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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.

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Car Ownership May Be Down in the U.S., But It’s Soaring Globally

The number of cars per person more than doubled in China in just four years. This BMW ad is designed for the booming Chinese market. Photo: Ads of China

Two weeks ago, transportation researcher Michael Sivak brought us the news that there are fewer cars per person in the U.S. now than there were a few years ago – and that the number isn’t expected to rise again.

But globally, the trend is in the opposite direction, and it’s alarming. The world is producing more cars than ever. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that automobile production hit a new high in 2012 — and 2013 is expected to surpass that record. “According to London-based IHS Automotive, passenger-car production rose from 62.6 million in 2011 to 66.7 million in 2012, and it may reach 68.3 million in 2013,” write Worldwatch’s Michael Renner and Maaz Gardeziin. “When cars are combined with light trucks, total light vehicle production rose from 76.9 million in 2011 to 81.5 million in 2012 and is projected to total 83.3 million in 2013.”

The troubling new reality is that while the United States and other developed countries are beginning to lay off the gas, other countries are accelerating wildly. Though the U.S. still has by far the largest fleet of passenger cars, auto sales in China overtook the U.S. in 2011. In 2010, the number of cars in the world hit one billion.

Taken together, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRICs") buy more cars that the United States. Image: The Economist

The number of cars per person in the U.S. has been declining since 2006. But in other countries, the trend is ever upward. According to World Bank data, there were 18 passenger cars per 1,000 Chinese in 2006 and 44 cars per 1,000 in 2010. The Arab world and Eastern Europe have seen tremendous growth in private car ownership over the same period – from 87 to 123 cars per thousand people in Jordan, 18 to 36 in Syria, 230 to 345 in Bulgaria, 351 to 451 in Poland. In the meantime, U.S. rates declined from 453 to 423 per thousand. France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also saw declines.

In 2011, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the number of cars worldwide would reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with the growth expected to be almost entirely in the developing world. At an ITF meeting, a Chinese professor dismissed the idea of bicycles as an alternative means of transportation, despite the fact that China is famous for its bicycle rush hour. The professor said, apparently without irony, that bicycle use in Beijing is declining “due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic.”

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DPW Looks to Add Some Green to Car-Clogged Central Irving Street

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Irving Street at 20th Avenue. Photos: Aaron Bialick

Most of the space on the busy commercial stretch of central Irving Street in the Sunset serves as a clogged parking lot, with rampant double parking and drivers circling the easternmost block to work around 19th Avenue’s left-turn bans. But while the car traffic and angled parking spots that eat up public space may not disappear any time soon, the Department of Public Works held a recent public meeting to field input on how to make the street more livable with new trees, re-paving, a median with greenery, and a few corner bulb-outs.

Irving, between 19th and 27th Avenues, is slated to get the improvements using $3 million from the Prop B street improvement bond.  However, planners said it likely won’t be enough for any significant sidewalk expansions.

Sam Kaleh, owner of Lucca Foods at Irving and 20th Avenue, said crossing the street at the corner can be dangerous, and hopes to see crosswalks made more visible. He’s considering applying for a parklet in front of his store to provide more space for people than the narrow sidewalk currently provides, though he’d prefer a bulb-out because he’s concerned a parklet would invite homeless people to sit in it. (That’s a concern that prevails among some merchants and residents, even though it generally hasn’t been a real problem at the 38 parklets installed around the city.) “I’d like to see people be safe and happy about shopping on the street,” said Kaleh.

Irving at 19th Avenue.

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Details on 2nd Street Protected Bike Lanes, Ped Upgrades Come Into Focus

A rendering of Second Street at South Park. Images: DPW

The plan for raised, parking-protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements on Second Street is shaping up after the Department of Public Works presented new details [PDF] last week.

When completed in September 2016, the project is expected to transform Second into a far safer corridor with protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks, pedestrian bulb-outs, more visible crosswalks, and new greenery.

In response to calls for wider sidewalks, planners added a major improvement in the latest iteration of the plan. Originally, city staff said only one of the narrow sidewalks on the stretch of Second between Harrison and Townsend Streets could be widened due to budget constraints. But because of a push from residents who emphasized the importance of taking the opportunity to widen sidewalks on both sides to 15 feet, the project will now include that change, said Cristina Olea, DPW’s project manager. Utility poles will remain in place until the city funds a separate project to move the overhead wires underground.

Despite surveys showing broad support for the proposed improvements, as well as praise for DPW’s extensive community outreach from residents and city officials, discussion at the latest meeting was hijacked by a contingent of residents from a building at 355 Bryant Street who said they were recently caught off guard by the project.

Those residents mostly voiced fears about traffic congestion and problems with loading that they claimed would result from the project. When one man argued that the proposed safety improvements couldn’t be made because car commuters need all four existing traffic lanes to get to and from the Bay Bridge, Olea said the improvements should discourage those drivers from using Second as an alternative to the main motor routes like First and Third Streets.

“Our overall vision is to de-emphasize Second Street as a route to the freeway,” said Olea. “It’s not an arterial.”

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Livable City: Ticket Fee a Smart Way to Fund Transit to Warriors Arena

A rendering of the proposed Warriors basketball arena on the Embarcadero. Image: Golden State Warriors

Transporting folks to and from a new Warriors arena, condo, and hotel development planned for Piers 30-32 along the Embarcadero will require smart planning and the money to fund improvements for transit, walking, and biking to avoid clogging the waterfront with cars.

But Muni typically gets shorted when it beefs up transit service to bring fans to major sports and music events around the city, says Supervisor Scott Wiener, who yesterday proposed adding a $1 to $3 transit surcharge to tickets for such events. Wiener asked the City Controller’s Office to study the impacts of such a fee, and he says preliminary estimates indicate it could bring in anywhere from $3 million to $22 million per year for Muni, depending on the size of the fee and which venues pay it.

