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Standing Up to the Naysayers: Tales of Livable Streets Leadership From NYC

Re-shaping city streets almost always runs up against some level of opposition — it’s part and parcel of physically changing what people often see as their territory. Whether residents get to have safer streets, however, often comes down to the elected leaders who stand up to the naysayers.

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

In San Francisco lately, we’ve seen a lot of smart transportation projects get watered down or stopped without a supervisor or mayor willing to take a stand. In the absence of political leadership, city officials and agencies too often cave to the loudest complainers, who fight tooth and nail to preserve every parking space and traffic lane, dismissing the empirical lessons from other redesigns that worked out fine when all was said and done.

It’s not unusual for elected officials to be risk averse, but mustering the political courage to support safe streets and effective transit can and does pay off. Just look to the political leadership in New York City, where Streetsblog has covered several major stories involving City Council members (the equivalent of SF’s supervisors) who faced down the fearmongering and shepherded plazas and protected bike lanes to fruition.

These leaders suffered no ill effects as a result of their boldness. They were “easily re-elected” last year, said Ben Fried, Streetsblog’s NYC-based editor-in-chief. If anything, Fried says these politicians gained more support — not less — “because they had won over this very engaged constituency of livable streets supporters.”

In the battle over NYC’s Prospect Park West redesign, a group of very well-connected neighbors filed a lawsuit against the city for converting a traffic lane on the street into a two-way protected bikeway. City Council Member Brad Lander defended the project, which is now held up as one of NYC’s flagship street transformations.

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Scott Wiener Proposes Measures to Curb SFFD’s Push for Wider Streets

The San Francisco Fire Department has not let up in its fight against narrower roads in the city, protesting measures like bulb-outs and traffic lane removals that make streets safer. In one of the latest instances, SFFD has fought 20-foot-wide streets planned for two major redevelopments, going against years of planning and established city codes. The department wants all new streets to be at least 26 feet wide.

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Supervisor Scott Wiener today proposed measures to take on SFFD’s irrational stance. “Elected policymakers and the voters have repeatedly adopted a policy of safer streets through effective street design, yet some of our departments are acting as if those directives didn’t exist,” he said in a statement.

Wiener’s proposed legislation would require city departments to get Board of Supervisors approval if they want to “deviate” from street width standards in the Fire, Public Works, and Administrative Codes, and the Better Streets Plan. The proposal also asks the City Attorney to draft amendments to those codes to “clarify” the existing standards. 

The legislation would also request a report from the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst on the feasibility of using trucks that are smaller and more flexible than many of SFFD’s “large suburban-sized trucks,” according to a press release from Wiener’s office. SFFD already uses such trucks in Bernal Heights and Telegraph Hill, and the report would look at best practices in other cities.

Wiener also requested a hearing to shed light on the SFFD’s push for wider streets in the Hunters Point and Candlestick Point re-development sites in the southeast area of the city, “including why the departments injected this change so late in the process and despite approval by the Board of Supervisors of a narrower width,” the press release says.

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Market Street: Transit Paint Upgrades Coming, but Car Bans Still Missing

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New intersection markings could help reduce the number of drivers “blocking the box” on Market this spring, but the SFMTA has continued to postpone proposals to get cars off Market altogether. Photo: Bryan Goebel

Despite calls for more measures to get cars off of Market Street, and the benefits brought by the forced turns already put in place, the SFMTA still has yet to propose any new restrictions on private autos.

Market will have its transit-only lanes will be painted red, and cross-hatched markings will be added to discourage drivers from blocking intersections. Photos via SFMTA

Market will have its transit-only lanes will be painted red, and cross-hatched markings will be added to discourage drivers from blocking intersections. Photos via SFMTA

The agency does, however, plan to make some paint upgrades to help keep Muni moving this spring or summer. Existing transit-only lanes will be painted red, and a cross-hatched paint striping telling drivers not to “block the box” will be added at intersections where cars chronically back up and block cross traffic. SFMTA staff told its Board of Directors this week that the agency and the SFPD would also develop a plan to step up nearly non-existent enforcement of transit lanes and box-blocking on Market.

Yet the agency has repeatedly delayed its promises to put forward proposals for new forced turns or potential bans for private autos on Market, to the frustration of car-free Market champions like Malcolm Heinicke, an SFMTA Board member, and Supervisor David Chiu, who introduced his second resolution urging the SFMTA to move the efforts along. The resolution was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors this week.

