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Santa Clara County Still Plans to Widen Expressways, Despite Lower Traffic

Traffic congestion has worsened on Lawrence Expressway over the past decade, but has remained steady or lessened along Santa Clara County’s other urban expressways. Photo: Santa Clara County

Santa Clara County is still operating under plans that assume it can build its way out of traffic congestion by adding more lanes of traffic, plus new overpasses and underpasses, to the county’s 62 miles of expressways — dangerous arterial roadways that were “upgraded” decades ago with freeway-like ramps and overpasses. This is in stark contrast to the 21st-century approach taken by other cities and transit agencies in the region, which are planning for reduced traffic volumes by centering future urban growth around transit corridors and high-quality networks for walking and bicycling.

The county is still in the preliminary stages of its Expressways Plan 2040 — a long-term plan to “improve” the county’s system of eight 1960′s-era expressways, which “were designed to relieve local streets and supplement the freeway system.” The current expressways plan is a 2008 update of a 2003 planning study, which identified and prioritized among a long list of highway expansion projects that could meet “expressway needs.” Those “needs,” of course, consisted of reducing traffic delays at intersections for drivers.

“The Santa Clara County Expressway Master Plan has historically promoted additional auto capacity and grade separations (separating cars from local cross-traffic to increase their throughput), with limited accommodation for other types of travelers,” SPUR stated in its July report on strategies to improve transportation in the South Bay. “Future expressway master plans should aim for a multi-modal expressways system that is integrated with local efforts to grow sustainable, multi-modal communities.”

Santa Clara County maintains a network of eight expressways, and is coordinating plans to widen and extend Santa Teresa Boulevard and Hale Avenue to Gilroy. Image: Santa Clara County

“Going back to the 1960′s, the expressways were built with the intention of carrying automobiles,” said Santa Clara County Transportation Planner Dawn Cameron. “For over two decades, we’ve been working at what is basically retrofitting an expressway system that was built fifty years ago.”

The 2003 and 2008 plans did recommend new sidewalks, better crosswalks, improved signal timing, and striping changes, all of which would reduce hazards for walking and biking across or along the expressways. Long crossing distances and high speed traffic make the expressways inherently dangerous to walk or bicycle along, or even just to cross.

Twenty-six-year-old Daniel Campbell was killed in April while walking across Capitol Expressway at Seven Trees Boulevard in south San Jose, in what KTVU called a “hit and run accident.” In June, 51-year-old Richard Yanis was severely injured after being struck by a hit-and-run driver just two miles away, on Capitol Expressway at Silver Creek Road.

Despite this clear danger, projects to reduce hazards for people walking or bicycling remain a low funding priority for the expressways, comprising three percent of the estimated $2.5 to $2.8 billion in capital program funding needs identified by the 2008 plan.

In comparison, sound walls and landscaping would receive four percent of funds, and the remaining 93 percent of funds would be spent on increasing vehicle capacity.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion seems to be going away on its own, without billions of dollars in new construction.

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SFCTA: Geary BRT Will Take Hundreds of Cars Off the Street Every Hour

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Geary BRT is expected to reduce car traffic on the street in large numbers. This graph shows hourly car volumes projected in the westbound direction. Image: SFCTA

Once bus rapid transit is finally up and running, Geary Boulevard will carry thousands fewer cars every day in 2020, compared to a scenario where it doesn’t get built.

A rendering of the recommended plan for Geary BRT at 17th Avenue in the Richmond. Image: SFCTA

That’s according to a preliminary analysis [PDF] presented by the SF County Transportation Authority. The traffic counts vary, depending on which of several design alternatives are built, and some of the cars taken off Geary during rush hours would divert to parallel streets instead. Nonetheless, a Geary without bus rapid transit would have more cars than one with it.

Just how big is the difference? A traffic projection for the intersection of Geary and Divisadero Street shows about 2,200 westbound cars each hour — compared to about 1,000 fewer cars with the Geary BRT “3-Consolidated” option. However, the SFCTA doesn’t plan to build that option, as it would require the expensive undertaking of filling in the Fillmore underpass.

