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First Polk, Now Geary: Half-Measures Won’t Fix the Problems on SF Streets

The removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, and the revitalization that followed, was the result of political leadership, not half-measures. Photo: Sirgious/Flickr

For those who dream of better transportation options on San Francisco’s streets, which were engineered in the 20th century to maximize space for cars at the expense of safety and efficient transit, the lack of city leadership on two recent major re-design projects has been troubling.

The concessions offered by city planners and politicians will probably do little to appease the parking-obsessed merchant groups fighting upgrades on Polk Street and Geary Boulevard. But they will mean that Polk won’t feel safe enough for most San Franciscans to try biking there, and that Geary won’t provide the kind of world-class transit service that the city needs on its surface streets.

For city leaders like Supervisor David Chiu, finding a position somewhere between sound, evidence-based transportation policy and those who simply yell the loudest is appealing because it’s considered a “compromise.” To them, the point isn’t to make city streets as safe as they should be, or to make transit more appealing than driving — it’s to avoid upsetting anyone too much.

That’s how Chuck Nevius described the Polk situation in his SF Chronicle column last week. “Both sides get some of what they want and think the other camp is getting too much,” he wrote:

The ongoing controversy over bike traffic along Polk Street will probably never be solved to the satisfaction of everyone. But there are signs of progress.

Polk is a primary north-south route to and from the Marina for cyclists, has a relatively gentle slope and isn’t as clogged with high-speed traffic as nearby Van Ness. Bicyclists wanted two separated lanes on both sides of the street, but merchants complained that the plan would wipe out too much parking and kill business.

The problem with framing the current Polk proposal — which includes one stretch of protected bike lane and many more blocks that don’t fundamentally alter the dangerous, car-centric status quo — as the “middle ground” is that the group opposing safety improvements has staked out a position so opposed to change that the plan is far from the people-friendly, bike-friendly street the SFMTA originally set out to create.

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Tonight: Tell the SFMTA What You Think About Its Proposal for a Safer Polk

Thanks to Lisa Ratner for shooting this video on Polk last Friday.

This evening’s open house community meeting is your chance to tell the SFMTA what you think of its proposal for Polk Street, which, according to Supervisor David Chiu and SFMTA planners, will make the street safe enough for a broad range of San Franciscans to bike on.

The plan for Polk, between Union and California Streets.

As we’ve reported, the plan includes a partial protected bike lane in the southbound direction. For nine blocks, between California and Union Street, the SFMTA’s proposal includes only minimal improvements for bicycle safety – certainly not enough to invite mothers to ride with children — in an effort to preserve car parking for merchants, one of whom tried try to stop Streetsblog from filming the street after a bike crash.

Here’s a refresher on the full plan [PDF], which encompasses 20 blocks of Polk, between McAllister and Union Streets.

The 11-block southern segment between McAllister and California will include a raised, protected bike lane with bike traffic signals. The northbound side of that segment will include a green, buffered bike lane that, depending on the block, will run either curbside (without parking) or next to the parking lane.

On the nine-block segment between California and Union, only a southbound, green-painted bike lane will be added, placed between parked cars and moving cars. Most of the day, the northbound direction won’t include a bike lane at all — riders will still be forced to mix with motor vehicles, much like you see in the video above. Curbside parking will be banned on that side of the street to make room for bikes during morning commute hours, but at other times, the only provision for cycling will be green-backed sharrows in the traffic lane.

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SFMTA, Chiu Stand By Unprotected Bike Lane Proposal for Polk Street

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Updated 5:16 p.m. with corrections on the number of blocks.

The SFMTA is moving forward with a plan for Polk Street with a protected bike lane only in one direction of an 11-block stretch. SFMTA planners and Supervisor David Chiu maintain that the plan is sufficient to make the street safe enough to invite a broad range of San Franciscans to bike, though the design has been guided less by safety considerations than the desire to appease merchants who oppose the removal of any car parking.

