Safety Changes Explored for 17th and Church

SFMTA's Mike Sallaberry addressing the room Wed. night. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
SFMTA's Mike Sallaberry addressing the room Wed. night. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Last night, at the Mission Police Station on Valencia, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) held an open house on making 17th Street, between Church and Sanchez, safer for cyclists. As many Streetsblog readers are aware, the railway tracks and the width of the street make for particularly hazardous conditions for cyclists traveling between the Mission and Castro neighborhoods.

“My front tire went into the track,” said Kathe Hashimoto, who lives nearby. She crashed her bike on 17th some four years ago. “I went over the handlebars and hurt my chin.” She considers herself lucky she didn’t sustain more serious injuries. Her crash is part of a pattern, as seen in this surveillance video of 17th, featured in a piece in Hoodline:

“Where 17th Street meets Church Street, several rail lines come together, forming a complicated intersection that is difficult to navigate for people biking between the Mission and the Castro. This location has a history of crashes,” wrote Janice Li, Advocacy Director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, in a blog post calling on SFMTA to fix the street.

So what are the proposed solutions?

One thing that often comes up is the idea of filling the flangeway–the groove along the inside of the train rails–with an elastomer that would be strong enough to support the weight of a cyclist and keep a bike wheel from falling into the rut, but would bend out of the way when a train wheel’s flange passed over it.

This diagram on one of the boards at the open house explains the problem iwth the "flangeway filler" idea. Photo: Streetsblog
This diagram on a board at the open house explains the problem with the “flangeway filler” idea. Photo: Streetsblog

It’s a nice idea and Mike Sallaberry, Project Manager in the Livable Streets Division of SFMTA, said they are in contact with other cities and are looking at possible materials, but so far they’ve yet to find a product that would work for the conditions on 17th. As is noted on the placard pictured above, flangeway fillers, as least so far, only work with heavy rail, on straightaways, at low speeds. Streetsblog pointed out that even if they found a material for the straight sections of track, there would still be gaps at switches and cross-overs, which require much larger flangeways.

The other proposal that often comes up is to remove the tracks. But SFMTA made it clear that those tracks are essential to positioning trains and maintaining service on the F-line. Ben Jose, a spokesman for SFMTA, said removing the tracks is just not an option.

Kath Hashimoto went over her handlebars after her wheel fell into the flangeway. Photo: Streetsblog
Kathe Hashimoto went over her handlebars after her wheel fell into the flangeway. Photo: Streetsblog

So what is the solution? Jose said the meeting, at this point, is just to solicit ideas. But protected bike lanes are definitely on the table–and the consensus in the room seemed to be that this was the only real answer, even if it means losing parking. That would, at least on the straight-away, eliminate any chance of a cyclists’s wheels falling into the tracks.

“I work in FiDi and travel the route two times a day…I’ve seen lots of people wipe out,” said David Gouldin. “I wiped out once when I was new to the city…I generally support protected bike lanes; we’ve seen it’s safe and it makes people feel safe.”

A crisscross of train tracks, narrow streets, and too much space allocated for street parking has created hazardous conditions on 17th. Photo: Streetsblog
A crisscross of train tracks, narrow streets, and too much space allocated for street parking has created hazardous conditions on 17th. Photo: Streetsblog

Of course, protected bike lanes would be less necessary if it weren’t for the scourge of double parking–as seen in the video, double-parking and streetcar tracks make a lethal combination. But the best solution to that–perhaps the only one–is again, protected bike lanes. “Drivers only understand physical separation,” said Gouldin.

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David Gouldin, who rides through the area twice a day, wants protected bike lanes. Photo: Streetsblog

But that means removing street parking–also known as free car storage–and that might not go down so well. Even Hashimoto wasn’t sure. “I drive also, and as a motorist, I don’t advocate for getting rid of parking,” she said, adding that she would support a compromise that made up for lost parking by adding angled parking spots on an adjoining street.

While that’s being worked out though, Jon Hamiga, who also rides through the intersection on his commute, would like to see better markings. “It’s ironic that there are no warning signs…” about the tracks, he said. Streetsblog remarked that LEDs, embedded in the pavement, could help guide cyclists safely through the crisscross of tracks. At night, it’s especially easy to misjudge the angle when crossing so many curving rails.