“Muni doesn’t have enough light rail vehicles, its vehicles frequently break down, and service has degraded,” Wiener said in a statement. “With a growing population and a possible new sports/concert arena at Piers 30-32, now is the time to ensure that Muni can meet not only today’s transit needs, but also the transit needs of the future.”

“Currently, the Muni underground is overwhelmed whenever there’s a Giants game. With the addition of the new arena, the strain on Muni service will be even more severe.”

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and president of the BART Board of Directors, said the proposal “would certainly help Muni run the extra service,” for which the agency often pays transit operators overtime.

Radulovich pointed out that the surcharge wouldn’t necessarily come out of fans’ pockets, since venue managers would likely lower their ticket prices to match the going rate. “If they could charge two bucks extra on a ticket already, they’d be doing it,” he said. “They price them to fill the seats.”

An even better proposal, Radulovich noted, would be for event tickets to include a free Muni ride to encourage attendees to take transit instead of drive.

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Wider Highways? Bay Area’s Smart Growth Plan Has Some Glaring Mistakes

Population growth in the Bay Area doesn’t have to mean more traffic and more suburban sprawl, if it’s planned for in a sustainable way. To that end, regional planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently released a draft of Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated blueprint for focusing housing growth over the next 25 years near transit hubs, where new residents are less likely to need a car to get around.

A high-occupancy toll lane on Highway 680. Photo: Laura Oda, Bay Area News Group

Sustainable planning advocates say the plan is mostly headed in the right direction, but it still falls short in some areas. One glaring mistake is that the plan calls for spending billions to widen highways to create high-occupancy toll lanes — carpool lanes that single-occupancy drivers can pay to use. Those lanes should instead be created by converting existing highway lanes, says TransForm, an Oakland-based group that advocates for better walking, biking, and transit policies on a regional and state level.

“MTC’s plan follows a 1970s-era Caltrans practice that limits Express Lanes to new construction only, without even studying the option of optimizing existing lanes,” wrote TransForm Deputy Director Jeff Hobson in a blog post. “This kind of outdated thinking is hardly the best approach to solving 21st century transportation problems – and would completely exclude some of the most congested stretches of highway from the plan.”

Because most of the revenue from HOT lanes will be soaked up to pay for the highway widenings, instead of just charging single-occupancy drivers to alleviate congestion in existing lanes, SPUR has pointed out that they will generate little money for transit improvements. Meanwhile, the new lanes will induce more demand for driving and do nothing to reduce existing congestion.

Shown in pink: Priority development areas, where housing growth will be focused over the next 25 years under Plan Bay Area. Image: MTC

“MTC’s plan continues the cycle of ‘build more lanes, attract more drivers’ by creating new options for solo drivers, but no new transportation choices,” wrote Hobson. “Over the long term, this strategy is virtually guaranteed to land us back at square one: gridlock on heavily-traveled highways.”

The MTC’s draft plan also fails to include enough new transit-oriented affordable housing to reduce the projected costs of housing and transportation, TransForm says. While the MTC set a goal of reducing those costs from an estimated 66 percent of household income for low-income families region-wide to 56 percent, the agency actually projects those costs to increase to 73 percent of household income. That means living in a walkable community would be less affordable than it already is.

“Without stronger policies in place to prevent that from happening, folks will end up living farther and farther away from places like San Francisco, and we will then encroach on our precious farmland and open space that we’re so fortunate to have in the Bay Area,” TransForm Community Planner Joél Ramos told MTC commissioners at a recent public meeting.

The MTC does expect the plan to meet its goals in six areas, including providing enough housing for all of the Bay Area’s projected new residents without any expansion of sprawl; exceeding the state-mandated 15 percent reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions (the projected improvement is 18 percent); and reducing residents’ exposure to dangerous fine particulate pollution, which largely comes from trucks, by 71 percent. MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger also said that the spending plan for transit improvements focuses primarily on fixing existing systems first before embarking on expansions.

Yet Plan Bay Area falls short in addressing other major problems [PDF], with some even expected to get worse:

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Livable City: With Smarter Land Use, SFCTA Could Avert “Total Gridlock”

San Francisco’s South of Market district will be crippled by gridlock within a generation unless the city makes major improvements to its transit, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure and implements policies that entice commuters to travel by means other than driving.

That’s according to planners from the SF County Transportation Authority who aim to avert such a scenario by implementing a long-range transportation blueprint over the next 25 years [PDF]. But the blueprint misses some major opportunities to pursue transit-oriented growth, say advocates. In effect, they argue, planners are making it much harder to avoid a traffic-choked future than it has to be.

To avert “total gridlock” in SoMa, planners estimate that the anticipated increase in driving brought on by population and job growth must be curbed by about 20 percent, with another 20 percent reduction needed to have “a livable, functional, flowing system, that is meeting the needs of bicyclists and transit,” said Tilly Chang, the SFCTA’s deputy director for planning. “We’re talking about quite a big reduction in travel demand by car in the peak period in order to meet these basic functional network goals.”

The projected traffic tsunami comes from an anticipated 101,000 new households and 191,000 new workers between now and 2040, mainly in downtown and along the city’s eastern waterfront, according to the SFCTA. Under the status quo, that growth is expected to generate approximately 412,000 daily car trips, which is about how many are currently made across Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge combined. Chang noted that 80 percent of downtown driving commuters are San Franciscans, while 50 percent of downtown transit commuters come from within the city. “We have a lot of work to do,” she said.

The forecast even accounts for major transit projects currently underway, like Bus Rapid Transit routes on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard, the Central Subway, the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project, and the Transbay Center, as well as planned biking and walking improvements, Chang said.

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