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SFMTA Shows Off Vision Zero Upgrades, Promises Quicker Implementation

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin leads state and national transportation officials on a tour today at deadly Market and Sixth Streets. Photo: SFMTA

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin leads state and national transportation officials on a tour today at deadly Market and Sixth Streets. Photo: SFMTA

Several top officials from state and national transportation agencies were in town today to see some of the SFMTA’s latest street safety measures. Meanwhile, local street safety advocates continue to push the SFMTA to pick up the pace on delivering pedestrian and bike safety infrastructure.

At a City Hall committee hearing yesterday, SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director Tom Maguire reported on some solid steps the agency is taking to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that holds up street safety fixes.

While the reforms are “definitely a work in progress,” Maguire told Supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener that the SFMTA has adopted new processes and hired new management to speed up the delivery of safer streets.

“There does need to be a bit of a culture change and a raised expectation that we do need to be doing more, better, faster within MTA if we’re going to reach the Vision Zero goal,” Maguire said.

In recent weeks, he said, project managers at SFMTA and SF County Transportation Authority have attended an “intensive training course” focused on rolling out a “capital project control system,” so that managers at both agencies “are on the same level.” The SFMTA is also hiring a project delivery director to “re-engineer and streamline the project delivery process across the entire Sustainable Streets Division” while “providing a single point of accountability.”

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CPMC Van Ness Construction Was Delayed to Save Church Parking on Easter

The CPMC construction site, currently a gaping hole for the hospital’s parking garage, as seen today on a live camera feed. Image: CPMC

Church leaders successfully persuaded California Pacific Medical Center to delay a weekend traffic closure on Van Ness Avenue so a temporary ban on street parking would not coincide with Easter weekend.

One block of Van Ness, between Post and Geary Streets, will be closed to car traffic this weekend so crews can construct a pedestrian tunnel connecting CPMC’s hospital with its medical office building, under construction at Van Ness and Geary Street.

The detour, one in a series of lane closures on Van Ness, was originally supposed to happen last weekend. Now that it’s been postponed, the two full traffic closures will coincide with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival and parade, which runs north on Polk Street, then west on Post Street.

To accommodate the extra traffic on the detour route, street parking will be banned for the weekend on Gough and Franklin Streets, which run parallel to Van Ness.

Leaders at several nearby churches were irked when they discovered that those parking restrictions would take place on Easter weekend. Three weeks before the planned Easter closure, a religious community leader contacted the SFMTA and threatened a public “message of condemnation” of the agency if it wasn’t moved, according to emails obtained through a public records request [PDF].

“If this street closure is allowed to occur it will force the SFIC and its constituent congregations and judicatories to respond to the City and the SFMTA with a unified message of condemnation,” SF Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas wrote in a March 11 email to SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. “I am appealing to you to intercede before this matter becomes irreversible.”

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Will Muni’s Largest Service Increase in Decades Have Staying Power?

“Muni Forward” upgrades coming include increased service along with branding changes. Image: SFMTA

“Muni Forward” upgrades coming soon include increased service on about a dozen routes. Image: SFMTA

Muni is making major service improvements and shoring up the basics of running buses on schedule, and this time, officials say, the improvements will stick.

“This is long term, focused and systematic,” Muni Operations Director John Haley told reporters last week, calling upcoming “Muni Forward” upgrades the largest increase in service since the Market Street subway opened in 1980.

Most importantly, the SFMTA plans to roll out a package of service increases on April 25 as part of the ongoing Muni Forward campaign, previously known as the Transit Effectiveness Project, with improvements focused on its busiest lines. As the SF Chronicle reported, nine routes will run more frequently during the morning rush and seven will run more frequently during the evening commute, with several other routes getting more service at other times.

All told, Muni says, those improvements will affect about 165,000 daily riders. Two other waves of frequency increases will come to yet-to-be-named routes in the fall and next February.

Muni is also ramping up its re-branding efforts with changes to some route names. “Limited” lines will now be called “Rapid” lines to shed the “negative connotation,” said Muni Forward Program Manager Sean Kennedy. Muni will also replace its shelter maps with a new, more legible map of the system, and install new signs to market the rapid routes.

The funding for Muni’s service improvements can largely be chalked up to rising revenue streams from a booming economy. Will it last? In 2009, when it was called the TEP, Muni’s improvement program was put on hold because of recession-era budget cuts.

