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Eyes on the Street: Polk Contra-Flow Bike Lane Nearly Ready to Ride

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Here’s a little change of pace from the bad news this week. The Polk Street contra-flow protected bike lane, connecting Market Street northbound to Grove Street and City Hall, appears almost ready to go. A Department of Public Works spokesperson said the agency is shooting for a tentative opening date of May 2 or 5 and plans to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Officials at the SFMTA and DPW seem proud of the project — and rightly so. Photos of the bikeway and median planted with native succulents were tweeted by DPW Director Mohammed Nuru and Tim Papandreou, the SFMTA’s director of strategic planning and policy. DPW surprisingly jumpstarted construction on the bike lane in late January after years of delay, promising completion by Bike to Work Day on May 8.

The project also comes with a couple of bonuses. DPW is installing bulb-outs at the wide intersection of Grove and Polk, and completed one at the northwest corner last week. The pedestrian island and “bike chute” on the north side of Market at Polk were also reconfigured for more practical maneuvering for southbound bike riders. See photos after the break.

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Preview the Upgrades Coming to the Castro’s Jane Warner Plaza

Jane Warner Plaza, seen here in 2011. Photo: Mike Bjork/Flickr

Jane Warner Plaza, the first plaza created using semi-permanent features as part of SF’s Pavement to Parks program, will get some repairs and upgrades as part of the Castro Street overhaul currently underway.

Upgrades coming to Jane Warner Plaza at 17th, Castro, and Market Streets. Image: DPW

The worn-out painted asphalt will be replaced with an easier-to-wash colored asphalt, and a pedestrian island will allow a more direct link between the Market and Castro Street crosswalks, said Department of Public Works project manager John Dennis. Bollards will also be placed outside the potted planters that currently separate the plaza from the roadway, and the metal barricades placed at the plaza’s east end on 17th Street will be replaced with permanent gates.

The streamlined crosswalk configuration will be “the big change,” said Dennis. “Right now, a pedestrian [coming from Castro] has to cross 17th Street and then cross Market Street. In the future, they’ll be able to walk directly across Market from Castro and 17th.”

The plaza will feel “less chopped up,” said Andrea Aiello, president of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefits District.

The plaza improvements were selected by residents through a Planning Department survey of residents last year. Asked to choose between four different ways to spend a chunk of the Castro project’s money, plaza upgrades were heavily favored over options for bus bulb-outs on 18th at Castro, bulb-outs and a “gateway” median at 19th and Castro, and bulb-outs on the northern corners of Castro and Market.

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Castro Street Redesign Breaks Ground, Rainbow Crosswalks Unveiled

The new Castro Street is on its way, with the Department of Public Works breaking ground today on the two-block street redesign, which will include wider sidewalks. One detail of the plan was also unveiled at the event — rainbow crosswalk designs for the Castro and 18th Street intersection.

Supervisor Scott Wiener with planners from DPW, the Planning Department, and reps from the Castro CBD today. Photo: Scott Wiener/Twitter

“This streetscape project will be transformational for Castro Street and for the neighborhood,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who secured $4 million for the project from the Prop B street re-paving bond funds, in a statement. “Castro Street is one of the busiest pedestrian corridors in the city and at the heart of both our neighborhood and the LGBT community. Wider sidewalks and an improved Jane Warner Plaza, which will allow for more street life and neighborhood interactions, will make a great and historic street even better.”

The design of the rainbow crosswalks, largely funded by the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefits District, was selected through an online poll of over 4,500 Castro residents and visitors conducted by the CBD, the Castro Biscuit wrote today.

As Wiener mentioned, Jane Warner Plaza at 17th and Castro will get some more permanent fixtures, though we haven’t see what they’ll look like yet. The project will also include new street trees, pedestrian-scale lighting, upgrades to Muni’s overhead wire infrastructure, water mains, and sparkled sidewalks and sidewalk plaques along the Rainbow Honor Walk “showcasing heroes of the LGBT community,” said a DPW press release, which said the work will be completed in October. Construction is expected to halt for the Pride festival in June and be finished in time for the Castro Street Fair, according to the Biscuit.

Image: Planning Department

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DPW, SFMTA Finally Streamlining Construction of Safer Intersections

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Poor coordination between city agencies has led to many a missed opportunity to build pedestrian safety measures when crews are already digging into a street corner for maintenance purposes. With the Department of Public Works ramping up its street re-paving work thanks to the Prop B Street Improvement Bond and upgrading many corner curb ramps to meet ADA standards, the agency says it’s finally starting to coordinate with the SFMTA to efficiently incorporate life-saving sidewalk extensions into its plans.