“I want the people who ride those buses on Market Street to have something close to the experience I have underground of a real right-of-way and real capacity,” Heinicke told SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin at a meeting on the agency’s Strategic Plan and budget Tuesday. “I’m not suggesting any malice or obfuscation here, but my question is, what’s the delay?”

Heinicke had requested that SFMTA staff present a proposal for car restrictions at the previous planning meeting one year ago, and Reiskin said it would come by this winter, but then postponed it to Tuesday’s meeting. Now, Reiskin says the proposals will be ready to be considered as part of the SFMTA’s two-year budget, which is scheduled to be finalized by March.

Reiskin chalked up the delays to the complications caused by ongoing projects like the construction of the Central Subway. “While we have identified some preliminary proposals along with costs and impacts, there’s more work that needs to be done to figure out the interaction with all the various projects that are currently happening on Market Street.”

“I share the frustration, and take responsibility for the fact, that we don’t have something by now,” he said.

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Imagine No Deaths: Supes, Safe Streets Advocates Call for “Vision Zero”

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Duboce Avenue at Noe Street. Photo: Aaron Biailck

A coalition of safe streets advocates, community organizations, and city supervisors have launched a campaign for San Francisco to join leading cities in adopting a “Vision Zero” goal — an end to traffic deaths on city streets within ten years.

“We need a culture shift in San Francisco, and it has to start from the top down,” said Supervisor John Avalos, also the chair of the SF County Transportation Authority, in a statement. “We’re calling for our mayor, our police chief and our SFMTA director to commit to allocating resources to the three areas that we know can save lives,” he said, referring to engineering, education, and enforcement efforts to reduce crashes.

Supervisors John Avalos, Jane Kim, and Norman Yee. Image: Board of Supervisors

Supervisors John Avalos, Jane Kim, and Norman Yee. Image: Board of Supervisors

Leaders in Chicago and New York City have adopted Vision Zero policies, following the lead of Sweden, which launched the official campaign in 1997, though the country’s traffic deaths have been declining since the 1970s despite increasing population.

In a press release, Supervisors Avalos, Jane Kim, and Norman Yee said they’ll introduce a resolution calling for a “Vision Zero Plan” based on three major components:

  • The establishment of a “crisis intervention” team by the SFMTA that would be tasked with getting at least two dozen pilot projects into the ground over the next two years, using “near-term, low-cost safety improvements in the areas with repeat traffic collisions.”
  • SFPD to direct its traffic enforcement resources to “cite the most problematic dangerous behaviors and locations.”
  • A “citywide safety awareness program for drivers.” Supervisors Yee and Avalos are “targeting state funding opportunities through the Transportation Authority” to fund it, and Supervisor Kim has called for the formation of “an interagency work group to develop a large vehicle and city fleet driver education program for all city employees or drivers who contract with the city.”

Last year, the number of people killed while walking and biking — 21 pedestrians and four bicyclists –- was the highest since 2007, noted a statement from Walk SF and the SF Bicycle Coalition:

Despite calls for critical safety improvements to the streets and more data driven enforcement of traffic crime and widespread education, the Mayor, Police Chief, District Attorney and SFMTA Director have made only small commitments to street safety and have not committed to any larger vision toward keeping our residents safe on increasingly chaotic streets.

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Supes Call for Aggressive Enforcement Against Dangerous Driving

In an emotionally-charged discussion, the dangers of walking on San Francisco’s streets took center stage at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, the first since an alarming number of San Franciscans were injured and killed by drivers over the holiday season.

Giampaolo Boschetti’s pickup truck at the scene where he ran over and killed Zhen Guang Ng in Crocker-Amazon on New Year’s Eve. Photo: ABC 7

Every supervisor except Katy Tang, Mark Farrell, and Malia Cohen spoke to express condolences to the families of the victims and call for an aggressive increase in police enforcement and physical improvements to make city streets safer.

Mayor Ed Lee also said that he’ll be making an announcement “regarding pedestrian safety” soon, according to Bay City News. “We can’t just sit back and let this happen,” Lee told BCN.

“Vehicles are weapons. Vehicles do kill people, intentional or not,” said Supervisor London Breed. “It is important that we make sure that the enforcement to obey the law, which is to protect us all, is out there.”