Haley said the new service increases are built into the current two-year budget, and that he’s optimistic that revenue will increase in future budgets. With the greater funding provided by the passage of Propositions A and B in November, Muni plans to continue replacing its aging bus fleet, resulting in fewer breakdowns. Haley said there’s also greater pressure from the public to improve Muni as the city’s transit-riding population grows.

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Chiu Bill Would Let Muni Cameras Ticket Drivers Cruising in Transit Lanes

Muni could get greater authority to ticket drivers violating transit lanes like this one at Third and Howard Streets under a new bill proposed by Assemblymember David Chiu. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Assemblymember David Chiu has proposed a bill to give Muni greater authority to keep transit-only lanes and bus stops clear of cars using the enforcement cameras that are now on every bus.

Assemblymember David Chiu today with his successor, D3 Supervisor Julie Christensen (right), Supervisor Scott Wiener, and SFTRU’s Thea Selby. Photo: Aaron Bialick

AB 1287 would allow Muni to issue citations to drivers who delay transit riders by cruising down transit-only lanes, parking in bus stops, and blocking intersections. It would also make the camera enforcement program permanent, as it’s currently a pilot program due to expire at the end of the year.

It’s the first transportation bill at the state level from Chiu, who was elected to the State Assembly in November after serving as District 3 Supervisor.

Camera enforcement “is about making dedicated space for buses work as well as possible,” Chiu said at a press conference today. “We all know that Muni is simply too slow, with an average speed of 8 mph. Transit-only lanes are critical to letting Muni do more than just crawl through our congested streets. For bus-only lanes to work, they can’t have cars double-parked or driving in them.”

Currently, Muni can only use cameras to ticket drivers who park in transit lanes, as spelled out by the bill that established the pilot program in 2007. Moving violations must be enforced by the SFPD, and drivers who park in bus stops and transit lanes, or block intersections, can only be cited by police or parking control officers on the scene.

Chiu’s bill would allow the SFMTA to send out tickets for moving violations captured on camera. Drivers caught cruising in a bus lane would get a $110 parking citation — which costs less than a moving violation.

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Wiener to SFMTA: Don’t Warn Double-Parkers, Cite Them

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Seventh Street in SoMa. Photo: Matt Montagne/Twitter

Typo correction: The SFMTA says commercial vehicles are only allowed to double park when there is no legal parking space nearby.

At a hearing this week on the prevalence of double-parking in SF, Supervisor Scott Wiener said parking control officers shouldn’t give double-parked drivers a chance to move before receiving a citation.

“If the worst thing that’s going to happen to you is you’re going to be asked to move, how is that in any way a disincentive to double parking?” Wiener asked SFMTA Parking Enforcement Director Cameron Samii.

Samii said that such warnings are only given to delivery drivers, and only when there is no legal nearby parking space and they are not blocking a Muni line or “creating a hazard.” He said an exemption in state law allows commercial drivers to double park while loading under those conditions.

However, private auto drivers have long been known to get off with warnings, and there is no clear evidence that practice has changed. And for people on bikes, any double-parked vehicle creates a hazard.

Double-parking tickets have recently been on the upswing, however, with monthly citations rising from 1,808 in September to 2,947 in January, though they dropped again slightly in February to 2,495 [PDF]. Compared to all double-parking tickets, bike lane violations increased at a faster rate, from 110 in September to 285 in January.

The SF Bicycle Coalition recently conducted a social media campaign called #ParkingDirtySF, asking the public to tweet photos of drivers parked in bike lanes and blocking intersections. With more than 500 responses, the SFBC listed the 15 worst locations and the most common types of violators.

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Painted Bulb-Outs Arrive at Howard Street — Are More Coming Soon?

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One year and four months after SF’s first painted curb extensions came to Sixth Street, the SFMTA has implemented its second set at three intersections on Howard Street, in tandem with a wider and greener bike lane.

But for such a seemingly simple safety measure — using low-cost gravel and epoxy to expand sidewalk corners and slow drivers’ turns — the question remains: Why does it take SF so long to implement?

Expectations were raised when deadly Sixth Street received the city’s first six painted bulb-outs at the intersection of Market, Mission, and Howard, even if SF’s extensions were much smaller in size and number than painted curb extensions in NYC.

D6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who grew up in Manhattan, said at the time that “it’s been amazing to see the difference they’ve been making for the quality of life of pedestrians and cyclists.”

