Fell and Oak Street Neighbors Want Livable Streets, Not Residential Freeways

Cars barrel through on Oak Street at Divisadero. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Parents seeking a vibrant, community-filled urban lifestyle filled with chance street corner chats on the walk to the grocery store may find living on Fell Street leaves a lot to be desired.

That is, unless, crossing the street alongside four full lanes of car traffic is your idea of community.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Daniel, a father of two and five-year resident. “Fell Street is used basically as a freeway – it’s not really used as a street.”

For decades, neighbors of Fell and Oak have lived with the blight of at least 30,000 motor vehicles [pdf] invited to drive down each of the motorways every day. The one-way arterials were designed half a century ago to give priority to the massive waves of cars barreling through the neighborhood, creating an unwelcoming environment for those walking, riding a bike, or simply existing on the streets.

“If you live in a house on here, you’d better hope you have double-paned windows,” said Daniel. “It’s very noisy, and the amount of idling cars waiting for lights will make your house a dirty, dusty mess.”

Residents say dangerous, noisy, and polluted conditions brought on by the heavy motor traffic can present barriers to access in an area otherwise valued as rich with nearby shops, services, parks, public transportation and friendly neighbors.

An elderly woman crosses Fell Street with an aide. Photo: Aaron Bialick

“You want families to stay in San Francisco,” says realtor and Fell Street homeowner Bonnie Spindler, who warns that the threat of motor traffic can be restrictive to parents’ ability to walk with their children to enjoy the many amenities a neighborhood has to offer.

Walkability is an evermore important goal if San Francisco is to remain a place for children and reduce automobile dependency. “The more accessible a neighborhood is, the less you’re throwing your kids in the car,” said Spindler.

But with multi-block platoons of one-way motor traffic roaring through residential neighborhoods on a system of synchronized signals, drivers on the Fell-Oak arterials are prone to honk at others or even kill pedestrians with the slightest delay.

“If parents are terrified that they can’t get across the street with a stroller to get to the park because of the speed of the traffic, usage goes down,” said Spindler.

The playgrounds and green space of the Panhandle provide a “natural meeting place” in the neighborhood that’s ideal for families, she said. “But parents are really worried about their children and traffic, and it really reduces the livability.”

Four speed-inducing lanes split the Panhandle from the adjacent neighborhood. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Even able-bodied pedestrians sometimes feel rushed to cross the street, and navigating the area can be particularly risky for the elderly and disabled, noted Daniel. “Although San Francisco may consider itself to be more pedestrian friendly than some cities, I think in a lot of instances they increase pedestrian risk,” he said.

That appears to be the case on Fell and Oak Streets, where motor uses take dramatic precedence over those of people. At the cross-section of Divisadero, three gas stations packed into a single block create a machine-dominated environment that’s particularly hard to call home.

“Every business that goes in here shuts down almost immediately,” said Kelly, a resident living a couple of blocks over just off Fell Street. She’s referring to a mixed-use building that houses the only storefronts on the block, which are all currently vacant, save a laundromat.

The current prospective tenants for that building are contending with other issues, but the space’s availability and high turnover don’t seem to be a coincidence. Any sense of place that might attract business-nurturing foot traffic appears to be destroyed by skinny sidewalks and the overwhelming presence of cars.

“This gas station and the way the streets are utilized are a negative part of living in this neighborhood,” said Daniel of the Arco gas station on the corner of Fell and Divisadero. It’s notorious for its queues of cars that routinely block the sidewalk and bike lane on Fell Street. “It pretty consistently creates hazards,” he said.

Despite the Fell Street bike lane’s high traffic demand as part of the vital Wiggle route connecting the eastern and western parts of the city, measures taken to improve safety have so far only amounted to creating a queuing space and highlighting the lane in green, resulting in meager blockage reductions.

Even without the gas station queue, people riding the three-block Fell bike lane are squeezed between parked cars and three lanes of motor traffic with virtually no room to maneuver.

“The only thing I don’t like about [living in the neighborhood] is riding home,” said Kelly, who, like many in the area, depends on her feet and her bicycle to get around. “On my intersection of Fell and Broderick, I’ve seen so many people get hit. It’s just an accident waiting to happen.”

Although the number of commuters willing to brave the gap continues to grow by the month – doubling from March 2009 to 52,000 in September 2010 [pdf] – the number of potential commuters who continue to forego bicycling without a dignified way home remains to be seen.

Rush hour bike commuters brave conditions on Fell at Broderick. Photo: Aaron Bialick

“I’m kind of just waiting to get doored one of these days,” said Arjun Bhat, a nearby resident and architect who uses the bike lane. “While I personally am able to navigate the street alright, I would by no means feel safe if I was a less experienced city rider or a parent riding with my children in tow, or a tourist for that matter,” he said.

Neighbors and would-be cycling commuters seeking a return to civil, livable streets may soon see progress on the horizon. Recent support by Mayor Ed Lee and the SFMTA Board for a proposal to create physically separated bikeways on Fell and Oak present the potential to calm traffic and invite people of all ages to walk and bike in the neighborhood.

The proposal is a high-priority piece of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Connecting the City campaign for continuous crosstown bikeways. The plan was roundly praised by neighbors and is sparking interest in new ways to transform the streets into better places for walking, talking, and cycling.

