Plan for Ped-Friendly Castro Takes Shape: Will Parking Trump Muni Riders?

Images: Planning Department

City planners presented detailed options for pedestrian upgrades on Castro Street at a community meeting last night. The improvements, set for construction next year, will include sidewalks as wide as 22 feet, new trees, and pedestrian-scaled lighting.

By reclaiming space from Castro’s excessively-wide traffic lanes, the plan is expected to provide more room for people on Castro’s often overcrowded sidewalks, calm motor traffic, and improve safety. Castro, between 17th and 19th Streets, sees some of the heaviest foot traffic of the city’s neighborhood commercial streets, even exceeding Columbus Avenue in North Beach, said Nick Perry, project manager for the Planning Department. With the proposed improvements making Castro more attractive to visit, those numbers are expected to jump, judging by the success of similar projects like the 2009 streetscape improvements on Valencia Street.

According to a Planning Department survey following the first community street design workshop in January, over 93 percent of respondents like the basic plan (76 percent “strongly” like it). At last night’s meeting, agency staff sought feedback from residents on options like the types of trees to plant, pavement treatments (rainbow-colored crosswalks, anyone?), and where to put sidewalk bulb-outs.

Along Castro, the plan would repurpose excess road space that currently tends to be taken up by double-parkers. But since the roadbed will be narrowed, the SF Transit Riders Union is concerned that unless further steps are taken, the 24-Divisadero and 35-Eureka lines could face more delays as buses wait behind drivers while they parallel park.

“It’s a great streetscape design,” said Peter Straus, a TRU member and retired Muni service planner, “but by narrowing it, all of the parking movements, in and out of parking spaces, especially where you have high turnover on a commercial street, where they’re all moving through that one lane, it’s inevitably going to lead to significant delays to Muni operations.”

Straus suggested a treatment used more commonly in cities like Los Angeles to provide a buffer between curbside parking spaces, making it easier for drivers to pull in and out of them more quickly. Straus and an SFMTA staffer said it’s usually done by painting sections of the curb red or by adding hatched markings on the pavement.

Straus's sketch of the buffered parking concept. Click to enlarge.

The current proposal for Castro, however, would actually shorten the current length of parking spaces in order to preserve all but one spot. Under Straus’s proposal, some parking spaces would have to be removed, which he acknowledged could upset merchants. But without such measures, he said, the city is favoring car parking over Muni’s reliability.

“Frankly, the city should not put itself in a position where it’s compromising Muni for the sake of retaining maximum parking spaces,” said Straus. “That’s actually a violation of the transit-first policy, and a violation of the City Charter.”

To facilitate curbside truck loading, the proposal would add seven loading zones on and near Castro, clustered to accommodate large trucks, Planning Department staff said. Loading hours may be kept to a minimum to maximize the number of hours the space is available for private car parking.

City staffers also presented four options for how to spend a one portion of the project’s budget: A pair of bus bulb-outs on 18th at Castro (with stops moved to the near side of the intersection); bulb-outs and a “gateway” median at 19th and Castro; more permanent improvements for Jane Warner Plaza at Castro, 17th, and Market Streets; and pedestrian bulb-outs on the northern corners of Castro and Market.

There was no clear favorite option among attendees, though in the Planning Department’s survey responses, 17th and Castro was the top priority for improvement among the project’s three intersections, with 56 percent naming it the most important.

One of the most contentious options was the 18th Street bus bulb-outs. In the survey, 67 percent of respondents favored the sidewalk extensions, which would provide more room for Muni riders to board and wait, while reducing delays for Muni buses that would no longer have to wait for car traffic to pass before departing a bus stop.

But others, like D8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, thought the potential backup as drivers wait behind loading buses might be too significant. “I’m not sure if that’ll be workable,” he said.

One improvement Wiener had hoped to see at Castro and 18th was a pedestrian scramble, a traffic signal phase in which pedestrians can cross all sides of the intersection at once while all vehicle traffic has a red light. However, SFMTA planner Dustin White said that the agency’s analysis determined that a scramble would cause too much delay for motor traffic, including Muni buses — a much more significant backup than the proposed bus bulb-outs would entail.