A painted bulb-out in New York City. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

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Yielding to Cars-First Merchants, SFMTA Board Approves Polk Plan As Is

The SFMTA Board of Directors voted unanimously yesterday to approve the watered-down plan to redesign Polk Street with a protected bike lane along one side of the street for 10 of 20 blocks.

The board rebuffed efforts by member Cheryl Brinkman to preserve the possibility of adding protected bike lanes along the upper half of the corridor before the project is constructed. Instead, the board added the condition that SFMTA staff would report on the impacts of the redesign a year after it’s completed, when they will consider extending protected bike lanes in a follow-up project.

The decision came after a four-hour hearing, where hundreds of people spoke. Roughly half called for a bolder project that puts safety first, and the rest — many of them merchants — opposed the project in order to preserve car parking.

The board did not discuss the block of Polk between California and Pine Streets, where Mayor Ed Lee’s optometrist successfully lobbied to remove bike lane protection from the project six months after it was presented to the public. When asked if he’d taken any action on the project, Mayor Lee told Streetsblog last week, “We shouldn’t promote bicycle safety over pedestrian safety over cars and parking. I think they’re all going to be important.”

Supervisors Jane Kim and Julie Christensen, whose districts share a border along Polk, weighed in at the hearing.

D6 Supervisor Kim took the stronger stand for a safer Polk, calling on the SFMTA to “prioritize people over cars and to model Vision Zero for the rest of the city.”

“As someone who’s a beginning cyclist… if you want more people like me driving less, I’m going to want to see protected bike lanes,” said Kim. “That’s just the reality.” With heavy motor traffic and steeper grades on nearby streets, she said, “Polk Street is the only corridor that we can have a protected, green bike lane for the entire north-south” route. She also said she was “disappointed” about the removal of the bike lane on the block between California and Pine.

Christensen, who was recently appointed by Lee to fill David Chiu‘s District 3 seat, called on the board to approve the project as-is, so as not to delay the pedestrian safety improvements or undergound utility work, and “continue to debate the merits of changes further north.”

Unlike Kim, she did not make the case that a safer design should be an urgent priority. “We have thousands of people storing their cars on the street,” said Christensen. “While we want to discourage them from doing that, that is not going to change overnight.”

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SFMTA Cuts Block of Polk Bike Lane Fought By Visionless Mayor’s Optometrist

Polk at Pine Street, where the SFMTA has rolled back plans for a protected bike lane which was disliked by Mayor Ed Lee’s optometrist. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SFMTA has nixed a block of protected bike lane planned on Polk Street, where merchants including Mayor Ed Lee’s optometrist have vocally opposed it to preserve car parking.

The raised, protected bike lane between California and Pine Streets was removed from Polk’s plans six months after they were presented at the final public open house. SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin ordered the reduction, as shown in emails [PDF] obtained by Madeleine Savit, who founded Folks for Polk to advocate for a safer street. Reiskin and the SFMTA Board of Directors are mayoral appointees.

The Polk redesign, which is up for a vote by the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday, has been fiercely opposed by a group of merchants called “Save Polk Street,” which has spread misinformation in its campaign to preserve parking. Under the proposed plan, partial bike lanes would be installed by removing about 30 percent of the 320 parking spaces on Polk, or 8 percent of parking spaces within a block of the street. About 85 percent of people on Polk arrive without a car.

“Mayor Lee in his new frames!,” reads the caption on a photo posted by Hiura and Hiura Optometrists. Photo via Yelp

Drs. Hiura and Hiura Optometrists, which posted a photo on its Yelp page of Mayor Lee in “his new frames,” had a “Save Polk Street” flyer on its reception desk when Streetsblog visited the business today.

Dr. Ronald Hiura told Streetsblog that he has “talked to the mayor and SFMTA Board members personally,” which “could possibly” have driven the removal of the bike lane on his block. “I was happy to see that they have revised that one-block issue,” he said.

Streetsblog asked Mayor Lee today if he had taken any action on the Polk plan, noting the protests from some merchants over losing parking. He didn’t say he’d pushed the SFMTA to change the plan. “I’ve been meeting with the MTA,” said Lee. “They’re the experts. They have so many issues to balance, and I just want to make sure I embrace a very strong balancing process.”

“I’ve heard from many different groups,” Lee told Streetsblog. “I know we want to make the streets safer, make it bike-friendly, small businesses don’t want to lose parking for their constituents… I can’t have a particular position on it except to endorse the most balanced approach that they have because there’s issues that should not be in conflict. We shouldn’t promote bicycle safety over pedestrian safety over cars and parking. I think they’re all going to be important.”

