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Streetsblog Talks with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener, who has served District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 2011, was re-elected this week as chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The Authority was created in 1989 and it works closely with the Municipal Transportation Agency, funding and shepherding long-term projects such as the Van Ness and Geary bus improvements and the Central Subway. Wiener has long been a leader in transportation issues—probably because, unlike some elected officials, he actually rides the trains and buses.

Here’s what he wrote in a post about his reappointment as chair of SFCTA:

    “I’m deeply honored that my colleagues just reelected me as Chairman of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. I will continue to work very hard to improve transportation options as our city and region grow. We have so many needs – increased frequency and reliability of service, more subway lines, a complete revamping of BART and Caltrain, a second transbay tube, and high speed rail to downtown San Francisco. We have huge challenges, and with aggressive and innovative work, we will meet them.”

Streetsblog talked with Wiener about cycling, his goals for improving Muni, and general mobility in San Francisco. But first, late last December Supervisor Wiener pulled out his phone to check an appointment and got robbed. The thieves took his phone and then demanded money. Wiener got his phone back and managed to maneuver them in front of an ATM camera. Streetsblog started by asking him about that encounter and what it says about personal safety in San Francisco.

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Streetsblog: So you got the thieves on a security camera?

Scott Wiener: It was either an incredibly smart move or an incredibly stupid move, but I got my phone back and the people are in custody. I was walking down 16th Street at Valencia and I had briefly taken my phone out to look at my calendar to see where I was going. A woman who was with two guys snatched the phone out of my hand and I was able to get it back from her by paying. So I got them to an ATM machine so that they would be on video; two of the three are now in custody.

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San Francisco MTA Backpedals on Powell Safety Improvements

Workers push a cable car on a soggy morning. SFMTA is already rolling back safety improvements on Powell. Photo: Roger Rudick

Workers push a cable car on a soggy morning. SFMTA is pulling back safety improvements. Photo: Roger Rudick

The SFMTA Board passed a partial rollback this afternoon of the “Powell Street Safety & Improvement Pilot,” an 18-month test project to evaluate banning private vehicles on the particularly busy stretch of Powell Street between Ellis and Geary.

The change, based on staff recommendations, took a plan that reserved the street for “Muni, paratransit, taxis and commercial vehicles only” and changed it to also allow private vehicles “picking up or dropping off passengers at the loading zone in front of 230 Powell Street.” Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk San Francisco, said it will be impossible to enforce that private cars are only loading at that location and not driving through. “You can’t have a cop there all the time. It undoes what the pilot did and is pretty disappointing.” The decision was part of SFMTA’s “consent calendar,” meaning it was passed without discussion or a vote.

It was only last December that the city started the pilot. Given that Powell–between the cable cars, delivery trucks, taxis and private automobiles–was a virtual parking lot, safe-street advocates have long argued that the street should be transformed into a transit and pedestrian promenade. Powell doesn’t even connect to Market Street, since the southernmost block was turned into a plaza in 1973. As a result, drivers end up doing u-turns, further jamming up the street. It’s also a concern for maintaining San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, which aren’t able to handle stop-and-go traffic, because it wears out and frays the cables.

Either way, it should be self-evident that there’s no room for private cars on this stretch of street, just from looking at photographs from past issues of this publication and others. And SFMTA is trying to reduce the number of cars through incremental changes. For example, in 2011, all parking was removed from Powell south of Geary. But not everyone is keen on getting cars off of this stretch of Powell.

“Several Powell Street property owners came forward and asked that we also include the northbound side of the street [accessible to private vehicles] as a condition of their support for the project legislation,” explained Paul Rose, a spokesman for SFMTA. “Staff agreed to this change, and the Board directed staff to return in January with the requested modification, as long as staff was confident that the ‘less restriction’ regulation would still achieve the pilot goals.”

“Our role in this process was to convene stakeholders that would be impacted by the change,” wrote
Union Square Business Improvement District (BID) Executive Director Karin Flood. “In the case of Powell Street we had to balance the need to accommodate the large number of pedestrians walking up Powell with the loading and unloading needs of the individual hotels and merchants.”