“The residents will benefit from improvements by being respected as human beings,” said Stuart Chuang Matthews of Fix Fell, an activist group which took direct action last year, calling for the closing of the Arco gas station driveway that encourages drivers to line up in the bike lane and endanger riders.

A physically separated bikeway plan that re-purposes travel lanes [pdf] could help solve the bike lane issues and have a major traffic-calming effect while reducing crossing distances for pedestrians. If it happens, the transformation could be one more step forward in the decades-long fight to return the residential freeways to places for people who live on them.

“They will be able to walk safely and breathe fresh air outside of their homes,” said Matthews. “They will be spared stressful traffic and honking noise while trying to relax inside. Their children will be able to play outside.”

“These are basic human rights issues.”

A father crossing Oak Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick
A driver accesses street parking the only way that seems possible on a residential freeway: by risking a multi-car wreck and invoking the angry honks of the drivers behind. Photo: Aaron Bialick
A quick hello between two people in front of a wall of cars. Photo: Aaron Bialick
  • Well done, Aaron.

  • Sean H

    During my apt. search a few months ago I decided to back out of living at Divisadero/Oak because of the cars. 3 gas stations within a half block in an established Victorian neighborhood is asinine.

  • The proposed separated bikeways can set a norm for livability on Fell, Oak, Masonic and the “neighborhood freeways” elsewhere in the city. The impact and benefits for cyclists will be immediate but the improvements will also calm the other traffic and spur more improvements aimed toward people on sidewalks, crossing the streets, and standing outside their homes. Thanks, Aaron, for documenting where we are now with Fell and Oak. By the end of the year, let’s plan to look back and consider it history.

  • Jane

    My biggest worry as a frequent pedestrian in these parts is the turning cars. I am terrified of a car barreling down Oak, whipping a left turn, and hitting me in the crosswalk at Divisadero, Broderick, and Baker. Even though I have right of way on green I try to make eye contact with drivers and proceed very carefully.

    I’ve also had problems with cars trying to pull out into traffic on Oak…they’re so focused on not getting hit that they often block the whole sidewalk and sit there. One nearly ran me over a few weeks ago when I walked in front of him because there was no other way to get around his car. Now I stand on the sidewalk and wait for the car to pull into traffic.

  • Elliot

    I’ve gotten used to the noise (except for motorcycles) but I’m constantly battle the dust and dirt produced by aggressive drivers barreling down Oak and Fell at freeway speeds.
    I dream of the day when Fell and Oak are turned into 2 way streets, parking is removed, sidewalks widened and bike lanes installed so I don’t have to compete with joggers, dog walkers and strollers on my bike ride to and from my home on Oak at Masonic.

  • Seconded. Very well-written. Thanks for putting in this work, Aaron.

  • jd

    Great piece, Aaron. It’s high time we start taking our cities back from the automobile and returning them to people.

    Pretty soon, there will be comments here how this is the only east-west route in the city and if it’s made more livable, it will make traffic worse and people won’t be able to get across the city. Thing is, time and time again (think Valencia St and Market St), traffic calming and livable neighborhoods have not resulted in significant increased traffic as people either stop traveling so far as much, and when they do so, they find alternative ways. And in turn, *people* (not cars) start wanting to be there. And that is exactly what we want!

    The separated bike paths are the first steps. Ultimately, I think both Fell and Oak need to be made 2-way streets though and have a lane of traffic removed from each which will used for the bike lanes and increased sidewalk space.

  • icarus12

    Ok, jd, I’m going to be that person that writes that the City has to have a handful of arterial streets that function to move large amounts of traffic. There are two alternatives, of course: freeways and designated expressways under, over, and through the City. Something voters have rejected. Or making the City into a bottleneck for cars that in your perfect world would just disappear as people chose not to drive. Of those three scenarios, I am happy to keep a few multi-lane streets for cross-town traffic and dedicate the rest for mostly local use, livability, etc. Let’s get real and continue to make the thousands of other City streets and byways the pedestrian, bike, children, neighborhood-friendly spaces most of us want.

  • “Civic-minded people hated the Embarcadero Freeway, but 60,000 cars a day used it. If it were torn down, what then?”

    If this doesn’t sum up the fights over Fell/Oak/Masonic/CC… Not all people are on board, but life will go on and it will be a little brighter and a lot less smoggy.

  • Funny, I typed that up while icarus12 was practically writing the lead in. Worked out nicely.

  • Nick

    The sidewalks of Fell and Oak always had an eerie feeling to them for me. Especially at night, you look up at the dust covered Victorians and can almost sense that a towering gray freeway stands next to them. Then you look and there’s nothing there.

  • The Fell/Oak couplet is an example of typical 1950s traffic engineering. The only goal is to move as many cars as possible as quickly as possible, with a complete disregard of the damage done to surrounding communities.

    There is plenty of evidence that speeding up traffic in this way induces more traffic and that slowing down traffic reduces traffic – not in a “perfect world” but in the real world.