The SFCTA’s “preferred” option is the “hybrid” alternative, which only includes bus-only center lanes in the Richmond District. The other three quarters of the Geary corridor would get side-running bus lanes, many of which exist today.

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SFMTA Considers Restricting Cars on Crooked Lombard Street

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The “crookedest street in the world” block of Lombard Street is a world-famous tourist attraction, but the resulting car traffic causes congestion and safety problems and may lead the SFMTA to ban tourists from driving that stretch.

In an attempt to reduce pedestrian injuries and blocks-long car queues, the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday will consider several summer trials to allow only “local” cars on two blocks of Lombard. The restrictions would apply on eastbound Lombard, between Larkin and Leavenworth Streets, on Saturdays and Sundays from June 21 through July 13, and on Friday, July 4. The SFMTA will consider longer-term, even permanent, restrictions after monitoring the impacts.

According to an SFMTA report [PDF], the push for restricting tourists from driving on curvy Lombard came from the residents who live on it, as well as District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell. The effort has support from Russian Hill Neighbors and the Lombard Hill Improvement Association.

“In prior years, this portion of Lombard Street has experienced a number of vehicular collisions, pedestrian injuries, and residential property damage,” the report says, also noting “chronic congestion in the summer months” that reaches three blocks back to Van Ness Avenue, where queued drivers “can delay regional transit and vehicular traffic.” At the entrance to the crooked block, drivers also often block the Hyde Street cable car.

“Residents are also concerned about the mixing of large pedestrian crowds… with vehicular traffic,” the report notes, listing several crashes with railings, pedestrians, and fire hydrants on the block within the last few years. In one incident, a speeding driver reportedly crashed into a retaining wall, rolled the car over and fled on foot.

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Warriors Arena Moving to Mission Bay: A Win for Transit Accessibility?

Third and 16th Street, the new proposed site for the Warriors arena. Image: CBS-KPIX

The Warriors announced this week that the site for the basketball team’s proposed arena would be moved from Piers 30-32 on the Embarcadero to Mission Bay, quelling opposition from waterfront development foes. Whether or not the new site will work out for better or worse in terms of accessibility to regional transit, however, is still up for debate.

The Mission Bay site at 16th Street and Third Street is nearly two miles from the nearest BART Station, out of normal walking distance for most visitors. Instead, fans taking BART will be expected to transfer on Muni lines such as the T-Third on the Central Subway corridor, which will stop right out front, and possibly the 22-Fillmore, if extension plans for that line are constructed in time. The distance from BART may be a loss in the eyes of some transit advocates, but it does have its upsides, argues Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and a BART Board member.

Ultimately, Radulovich thinks the Warriors are best off staying at the existing Oakland Coliseum, which is close to BART and the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, making it a more transit-accessible location than either of the proposed San Francisco sites. But the Mission Bay site does leave open more opportunities for nearby transit access than the Embarcadero piers, given all the transportation plans in the works for Mission Bay.

At the proposed Pier 30-32 site, the 0.7-mile walk from Embarcadero BART “was far enough from BART to dissuade many folks from walking,” said Radulovich. He pointed out that once the Central Subway opens in 2019, riders reaching BART via rail would rely on the N-Judah (which Giants Ballpark visitors already cram on to) and the future E-Embarcadero historic streetcar line, as the T-Third will no longer run on the Embarcadero. “Historic streetcars are expensive to operate, low capacity, and have accessibility challenges,” said Radulovich. Additionally, he said, “It would have added to the capacity problems at Embarcadero Station, which is currently the most crowded BART station.”

Furthermore, arena parking would be especially problematic by the Embarcadero. “The auto traffic that would have been generated by the hundreds of planned arena parking spaces would crowd streets like The Embarcadero and Second,” said Radulovich, “where we’d like to see the city reduce the roadway width to improve sidewalks and create protected cycle paths.”