Safe street advocates, meanwhile, were frustrated. “It’s pretty disappointing to see this street opened up to private vehicles again without a complete evaluation of the pilot program,” said Ferrara. “This will impact pedestrian safety.”

“This is a really old system,” explained a cable car conductor on Powell who asked Streetsblog to withhold his name. He motioned to a cable car he just helped push across Ellis. “It’s much better, much safer with the street closed [to private cars].”

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Terrifying BART Shooting Shakes Bay Area

Photo: Matthew Roth

Photo: Matthew Roth

I was waiting for an inbound BART train Saturday evening at eight in Rockridge when there was an announcement: “severe disruptions due to police activity at West Oakland.”

My train arrived a few minutes later. We held in downtown Oakland for maybe 15 minutes. Then we rolled through West Oakland without stopping and accelerated to full speed into San Francisco. It wasn’t until I got home and my phone rang that I realized what had happened was actually serious: my friends in Rockridge wanted to make sure I was okay, because they saw on the news that somebody was shot to death, presumably on the train right in front of mine.

Predictably, the shooting was the lead story in the media, ratcheting up the fear. “The reason public transport violence is problematic is that users cannot avoid the risk, so each event is more frightening to a larger number of persons than crime in the street,” said Franklin Zimring, Director of Criminal Justice Studies at Berkeley. Even though “exposure to violent crime is lower than it would be in a lot of neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco.”

The last incident on public transportation of this level of violence was the shooting of Tommy Clayton, 19, last April, on a Muni T-line train in the Bayview District. That said, there are between 90 and 70 homicides a year in Oakland and about 50 in San Francisco. It’s inevitable that some will happen on transit.

“The problem is you can always stay out of neighborhoods that have bad reputations, but if you’re dependent on public transport, you can’t stay away from it,” said Zimring. “Furthermore, I can control where a car goes, so my feeling is going to be somewhat less vulnerable.”

That’s perception. But whether from crime or crashes, the Freakonomics blog lays out the relative safety of transit over driving with data from the US Department of Transportation. Bottom line, if people get so terrified by a well-publicized shooting or rare train collision that they decide to drive instead, they increase their risk of getting killed.

And the fact is random violence on transit—and the Oakland shooting doesn’t look random—is pretty rare, explained Officer Carlos Manfredi, a spokesman for SFPD. For most riders, there are a few tips to keep in mind; a way to regain some of that sense of control. For example, when it’s not crowded, try to ride near the driver. “The driver has a radio and can call for help right away,” he said. Manfredi also recommends standing away from the doors, since thieves are looking to make a quick getaway. “And look up, away from that smart phone screen, whenever the bus or train comes to a complete stop.”

Others take the police to task. “There are many ways to make Muni safer, and one is to have consistent police presence,” said SF Supervisor Scott Weiner. “Like police walking beats on our streets, ensuring a police presence on buses and light-rail vehicles must be a priority.”

Manfredi said they do patrol the system, but that it’s a resource issue. “The average officer will respond to 15 to 35 calls in a 10-hour shift,” he said, adding “An officer is required to ride twice per shift.”

There are accusations that cops shirk this requirement. But Manfredi says cops do patrol Muni plus they commute on transit just like anyone else. Even off duty, “They will typically intervene if they see a crime in progress,” he said.

None of this mitigates the revulsion from last Saturday night. One man is dead. Others had a traumatic experience that will haunt them for years. A killer remains at large. More disturbing, perhaps, is that crime remains such a huge problem in Oakland. But let’s hope fear won’t drive anyone from transit and into private cars, where more people die, generally without the headlines.

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Transit Volunteers Gear Up to Make Muni Better in 2016

logoAmazingly, it was only 2010 when a bunch of regular Muni riders, fed up with unreliable, dirty, and overcrowded trains and buses, got together to form the San Francisco Transit Riders Union (SFTRU). But it now has an impressive list of accomplishments and is striving for more, according to Andy Bosselman, a spokesman and volunteer.