After 2013 ended with 20 pedestrians having lost their lives — a six year high — the violence has continued this week, most recently with the year’s first pedestrian fatality yesterday evening on Van Ness and Grove Streets. Police say the 38-year-old man was killed when running across Van Ness, outside of a crosswalk, chasing after a man whom he was apparently involved in an altercation with, according to media reports. An SFPD spokesperson said that “there was apparently no negligence on the part of the driver.”

But in many of the other recent pedestrian crashes, the fault appeared to lie with the driver. Of the six pedestrians killed in December, some were elderly, and one was a six-year-old girl, Sophia Liu. Supervisors drew particular attention to her death, as well as that of 84-year-old Isabel Huie, a well-known Chinatown community activist who was killed by an elderly driver who apparently lost control of her car.

“The past couple weeks have been an enormous wake up call for our city. We can do better,” said Supervisor David Chiu.

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Supes Hamstring SFMTA’s Ability to Expand Progressive Parking Policy

In a setback for progressive parking policy in San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors voted last week to eliminate the SFMTA’s ability to install any significant amount of new parking meters under a new five-year contract to upgrade existing meters.

The $54 million contract originally covered 25,000 parking meters that accept credit cards and multiple forms of payment to replace existing meters, plus 10,000 for backup stock and some potential expansions, which would require a separate public planning process before installation. But supervisors appear to be going along with the anti-meter campaign led by Supervisor Mark Farrell, amending the contract to remove half of the additional 10,000 meters. SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that only leaves room for the agency to fill “very small-scale requests” for new meters from merchants.

Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich called the supervisors’ stance “disappointing”:

Parking meters are essential to San Francisco’s policy of prioritizing on-street parking for local merchants and residents before drive-alone commuters. As land uses diversify across the eastern neighborhoods of the city, there will continue to be a need for new metered areas to ensure that commuter parking not displace the short-term parking that supports neighborhood-serving businesses. A cap on parking meters will limit MTA’s ability to manage on-street parking for the benefit of local merchants and their customers.

No supervisors opposed reducing the number of meters to be purchased in the contract. Supervisor John Avalos, who introduced the contract amendment, said the SFMTA is expected to allocate the 5,000 additional meters like so: 1,200 to replace meters on Port property, 2,800 to replace damaged meters, and 1,000 “to be used as a maintenance flow.”

“There will be no expansion of meters,” said Avalos. “If that’s gonna happen, it’ll be another go-around from the MTA to describe how they will implement and with a lot of outreach to the public.”

Even though SFMTA officials stated in no uncertain terms that the location of any significant expansion of meters could only be initiated through a publicly-vetted planning process, supervisors unanimously approved the amendment, citing a lack of confidence in the SFMTA’s outreach process. The SFMTA Board of Directors voted last week to require more stringent outreach measures for new parking meters.

The lone vote against the contract from Supervisor Jane Kim apparently wasn’t intended as a stand for rational parking policy. Instead, Kim said she wanted the contract to include provisions that would bind the SFMTA to adhere to its allocation plan for the meters — an authority that the Board of Supervisors doesn’t have, according to the City Attorney.

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Supervisor Farrell Ramps Up Misguided Campaign Against Parking Meters

Supervisor Mark Farrell is apparently so repulsed by the idea that people should pay for the parking spots they use, he’s lashing out in increasingly irrational ways.

Supervisor Mark Farrell. Photo: SFGovTV

In his most recent stunt, Farrell delayed approval of a $54 million contract that would replace 25,000 worn-out, coin-fed parking meters with modern ones that accept credit cards, and purchase 10,000 additional meters. Before any parking meter could be placed in an un-metered space, it would still have to be approved in a separate public process. Although the contract passed the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee in October, which Farrell chairs, he voted against it, and consideration by the full board has been delayed for reasons that remain unclear.

There are also murmurs at City Hall that Farrell wants to push legislation that would remove sole approval for new parking meters from the SFMTA Board of Directors and require the Board of Supervisors to sign off as well.

“On this matter, I am very, very sensitive,” Farrell told Sonali Bose, the SFMTA’s chief financial officer, at the committee meeting in October, staking out a stance against a “blanket authorization” for funds that could potentially be used for new meters. The only new meters that have been proposed in the city since Farrell took office have been in the northeast Mission, Potrero Hill, Mission Bay, and streets surrounding the University of SF — none of which are in Farrell’s District 2.

