Cesar Chavez: A Traffic Sewer Transformed Into a Safer Street

As part of the newly-completed redesign of Cesar Chavez, there’s a new plaza at the corner of Mission and Capp Streets. Photos: Aaron Bialick

Western Cesar Chavez Street has been transformed after decades as a dangerous motor vehicle speedway that divided the Mission and Bernal Heights neighborhoods. City officials cut the ribbon today on a redesign of the street, nearly nine years after residents began pushing for safety improvements.

Cesar Chavez was widened in the 1930s and 40s at the expense of safety and livability to serve as a thoroughfare from the 101 and 280 freeways to a planned Mission Freeway that was never built. As a result, it became a virtual no-man’s land for walking and biking, and crossing the street was a huge risk.

Fran Taylor speaking at the ribbon cutting today.
Fran Taylor speaking at the ribbon cutting today.

“Our neighborhoods were cut in two by this dangerous street that was in no way worthy of the man it was named after,” said Fran Taylor, who helped found CC Puede to push for a redesign of the street. “It’s taken a long time, and the efforts of many, but we finally have a Cesar Chavez Street to be proud of.”

With the redesign, the six traffic lanes on Cesar Chavez (known as Army Street until the nineties) were reduced to four. In place of those two lanes are unprotected bike lanes, bulb-outs with rain gardens, and a center median lined with palm trees. With fresh pavement and markings like continental crosswalks, the treatments have made the street calmer and more habitable for people.

The ribbon cutting was held on Si Se Puede! Plaza, which was created at the northeast corner of Cesar Chavez and Mission Street, where Capp Street ends. Drivers can still pass through at the end of Capp, but permeable, textured pavement raised to sidewalk level signals that they are guests.

“We finally have a street that’s going to protect families and reflects what we value, which is safety, first and foremost,” said D9 Supervisor David Campos, whose district includes Cesar Chavez. “It took longer than it should have.”

The project snowballed from a simple re-paving planned by Department of Public Works into a full redesign as residents pushed for safety improvements, and city agencies sought to coordinate those changes with the re-pave to save costs. Andres Power was the project manager for the Planning Department until 2012, when he became an aide for Supervisor Scott Wiener.

“On one hand, it’s unbelievable that it takes this long to get anything like this done. On the other hand, it’s such a transformative project, and I think the wait was well worth it,” said Power. “We wanted to do something that was not just a street project, that was about bringing the neighborhood together, and encouraging people to use the street outside of their cars.”

Cesar Chavez, looking west at Mission.

“The Cesar Chavez improvements are a testament to the power that neighbors and residents have in transforming their streets,” said Kristin Smith, communications director for the SF Bicycle Coalition. “It’s also an example of what happens when city agencies work together. The project can now serve as a model for other neighborhood campaigns to tame large, unsafe streets.”

Supervisor Campos speaks with SFMTA Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman and Supervisor Scott Wiener behind.

The Cesar Chavez bike lanes are not physically protected, like those being planned on other streets in the city. Taylor said that while the outcome wasn’t ideal for bicycling, it’s a substantial improvement that came out of a hard-fought battle. The redesign was planned at a time when city agencies hadn’t yet embraced the idea of protected lanes in the way that they seem to now. “Protected bike lanes were not in the vocabulary,” said Taylor.

During the long planning process for the Cesar Chavez redesign, there was stiff resistance to removing traffic lanes in some quarters, as is typical. “There were all these predictions that we were going to have carmageddon,” said Supervisor Wiener at the ribbon cutting, as cars and trucks moved by at a smooth but calmer pace than in the past. “Time and again, we hear the same thing, and it doesn’t happen. We can have streets that are safe for everyone to use.”

Cesar Chavez, looking east at Bryant Street.
Cesar Chavez at Folsom Street, where a large bulb-out and rain garden were added.

Taylor said CC Puede was formed after a particularly tragic crash in 2005 in which two children, a brother and sister, were hit by a truck driver on Cesar Chavez while walking home to the Bernal Dwellings from the Precita Community Center. “The girl missed a year of school,” she said.

In 1947, when 44 residential buildings were moved to widen the street for cars, it was DPW that ordered the evictions, said Taylor. “So it’s fitting that today, the Department of Public Works is the lead agency in improving the walkability for current residents.”

Cesar Chavez at Mission.

Campos said the city needs to implement more redesigns like Cesar Chavez to end traffic deaths, as called for in Vision Zero, which is gaining steam at City Hall. Noting the recent spate of pedestrian deaths and injuries, including the New Year’s Eve death of six-year-old Sofia Liu at Polk and Ellis Streets, he said, “There are really no words that you can put forward to make sense of that. I think the only thing we can do for the people that have died in the last few weeks is to make a commitment to make sure that a death of that nature never happens again in San Francisco.”