DPW crews rebuilding a sidewalk corner to install a curb ramp in the Excelsior. DPW and SFMTA say they’re starting to incorporate sidewalk bulb-outs into such projects. Photo: SFDPW/Flickr

“A process has been spearheaded by the MTA and Public Works to identify key locations where bulb-outs are either necessary or would be the best improvement,” John Thomas, DPW’s project manager for the street re-paving program, told a Board of Supervisors committee yesterday.

Safe streets advocates have for years criticized the lack of such coordination when crews dig into a street corner where a bulb-out could improve pedestrian visibility, shorten crossing distances, and cause drivers to make turns more carefully. Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich noted that DPW recently installed ADA-compliant curb ramps along dangerous Guerrero Street in the Mission, as well as the deadly intersection of Valencia Street and Duboce Avenue one block away, but didn’t extend any of the sidewalks.

“They demolished and rebuilt each street corner on Guerrero, but didn’t bulb out the curbs, even though they rebuilt the sidewalks, gutters, and catchbasins,” said Radulovich. “Yes, it would have cost more to provide some basic pedestrian safety improvements, but not much more. And now, because of the city’s five-year rule, DPW has made it even harder to improve pedestrian safety on this dangerous street.”

“The curb ramp program could’ve been a good ped safety program as well,” he said.

The five-year rule, according to Radulovich, is the city’s policy of not doing major street work on the same spot for five years unless it’s an emergency. While that rule seems to be adhered to for the most part, the same can’t be said of policies mandating that safety improvements like bulb-outs be coordinated with other street work were called for in the 2005 Complete Streets Ordinance and the 2010 Better Streets Plan.

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Long-Delayed Polk Contra-Flow Protected Bike Lane Jumpstarted by DPW

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DPW crews at work today on the contra-flow protected bike lane at Polk and Grove. Photo: SFBC/Facebook

In a surprising development, the Department of Public Works broke ground today on a contra-flow, protected bike lane on the two southernmost blocks of Polk Street, from Market to Grove Streets (at City Hall), which are currently one-way southbound. By Bike to Work Day, two of the city’s busiest bicycling streets are expected to be linked with the first bike lane in San Francisco to be protected with a landscaped median, against the flow of motor traffic.

The short but vital connection, first proposed by the city ten years ago and included in the SF Bike Plan, was threatened with yet another year of delay due to poor coordination and a missed contracting deadline. But DPW Director Mohammed Nuru was apparently convinced by the SF Bike Coalition that the project should become a top priority. The SFBC credits Nuru with kickstarting construction, said Executive Director Leah Shahum.

“When they see there’s a problem, there’s often more they can do to get things back on track, and they were able to do it in this case,” she said. “I can’t emphasize how important these two blocks are for so many people. This is going to be a game-changer for helping people ride where they need to go in a safer, more legitimate way.”

Currently, bicycle commuters have no legal way to turn from eastbound Market onto northbound Polk, except to travel a block ahead to Larkin, a one-way, heavily-trafficked three lane street with no bike lane. They must then turn left onto Grove to get back on to Polk.

To access the new contra-flow bike lane, which will replace an existing car parking lane, people bicycling on eastbound Market will have a new bike box to wait in at the intersection with 10th Street before making the turn on to Polk.

“With all the new developments, this is going to be a great way to connect a whole new community in mid-Market with the businesses on Polk Street,” said Shahum.

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Eyes on the Street: Smoother Pavement on the Fell and Oak Bike Lanes

The Fell Street bike lane, between Broderick and Baker, was re-paved with smooth asphalt. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The bumpy concrete surface of the Fell and Oak bike lanes is being smoothed over. Over the holiday break, the Department of Public Works re-paved one block of the Fell bike lane, between Broderick and Baker Streets. The city expects to cover all six blocks with smooth asphalt by March, according to SFMTA Livable Streets spokesperson Ben Jose.

The concrete slabs, a more suitable surface for the bike lane’s former life as a car parking lane, at first weren’t expected to be a problem for bike commuters, but SFMTA staffers said they’ve received a substantial number of complaints about the bumpy surface since it was re-purposed for bicycling. On the sections where the concrete hasn’t been paved over, people on bikes can typically be found riding just off the concrete portion, on the narrow strip of asphalt that’s available. On the asphalt-covered stretch of the Fell lane, having the entire seven-foot width of smooth riding room is surprisingly relaxing, and makes for some comfortable, social, side-by-side travel (as shown above).