    See http://www.preservenet.com/freeways/FreewaysInducedReduced.html

  • jd


    And cars still will have a way to get across the city. This isn’t a discussion about closing down the roads to cars, but changing them from fast, freeway-like roads (the current design of Fell and Oak) to calm streets with slow-moving cars were pedestrians and cyclists are not in danger and where people want to hang out because it isn’t like standing next to a freeway. So people will still be able to get across the city in cars if they wish, but it won’t be as “convenient” (I use parenthesis, because it’s only convenient for the motorist, not all others and those who live in the neighborhood). This means that it will discourage most people from driving except when absolutely necessary. The rest of the time, people will be walking, cycling, or taking public transit. And that’s the point of livable cities: not to get rid of cars, but to create alternatives that are healthier and better for our environment so that people don’t have to drive (much).

  • Gary

    The insane use of cars to make life miserable is only going to get worse as the years pass unless something is done now. Has anyone done a health study to see how the constant dust stirred up by cars is causing illnesses?

  • Sprague

    As someone whose sleep is often effected by the sounds of Fell Street a half block away, and as a proponent of more livable streets everywhere, I welcome a more balanced design of these streets. If nothing else, safer accomodation of cyclists in the blocks between Scott and Baker would help to entice potential cyclists to feel comfortable and safe and pedal this route. Safer bike routes lead to more cyclists which leads to less traffic and more livable streets.

    Unfortunately, in this neighborhood, we don’t feel safe letting our 9 year old daughter walk alone the four blocks to her (soon to be discontinued) school bus stop on the other side of Fell and Oak. She’s growing up and seeking greater independence. But, despite the Wiggle, the car is king here and the residents suffer.

    Of course, the same can be said of so many neighborhoods in SF and elsewhere. If we care about our own neighborhoods, we should also care about other neighborhoods and only drive when we really need to. And when we drive, out of kindness and respect to our neighbors and our planet, we should do so safely and reasonably quietly.

  • priscilla

    As a resident in the neighborhood for over 30 years I would like to see some bike laws along with the dedicated bike paths. Bikes come tearing down the street and since they are not required to stop at the light, makes crossing difficult. In Paris bicycle traffic laws are similar to car traffic laws and are enforced.

  • Building bicycle infrastructure is not dependent on cyclists’ behavior just like building roads isn’t dependent on drivers’ behavior.

  • Joe

    Folks in the Richmond and the Sunset need a fast way to get to downtown and the freeways. The N, 71, 38, 31, and 5 lines are packed to capacity as it is and it takes 30-60 minutes to traverse the city on them. This is ignoring the fact that plenty of Sunset and Richmond residents don’t work downtown in any case and need to get to the East Bay, or the Peninsula, and transit isn’t an option for them. Fell and Oak streets are necessary arterials to move car traffic across town.

  • @Joe: “Folks in the Richmond and the Sunset need a fast way to get to downtown and the freeways.”

    Please don’t cheapen the word “need.”

    People need to live. People need to be healthy. The Earth needs us to stop emitting all of this carbon. But folks don’t need a fast way to get downtown and the freeways. In fact, a lot of folks would probably be better off slowing down.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Joe –

    I live in the Sunset without a car, and most of my East Bay destinations are within an hour’s reach of me. What we’re discussing includes making cycling to destinations like BART a safe and convenient option.

  • John Murphy

    Joe points out yet another subsidy given to car drivers. You work in the East bay, but want to buy a less expensive house, so you buy in the Outer Sunset and externalize your savings by requiring a crappy freeway through someone else’s neighborhood.

  • triple0

    @priscilla: The laws for bike riding are almost exactly the same as motor vehicles in California. In Paris, there are actually lots more legal exceptions for bikes.

    The reason you think it’s better in Paris is because they’ve built the infrastructure to get *everyone* on a bike — not just the few brave souls who ride with today’s bike lanes.

    Better bike lanes creates more diverse bike ridership (i.e. older, women, kids) which means calmer bike traffic. We don’t need more laws — we need to widen the pool of riders from those who are courageous enough to ride in a 5′ lane next to car doors and speeding traffic.

  • Disco Burritos

    I’m a daily bicycle rider who does not own a car, and I agree with icarus and Joe that there is still a need for cars to move efficiently across town without being stuck in stop-and-go traffic for 30-45 minutes.

    I’m curious how people feel about Geary (particularly in the Richmond) as an example of an arterial road that both carries high volumes of traffic and still seems to keep plenty of businesses at the same time? I don’t think of Divisadero (between Fell and Geary) as a calm street either, yet business seems to do well there.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Disco –

    It’s all up to us how many cars we want to allow to drive in our cities and under what terms. The car traffic demand that is there is induced (as others have discussed), just as much more would’ve been induced had they built the elevated freeway that was protested out. What there is a need for is safe, efficient transportation and livable neighborhoods, and motorways aren’t exactly the best way to do that. It’s all about what we choose to prioritize – miniscule amounts of travel time for autos (largely cancelled out by congestion), or public safety, livability, affordability, health, diverse options, etc.? We only have to look as far as the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway to see that this is true.

    Geary would work much better if transit were prioritized rather than private automobiles. Many choose to drive down it due to poor service on the 38. Businesses would do even better by making the street more attractive to visit.