Streetsblog caught up with Bosselman at a coffee shop on Sansome off Market Street. The middle-aged founder of a skin care company is typical of advocates working with the group—years ago he took a side interest in urban planning and was blown away by the simple accomplishments he saw in cities such as Portland, Montreal, and Paris. “Montreal created protected bike lanes with the kind of cheap concrete barriers you see at the end of parking spots,” he said, wondering why such simple improvements are so hard to come by in San Francisco.

The group is chaired by Thea Selby, Principal of Next Steps Marketing. She is Vice President of the Board of Trustees of the City College of San Francisco and a member of the California High Speed Rail Board. Peter Straus, who heads up SFTRU’s transportation task force, is called the “Head Transit Ninja” by Bosselman. But its overall board and membership is as diverse as Muni’s riders.

One focus of SFTRU is the Van Ness BRT, which will run two miles from Mission Street to Lombard. As Bosselman explained, the project will reserve a lane for buses to increase speed, reliability, and capacity. It also requires removing some older trees that are “at the end of their lives and diseased.” Local residents, not familiar with the project, objected to removing the trees. SFTRU helped get the message out that new trees will be planted, resulting in a net gain. And it pushed to assure the BRT plan uses center lanes, instead of slower, curbside lanes.

In June of 2015, the group launched its 22-day Muni Challenge, which pressed politicians to use Muni themselves and document their rides with photographs and Twitter posts. Each day of the challenge represented one of the 22 years since the voters passed 1993’s Proposition AA, which required city officials to ride Muni several times a week, something most have not done.

“If you’re going to be making decisions about transit, you really need to know what it’s actually like. Not what it’s like in theory, but what it’s actually like,” said Christof Spieler of the Houston Metro’s board of directors in an Atlantic article called “Why the People in Charge of Transit Systems Should Be Required to Actually Ride Transit.”

It seems obvious: if our leaders ride transit, they see its faults, and are in a better position to correct them. And, not surprisingly, the politicians who ride transit the most are most active in improving Muni. And those who don’t, well, aren’t.

Bosselman hopes that by continuing to pressure politicians to ride, they’ll see and hopefully fix more of Muni’s faults, such as “three N-Judahs in a row, outbound,” he explained. “Why can’t they switch those trains to different lines so they’re not bunching?”

So what’s next for SFTRU’s volunteer transit ninjas?

“We’re trying to figure out what to focus on in 2016,” he said. “Will we do something similar to the Muni challenge? Or are we going to choose a different campaign?” One thing’s for sure, they want to improve fundraising and reach out to a broader coalition, he explained.

And they want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on where Muni can improve? Comment below. Or if you’re a transit geek, volunteer, said Bosselman. Even if you’re not a transit geek and just want to see Muni get faster and be more reliable, “we want you too.”

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“Just Transit” Contest Winner to Straighten Out Caltrain Station Mess

Back in October, the Schmidt Family Foundation announced its “Just Transit SF Challenge,” a contest to come up with good transit improvement ideas that can be implemented quickly. The three winners were announced this month.

Bike lanes as currently configured at Caltrain. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The current street situation at Caltrain. Photo: Bryan Goebel

The $125,000 first prize went to RideScout and TransForm, which are partnering to improve transit using financial incentives. In many cities, off-peak transit tickets are discounted to encourage people to ride trains and buses when they are less crowded. This project exploits modern technology to take things further, offering discounts for people to ride when loads are light or even encouraging them to use a less direct route if it will reduce crowding.

The grant will pay for the fare discounts the first year, during which the grantees will study to what extent financial incentives can work, using smart phone technology, to change travel patterns. After that, they’ll have to get SFMTA and BART to buy in. That may mean charging more at peak times and on heavily-crowded routes to offset the expense. Either way, it should bring in more revenue by making sure trains and buses have fewer empty seats on off-peak routes. In this sense, the project is trying to apply the kind of math airlines use to make sure planes don’t fly with empty seats.

Another winner addresses a problem that’s all too tangible to anyone who has ever used Caltrain’s King Street Station.