As all the pieces of a high-quality, protected bike lane gradually come into place, this is one more small step that makes the  commute experience more pleasant for Wiggle riders. Jose said the permanent bike lane markings should be re-installed within a few days.

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Marina Boat Owners Riled by Proposal to Take Cars Off Bike/Ped Path

DPW proposes removing the 51 parking spaces (seen here on the right, mostly empty) along the only stretch of the Bay Trail where cars are currently allowed. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Along Marina Boulevard there’s a bicycle and pedestrian path where visitors and residents can stroll along the bay without having to worry about cars — until they get to the stretch between Scott and Baker Streets, where drivers are allowed to enter the path to access 51 parking spaces.

It’s the only part of the 500-mile Bay Trail where people must share space with cars. But now the Department of Public Works is leading an effort to remove those parking spots and ban cars on that stretch of the path. At a public meeting yesterday, the proposal was met with protest from about a dozen boat owners who claimed they were entitled to those parking spaces as part of the $10,000 yearly fee they pay to store their vessels.

Boat owners at a community meeting last night fought for their right to parking. “There are plenty of marinas on the east coast, where I also live, that have adequate parking,” said one man. Photo: Aaron Bialick

“We don’t have any other place in the trail where there’s a multi-use pathway adjacent to the shoreline with cars in the middle of it,” said Maureen Gaffney, Bay Trail planner for the Association of Bay Area Governments. “It’s first and foremost a safety issue. We think that parking is not the best use of the waterfront.”

Boat owners complained about longer walks to carry equipment from their cars to their slips, but most users of the marina already seem to make longer walks. The Bay Trail parking spots, which often appear empty, sit adjacent to only 91 of the 350-some-odd total slips in the basin. Attendees also claimed that the city doesn’t have the jurisdiction to remove those parking spaces because boat slip renters are entitled as part of their contracts with the harbor (DPW didn’t have the documentation on hand to refute that).

Although the Marina pathway is heavily used by families, many with rental bikes, that didn’t stop a few attendees from repeatedly calling people on bicycles a hazard, while insisting that operating motor vehicles on the path is just fine.

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Protected Bike Lanes, Dual Bus Lanes Still Left Out of Potrero Ave. Plan

A new design option for Potrero would mix the southbound bike lane with the transit lane. (The numbers denote removed parking spaces.) Image: DPW

The latest proposals for a redesign of Potrero Avenue include no protected bike lanes and only one transit lane, while the removal of any of the street’s four lanes devoted primarily to private car traffic remains off the table.

Planners from the SFMTA and the Department of Public Works presented two design options at an open house community meeting last night, one of which [PDF] would actually eliminate the existing southbound bike lane and instead place colored bike markings in the transit lane, denoting that riders are expected share it with buses. The northbound side of Potrero would have a buffered bike lane. The other option [PDF] would basically maintain the striped, unprotected bike lanes on each side.

Under both options, the eastern sidewalk would be widened to 14 feet along the four blocks in front of SF General Hospital, and bulb-outs and a planted center median with pedestrian refuges would be added. Up to 79 car parking spaces would be removed, down from the previous estimate of 100, as planners have added more perpendicular an angled spaces on side streets.

Elliot Schwartz, a neighbor and livable streets advocate who bikes with his son in a rear seat, said he was disappointed with the options. “It moves the needle a little bit, but not much,” he said. “It makes things better for people walking, it doesn’t really do a thing for people biking as far as safety or comfort. It moves a bus lane from one side to the other — they say that’ll be more efficient, but why not add bus lanes in both directions?”

After the previous community planning meeting in late July, reader Josh Handel submitted a concept for Potrero that includes two transit lanes and protected bike lanes safe enough for a broad range of San Franciscans to feel comfortable using. The street is wide enough if one lane for car traffic was removed in each direction. But city planners claim that would result in unacceptable car congestion.

The Potrero project has faced resistance from some neighbors and merchants over the removal of car parking and traffic lanes. Flyers were reportedly handed out and placed on car windshields near SF General prior to the meeting, protesting the repurposing of parking spaces, mainly for bulb-outs and left-turn pockets.

Fran Taylor, a neighborhood livable streets advocate, said she was upset by “the callous indifference to users of San Francisco General Hospital shown in a petition that demands that plans for sidewalk widening be squelched to save storage space for cars.”

The plan “seems like a poor compromise between people who come to these meetings and argue that they don’t want to give up their free parking space that they’ve had for years,” said Schwartz, “and people who’d actually like to see safer streets so they can ride a bike with their kids and things like that.”

