane can only accommodate 1800 vehicles.

Gillett said the constantly changing numbers were a disappointment, but that was why she has kept such meticulous records. She also wasn’t at all surprised they have resisted reducing lane capacity at the exit.

"It does seem to me it’s not at all in their interest to reduce the
capacity. Why would they give that up?" said Gillett. "There are
congestion issues on the freeway. The freeways do back up. It’s
convenient for Caltrans to use city streets to store vehicles."

Caltrans District 4 spokesperson Brigetta Smith said she wasn’t sure why the numbers varied at different times and that she would look into the issue. She also noted Caltrans had met with the Bernal Glen neighbors in March and with the SFMTA last week about the matter. "There is a plan to have a meeting with the neighborhood association in the next week or two to discuss what we can do with our resources and what the city can do with what they’re requesting," said Smith.

Rick Mordesovich, a member of the Bernal Glen Neighborhood Organization, said the neighbors had felt "stonewalled" by the process, but he also noted they were more interested in change going forward and they hoped to work with the agencies.

"We expected them to respond much quicker, but we view this as a partnership with the city and Caltrans," said Mordesovich. "We’ve been trying to get Caltrans and MTA to the table at the same time and no one is responding to get to the table."

Mordesovich said the Bernal Glen neighbors wanted to work constructively with the agencies when those meetings are set up. "We don’t want to be in an adversarial relationship. We’re not anti-car. We’re not a radical organization trying to slam something down the city’s throat."

"You can expect that over time these issues will be resolved," SFMTA CEO Nat Ford told Streetsblog. "We have a robust program in terms of traffic calming, but in some of these cases it’s a very complicated solution that involves multiple agencies. That’s sometimes the challenge. We have good partnership with [Caltrans’] Bijan Sartipi, the regional director over there, so it’s an opportunity for us to work together again to resolve these issues."

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.

When or if the SFMTA and Caltrans will make changes is uncertain, but
the Bernal Glen neighbors have asked for numerous other improvements
they believe can happen in the short term, including restriping
northbound San Jose from three lanes to two, adding speed boards to
alert drivers of their speed, planting additional trees and improving
the bike lane. Without the changes, the street will exist as an ugly,
dangerous hybrid, said Mordesovich.

"MTA can’t have it be both ways. It can’t be a city street with cars
pulling out into 60 miles per hour. If they want it to be a freeway, they should
dead end the streets and give us the big walls to separate us from the
freeway," he said.

According to Mordesovich, he and his neighbors were dismayed by the public reaction to coverage on Streetsblog and SF Gate, where commenters routinely said San Jose Avenue through the cut should continue to serve as a cut-through and the long segment without stops was a blessing for drivers to speed up to save time during the commute. The implication he saw in the reaction was resignation and resistance to change. Some commenters even chastised the neighbors for buying homes in the neighborhood if they knew they were going to reside next to a "freeway."

"That’s the whole point of buying your house, you want to make it better," said Mordesovich. "Just because you bought a home in an area with an existing situation doesn’t mean you can’t band together as neighbors and improve the neighborhood for everyone’s benefit. It doesn’t have to be stuck in time."

Both community groups retain some optimism the situation will improve in the short term and inevitably over time as San Francisco seeks to develop underutilized land for housing and neighborhood centers. Gillett said before the aborted Mission Freeway preparation work deepened the Bernal Cut and removed housing, San Jose was a neighborhood street. She said she has a book with historic photos showing people walking their kids and doing other neighborhood activities that would be unsafe currently.

She saw the tremendous upshot of undeveloped land in the area as something that the market would eventually decide was better used as housing than excessive roadway. Though the Glen Park Plan EIR won’t currently analyze turning San Jose into a boulevard, the Planning Department did complete those schematics and the assumption is when there is money, that option will be resurrected. With more people living in the area, said Gillett, it will increase the demand for transit and livability.

Mordesovich said the Glen Park Plan’s promise was part of the reason he bought his house in 2003. "We all participated in [the plan] and we’re very excited about reclaiming San Jose as a city street."

UPDATED: 8/25, 10:00 pm

Mission_Freeway_small.jpgClick image to enlarge an old schematic of the planned San Francisco freeways. This shows the path of the Mission Freeway, through the Bernal Cut. Full image here.

  • The existing bicycle lanes on San Jose in the Bernal Cut are very unfriendly. I know ones chance of being run down from behind are low, but when he cars are going 60 mph the results are certain.

    I wonder about the feasibility of separating those lanes with “Jersey barriers”, those simple and inexpensive precast concrete barriers used during road work to protect the crews? Glen park is so close to the Mission, but so far.

  • I think adding concrete barriers along with taking the extra third lane off one side of the street is the obvious solution. This would protect not only the bike lane, but also the sidewalk, which is no less unfriendly right now.

    It would be even nicer if the city could come up with a standard design for concrete planter boxes that could both separate bike lanes and beautify the street (something like this: http://www.stonewear.com/psbs/bib-main.htm ), but if plain Jersey barriers are all that’s in the budget, that’s what we should use to get a safe solution in ASAP!