“Curbing the Caltrain Cluster,” which won a $50,000 award, is a joint project from Livable City and Lyft. How will it work? Suppose you get off your Caltrain and need a Lyft. The way things work now, you end up wandering past Muni buses, bikes, cars, and through the taxi queue trying to find your ride. “Curbing the Caltrain Cluster” proposes numbered stalls, so that when you call your Lyft, Uber, or whatever service, it also tells you to go to stall number 9, for example.

So when a Lyft driver heads over to Caltrain and looks at his app, “It will say your rider will proceed to ‘X’ location,” explained Scott Reinstein, development and communications director for Livable City. The plan is also to separate cars, buses, and bikes as much as possible.

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Brown Signs Law Making Muni’s Transit-Only Lane Enforcement Permanent

Earlier this week, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1287, introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu, making permanent the Transit-Only Lane Enforcement (TOLE) program which helps keep parked cars out of Muni-only lanes. The program was set to expire at the end of the year.

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

“Muni has to go faster than eight miles an hour,” said Chiu in a statement to the press.

“As we increase service on Muni and our economy continues to grow, we have to make sure that our transit system can operate efficiently and reliably. Everyone who rides Muni in San Francisco appreciates the Governor’s support of this bill.”

TOLE uses cameras on Muni buses to enforce the prohibition against stopping or parking in transit-only lanes, many of which are designated with red paint. These TOLE-equipped buses discourage illegal parking and help improve transit service along San Francisco’s 26 miles of transit-only lanes on routes carrying more than 160,000 riders per day.

While the program is better than nothing, it’s hardly perfect. In the words of Streetsblog SF reporter Michael Rhodes in 2009, “Violations in SF’s Transit-Only Lanes Rampant and Rarely Enforced.” An earlier version of the legislation would have allowed Muni to ticket drivers driving in the transit-only lanes based on camera evidence.

That language was removed during the committee process.

Even so, TOLE has created better conditions than what existed when the program was first permitted in 2007. Statistics provided by Chiu’s office show that TOLE has helped reduce Muni delays and improved running time reliability. Results on a key downtown corridor, Sutter Street, for example, show travel time consistency improvements of up to fifteen percent. Read more…

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SFMTA Board Approves McAllister Muni Upgrades, Traffic Circles

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McAllister and Fillmore Streets, where bus bulb-outs and more visible crosswalks were recently added. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SFMTA Board of Directors today approved a package of upgrades on McAllister Street to improve pedestrian safety and speed up buses on the 5-Fulton line as part of Muni Forward. Among the changes, two stop signs will be replaced with transit-priority traffic signals, and two others will be replaced with traffic circles.

The project is expected to shave 20 percent off travel times along the route, which goes from the Outer Richmond to downtown, according to the SFMTA. That added speed will come on top of the boost given to the route two years ago, with the launch of 5-Fulton Rapid service and street upgrades like bus bulb-outs.

The changes approved today include traffic signals that give priority to buses where McAllister intersects with Scott Street and Broderick Street. The original proposal called for signals at five intersections but the plan changed after protests from neighbors. But at two of those intersections — Lyon Street and Steiner Street — McAllister will get traffic circles to calm motor vehicle speeds, the first such treatment on a bus route in SF.

An SFMTA report [PDF] noted that “a number of residents” at a July hearing “voice[d] their feedback that traffic circles do not, in their view, provide adequate pedestrian safety.”

“SFMTA staff believes that this is, in fact, not true,” the report said, citing examples in other cities. Sacramento, for instance, saw a 70 percent drop in crashes “at locations where they implemented a traffic circle.”

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McAllister Street Set to Get Two Traffic Circles Instead of Signals

McAllister, a popular bike route, would get traffic circles to speed up Muni’s 5-Fulton line after a proposal for traffic signals faced opposition. Photo: Aaron Bialick

McAllister Street, a popular bike route where SFMTA’s Muni Forward planners want to speed up the 5-Fulton, would have stop signs replaced by traffic circles at two intersections under the agency’s latest proposal.