Susie Smith, who lives near Cesar Chavez, recently produced this documentary on the street’s history called “People Live Here”:

“Free at last!,” Taylor says on Si Se Puede! Plaza.
On the easternmost block of Precita Ave., an island of concrete with a gas station on it was expanded by removing the westbound traffic lane for a block. The pavement is also marked with the “Si Se Puede!” emblem.
Raised crosswalks were added at the entrances to York and Hampshire Streets.
The formerly part-time bike lane is now a full-time buffered, curbside bike lane. The “part-time” signs haven’t been removed yet, and a couple of apparently stubborn drivers just parked on the sidewalk instead.
  • Mario Tanev

    Generally it’s good, but I think more could have been done at the Mission / Chavez intersection. More bulbouts could have been added at more corners to make the crossing distances shorter. It’s still a long crossing. It’s made especially longer since it’s a diagonal.

  • jd_x

    As I regular ride down CC, I can say that this is certainly an improvement. I’m really disappointed that they didn’t install a cycle track, but a “paint-protected” bike lane is better than the non-existent one that was there before.

    Of course, a major problem with this road was completely ignored: the Hair Ball. That nasty, anachronistic mess really needs to be fixed – it utterly destroys any sense of walkability, cycle-ability, or livability. They can easily remove one lane of traffic going eastbound and turn that into a protected cycle track … though of course cyclists would still have to deal with merging traffic getting on/off the freeway and the damn motorists that nearly right-hook you when they are merging onto Bayshore. Short of leveling the intersection so everything but the freeway meets on the same plane, they need some serious traffic calming measures between Hampshire and Vermont St as right now it’s designed like a freeway and that’s how motorists treat it. Going westbound approaching the Hair ball, that is also a nightmare with the bike lane splitting two lanes of fast-moving traffic. I can’t imagine how anybody at the MTA thinks any of this is at all acceptable, so I’m really disappointed they ignored this elephant in the room.

    Question: are they doing to time the traffic lights for 20 or 25 mph? Right now, the light timing is poor, even for cyclists.

  • voltairesmistress

    Recently I have had a flare up of an injury that kept me unable to walk for a year, and unable to walk more than a few blocks for three years some time ago. While I hope physical therapy and good medicine will work wonders, I am slow across intersections for now. Drivers grow impatient, thinking I am dawdling in the crosswalk. They cut me off with quick right and left turns or rev their engines as they whiz by my back. I end up exaggerating my limp, just so I don’t have to deal with all that anger. I offer this anecdote, because the disability has made me acutely aware, once again, of how difficult and scary it is for many seniors and others to walk around our city. Children often don’t recognize the danger, but they are often not seen by drivers going at a good clip. We need to support keeping the few arterials like Chavez to a minimum and with adequate pedestrian shelter spots in the middle. For the rest of the non-arterials, I think narrowing the roadway, putting in raised crosswalks, and installing a speed hump on nearly every block would really help drivers to drive defensively and help less able pedestrians stay and feel safe.

  • murphstahoe

    Way to go Fran!

    Looking at that picture of her, I do think of one thing. The city has a fund to buy up land for open space. It is being used, for example, to buy up the parking lot on 24th between Sanchez and Vicksburg to build a park. Why not get some of that money and buy up the parking lot from the Palace Family Steak House (the land behind Fran in the picture) and expand the plaza. Which then begs the question, why not dead end Capp at the end of the PFSH building and make it a HUGE park.

    I mentioned that to one someone prominent livable streets advocate who said “Campos would not go for it – too gentrifying” 🙂

  • djconnel

    Why stop short of leveling the intersection? That’s the best idea I’ve seen yet.

  • vcs

    SF study on leveling the hairball:

    http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/tpp/offices/ocp/completed_projects/ej_communityplans/D4_Cesar%20Chavez%20East/Cesar_Chavez-Potero-Bayshore-US101_Interchange_Study.pdf

    conclusion: “None of the options developed provide the level of benefit to pedestrians and bicyclists or improve the quality and potential use of adjacent land to such an extent that they would justify the enormous expense associated with reconstructing the Hairball. There are circumstances that could occur in the future, including need to replace aging Hairball structures, which could change this conclusion.”

    Basically wait until it is about to collapse and then the state will have to deal with it.

  • djconnel

    I wonder what DOT would have concluded about the “feasibility” of knocking down the Embarcadero Freeway. To the enormous benefit of San Francisco, Nature doesn’t wait for feasibility analysis.

  • vcs

    Incorrect, the Embarcadero freeway had unfixable seismic issues so knocking it down was the only option. And it was significantly cheaper for the state not to rebuild it. On the other hand, it may not have been obvious, but the entire I-80 Bay Bridge approach was recently torn down and rebuilt from scratch.

  • Upright Biker

    Just as I did with Folsom after its recent makeover, I skipped out of work early (don’t tell my boss. heh.) and rode the redesigned stretch from Folsom to the Hairball, and then back again towards Noe Valley, turning onto Valencia to head back home.

    All in all, wow, what a difference. I never would have considered this a feasible route before, but now it’s not only functional, it’s relatively beautiful.