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The More Space SF Uses to Store Cars, the Less We’ll Have to House People

The Fifth and Mission parking garage. Can SF afford to continue devoting so much space to personal car storage? Photo: Sirgious/Flickr

What if San Francisco stopped adding car parking? The idea might sound a little odd to the average person, but when you look at where the city is heading, the really crazy scenario would be to keep on cramming more cars into our neighborhoods. Under current policies, SF is poised to build 92,000 spots for personal car storage by 2040, consuming an ungodly amount of space in our compact, 7-mile-by-7-mile city. At what point does it stop?

“If we were really serious about” curbing emissions and creating a livable city, “we would just cap it at zero right now,” said Jason Henderson, author of “Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco,” at a forum this week on San Francisco’s parking policies.

Henderson took the figure of 92,000 projected spaces from Plan Bay Area, which is supposed to start the region on a path toward smart growth, but still foresees a heavily car-dependent future in 25 years. The SF Transportation Plan, created by the SF County Transportation Authority, projects “total gridlock” within the same time frame unless the city makes serious changes to its car-centric land-use planning policies.

Although the move away from policies like minimum parking requirements, which mandate a certain number of cars per household in new buildings, is often framed as an ideological shift, Josh Switzky of the SF Planning Department says it’s simpler than that — there are physical limits to cramming cars into the city. “It’s about geometry,” he said. “We have to figure out ways to accommodate people more efficiently.”

In other words, there’s a finite amount of space in the city. Does it make any sense to squeeze thousands of additional cars into San Francisco when we’re still struggling to create enough space to house people? What are the full costs SF will absorb if it continues to build more infrastructure for cars?

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What Will Our Future Be Like If We Don’t Change How We Get Around?

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: ##http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR246.html## RAND##

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: RAND

How will Americans get around in the year 2030? A recent report from the RAND Corporation lays out two “plausible futures” developed though a “scenario analysis” and vetted by outside experts. While RAND takes a decidedly agnostic stance toward the implications of each scenario, the choice that emerges is still pretty stark.

In the first scenario, oil prices continue to climb until 2030 and greenhouse gas emissions are tightly regulated, as a result of the recognition of the harm caused by global warming. Zoning laws have been reformed to promote walkable urban and suburban communities. Transit use has increased substantially. Road pricing is widely used to limit congestion and generate revenue for transportation projects. Vehicle efficiency standards have been tightened, and most drivers use electric vehicles. This is the scenario researchers at RAND call, rather dourly, “No Free Lunch.”

In the second scenario, “Fueled and Freewheeling,” oil prices are relatively low in 2030 due to increasingly advanced extraction methods. Americans’ relationship to energy is much like it was in the 1980s and 1990s. We’ll own more vehicles overall and drive more miles. Suburbanization will continue. Roads are in bad shape because no revenues are raised to repair them. Congestion is worse. This scenario represents the future if little action is taken to counter the effects of global warming.

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Oakland Planning Director Cuts Off Latham Square Pilot, Lets Cars Back In

Photo: Laura McCamy

The crowning achievement for Oakland’s new planning and building director so far might be ensuring that cars are being driven through the Latham Square pilot plaza once again.

The Latham Square pilot was supposed to last for six months, but after just six weeks, the widely-lauded, one-block plaza at the foot of Telegraph Avenue is no longer car-free. “The pilot program of having the pedestrian-only area was cut short and one southbound lane was reopened to cars without any warning to pedestrians,” said Jonathan Bair, board president of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. The current configuration leaves some reclaimed pedestrian space in the middle of the street, but it is no longer connected to the sidewalk. Now the City Council will consider whether to keep it that way.

Rachel Flynn became Oakland's planning and building director in March. Photo: SF Business Times

Oakland Planning and Building Director Rachel Flynn told Streetsblog the car-free pilot had been given enough time, and that “there’s only so many people that are going to come into Oakland at this time.”

“If all you’re doing is blocking off the vehicles but not increasing the bikes and pedestrians, are you achieving your goal?” said Flynn. When asked for data on Latham Square’s use, she said, “We don’t know how to measure pedestrian and bicycle activity.”