Under the plan [PDF], which must be approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors, McAllister would become the first street to get traffic circles on a bus route. Up for debate, however, is how well they’ll serve their intended purpose of calming traffic enough to ensure drivers yield to pedestrians and don’t squeeze out bike commuters.

The proposal for traffic circles at Lyon and Steiner Streets is a substitute for the SFMTA’s original proposal for traffic signals at five intersections. Neighbors protested the plans for signals on McAllister and Haight Street, arguing that they would encourage drivers to speed and hurt “neighborhood character.” Both streets carry major Muni lines that hit frequent stop signs as they head to and from the western neighborhoods.

On McAllister, transit-priority traffic signals are moving ahead at two of the five intersections — Broderick and Scott Streets. They were dropped at Baker and Pierce Streets.

“The idea is there’ll still be stop signs for the side streets, but McAllister would have no stop sign, and the circles would be the calming feature for vehicles heading along McAllister,” said Muni Forward Program Manager Sean Kennedy.

At Lyon and Steiner Streets, traffic circles would replace stop signs, and the Muni stop at Lyon would be removed. Images: SFMTA

At Lyon and Steiner Streets, traffic circles would replace stop signs, and the Muni stop at Lyon would be removed. Images: SFMTA

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Muni Approves Upgrades for 28-19th Ave With Bus Bulbs, Fewer Stops

With the upgrades, 28 riders will have roomier bus stops and faster service. Photo: SFMTA [PDF]

Muni’s 28-19th Avenue will get a speed boost from bus bulbs and stop consolidations approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors yesterday. The upgrades, part of the Muni Forward program, are expected to be constructed starting in the fall of 2016 and completed by 2018.

On 19th Avenue, the 28 currently stops on nearly every block, and buses must pull over to the curb to reach passengers, then wait for a break in traffic to continue. If they’re lucky, bus riders won’t hit a red light soon after.

Under the approved plans [PDF], the 28 will operate like it does on Park Presidio in the Richmond: Stops will be spaced every other block, and sidewalk extensions will let the buses remain in the traffic lane while they stop — no more merging in and out. In addition, stops will be moved to the far side of five intersections so buses can clear traffic signals before passengers board. Signals will also have transit priority to reduce the amount of time buses wait at reds.

Riders who squeeze onto the 28 — many of whom are SF State University students — can expect their trips to get quicker and less crowded. Between Lincoln Way and Junipero Serra Boulevard, local buses would speed up by 20 percent on average, or 5 minutes in each direction. The 28 local’s average speed of 9.2 MPH would increase to 12.2 MPH.

“I’ve always felt like a lottery winner when I see a 28-[Rapid bus] pull up,” said SFMTA Board member Joél Ramos. “That route is so painfully slow.”

The 28-Rapid, which already makes fewer stops, would speed up by 1.5 minutes in each direction, and its hours would be extended. The rapid currently runs during a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon. Under the new plan it would operate continuously from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m (however, that’s a reduction from the previous proposal of 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.). 28-Rapid buses would no longer stop at Lincoln Way or Sloat Boulevard, though local buses would.

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The Final Tally Is in From the 22-Day Muni Challenge

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The final score at City Hall for the 22-Day Muni Challenge, as shown in a screenshot from SFTRU’s “Leaderboard.”

The final score for the 22-Day Muni Challenge is in. Based on the ride tally, about half of SF’s elected officials took seriously their commitment to get the everyday experience of riding Muni. The supervisors who have a record of legislating to improve transit scored well.

Tomorrow evening, you can join five of the top Muni-riding supervisors in a celebratory wrap-up with the SF Transit Riders Union. On the bill are Supervisors Jane Kim, John Avalos, Scott Wiener, Eric Mar, and Julie Christensen — all of whom logged at least 20 rides during the challenge.

The event will include awards for the supes, and not just for the most rides logged. Trophies will go out for “best interaction with a passenger,” “best picture,” and “crankiest tweeter,” among other categories.

When it comes to quantity of rides, however, Wiener dominated with a grand total of 106. I ran into him last week as I exited a 38-Geary bus with my wife at Geary and Fillmore Streets. (Thanks, all-door boarding.)

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