  • Isn’t there already a line of jersey barriers there on the northbound side to keep cars off the sidewalk? They would just have to be moved out a little further.

  • Jake

    Hear hear. Concrete barriers wouldn’t be pretty, but they would get the job done in the interim and prevent cyclists from having to risk their lives to use this tempting shortcut.

    Pavement to Parks has taught us to find ways to take small, cheap actions that make things a whole lot better, while we wait for eternity (otherwise known as the length of time required to get through CEQA) to elapse so that we can finally get the full project done. But we shouldn’t have to wait years for a basic sense of safety for cyclists on what would otherwise be a major through-route connecting two important parts of the City.

    Is SF a “Transit First” city, or not? Do we really mean it, or is just a nice-sounding thing to say? Would the people running Copenhagen or Amsterdam allow a hazardous situation like this to persist? I don’t think so. Let’s get on with it! SF politicians need to jump down the throats of Caltrans and get this fixed.

    By the way, wouldn’t that be a great policy plank for Jerry Brown, to pledge that the culture of Caltrans would be revamped from top to bottom towards multimodalism under his administration. The attitude of a lot of the people there now is positively Paleolithic on these sorts of things.

  • @Eric there is a steel guard rail that protects the sidewalk for a couple dozen feet before the intersection with Randall, but that’s it.

    The picture at the top of the article shows a good cross-section of the street: in one direction you have only two lanes of traffic and a huge buffer zone, but no physical barrier. In the other direction there are three lanes and no buffer zone at all.

    Killing the extra third lane would allow for an equally huge buffer zone, with plenty of room to accommodate concrete barriers

  • 0101!

    Well, they shouldn’t have bought houses along San Jose if they didnt want to live next to… just kidding

  • Nobody should ever take comments from SFGate seriously. The place is infested by teabaggers and other ignorant types.

    If nothing else, the Bernal Cut serves as a physical reminder of why the freeway revolts happened and what might have been forced on us were the Mission, Western, and Embarcadero Freeways allowed to expand.

    But we should still make it a better, safer street

  • They shouldn’t have bought houses on the peninsula if they thought an extra 5 minutes on their commute was too much to bear…

  • twompsokill

    if you drive to work in the city and youre not a delivery driver, youre a dick

  • 94112

    “According to Mordesovich, he and his neighbors were dismayed by the public reaction to coverage on Streetsblog and SF Gate,”

    Here’s a hint: stop reading SFGate comments, and don’t mistake a bunch of cranky anonymous commenters for “public reaction”. Many SFGate commenters don’t even live in San Francisco. When you get down to the street and personal level, most people are either in favor of traffic calming or they at least wouldn’t publicly stand by their speeding. These are after all quiet, residential neighborhoods. Believe me, most people around here would love to see cars slow down.

  • JD

    Agreed that concrete barriers are an easy, quick fix to protecting the bike lane and sidewalk. And that should be done just because it’s better than waiting for something better. But traffic still needs to be slowed down if there is ever any hope of turning into something other than a de facto freeway. Very few people are really going to want to walk down that street, even with barriers, if it’s essentially a freeway, just like nobody wants to walk alongside and ugly, loud, and polluted freeway.

    And as many others side, SFgate comments are not representative of the average person. I’m actually really disturbed that people are using those as a way of gauging public opinion. We can do better than this people … Cesar Chavez and San Jose need to calmed and given back to the people (which means bikes, pedestrians, and greenery) rather than machines that cause so many more problems than they prevent.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Jersey barriers = no sweeping (by street sweeping vehicles of by the action of straying traffic’s wheels) = massive amounts of debris (broken glass) in the bike lane = massive numbers of flats.

    No thanks.

  • @Richard, get some Mr Tuffy’s.

  • Miriam 94110

    Interesting item on the Bernal Cut. Before it was a paved street, it was a railway line, bringing produce from farms down the peninsula into the city. Walking in the area near San Jose Avenue once I chatted with an elderly man who remembered the rail line. Another side effect on the traffic crossing San Jose at Randall (north of Bosworth), which includes access to 280 via San Jose Ave. as well as access to Monterey Blvd. and the western part of the city. This routinely backs up onto Mission St. during heavy traffic periods, sometimes as much as 2 blocks – the traffic light for crossing San Jose is set to accommodate the freeway exit traffic. One way the city could make its point to Caltrans would be simply to change the traffic light timing, giving priority to cross traffic and cars entering 280 south, and returning the backup to Caltrans from the city streets where Caltrans moved it.

  • Unswept bicycle lanes! No one on the planet has ever faced this problem before! There are no solutions to this predicament that mankind can devise so bicyclists just have to keep dying!

    http://bikeprovidence.org/wp-content/uploads/bike_lane_sweeper.jpg

    (The photo is from Copenhagen, naturally.)