  • This is a pretty ridiculous NIMBY article. The vision is to berate all high traffic streets and indiscriminately advocate for turning them into neighborhood street. No thought is ever spare on the tons of traffic using them daily or the life of many residents on the west side.

    Neighborhood street is nice. But we have to have some artery streets to connect the city efficiently!! It is ridiculous to ask to turn every street into residential street.

    Even with all the traffic, Fell is hardly a ‘bad’ pedestrian street. It is only 3 lanes of traffic to cross. This is less than 6 lanes in Van Ness, 19th St, Geary and every main street in SOMA. Speed limit is very reasonable 25-30ish. There are traffic light at most intersections. I don’t see how it can be more difficult to cross than other main streets in San Francisco. The residents knows about the noise before they choose to move in. Chances are the negativity has reflected in the lower price they are paying.

    Unless there is a vision to address the transportation need of cross town traffic, I’d call this NIMBY.

    You can

  • Speed limit is very reasonable 25-30ish

    There’s the speed limit… and then there is the prevailing speed.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Wai –

    People use the motorways because that’s what they’re given. Cars have little to do with connecting the city efficiently. How many perceived seconds in auto peak travel time should we gain from these motorways to make up for the sacrifices in public safety, health, economic costs, livability, limited alternatives, etc.?
    For a vision addressing the needs of cross town traffic, see here and here.

  • Joe

    In an ideal world, everyone in the Richmond/Sunset who had jobs downtown, in the East Bay and the Peninsula could bike/bus/BART to their destinations (which is what I do, by the way). But the reality is there are a variety of factors that could lead someone to live in a particular neighborhood but have to work in an area that is not transit/bike friendly. Imagine a couple where both parents have had to transition to jobs in two different locations but their kids/friends/extended family are established in a certain neighborhood. There are real factors at play here: jobs, human connections, home mortgage, etc. that could lead to less-than-ideal transportation situations.

    I think what this post is about is not accommodating one group to the exclusion of others. Keep in mind that a (slim) majority of Sunset/Richmond residents drive/carpool to get to work, and unfortunately they don’t all have the luxury of getting on a bus/bike to get to work.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Joe –

    The situations you’re focusing on are the exceptions. We hardly need six freeway-style lanes just to serve extraneous trips without delay. The lack of a better bike and transit network and car-oriented development are what lead to less than ideal transportation situations.

    If you want to talk about job factors, how’s being a reporter having to reach a diverse range of locations by the day?

    “70 percent of driving during rush hour to San Francisco’s downtown is done by San Franciscans.

    According to SFCTA data, only 10 percent of drivers to, from, and within the downtown area during the morning rush are from households making less than $50,000 annually. What’s more, only 3 percent of total trips to, from, and within dowtown are made by people in this demographic. The vast majority of low-income San Franciscans ride transit, walk, or ride bicycles.”


    The Fell/Oak freeway carries an average of about 35,000 cars per day. In the Sunset, the N-Judah alone carries almost 23,000 people. The L-Taraval carries 15,000. Then you have the 71, 6, 16x and other bus lines, plus bike, walking and other trips.

    What this indicates to me is that most of the people driving downtown do so because they can afford to and because they have a motorway to take them there “quickly” at the expense of a lot of other people.

    As I said to Wai, how much do we want to put the slight convenience of a select group of commuters who choose the most impactful form of transportation over everything else?

  • Aaron,

    “How many perceived seconds in auto peak travel time should we gain from these motorways?”

    This is a very good question. I’ll try to measure this with Google map. The travel time from Fell from Octavia to Stanyan, compares to you favorite neighborhood street Hayes and compares to bus is below:

    Fell: 5 minutes
    Hayes: 8 minutes
    Bus 21: 16 minutes

    So the travel time increase for other alternatives are 60% and 220% respectively. Incidentally this also answer murphstahoe’s question about the prevailing speed. To cover 1.6 miles in 5 minutes gives an average speed of 19.2 mph. This sounds about right to me.

    The whole problem with you vision is you see no value in artery street and just try to paint an horrible picture of it. Or simply stick it the label of “freeway”. We have an artery st on Van Ness and a neighborhood st at Polk. They serve difference functions. It makes no sense to say Van Ness should be build like Polk. Polk is good for shopping. But it is terrible in carrying traffic like Van Ness.

    The idea that busy street is detrimental to livably is not quite true. Champs-Élysées has a lot of traffic. Yet it is also very popular. It make no sense to say it is better to be a neighborhood street.

    You allege that Fell and Oak are dangerous. I have seen no such evidence. A map of San Francisco accident data shows that they are concentrated in downtown. Fell and Oak fair quite well in comparison. Even neighborhood streets like Polk, 24 St and Clement seems to be more dangerous.

    Another article also contradict you claim.

    “based on 228 injuries (incidents), the majority of pedestrian crashes (61 percent) occurred in the Tenderloin and SOMA, and 30 percent in the Mission.”

    Tell you what, even bicyclists want to get somewhere fast. Even they value the function provided by artery roads. I for one, ride a bike and hate to stop at every intersection. Compare Polk St to Embarcadero Boulevard, I much prefer the ride on Embarcadero, even on the south bound side. Despite your aversion to traffic, I find riding down Embarcadero very pleasant because traffic flows in predictable pattern. Polk St on the other hand is lot more stressful. You have to deal with conflicts constantly, either cars have to pass you, or you have to pass cars. And then there are often right turning car stuck waiting for pedestrian that prompt you to risk passing them. No wonder Polk St has such a high rate of accident.