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Confusing sharrow markings, which seem to guide cyclists over curbs, certainly don’t help matters. Photo: Streetsblog

SFMTA could also do better with some of its current placement of safe hit posts and sharrow markings–as seen in the photo above, where the markings seem to point cyclists first onto the sidewalk, and then off the curb and directly into the flangeway. In the short term, Streetsblog hopes SFMTA can at least improve the painted markings and perhaps remove a few more parking spots closest to the intersection, to give cyclists more time to transition from the turn to the straight away. Perhaps SFMTA can borrow some elements of the protected intersection they recently opened at 9th and Division.

Either way, it’s unclear how this route can be made truly safe while preserving the parking on 17th. As Adam Long, cycling advocate and occasional Streetsblog contributor put it at the meeting, “the only stumbling block to protected bike lanes is preserving parking…for the safety of people, it seems worth removing it.”

  • YohanSF

    Road diet 16th, add protected bike lanes to both sides all the way from Market to 3rd. 16th is the more natural thruway. Pushing bikes off to 2nd-place 17th might have been an expedient compromise back when that decision was made, but the sooner we fix that and put the bike lanes on the main drag, the better.

  • Easy

    They just moved the bike lanes north of Potrero Hill from 16th to 17th in preparation for an eventual transit-only lane with boarding islands on 16th.

  • thielges

    The safety vs. parking argument is probably the best way to promote creating proper bike lanes well clear of the tracks. Be ready for the opposition to bring up:

    1. specious arguments about how their safety relies on those curbside parking spots
    2. victim blaming directed at people who crashed on the tracks
    3. claims that bicyclists should ride elsewhere

  • bobfuss

    I’m not aware that the argument against taking out on-street parking is predicated on safety. Rather the more obvious and natural argument that parking is already tough in that area and many buildings don’t have garages for the residents.

    Nobody wants to drive around for 20 minutes looking for parking, or park so far away that they have to take a cab home.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Psuedo-tech BULLshit from MTA! Why believe MTA when they state flangeway fillers wont work? MTA could quickly buy, install, and TRY it out. A small purchase could be done without going through the mandated bidding process affecting projects greater than $25,000. In other words, it’s a cheap dollar-wise experiment.
    Note that MTA notoriously refuses anything new and different from their agenda. Cost should not be an issue for the agency that spent $$$ for that cosmetic sign change from “limited” to “rapid” — a bullshit move cooked up by MTA marketeers.
    http://www.poly-corp.com/transportation/industrial-ports.asp

  • I’m not so sure about the first one. @bobfuss:disqus is making the argument I hear most often, that safety isn’t as important as the inconvenience to car owners of removing those unreserved curbside parking spaces.

    Then come the rationalizations as to why cyclists should not have, or don’t deserve, safe bike lanes and should go elsewhere.

  • thielges

    The “parking is safety” arguments I’ve heard are related to increase exposure to violent crime due to increased distance between parking and destination. Or course that is ridiculous since nobody can rely on a free street parking being available on any particular block. But this fear tactic does come up and can influence decisions unless they can be effectively and quickly mooted. Anyone truly concerned about getting mugged after parking on the street would look for alternative solutions.

    Opponents try these safety vs. safety tactics because it is hard to argue that convenience is more important than safety. Safety vs. safety was used multiple times and from different angles during a road diet project struggle. That project didn’t even remove parking but opponents disliked the small amount of extra delay that the road diet sometimes caused. People who haven’t been on a bike in decades claimed that the road diet made bicycling more dangerous and those misguided opinions even influenced a key decision delivered by one stakeholder.

  • Hunter

    Agree! 16th should also be bikeway so that there is some accessible route to and from 16th street BART.

  • Jimbo

    either learn to ride perpendicular over tracks or walk your bike over the tracks. otherwise its just darwin doing his work. case closed!

  • Jimbo

    16th is the car thoroughfare. seems like a bad place for bikes

  • pickles94114

    Far easier said than done. The tracks curve to be parallel with the street, so you’re forced to cross at a non-90-degree angle. Harder still is bunny-hopping over huge gaps in the tracks to avoid double-parked cars between Church and Sanchez.

  • pickles94114

    Disagree – 17th works great, other than these tracks. Squeezing 16th will just push more cars to the quieter streets, leaving no quiet streets. And 17th to Hoff gets you to Bart safer than any route involving 16th.

  • PopeMary

    Try obeying traffic laws and then maybe we can look into this.

  • crazyvag

    It’s unfortunate that we have arguments of safety vs parking. L Taraval boarding islands are a best example where people are protesting safety due to not even loss, moving of parking.