A rendering of the raised, protected bike lane planned on lower Polk at Fern Street, a block-and-a-half from where it will end. Image: SF Planning Department

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Halted By Noise Complaints, N-Judah Tunnel Upgrades Expected to Resume

Photo: SFMTA

The SFMTA is expected to resume work to upgrade the Sunset Tunnel for the N-Judah after construction was halted by a permit appeal from neighbors who complained about noise. Crews have skipped four weekends of work, adding unknown costs and at least a month of delay to the project.

The N-Judah boarding island on Duboce Avenue at the Sunset Tunnel East Portal, seen here after upgrades in 2012. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The appellants complained that the noise, particularly from backup alarms used on construction vehicles, deprived them of sleep during overnight work. The SFMTA says the work can only be done on weekends, including nights, so as to keep trains moving on weekdays, when ridership on Muni’s busiest line is at its highest.

The issue is expected to be officially resolved at a Board of Appeals hearing today, after which “there will be a ten-day waiting period,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose. “During that time we will be able to develop a schedule to move forward with the work.”

Bud Offermann, who filed the appeal, said neighbors near the Sunset Tunnel’s East Portal at Duboce Park have agreed to the use of a new “broadband” backup alarm, which is quieter for neighbors but still satisfies the safety requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I think we’re 100 percent,” said Offermann, though he still wants some “work practice changes” to be approved. He said he would have already withdrawn the appeal and cancelled the hearing, but the SFMTA “pissed off so many people, there are a few individuals who want to have their say.”

Originally, the appellants wanted much more than a different alarm sound, including paid-for hotel accommodations or the use of a signal person to substitute for the alarms. The contractor, ProVen, said a signal person would add $25,000 in costs per weekend, according to appeal documents [PDF].

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Muni Expects to End Operator Shortage for the First Time This Century

Muni officials expect to have a full staff of bus and train operators this spring, finally ending a shortage that has led to canceled runs and excessive overtime spending since at least the 1990s.

Photo: SFMTA

Muni Operations Director John Haley said Muni has ramped up its operator training to fill the backlog by April or May, though he’s more confident on fully staffing bus operators than streetcar operators by that point.

“We have two training classes in the pipeline, so we should be in good shape on the rubber tire side,” Haley told Streetsblog in an email.

Currently, Muni is short 40 rail operators — 30 for Muni metro lines and 10 for the F-line streetcars, Haley said. For buses, Muni needs 75 additional drivers to make currently scheduled runs, and will need an 30 more operators for a planned service increase in April.

Muni canceled between 55 and 73 runs each day over a three-day sample period in mid-May, the SF Examiner reported last June. Haley said the rate of missed runs has recently run as high as 6 percent.

It’s not clear when the last time Muni had all the operators it needs to make its scheduled runs, but according to a 2008 SPUR articlethe shortage has lasted since at least 1998. The numbers have fluctuated over the years, often running as high as several hundred missing operators as attrition outpaced hiring.

If the backlog is filled this spring, the question then becomes how long Muni can hold the line. An end to the shortage has been predicted before. In May 2011, an SFMTA spokesperson told CBS the rail operator backlog would be filled by July of that year.

Back in June, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A President Eric Williams told KQED he estimated the shortage at 200 full-time and 251 part-time operators.

Muni wasn’t allowed to hire part-time operators until voters passed Proposition G in 2010, though the agency has since struggled to maintain its part-time staffing. In 2012, Muni management converted most of its 95 part-time operators to full-time to make up for a drop in full-time operators. Without the flexibility that part-time operators provide, Muni must pay full-time workers expensive overtime to make up for gaps in service.

Muni’s on-time performance has worsened over the past year, dropping from 60 percent to 54 percent, though Haley says Muni officials aren’t sure why. The operator shortage is just one of the chronic problems plaguing Muni service, along with vehicle breakdowns and delays caused by car traffic. The City Controller’s Office has estimated that Muni delays cost the economy at least $50 million each year.

Haley said the operator shortages lead to a downward spiral as drivers who pick up the slack work overtime more often and get burned out from the stress of the job. When bus runs are canceled, the buses that do show up get more crowded, riders get more frustrated, and drivers become more worried about staying on schedule.

“You’re digging a huge hole for yourself,” said Haley. “There’s nothing good that can happen from it.”