Other proposed sidewalk improvements include “leaning posts,” similar to the bannisters seen on the Powell Street Promenade, as well as colored “celebratory” lighting fixtures and images of LGBT “heros and heroines” imprinted on sidewalks for the Rainbow Honor Walk, a separately-funded project. A mid-block mini plaza bulb-out (think: permanent parklet) would also be installed near 19th Street.

The roughly $1 million needed to move poles that hold up Castro’s overhead Muni wires to the new curb edge when the sidewalks are extended initially caused concern that the poles would have to remain in place. However, city staffers said they now expect that part of the project to be mostly funded mostly through a Federal Transit Administration grant and some Muni capital funds set aside for wire improvements.

Residents can submit comments via a survey [PDF] to the Planning Department by April 12. Planners expect to present a refined design at a final open house late April or May, and construction would take place from January to October of 2014.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I’d like to add a couple details from talking with staff:

    • If option 2 (18th & Castro bulb-outs with relocated stops) isn’t selected, Planning will still look at fixing that narrow gap between the 33 shelter and Walgreens.

    • If option 4 (corner bulb-outs on the north side of market) isn’t selected, all the other lane reconfiguring is still happening and with a plan in hand we can look for other funding sources in the future.

    • Jane Warner Plaza is shown with the swinging gates/planters still in place but with the sidewalk extended out and new bollard 10′ further out they will be removed in both cases.

    My take is Option 2 gives us the biggest bang for the buck and from the talk in the group it sounded like it is the only one that’s now or never. Option 1 (the 19th & Castro gateway) just won’t get that heavily used and wouldn’t do as much to draw foot traffic up to 19th as having much more inviting corners on the south side of 18th. Several people at my table want to see Jane Warner Plaza properly redone (raised up to the level of the sidewalk work out something with the gas station to incorporate that planter at the end, maybe even reconfigure the F line tracks, etc.) and worry that if we settle for just resurfacing it now means it’s only less likely or a longer until it is properly redesigned.

  • Jamison Wieser

    I’d like to add a couple details from talking with staff.

    • If option 2 (18th & Castro bulb-outs with relocated stops) isn’t selected, Planning will still look at fixing that narrow gap between the 33 shelter and Walgreens.

    • If option 4 (corner bulb-outs on the north side of market) isn’t selected, all the other lane reconfiguring is still happening and with a plan in hand we can look for other funding sources in the future.

    • Jane Warner Plaza is shown with the swinging gates/planters still in place but with the sidewalk extended out and new bollard 10′ further out they will be removed in both cases.

    My take is Option 2 gives us the biggest bang for the buck and the only one that’s now or never. Option 1 (the 19th & Castro gateway) just won’t get that heavily used and wouldn’t do as much to draw foot traffic up to 19th as having much more inviting corners on the south side of 18th. Several people at my table want to see Jane Warner Plaza properly redone (raised up to the level of the sidewalk work out something with the gas station to incorporate that planter at the end, maybe even reconfigure the F line tracks, etc.) and worry that if we settle for just resurfacing it now means it’s only less likely or a longer until it is properly redesigned.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t buses now have front-facing cameras to enforce laws against double parking?

  • Some buses. And that doesn’t stop the car in the street that is blocking a particular bus, only means the owner gets a ticket in the mail some time later.

  • Sprague

    The rainbow crosswalks are great!! Also, the improvements proposed to the 17th/Castro/Market intersection are much needed. I fear to one day hear about an inattentive motorist slamming into a pedestrian in the crosswalk, as they turn right from Castro onto Market. The current design nearly hides pedestrians from unsafe motorists. This intersection (along with several other Market street intersections east of this location – as previously covered by Streetsblog) is in need of safety improvements a.s.a.p. (The “optional enhancements” to this intersection, as shown above, look like great improvements.)

    Other positive features of a more pedestrian friendly Castro Street include bus bulb-outs, wider sidewalks, and mid-block mini-plaza/bulb-outs. If the stoplights are being redone or altered in any way, they should definitely be reconfigured to give priority to Muni vehicles. This street redesign is an opportunity to improve Muni throughput in the neighborhood. Supervisor Wiener has done a lot to help Muni and ensuring that this redesign incorporates transit-first design features is very important. (Both the 24 and the 33 are frequently as slow or slower than walking when they pass through these blocks.)