  • 16th is a Muni corridor, and similar speeds mean that bikes and buses end up leapfrogging each other.

  • ☛ Hoodline has a link to John Entwhistle’s blog, which has a great deal of information;
    https://offtracksanfrancisco.com/

    Some of his points are worth a ponder, I think:
    – He says that these tracks were supposed to be temporary.
    – He says that tracks on a street this narrow is against code and very rare.
    – One suggestion is to only remove tracks on one side of the street (westbound), and all the trains could use the other.
    – Another suggestion is to come up with a different circulation pattern, using the yard at Church & Duboce.

  • Taurussf

    Sorry, but that’s not the reality. Also, not very nice or helpful comment.

    The reality is that “cross perpendicular to tracks” is an oversimplification perpetuated by needing a short message for PSAs and signs.

    Most tracks in San Francisco run parallel to the direction of bike travel. Crossing perpendicular would mean making two 90 degree turns and zigzagging into moving traffic.

    Crossing tracks is a learned skill and it’s not that complex. The trick is to NOT try to drift across the track at a shallow angle.

    Instead, one learns to make a quick turn by leaning over the track and then steering the bike under one’s body, bringing the wheels across the track at a sharp angle.

    It’s one of those skills (like most bicycling) that is hard to describe, but easy to demonstrate in person. It’s clear in the video that the cyclist who crashes has used the proper technique the first couple of times they cross, but then drifts onto the track at a shallow angle when they crash.

  • So when you contacted them Polycorp, they told you their flange filler product definitely works with the tight radius of the half-grand union at 17th & Church? And no problem with the lightest of the streetcars?

    Since you’re asserting you know more than the SFMTA’s professional planners, then you shouldn’t have any trouble explaining how Polycorp’s filler product handles the diamond crossings at the intersection. Do they leave a gap for the wheels to cross? How do they keep the loose ends from coming loose?

    What you see as “Psuedo-tech BULLshit from MTA” is the practical reality of running a transit system.

  • bobfuss

    But is this really a safety issue either way? After all, cyclists could slow down, take more care or pay more attention. Just like drivers do in accident black spots.

    This is really a convenience issue. Cyclists want to use 17th St. AND maintain the same speed as they do no streets that don’t have tracks.

    And parking is a convenience issue too.

    So it comes back to this question – whose convenience is worth more?

  • crazyvag

    Well, let’s set aside the fact road really needs to be repaved and those holes patched up.

    City does have some obligation to provide safe transportation corridors and not all corridors can have a wide sidewalk, parking separated bike lane, parking for cars, red bus lane and car lanes.

    Pedestrians and cars pretty much always get priority as few streets don’t allow cars and pedestrians.

    With rest, we have to choose between red-bus lanes, parking, and bike lanes.

    While not every street needs a parking separated bike lane, there needs to be one every so many blocks. In this case, 16th and 18th streets get buses and 17th street got bikes.

    It might make sense to take a larger look and see whether dedicated bike lanes make more sense on 16th, 17th or 18th, but if neither gets bike lanes, then the bar has shifted away too far from biker’s convenience. Since there’s parking on both sides of 16th and 18th, is it really that much more inconvenient to lose parking on 1 out of 6 sides?

  • bobfuss

    How do you personally assess the extent to which we should provide infrastructure for a transportation modality that has a 3% market share?

  • crazyvag

    There are studies for how big of a detour a pedestrian or a bicyclist is willing to take in order to stay on sidewalk or bike lane. SOMA blocks have tons of jaywalking due to their length since pedestrians don’t wan to take a 5 minute detour.

    I don’t recall the studies, but let’s say a detour of 2 blocks is the value for cyclist. That implies that you need a bike lane roughly every 4 blocks (less if giant soma blocks).

    That’s also why Polk street bike lanes were such a huge deal for bikers. Gough, Franklin and Van Ness do not have bike lanes to begin with, have crazy amounts of traffic and steep hills.

    Polk street has the best geography for bike lanes since it’s least steep with no other alternatives around connecting Marina to Market St.

  • bobfuss

    Yeah, I get that because Polk Street is the valley there and has the most flat terrain. It’s also two-way, which is unusual in that area. While the main traffic arteries are west of there.

    It works less well on, say, Fell and Oak which, while also being the most flat routes, are heavily trafficked. I would not ride a bike on them, even with a bike lane, but rather take Hayes or Page.

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