“It’s not like we’ve seen hundreds of new bikes there, while we’ve seen hundreds of vehicles not going to this area.”

Flynn came to Oakland in March, having previously worked at a planning firm based in Abu Dhabi, following a stint as planning director of Richmond, Virginia, in 2011.

Oakland Planning staff will present a proposal to the City Council later this month for a permanent plaza design that includes two-way car traffic on Telegraph. The plan, which has not been released to the public yet, would expand the current sidewalk space from 2,500 to 9,000 square feet, but leave Latham Square bisected by lanes of motor traffic.

When it was proposed, the pilot plaza project was touted as an effort to emulate the success of on-street plaza projects implemented in New York City and San Francisco.

“The purpose of the plaza is to establish safer traffic patterns,” said Sarah Filley of Popuphood, which curates vending spots on Latham Square. “By opening up both of the traffic lanes, you’re not prototyping anything. You’ve just added a nicer median.”

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SFCTA Considers Removing Freeway Ramps at Balboa Park Station

Photo: Aaron Bialick

Balboa Park may be a major transit hub for BART and Muni, but it’s hard to tell as you approach the station, which is surrounded by dangerous roads swarming with car traffic moving to and from six nearby freeway ramps. The design of the area around the station — not to mention the 24,000 people who use it daily — feels like an afterthought to a freeway exit.

The SF County Transportation Authority is considering options to remove some of the “redundant” freeway ramps to reduce the number of points where pedestrians and cars mix, while also simplifying traffic patterns and making the pedestrian environment less hostile. The agency has embarked on a study to explore how certain ramp removals or re-alignments would affect the area, and fielded input at a community meeting this week.

“If you change the circulation patterns around the station, you might shake loose a solution that would allow us to improve the current conflicts that are happening at certain hot spots around the station,” said SFCTA planner Chester Fung. “There’s no silver bullet solution.”

Robert Muehlbauer, chair of the Balboa Park Community Advisory Committee, said he wants “to make sure that we don’t just design for cars, that we design for people, too.”

“Sometimes, the best design for cars excludes people, and sometimes the best design for people excludes cars. Bicycles have to fit in there, too.”

Geneva at Balboa Park Station, where riders are greeted with a northbound on-ramp and off-ramp (out of shot). Photo: Google Maps

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Without Traffic Calming, Sunset Blvd. Project a Missed Chance to Save Lives

Sunset Boulevard at Ortega Street. Photo: Google Street View

Six-lane Sunset Boulevard is one of the city’s most dangerous streets to cross, but that won’t change under plans being developed by the SF Public Utilities Commission.

Intersections along Sunset where pedestrian deaths and injuries occurred between 2005 and 2010. Image: SFDPH

The SFPUC’s Sunset Boulevard Greenway project is aimed at replacing the underground sewer system and re-landscaping the corridor’s grassy medians, which are half a block wide and separate the motorway from parallel streets, to better absorb stormwater. While traffic and safety improvements aren’t the focus on the project, digging up the street — a rare and major city investment — offers a chance for the SFMTA to make changes that could reduce pedestrian injuries, says Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe.

“The SFPUC’s current greening designs fail to address the conditions on this wide, fast street that make it so deadly,” said Stampe. “This is a real missed opportunity.”

Between 2005 and 2010, 28 people were hit by cars on Sunset – many suffering severe injuries, according to data from the Department of Public Health. Three victims were killed, including an 83-year-old man at Taraval Street in 2005, a 20-year-old woman at Vicente Street in 2008, and 81-year-old Yee-Sung Poon, run over in a crosswalk at Santiago Street in January, 2009.

Poon’s death was deemed nothing more than “a tragic accident” by police, according to the SF Chronicle.

But such tragedies can be prevented with smarter design. Stampe suggests removing two of Sunset’s six traffic lanes, which would help tame car traffic. The only change made to Sunset in recent years was the installation of a traffic signal at Quintara Street, which, unlike redesigning streets for slower speeds, doesn’t necessarily make streets safer.

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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.