  • ZA

    What I’d like to see on Fell/Oak that would be safest for *everyone* who uses these arterials are:

    1. Separated bike lanes and respected bike boxes on Scott to Fell; plus preferential turning lights for bikes on Baker to Oak, with a good turning lane onto Scott. Alternately, consider making a preferential lane for bike traffic on Page to Scott/Wiggle.

    2. Slowing down vehicles descending Fell from Pierce, before reaching Scott. Signs aren’t sufficient, since cars have just burned octane up that hill. Mirror similar slow-downs on Oak leading to Baker and Broderick.

    3. Creating a Financial District-like 4-way mixing zone (with hash tags on asphalt) for pedestrians and bikes at: Baker and Fell, maybe Baker and Oak too. This should clearly indicate order of precedence at that crucial Panhandle connection, and justifiably exhausted DMV users.

    4. Wider and nicer sidewalks for pedestrians along Divisadero, and Broderick, Baker, and Scott.

    5. Consider, however controversially, a district parking garage, perhaps under the Panhandle, and remove on-street parking along Fell and Oak.

    Yeah, it’s contentious, expensive, and nobody is broaching it – but that’s how you get something for everyone and maybe actually improve the situation.

  • Frank


    Calling Fell/Oak a freeway is a misnomer. Interestingly I see little criticism here of the real freeways e.g. 80, 101 and 280. And far more criticism for streets like Fell and Oak.

    Why the difference? Because freeways don’t bring together different classes of road users. so there’s no dispute or frustration.

    An ideal transit system segregates incompatible transportation types. People love bike lanes, bus lanes, rail tracks and freeways because there is no conflict with them.

    We have to have some streets like Fell and Oak, to enable faster journey times, which in turn help productivity and the economy. And yes, they are ugly streets to live on. But that’s a choice you can make – since they’ve been this way for 50 years, everyone who currently lives there has chosen that lifestyle.

    Fell and Oak are sacrificed so that all the parallel streets around them are quieter. It’s a trade off. And as a resident, you can choose which to live on.

  • “Incidentally this also answer murphstahoe’s question about the prevailing speed. To cover 1.6 miles in 5 minutes gives an average speed of 19.2 mph.”

    Lies, damn lies, and statistics. How much of that time is spent at zero mph (stopped at lights at Divisadero and Masonic), and how much is spent at 40 MPH? That isn’t the same as driving at a cool 19.2 MPH. I ride down Fell at 25 MPH and by your metric I would be passing cars, not getting passed.

    Not to mention that Google Maps notoriously underestimates travel times.

    The Champs-Élysées is a cobblestone street. The highest speed traffic that ever runs on that famed boulevard is the Tour De France Peleton – all cyclists. If you are interested in converting Fell to Cobblestones, I am all for it.

    There are fewer pedestrian incidents on Fell than on 24th St? Feel free to drop by Noe Valley some day and compare the number of pedestrians on 24th vs Fell. Normalized for usage, 24th is safer. You are making the same argument that Rob Anderson makes about Masonic re: Bicycles. By this metric, I-280 is the safest pedestrian street in the Bay Area.

    And you should pass cars that are turning right on the LEFT.

  • John Murphy,

    “I ride down Fell at 25 MPH and by your metric I would be passing cars, not getting passed.”

    I clearly state my number is the average speed, not a constant speed.

    It is a fair question to ask what’s the top speed. I’d maintain 30-ish is about right for most of the traffic. The signal on Fell is well timed, so cars don’t spent much time idling. There are always some people who ramp up speed. It is not a specific problem on Fell. If you think speeding is a significant problem on Fell I’d like to see some data.

    “There are fewer pedestrian incidents on Fell than on 24th St? Feel free to drop by Noe Valley some day and compare the number of pedestrians on 24th vs Fell. Normalized for usage, 24th is safer.”

    That’s the point. Speed and traffic volume alone does not cause accidents. Conflict with pedestrians does. It goes directly against Aaron’s argument. Say we have a pedestrians haven on Hayes and an artery road on Fell. And he is saying Fell should be like Hayes because it is dangerous. The data shows otherwise. He is solving the wrong problem.

    “And you should pass cars that are turning right on the LEFT.”

    I always do. Still a risky maneuver.

  • “That’s the point. Speed and traffic volume alone does not cause accidents. Conflict with pedestrians does.”

    I think you missed the point completely. Speed and traffic volume scare away pedestrians. When there are no pedestrians, of course it “appears” safe – there is no one to hit. Hence why John ended with “By this metric, I-280 is the safest pedestrian street in the Bay Area.”

  • And of course it’s not safe at all to discourage folks from walking and biking, and encourage them to drive. More driving/less walking and biking means more asthma, more deadly car crashes, more cancer, more obesity, more stress.

    A street with more cars and less pedestrians is less safe for everyone.