    I agree with the prescription: road diet going south, concrete barriers between bike/ped area and car traffic going both north and south. Heck, add some road bumps and flashing lights on the southbound stretch as well to cut speed of traffic. The road coming off 280 looks and performs exactly like a freeway. People will treat it as such until their experience of it (fewer lanes, narrower lanes, more residential feel) is different. Will drivers like having this stretch of San Jose turned from freeway back into city street? Probably not. Put up some signs encouraging people to take BART and Caltrain to come into the city.

  • Gosh, northbound is the fast stretch that needs a road diet and and flashing lights. Need more caffeine.

  • To fill in more of what Miriam mentioned, the Bernal Cut was originally built in the 1860s for a single track of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, the ancestor of today’s Caltrain. In the 1920s it was expanded considerably to make room for four vehicular lanes, two streetcar lanes (never used), and two railroad tracks. Around 1950, when the railroad was abandoned, the road was reconfigured for three vehicular lanes in each direction, and in the 1948 Transportation Plan it was proposed for freeway conversion. The Monterey Boulevard ramp was built as part of the construction of I-280. Around 1970 the bridges were reconfigured to provide a clear span instead of the original three-way split.

    What I want to know is what happened to the proposal in the 1972 Transportation Plan to remove the arterial status from Guerrero and convert it back to a local residential street once I-280 and BART were completed. I don’t know whether this plan was ever consciously rejected or whether it just didn’t get done like so many other projects.

  • RICK MORDESOVICH

    Today we again contacted: Roland Au-Yeung of Caltrans, Bond Yee of SFMTA, and Sen. Leno to discuss this issue in greater detail and to work toward a livable solution.

    We want to partner with the Caltrans, the city, SF Bicycle Coalition, SPUR, and Walk SF to make San Jose Avenue safe and beautiful for ALL to use.

  • Willow

    Dealing with the City, SFMTA & Caltrans has been incredibly frustrating. There have been a number of low cost short term alternatives that have been proposed to slow down traffic along San Jose and make the area more livable yet no tangible progress has been made. Do something! Anything…

  • Oh, actually, to answer my own question, the General Plan still proposes to reduce through traffic on Guerrero, although with weaker wording than it once did: “Although Guerrero, Valencia and South Van Ness serve as major and secondary arterials at the present, the improvement of transit service should be accompanied by steps to reduce through traffic and make these streets more compatible with residential uses.”

  • RICK MORDESOVICH

    We submitted a list of ideas to Caltrans & SFMTA. To date ALL have been rejected.

    We have now asked them to come up with ideas for traffic calming and to present those ideas to our group. They are the experts.

    We have a meeting scheduled next week.

    We are very excited to partner with them and to get some resolution to this issue soon.

  • Nick

    Can someone list all the of bike routes in the City that are controlled by Caltrans? My experience has been that they are absolutely resistant to any change that would slow down automobiles despite obvious safety benefits to the community as a whole. I guess if they don’t live locally (or aren’t elected) they can’t be held accountable for their inertia.

    And isn’t it crazy that some of our bike routes are also state highways?

  • As far as I know, the state highways in San Francisco that are also designated bicycle routes are Skyline Blvd/Sloat (State Route 35) and the few blocks of San Jose Avenue just north of the county line (State Route 82).

    The Bernal Cut is not actually a state highway, so Caltrans is involved there only because of their ramps at the I-280 interchange (the same reason they can make things difficult at the Cesar Chavez underpass of US 101).

    I’m trying to imagine now what Valencia would be like if US 101 was still routed there as it was back in the 1920s!

  • Nick

    What’s interesting is that the new Sloat Blvd bike lanes will start right where it ceases being a state highway (40th Avenue to the beach). Did Caltrans prevent them from being installed the full length of Sloat? Anyone from the SFBC care to chime in?

    Hardly anyone knows it but that segment of Sloat has a speed limit of 30 or 35mph. The state highway part is 40mph. When bike lanes are installed people will still drive 50mph next to the bike lane (theoretically going 20mph over the designated speed limit).

    The short version: more speed limit signs before the bike lanes go in!

  • Willow

    I have noticed another 45mph sign has been recently installed on San Jose just beyond Milton St but before Saint Marys heading north-bound. It’s placed so high that it’s barely noticeable. Additionally all the “Slow Down, We Live Here” south-bound signs have been removed. On a related note last night there was more screeching of car tyres around the San Jose / Rousseau intersection. It’s far too dangerous and is the biggest problem area on this section of San Jose Ave. A serious accident at some stage will definitely occur unless something is done.

  • Chris Carlsson

    interesting…. independently of this thread I just put together a page on the Bernal Cut at FoundSF.org:
    http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Bernal_Cut
    Glad to see that it’s a hot issue in the hear and now!
    –cc

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Bernal Cut Walk-Through

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From SFBC: Join the College Hill Neighborhood Association, Supervisor Scott Wiener’s Office, and the SF Bicycle Coalition on a walk-through of the Bernal Cut – San Jose Avenue north of Glen Park. The first hour will focus on a tour of the Cut stairs and pathways to see the community’s plans for improvement. At 10:30, […]