  • They can only enforce illegal parking in bus-only lanes. In this case, there’s no transit-only lane — the problem is both double parking and the legal parallel parking that delays buses.

  • Sell it as “these bulbouts would have saved Sutchi Hui’s life” and the haters will… oh who am I kidding.

  • Anonymous

    Those bulb-outs (upper left) remind me of King @ 4th. Bike lane: now you see it, now you don’t. What MTA is missing is road narrowing reduces the double park problem because there’s simply no room, and unforeseen double parkers create turbulence, while narrower lanes allow traffic to remain smooth.

  • Anonymous

    a helmet would have too. I just can’t believe drivers and pedestrians don’t wear them when they save lives.

  • Trey Allen

    The plans look amazing! However, as noted below there are some safety concerns not fully being addressed. Coming from Castro, turning onto Market towards the ferry building, there is significant danger for pedestrians and cyclists. Cyclists taking a right onto Castro take increased risks by going around Jane Warner plaza. Due to this real danger from cars and MUNI, cyclists go directly thru Jane Warner plaza dodging pedestrians. They need a safe turn lane, that hugs the corner of jane warner plaza, for cyclists to get onto market from Castro to keep them out of Jane Warner plaza.
    Also there are no bike lanes in any of the upgrades. Is this plan from 1980? Biciclists are a reality on every street in SF. By ignoring this, cyclists will slow traffick, increasing environmental harm and angering drivers.
    The solution: put one bike lane on the east side of castro from 18th to Market with a turn lane directing them into the bike lane there. It’s on the uphill climbs that cyclists slow traffic.
    Then on the west side of Castro from 18th to 19th add a single bike lane.
    Adding these uphill only bike lanes will keep slow bikes out of the road and keep tempers low.
    We need real planning for 2015 and 2020. The plans put forward by Sup. Scott Wiener and the planning department are void of any safe cyclist access.
    I spoke to Sup Scott after the meeting on Wednesday and he said these were all great ideas and should be incorporated into the Jane Warner upgrade. Now we have to convince the planning department.
    Go Castro!
    Trey Allen

  • mikesonn

    I wish the reason for the bike lane disappearing on King was a bulb-out but it is the extra left turn lane. LOS uber alles.

  • tehm

    This section of Castro St is not a designated bicycle route in the city’s bike network, and the sheer volume of pedestrians in the area strongly indicates the area as one that should be pedestrian-priority (w/ transit!). Also, 18th is in the valley with steep hills north of Market and south of 19th, so I’d expect more east-west biking anyway. Northbound bikers have a flatter, calmer ride on Collingwood. Southbound riders are going downhill probably closer to the speed of the cars that have now been “calmed,” so the lane shouldn’t be as necessary. I agree that a more formal turn lane at Market/17th would be nice. (Aside, I see a bunch of cyclists on 18th, and frequently get nervous seeing the bike/car interactions on 18th further to the east)

    With so many businesses with loading needs and an existing double parking issue, a bike lane on Castro would likely become a de-facto double parking lane anyway. I’m happy to see the sidewalks maxed out.

    18th/Castro is already a clusterf–k for driving (particularly 18th heading west), I’m surprised that the scramble would actually make any meaningful difference in vehicle delay.

    Hope this gets realized, along with the bulb-outs on the north side of Market.

  • Ryan Brady

    I would be happy with sharrows + the traffic calming measures.

  • Jim Cain

    Has anyone considered how difficult it is already to make a right or left turn from Castro onto 18th Street with all of the pedestrian traffic crossing at the same time? It can take the length of a full light for just one or two cars to make the turn. Now imagine what it will be like once the dedicated turn lanes are removed for the widened sidewalks. The whole street will now be backed up waiting for the cars in front trying to make the turn. I wouldn’t call it traffic easing so much as traffic stalling. I can’t help thinking that this is a very, very bad idea.

  • Anonymous

    When I was in Boston recently, where all-pedestrian phases are popular, I was impressed with how much this slows down walking. With pedestrians going on the vehicular phase, if you need to cut a diagonal relative to the grid, you can go with whichever direction has the signal, and thus need to stop much less than 50% of the time (until you hit one boundary of your trajectory). On the other hand, with an all-pedestrian phase, perhaps getting 1/3 of the total time, you need to stop 2/3 of the time.

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