  • jd

    Wai Yip Tung wrote: “This is a very good question. I’ll try to measure this with Google map. The travel time from Fell from Octavia to Stanyan, compares to you favorite neighborhood street Hayes and compares to bus is below:

    Fell: 5 minutes
    Hayes: 8 minutes
    Bus 21: 16 minutes”

    Okay, let’s say your times are representative. So even in the worst case, is 11 extra minutes worth the risk to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as the decreased livability of that neighborhood? 11 minutes, really? Since when does the *convenience* of drivers (saving 11 minutes) trump the *safety* of other road users (who, you might need to be reminded, are disproportionately injured or killed in car accidents)? Further, remember that when you are riding a bus, it’s not wasted time, as you can read or just relax. Also remember that if you are cycling or walking (even if only for part of your commute), it isn’t time wasted because you are getting exercise (which we all are not doing nearly enough of, one of the major reasons we have an obesity epidemic).

    So even if it’s 10 minutes faster in the car, you haven’t gotten any exercise, you are probably not relaxed, you have polluted the air for everyone else (and yourself), and you have wasted limited natural resources all while decreasing the livability of every area through which you passed. I ask you: how can we possibly think this is acceptable urban design?

    Further, that bus time could most certainly be improved significantly if we started giving public transit more priority instead of giving that priority to cars. Again, the point is that this city, like almost all US cities, prioritizes the car over all other forms of transit (all of which, by the way, are more efficient and healthy than the personal vehicle).

    As Aaron was trying to point out, the reason car travel is the fastest is because we have *made* it that way by putting most of our resources and our urban planning design into prioritizing the car at expense of all else. I guarantee you that if we prioritized public transit, we could get people moved almost as quickly but with significantly less environmental destruction and damage to our health.

    The argument isn’t over which way right *now* is the best way to get around (since we all know that is the car … well if you externalize all the damage and destruction it causes, which is what most people do). The argument is: what do we WANT it to be? And given that most people believe that the personal vehicle is not the best way to move forward, let’s start working to realize that future now.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Wai –

    So the number of people getting hit is the only way to measure livability and safety? There are a lot more pedestrians in the areas you mention. There’s actual safety (what you’re talking about) and subjective safety. The deterrence from walking, playing, shopping, etc. is a very real consequence. You don’t call an elevated freeway safe because no pedestrians are getting hit (though that does happen, too).

    Again, it comes down to your priorities. If you really think that the current neighborhood conditions are a good thing because people who want to drive through it save 3 minutes sitting in their car, well, I don’t think most people would make the same choice. It happens that a lot of people see the issues discussed in this article as a bit more important to quality of life than a few minutes for driving commuters.

    When you slow down driving, the perceived advantage goes down, and the sense of public safety goes up. More people start cycling, taking transit, and spending time on the streets. The need for the motorways isn’t real and is actually very harmful. This has been shown time and time again.

  • mikesonn,

    “I think you missed the point completely. Speed and traffic volume scare away pedestrians”

    I will not say it is scary either. My view is there are not as much pedestrians because Fell is not a destination. There are many other high traffic street that also serve as a destination – Geary, Van Ness, Lombard and Embarcadero comes into mind. If you don’t like to hang out on Fell, hang out on Hayes and Haight instead. There is no lack of destinations.

    It is naive to think we should turn every street into neighborhood and destinations because we like it. There are only so many business we can sustain. You can’t replicate the same amount of shops and pedestrians on every street. Some place will end up faring better than the others.

  • “My view is there are not as much pedestrians because Fell is not a destination.”

    ““Every business that goes in here shuts down almost immediately,” said Kelly, a resident living a couple of blocks over just off Fell Street. She’s referring to a mixed-use building that houses the only storefronts on the block, which are all currently vacant, save a laundromat.

    The current prospective tenants for that building are contending with other issues, but the space’s availability and high turnover don’t seem to be a coincidence. Any sense of place that might attract business-nurturing foot traffic appears to be destroyed by skinny sidewalks and the overwhelming presence of cars.”

  • jd

    Wai Yip Tung wrote: “There are many other high traffic street that also serve as a destination – Geary, Van Ness, Lombard and Embarcadero comes into mind. If you don’t like to hang out on Fell, hang out on Hayes and Haight instead. There is no lack of destinations.”

    First, were not just talking about businesses (which is what I presume you mean when you say “destination”) but about where people *live*. Do you think just because there are no businesses there that means that we don’t have to care about improving a neighborhood?

    Second, as corridors like Valencia St in the Mission or Embarcadero where the freeway once was overwhelming show: getting rid of “freeway-like” car traffic *increases* business *and* makes it more livable for those who live there. That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t have streets with lots of car traffic but which are not destinations, like Geary St as you mentioned. However, this areas will be even more of a “destination” when you get rid of the freeway-like feel to it. Again, this has been shown time and time again.

    Third, when you say there are “no lack of destinations”, that says to me that you are saying: “Hey Fell St residents, there are plenty of other cool areas neighborhoods nearby, so to hell with you; we need your neighborhood to drive our cars to these other destinations, so you just have to deal”. In other words, you seem to be resigned to the fact that some areas of the city will just be crappy and there is nothing we can do about that. I think that is *horrible* city planning; we should be seeking to improve *every* neighborhood of the city. Nobody’s neighborhood should have to be dumped on (eg, have a dangerous, loud, and unhealthy freeway through it) at the expense of others.