    And of course complaints are in order:
    • Approaching the Hairball, pedestrian (and by extension, bike) crossings disappear several blocks before the underpass. I had to backtrack in order to get to the north side of the street, using some less-than-ideal maneuvers that people on SFGate often complain about. The bike lane markings are not very clear that bikes should exit the traffic lane and use the overpass, and the path up to that overpass is still the width of a sidewalk when it really should be made into a multi-use path.
    • Agree with the sentiment that there could have been more bulb-outs. Especially noticed that the driveways (yes, plural) serving the gas station at S. Van Ness off of Chavez could be easily reconfigured to allow a very large bulb-out there which would be very helpful in slowing turning vehicles and making the pedestrian crossing much shorter and therefore safer in general.

    Can’t wait to see this better street design trend sweep across the rest of the City, SoMa especially.

  • murphstahoe

    Also note. This is Campos’ district. But Scott Wiener is also there. Scott Wiener of District 8 which was “screwed over” by having a tourniquet put on their expressway to 101.

  • Gezellig

    Agreed that these are big improvements over nothing (and the pedestrian/plaza infrastructure treatments are a relative bright spot in this project, for sure), but as a relatively rare chance to redo a pretty flat thoroughfare in SF it’s really a huge shame that a cycletrack wasn’t implemented.

    Instead we got years of expensive reviews, planning and construction to get…more Double-Parking Lanes. Le sigh.

    Of course these improvements are nice for those of us who’ve already decided to bike, but let’s be honest, SF:

    –> this is not 8-to-80 infrastructure.

    –> this is not modeshare-boosting infrastructure.

    –> this is not Vision Zero infrastructure.

    –> this is not world-class infrastructure.

    –> this *IS* SF provincialism at its best/worst.

    I just don’t get it. Why do we in SF keep on aiming low with proven third-rate solutions which are demonstrably more dangerous AND keep modeshare down?

    Most of the large reserves of Interested but Concerned potential bike-riders in SF are not going to be swayed over by conventional Caltrans Class II (which *are* indeed second-class, thank you very much, Caltrans!) double-parking lanes on busy streets like CC.

    For an arterial of roughly comparable width in Amsterdam:

    http://goo.gl/maps/d63Mr (link automatically goes to Streetview).

    Replace the dual tram tracks in the middle with 2 more car lanes (since CC doesn’t have a Muni Metro line, obviously) and for each direction there’s your 2-car-lane + car parking + cycletrack + sidewalk thoroughfare.

    Imagine if Valencia also had such a treatment, and the CC/Valencia intersection got the actual-world-class protected cycletrack intersection treatment:

    http://youtu.be/FlApbxLz6pA

    *That’s* 8-to-80, Vision Zero, modeshare-boosting infrastructure. Let’s get it together, SF.

  • SFnative74

    The designs shown for cycletracks in the comment are great, but there were a number of considerations made that determined Cesar Chavez was not the best place for cycletracks.

    This was a complete streets project, so goals included pedestrian, bike, transit, energy efficiency, landscaping/stormwater management, public space, etc. There were a number of demands in the design effort that required a balanced approach.

    Having said that, parking separated cycletracks are considered more desirable than bike lanes but they require more street width – almost double a regular bike lane when you consider the buffer between the bikeway and parked cars (for doors and for passengers to get out). Assumiing you don’t want to narrow the sidewalks or go from a 6 lane road to a 2 lane road, cycletracks would have required a narrower median with less landscaping. Which could be fine but a big part of the project was to maximize landscaping for stormwater management. Much of the funding that made this project possible was specifically to address this issue.

    Also, there are a large number of driveways which make a parking separated cycletrack less ideal. If you add the visibility red zones needed on each side of a driveway, you end up removing a significant amount of parking, a consideration not only for the residents of the street but also for the design. What is a parking protected cycletrack if there are long stretches of no parking due to driveways? Driveways are a pain and really constrict a number of designs. Cities like New York and Montreal have far fewer driveways than San Francisco.

    As many have noted, the bike lanes on Cesar Chavez improve the street significantly for those who want to ride along it. For those who prefer a quieter alternative, 26th St to the north is close by. And where 26th St is not an option as you get closer to the Hairball east of Bryant, the eastbound bikeway on Cesar Chavez becomes buffered and with no
    parking. People on bikes going west who want a quieter alternative to Cesar Chavez can turn off CC at Hampshire or York, both of which received traffic calming elements at CC.

    So yes, this is not a perfect bike project, but it was a complete street project that achieved a lot with limited funding and competing interests on a street with a ton of traffic. If you include 26th St and consider that part of the corridor, there is space for all types of cyclists who want to go east-west here.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah, it’s better than nothing, but design challenges such as frequent driveways + parking are still totally addressable with cycletracks. For example, Cully Blvd in Portland has both frequent driveways and street parking:

    http://youtu.be/xh3iSOh5kYY

    It’s a narrower street, but the principle applies.

    For a Dutch example with even more frequent driveways and even more street parking:

    http://youtu.be/6imqI8VfwNo

    Obviously would need to be adapted to local context but there’s no reason these principles can’t be applied to streets in SF in addition to addressing the landscaping+stormwater issues.

    And of course what I mentioned before about the 8-80/Vision Zero/20% modeshare stuff is what’s so disappointing. Sure, the new Cesar Chavez is great for those of us who bike, but how many of the Interested but Concerned are honestly going to want to ride in that Class II lane today? It’s just sad to see SF aim so low in its new projects.

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