Three alleyways in the city’s motor-dominated South of Market (SoMa) area could be transformed into pedestrian-friendly havens with a new plan approved by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) Board yesterday.
The Western SoMa Neighborhood Transportation Plan  would bring traffic-calming measures like chicanes , greening, pedestrian bulb-outs and raised crosswalks along Minna and Natoma Street between Seventh and Ninth and Ringold between Eighth and Ninth. It would also add crosswalk markings and traffic signals across the arterial streets they meet.
“The plan and the designs create safe, inviting space in one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly parts of the city,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe.
The improvements are just one step in the Western SoMa Community Plan , which includes a long-term effort make SoMa safer and more inviting for pedestrians. Jim Meko, chair of the West SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force, said the goal of the Transportation Plan is to streamline a set of priority projects to pedestrianize SoMa alleys, where he said most residents live.
“We wanted to do smaller things that people would begin to notice right away,” said Meko. “With the alleys that we chose, it will begin to also introduce the social heritage aspects of the plan. The Minna and Natoma alleys are particularly important to the Filipino community… and Ringold has always been important to the LGBTQ community.”
The improvements could be implemented as soon as 2014 depending on funding availability, according to the report. Once implemented, the alleys should feel more like “shared” streets (known as “woonerfs ” in the Netherlands), where motor vehicles are allowed, but pedestrian uses take precedence.
“In this neighborhood, there is a relative scarcity of park space, and the real sources of community space in this area are the streets,” SFCTA transportation planner Chester Fung told the Plans and Programs Committee last week. “We know that the alleys are promising in some ways — they are quiet respites, refuges, from the high-traffic arterials.”
Speeding and cut-through car traffic in the alleys would be discouraged by features like landscaped chicanes and car parking that alternates sides to mitigate the “wide-open” feel that invites drivers to rush through to the next block. Other features to be added include pedestrian-scale light fixtures and bicycle racks.
Right now, “There’s a lot of speeding that’s happening in the alleys,” said Fung. “That creates inhospitable pedestrian conditions.”
The plan would also add markings and landscaped sidewalk bulb-outs to increase pedestrian visibility at mid-block crossings on Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Streets. Although pedestrians can already legally cross at these junctions, there are often no markings signaling that to drivers, making them dangerous to traverse. SoMa sees some of highest  rates of pedestrian injuries and fatalities in the city.
“Even if you’re walking along the alley, at some point you have to emerge onto one of those streets that are basically freeways,” said Stampe. “You have to make sure that drivers are aware that people will be crossing and that they need to slow down and be careful.”
The plan also calls for traffic signals at those intersections. Although Stampe thinks adding signals can be useful in some cases, an over-reliance on them can be counterproductive  to transforming streets into the kind of traffic-calmed, pedestrian-oriented environments that physical street changes could bring throughout SoMa.
“In a city like San Francisco, it’s ridiculous to have signals that say, ‘Watch out, a pedestrian!’ and that pedestrians are unusual, when in fact they’re the norm,” said Stampe. Still, to make headway “on these streets that are designed already to be acting like freeways, and have drivers responding like they’re on freeway, [sometimes] you kind of have to speak freeway.”