On nine blocks of middle Polk, between Union and California Streets, the SFMTA's plan includes a bike lane only southbound. On the nortbhound side, curbside parking will be prohibited to make more room for bikes during morning commute hours only. Image: SFMTA

Under the “preferred” plan presented [PDF] to media and stakeholders today, nine of the 20 blocks in the project (between Union and California Streets) will have a conventional, green-colored bike lane in the southbound direction only, placed between parked cars and moving cars. Northbound, curbside parking will be banned to make room for bikes during morning commute hours only. At other times, the only provision for cycling will be green-backed sharrows in the traffic lane.

In the southbound direction from California to McAllister Street, Polk will have a raised, protected bike lane. The northbound direction will have a buffered, green bike lane that, depending on the block, will run either curbside (without parking) or next to the parking lane.

Altogether, the plan would remove an estimated 30 percent of parking on Polk, or 8 percent of parking within a block of the street. On the stretch of middle Polk between Union and California, where opposition to parking removal was strongest, those numbers are 10 percent and 5 percent. Many of the parking spaces would be removed for sidewalk bulb-outs and other non-bike lane improvements, planners said.

When Chiu was asked whether he thinks the plan would make Polk bike-friendly enough for a mother to feel safe riding with a child — a vision which he has promoted to pro-bike crowds, but hasn’t supported when it’s politically risky — he said yes.

“The solutions that the MTA is proposing really moves to the next level on both of these sections for the biking experience, whether it be for young people all the way to seniors,” Chiu said. “I do think that this moves forward the biking vision for the city.”

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SF Still Waiting for David Chiu to Stand Up for Protected Bike Lanes on Polk

In January 2011, David Chiu rode on Polk Street and said the expansion of protected bikeways was his top transportation priority. Photo: Bryan Goebel

Supervisor David Chiu has paid more lip service to making San Francisco a bike-friendly city than any other politician in recent years. Yet even as the SFMTA backs away from protected bike lanes on Polk Street — which not only lies partially in Chiu’s District 3, but also serves as his own bike commute route to City Hall — San Franciscans have yet to see the Board of Supervisors president stand behind the vision he’s touted.

Chiu has taken just about every opportunity to portray himself as City Hall’s champion for bike-friendly streets. During his short stint as acting mayor in January 2011, he invited the press and bike advocates to join him on a ride down Polk to City Hall, where he told Streetsblog that his top transportation priority “is ensuring that we’re expanding our bike network, starting with Market Street, but through all of the major thoroughfares in San Francisco, creating what I think of as bike thoroughfares that we can use to easily get folks around the city.”

But when it comes to the actual decisions that shape the city’s streets, Chiu hasn’t backed up his rhetoric with action. As soon as the Polk Street redesign hit a political rough patch, drawing fire from merchants with a cars-first mentality, Chiu had no bold words about making SF more bike-friendly. Instead of setting the record straight when merchants spread misinformation about the project and throwing his support behind a real-life protected bike lane proposal, Chiu said he had not taken a position.

So perhaps it’s fitting that while the SFMTA holds two high-profile public meetings about the Polk Street project, Chiu is absent, on a study trip to Israel. His office has yet to respond to Streetsblog’s request to weigh in on the current state of the Polk Street project, and the news that protected bike lanes are no longer under consideration for most of the corridor.

At a November forum about how San Francisco can follow in the footsteps of Copenhagen, Chiu himself provided an apt description of the political state of bike policy in the city: “I think we have a little bit of a politically correct culture at this moment of a lot of elected officials who say the right things when it comes to our commitment towards biking, but I don’t think we’re pushing the edge.”

For Chiu to pass his own litmus test, he’ll have to show some courage at times like this — when the future of a major street is actually at stake — not just pro-bike rallies. This is the only time when championing safer streets really counts.

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Fearmongering Overwhelms Facts at Meeting About Livable Polk Street

A mob mentality ruled at a neighborhood meeting last night on safety improvements for Polk Street, where attendees booed any suggestion that removing car parking to make room for pedestrian and bicycle amenities might be worthwhile.

A few hundred attendees packed the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association meeting last night, where any suggestion to change the dangerous status quo was roundly booed. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Fact-based discussion was in short supply at the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association meeting. Instead, hyperbole and misinformation were the order of the day, spread by “Save Polk Street” flyers erroneously claiming that the SF Municipal Transportation Agency plans to remove all parking along a 20-block stretch of Polk.