Nonetheless, Farrell said the outreach and planning process for those meters, which has dragged on extensively and resulted in several changes, is “lacking,” and that supervisors “are the ones who hear about it all the time” from their driving constituents.

As we reported in February, Farrell’s sudden opposition to new parking meters seemed to arise from his suspicion that the SFMTA planned to add meters in District 2. As if it would be a bad thing to put a price on the limited supply of street space, like just about all other goods.

Free parking is bad policy — it encourages car owners to occupy valuable parking spaces all day, leaving other drivers to circle the block for a spot — creating heavier traffic on streets, greater wear on the roads, more illegal parking, and worse delays for Muni, all while hampering customer access for businesses. Metered parking, when priced to achieve occupancy targets (the goal of SFPark), makes the best use of a limited supply by keeping a spot open on each block.

Even though Farrell later admitted that his suspicion was unfounded, his bizarre attempt to put an moratorium on all new meters in the city by opposing the meter contract is even more illogical.

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Victims Share Tales of SFPD Anti-Bike Bias and Hostility at City Hall

At the scene of this 2009 crash where a driver made an illegal turn and hit a woman on a bicycle, an SFPD officer told Streetsblog’s Bryan Goebel that he thought all San Franciscans who ride bikes should be moved to Treasure Island. Photo: Bryan Goebel

When Sarah Harling was hospitalized by a minivan driver who made a left turn into her at a stop sign intersection, she says the SFPD officer who filed the police report included a fabricated statement from her claiming that she “approached the stop sign without stopping.”

Sarah Harling. Image: SFGovTV

Harling said she tried to submit a response to the numerous “factual errors” in the police report, but an officer at SFPD’s Richmond Station “raised his voice to lecture me about how traffic laws apply to cyclists too, how he’d never let his children ride bikes in the city, and then told me repeatedly, ‘I’m not telling you you can’t leave this here, but you just need to understand that sometimes things get lost.'”

“I left the station in tears,” she said.

Harling later hired an attorney, who collected witness statements and a photo, which showed the driver to be at fault and led the driver’s insurance company to settle for his or her maximum amount of coverage available.

“To say that the San Francisco Police Department failed to investigate my crash is not quite accurate. Rather, they refused to. Repeatedly,” said Harling. “I got the message, again and again, that because I had been riding my bicycle, it was my fault.”

Harling was one of dozens of bicycle riders who shared stories of hostile encounters with San Francisco police at a hearing held by a Board of Supervisors committee last week, testifying to what appears to be an anti-bike bias among many officers when it comes to investigating conflicts and crashes between people driving and biking.

“It’s not everyone in the force, but there is a systemic problem among police department officers when it comes to treating people fairly and equally who are biking and walking,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “We have regular accounts of people who are treated, at best, unprofessionally, and at worst, unjustly.”

The hearing comes after the fumbled investigation of the death of 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over by a truck driver at Folsom and Sixth Streets in August. SFPD investigators apparently didn’t bother to ask nearby businesses if they had surveillance footage of the crash, though an SFBC staffer found it within 10 minutes. After seeing the  footage, SFPD found the truck driver at fault. Although the SFPD has said it submitted the case to the district attorney to examine for charges, the current status of the case is unclear.

At the memorial and rally held for Le Moullac, immediately after which the SFBC found the footage, SFPD Sergeant Richard Ernst parked his cruiser in the Folsom bike lane to make a point that the onus is on bicycle riders to pass to the left of right-turning cars. Ernst declared all three victims who have been killed this year to be at fault, including 48-year-old Diana Sullivan, who was sitting stopped at a red light at King and Third Streets in March when a trucker ran her over.

Such stories are reported regularly by victims who say officers have automatically assumed they were at fault in crashes, made false claims about bicycling and traffic laws, and even made threats. In one such story reported by Streetsblog in March 2012, a couple bicycling on Oak Street along the Wiggle (before the existing bike lane was installed) was harassed by a driver who injured one of the victims. The officer who responded at the scene threatened to throw the bleeding victim in jail for “vandalizing the vehicle.”