    And this is the problem with cars: motorists insist on demanding they have tons of arterial through ways through our cities even when it destroys those areas of the cities. This is why the personal automobile on such a large scale is simply incapable with livable cities and why you have such a movement to get people out of cars and walking, cycling, and onto public transit. Those 3 methods, especially the first two, are very compatible with livable cities.

  • Joe

    Aaron: I am replying in reference to your transit ridership numbers vs. road use. If you look at the zip code data for areas of the Richmond and Sunset Districts closest to Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle, you can see the following usage:
    94121: 47% drove alone /14% carpooled /30% public transportation
    94118: 44/10/31
    94122: 46/13/29
    And for the Haight
    94117: 33/7/35

    The bottom line is that it’s not just “the rich” who are choosing to drive: in all areas except the Panhandle itself (which is quite close to transit-rich Market St), a majority drive to work. This means once again that we should never accommodate one group to the exclusion of others (that’s what Republican governors across the midwest are doing as they ditch transit improvements in favor of roads only). ZA brings up some good points that could help bike, transit, and car users alike.

    Aside: Let’s not forget the environmental costs of cars and diesel vehicles idling through “traffic-calmed” streets.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Joe –

    Please cite your sources.

    It’s besides the point, though. I cited those to show how many people are already being moved by transit in much safer, cleaner, less intrusive ways than the Fell/Oak freeway. I cited the income disparity to show that those most disadvantaged do not drive downtown, and those that choose seem to do so because they have the money and the motorway inviting them rather than some special need. Again, streets that encourage less driving yield less driving, far outweighing any pollution from any additional stopping. Right now, driving is being accommodated by the Fell/Oak freeway to the exclusion particularly of cycling, walking and existing in that neighborhood. You are also dodging the point that we’re talking about saving a few minutes for some people choosing to sit in their cars at the cost of all the issues described in the article.

  • jd

    Joe wrote: “The bottom line is that it’s not just “the rich” who are choosing to drive: in all areas except the Panhandle itself (which is quite close to transit-rich Market St), a majority drive to work.”

    True, but I bet that if you look at the same statistics for wealthy areas (eg, Pac Heights) it will show a significantly higher percent that drive. So the idea is that the wealthy are more tied to cars. And, of course, they are also the most connected and hence powerful, so they disproportionately get their way.

    And again, the point here is not discussing the way our transit *currently* works, but how we can improve it. And centering those plans around cars (like our current system) is not sustainable.

    Joe wrote: “Let’s not forget the environmental costs of cars and diesel vehicles idling through “traffic-calmed” streets.”

    So here’s a question for you … what’s worse: many less cars on the roads but those few that are idling more, or a lot more cars on the roads but all those cars idling less? The best solution — for reducing pollution, for reducing car accidents, for reducing our obesity problem, for reducing our unsustainable consumption of natural resource, for reducing the wars we have to fight abroad to protect our oil supply — is to reduced car usage. You are saying that the amount of cars on the road is going to stay the same, so should they be moving or idling. Another alternative would be to massively *reduce* the number of cars on the road so that they don’t create traffic and hence, even with less road space, there is no more traffic. The latter is a much better option in the long-term and when looking at all the disadvantages of cars.

    Another way of putting it is: the roads will always have the same amount of congestion no matter how much throughput you provide, since people respond to the increased or decreased throughput by either driving more or less. Just look at freeways in LA: their solution to traffic jams has been to keep adding more lanes, which in the immediate short-term decrease traffic, which in turn encourages people to drive who wouldn’t otherwise have driven, which brings traffic right back up to the same point. The only difference between the two cases is not how long it takes you to get anywhere (which is the same), but how many cars are on the road (polluting, making us fat, etc.). Once you realize this, you quickly see that the ultimate goal of good urban design is simply to reduce the amount of space designated for cars (since they are inherently very inefficient) and increase that for public transit, cycling, and walking.

  • jd


    You can find such statistics here: http://www.city-data.com/

    Of course, you have to be careful interpreting them because there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the neighborhooods of SF and their zip codes, ie, many neighborhoods are usually lumped into a single zip code. For example, Pacific Heights is in the same zip code as Japantown and Western Addition (94115), the latter being just about the opposite of Pacific Heights, so the statistics from this zip code are clearly hard to interpret. It would be great if there were statistics out there based on neighborhood ….

  • You can get it by census tract or block group from factfinder.census.gov (http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/DCGeoSelectServlet?ds_name=DEC_2000_SF3_U), although those are sort of annoying to work with because people don’t tend to know what number block or tract they are in or where the edges are. Maybe I’ll make a map.

  • Joe

    Thanks for posting the link, jd.

  • Joe

    *You can check to see that’s where I obtained the figures. jd brings up a good point about zip code vs. census tract granularity.

  • jd,

    “First, were not just talking about businesses (which is what I presume you mean when you say “destination”) but about where people *live*. Do you think just because there are no businesses there that means that we don’t have to care about improving a neighborhood?”