Schwartz said the bike/bus lane “seems crazy,” and though he’d be willing to try it, it probably wouldn’t feel safe enough for most residents.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but we continue to hear calls for the strongest possible improvements to make Potero safe for walking and biking,” said Kit Hodge, deputy director of the SF Bicycle Coalition.

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Yes, We Can Fit Protected Bike Lanes and Two Transit Lanes on Potrero

Streetsblog commenter Josh Handel drew up this plan for Potrero that city planners didn't present.

After listening to city planners say there’s no practical way to redesign Potrero Avenue with protected bike lanes and two transit lanes, Josh Handel didn’t buy it.

Handel shared a plan in the Streetsblog comments that includes protected bike lanes and two transit lanes wide enough to fit buses comfortably (unlike those in the city proposal). He even managed to include the center median for pedestrian refuges and left-turn lanes, plus a lane for car parking.

The geometry appears to work. It does cut a couple of feet off the city’s proposal for a 14-foot-wide sidewalk, but the planted median along the bike lane would provided more separation between that sidewalk and motor traffic. And, of course, it has two through-lanes for private car traffic instead of the four lanes in the SFMTA’s latest proposal.

The city has yet to put forward a proposal that would prioritize transit and bicycling to this extent. The closest option shown at public meetings included three traffic lanes, two 10.5 foot-wide transit lanes (narrow for buses) and unprotected bike lanes. And even that option was dropped because, they said, we just can’t do without all four existing traffic lanes for private automobiles.

The largest “trade-off” here, as planners call it, is that creating quality space for walking, transit, and biking means re-allocating some of the space devoted to cars — the vast majority of space on Potrero today.

As Elliot Schwartz, another Potrero resident, pointed out at this week’s community meeting, real-world experience shows that drivers will adjust behavior when streets are redesigned so that moving cars is no longer the top priority. “The problem with the traffic flow projections is they’re all kind of bogus,” he said. “If we have three traffic lanes, we have 1,500 cars, if we have four traffic lanes, we have 2,000 cars. So if we take away a traffic lane, yes, your traffic’s going to go down.”

“It’s up to us decide,” he added. “Do we want a local road that can be used by local people, or do we want a road where we’re devoting two-thirds of the space to [101] overflow traffic and turning it into a second freeway?”

Chris Pangilinan, a planner with the SFMTA, did leave a comment on our article saying that “we’ll be hard at work on the design alternatives in light of the feedback we have received.” So the question remains: Will those alternatives still put cars first and everything else second?

You can share your thoughts on the project in a survey put out by the city.

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Some Residents Urge City to Make Bolder Safety Upgrades on Potrero

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The proposal for Potrero Avenue at 21st Street. Click here for the entire overview. Images: DPW

The city’s latest proposal to improve safety and transit service on Potrero Avenue is slightly different than earlier versions of the plan. While the redesign would expand pedestrian space, some residents at a public meeting yesterday pointed out that it could do much more to make the street safer for biking and walking.

Staff from the Department of Public Works, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, and the Planning Department presented the plan at a community meeting yesterday at SF General Hospital, which sits along the stretch of Potrero between 21st and 25th Streets where street improvements are planned to complement an ongoing rebuild of the campus. Planners announced that the project’s scope has been expanded to 17th Street, but the basics haven’t changed much since the last public meeting about this project in March.

Under the new proposal, Potrero’s narrow 9-foot sidewalks would be widened to 14 feet on the east side of four blocks (not quite as much of an addition as the original proposal for 15-foot sidewalks). The plan also calls for corner bulb-outs and a planted median, six to seven feet wide, with pedestrian refuges and some left-turn lanes, and the northern crosswalk would be re-opened at the intersection with eastern 23rd Street.

In response to assertions from a few residents that the sidewalks fronting the hospital don’t need to be widened because few people walk there, Amnon Ben-Pazi of the Planning Department said that “it’s incredibly important when we have a new hospital that it be accessible by foot or by transit.”

With Potrero’s narrow sidewalks obstructed by poles for overhead Muni wires which can’t be moved, “there’s really no place to get through with a wheelchair, a walker — you need a clear path of travel to do that,” he said. Potrero’s sidewalk widths, he noted, will still be “under-optimal on one side, and on the other side we’re under even the minimum” for current street standards.

“We’re all in a position where we would love to have all these things happen on Potrero, but the reality is we only have so much space,” said Ben-Pazi.

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