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Breed Defends Record on Safer Streets for Biking; Plus: Other Supes Respond

Supervisor London Breed has issued a statement explaining her Twitter comments yesterday on safer streets for bicycling which led her to delete her account. Breed had responded to an inquiry sent out by Twitter user Patrick Traughber to every city supervisor and a few other city officials, asking, “In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to creating safer streets for bicycling in San Francisco?”

Supervisor London Breed on Bike to Work Day. Photo: SFBC/Flickr

In her initial answer, Breed cited “the bad behavior of some bicyclist,” which led several people to respond in protest. Breed tried to clarify that she’s “not blaming anyone,” and that she’s “been fighting to help make streets safer for all,” but then shut down her account minutes into the discussion. Breed has a record of making abrasive comments on Twitter, arguing with constituents and getting press attention for it.

In her written statement, Breed defended her record of standing up for street redesign projects like Masonic Avenue and Fell and Oak Streets in the face of anti-bike vitriol. Here’s what she had to say:

I suspended my account because I realized twitter can be extremely time consuming and it’s too hard to have nuanced policy discussions in 140 characters. I want to take some time to think about how I use this medium in the future.

With respect to the bike exchange, my record is clear! I have been a consistent and effective advocate for bike projects in our city. I got the Oak and Fell bike lanes implemented well ahead of schedule. I led the effort to fund the Masonic Blvd project which includes dedicated bike lanes, and I’ve voted for every bike project that’s come before the Transportation Authority, including the popular bike share program just implemented in our city.

My point was not that I think bicyclists’ behavior should be an impediment to new projects. My point was bicyclists’ behavior is the complaint I hear most often from those who oppose the projects. So as a practical matter, those behavioral concerns — whether you think they’re accurate or inaccurate, right or wrong — make it harder to get new projects moving, harder to win public and political support. But that absolutely has not, and will not, stop me from fighting to win that support.

I’ve faced a lot of fire, a LOT of fire, over the Masonic blvd project and I’ve stood strong in my support. That’s my record. So it does bother me to see Masonic supporters criticizing me over a twitter post. But it is my fault for being unclear about a complicated topic on an inappropriate medium. That is why I am taking a break from that medium.

Breed deserves a lot of credit for supporting those safety improvements. And judging by her statement, she doesn’t think that policymakers should decide whether San Franciscans get to have safer streets based on the perceived behavior of people who use a particular mode of transportation.

Traughber’s question on Twitter yielded responses from a few other supervisors and District Attorney George Gascón, offering a glimpse into those officials’ understanding of how to make streets safer (or just how willing they are to respond to tweets).

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Muni to Test Seat Reconfiguration to Make More Room on Light-Rail Vehicles

Muni is looking to change its current train car seat configuration (seen left) to an arrangement more like the one on the right. Photos: SFCTAa

After a nudge from two city supervisors, Muni is looking to convert forward- and backward-facing seats to side-facing seats in its light-rail train cars as a way to squeeze in more passengers and speed up boarding.

A common scene for commuters on Muni's metro lines. Photo: torbakhopper/Flickr

The SFMTA plans to run a trial starting in January by putting one reconfigured prototype car into service, which would be monitored over six months before reconfiguring other train cars.

The pilot is moving forward at the behest of Supervisors Scott Wiener and London Breed, who called a hearing held yesterday on how the agency can increase capacity on its metro system while Muni riders await a new, larger train fleet due to arrive in 2017. By converting most seats to a sideways-facing orientation, planners estimate they could allow room for five to eight more passengers per train car while removing obstacles that can create bottlenecks when riders squeeze in and out at stops.

“The situation is severe enough that we need to find creative ways” to increase capacity, said Breed. “When a two-car train pulls up at Carl and Cole, that means 16 more people could be able to board, 16 more people can get to work on time, 16 more people will be inclined to keep riding Muni and not use their vehicles.”

Currently, 114 of Muni’s 151 train cars are in service, and most of the rest are in need of repair, according to agency staff. The Muni metro system lacks the number of train cars it needs to make all of its scheduled runs on half of service days.

Among the laundry list of flaws with Muni’s current trains — manufactured by Breda, which has been disqualified from vying for the next production contract — is their unusually inefficient interior design, said Wiener. The expected capacity for Breda train cars is 218 people — 60 in seats, 158 standing.

“We’re going to need [these cars] for a while,” said Wiener. “We need to make the most of the light-rail vehicles we have.”

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