    Business and people naturally attract to each other. But for discussion’s sake let’s talk about parks only. The same issue applies. If you put a park on every street, people will be spread thin. Most of them will fail to become destination. Fell St is not a particular high density area. If it does not have destination to attract others, you will not see any boost in the pedestrians level than today. In fact I very much doubt the characterization that people are being scared away by the traffic. It is just has the typical level of pedestrians you expect to see in a residential area. The vibrant commercial district that we have in mind requires above average level of pedestrians. You cannot duplicate it on every block. At least not for San Francisco’s density.

    That’s brings to mind another point that contradict many things everybody has said. Fell St indeed has a destination. It is the large expense of the Panhandle park. It is a well used urban park. Despite all the bad things you say about Fell St, panhandle is a great refugee enjoyed by many people. Few neighborhood has comparable amenity. I don’t understand why you have to describe it as a miserable place. Would you rather live in the quaint neighborhood of Ingleside? I know I won’t.

    I welcome incremental improvement to the area. Adding a bike lane sounds great. There are certainly enough space in certain stretch to do so. But the idea that it is a terrible and dangerous place that need to be remake into neighborhood street is totally off base.

  • taomom

    Anyone who relies on a private car to get to work is in a very vulnerable situation regardless of whether San Francisco continues its unstated (but very real) private car first policy.

    Saudi Arabia just opened fire on its own protesting citizens. Saudi Arabia, the monarchy (i.e. autocratic non-democracy) the United States has been supporting.

    The U.S. Federal Reserve prints money to forestall the US going off an economic cliff, resulting in the cost of commodities world wide going up. The Middle East imports the majority of its food. Food becomes expensive. Uprisings spread. Oil supply becomes threatened and unstable. And this is without even taking into account depletion of oil reserves, Peak Oil, the Export Land Model, or OPEC’s grossly exaggerated reserves.

    The U.S. imports the majority of its oil. Read the writing on the wall. If you live more than 10 miles from where you work or more than a few miles from public transportation that can get you to your work, you are going to be in a world of hurt. It is just not a good idea to live in the Sunset and work in the East Bay. Nor would I advise living in Tracy and working in San Francisco. The monster buses of Google, Genetech, etc, may continue to make living in SF and working in the valley possible, (and in the end, I do expect sanity to prevail and Caltrain to continue) but I expect the days of commuting from Marin to Menlo Park are quite over.

    Please note that I don’t say this from any green, let’s-save-the-planet perspective. Although it would be nice if we were proactive enough not to make life on the planet a complete nightmare for the next thousand generations, it’s clear the human race has a hard time caring about much beyond next week, so it’s useless to expect anyone to forgo small amounts of comfort or pleasure in order to spare untold future suffering.

    But reduced supply of oil and constrained energy resources are coming up fast and furious. Maybe not next week, but next month or next year. As a result, any part of our lifestyle that depends on cheap energy will necessarily alter whether we like it or not. (Yes, this will be unfair in many, many ways. Yes, it will hit the poor the hardest. Yes, it will likely turn far-flung suburbs into far-flung squatter ghettos. Yes, no one wants to move and take a loss on their house, but it may be the right choice if the job is good and stable and the house is likely to devalue further.)

    So arguments about how fast we can drive down Fell and Oak (and yes, I take those streets because they are darn fast, and yes, I think they must be very unpleasant to live on or next to) are likely to become quickly irrelevant. Which is not to say we still shouldn’t reorient our streets to a more livable, humane condition that benefits the majority of our citizens rather than the privileged few that will still be driving.

    Please understand that arguing for the convenience of car drivers is very likely arguing against your future self.


NoPa Neighborhood Fights to Calm its Residential Freeway

Cars regularly block the bike lane on Fell Street near the Arco Station. Photo: Bryan Goebel In a city where people and cars regularly jostle for space, it’s not uncommon to have speeding traffic just inches or feet from pedestrians, homes, and parks. This spatial conflict is especially pronounced on Fell and Oak Streets, which […]

It’s Time to Turn Oak and Fell Into Slow Streets

Flickr photo: pbo31 The SFMTA’s plans to install freeway-style traffic information signs on Oak and Fell Streets were not very popular, to say the least, at last week’s meeting of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association. The signs, two of seven the MTA plans to install around the city, are part of the SFgo program […]

Neighborhood Outreach Continues for Fell and Oak Bikeways

Fourteen years of community-driven efforts to improve conditions on Fell and Oak Streets around the Panhandle are finally paying off. The outreach continues on a vision for separated bikeways that would provide San Franciscans safe access to the flattest route connecting the western neighborhoods to areas east while making the neighborhood more livable for residents and businesses. […]

SFMTA Implements Changes at Fell Street ARCO, But Is It Better?

A cyclist is forced to squeeze between two cars waiting to get into the ARCO station. An all-too-frequent occurrence that is still happening despite the SFMTA’s new configuration. Photos by Bryan Goebel. 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 […]

McCoppin Street: From Streetcar Hub to the Central Freeway

Eight years ago, the Central Freeway fell, and the sky didn’t. The neighborhood long obscured by the structure came up for a year-long breath of air during its reconstruction. Author Carol Lloyd described the transformation in a 2003 San Francisco Chronicle article: The buildings are familiar, but they look brighter, prettier, somehow. There are big swooshes of empty […]