While the SFMTA has engaged residents in a community-based planning process for Polk from the outset, project supporters were scarce last night. D3 Supervisor David Chiu, who usually talks a good game on street safety, has not taken a position on the project.

Dan Kowalski, who owns the furniture store Flipp, said it was “natural” for the reaction from merchants to go from “alarm to absolute panic” after seeing the SFMTA’s proposals to add protected bike lanes and more public space while removing, at the most, roughly half of Polk’s on-street parking, which makes up just 7 percent of the parking supply within a one-block range of the corridor.

Kowalski and other speakers dismissed evidence that the same kinds of street improvements proposed for Polk have improved safety and boosted business on other streets, even when parking is removed.

Merchants on Stockton Street in Chinatown have lauded the temporary bans on parking during the Lunar New Year. Parklets, bike lanes, Sunday Streets, and other streetscape upgrades that increase foot traffic are in high demand citywide. The sky hasn’t fallen in New York, either, where recent data shows that after a protected bike lane was installed on Ninth Avenue, local retail sales increased 49 percent, compared to a 3 percent increase throughout Manhattan. At the north end of Union Square, which saw a major expansion of pedestrian space, commercial vacancies have dropped 49 percent, at the same time that they have risen 5 percent borough-wide.

“We’ve looked at the statistics that people have presented to us, and they aren’t real. They’re proposing that our business will actually increase,” said Kowalski, eliciting laughter from the audience. “On paper, it might. But what we’ve seen in the real world, what we’ve seen in other cities, when they’ve tried some similar things, is that they’ve had some very negative reactions.”

To make his case, Kowalski claimed that “some of the same projects” have been tried and removed in Brooklyn and San Diego. A little research, however, shows that those cases had nothing to do with streetscape improvements on a business corridor.

In Brooklyn, the only case of a bike lane being removed was on a residential stretch of Bedford Avenue, where politically-influential leaders from the Hasidic community protested the scanty clothing of female riders. In San Diego, green paint on a suburban road was scrubbed off a bike lane merging zone because it failed to cause speeding drivers to yield to riders.

But Kowalski’s claims went unchallenged, and no one mentioned the evidence that merchants tend to wildly overestimate, like the survey on Columbus Avenue which found that just 14 percent of people arrived by car, and those people tended to spend less than people who arrived by other means.

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Bikeway on Mission Street Would Cost More Than One on Market

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Constructing raised, protected bike lanes on downtown Mission Street would cost more than building them on Market, according to SF Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin.

A possible vision for Market Street with a raised, protected bikeway.

The Mission bikeway proposal, which recently surfaced as an option to be studied in the repeatedly-delayed Better Market Street project, would entail abandoning long-sought bike safety improvements on Market, which is where bicycle riders naturally tend to travel. The Department of Public Works and the SFMTA have said the Mission option, which would also re-route Muni’s 14-Mission buses on to Market, would be simpler to engineer, allow the 14 to use Market’s wider bus lanes, and could include a “green wave” for bikes on Mission.

The proposal for protected bike lanes on Mission instead of Market. Images: Better Market Street

But even factoring in the cost of reconstructing Market Street’s granite curbs to build raised bike lanes, the Mission option is projected to be more expensive, Reiskin told the SF County Transportation Authority Board (comprised of the Board of Supervisors) at a hearing yesterday. Though the cost estimates for each option aren’t immediately available, Reiskin said that even if protected bikeways weren’t included at all, construction costs on Market Street would only be cut by an estimated 10 percent. The total cost of the project is estimated to be as high as $450 million, up from the $250 million figure provided last year.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who, along with Supervisor John Avalos, called for hearings to scrutinize the Mission bikeway proposal and project delays, noted that “ten percent is not a dramatic increase,” and that debates about whether or not to build a protected bikeway on Market should focus on policy outcomes, not cost.

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Chinatown Businesses Thrive During a Week Without Car Parking

What would happen if, one day, the city decided to make better use of the car parking on a commercial corridor like Stockton Street in Chinatown?

“What about the businesses?” opponents might exclaim. “Where would their customers park?”

The myth of the urban driving shoppers was debunked again over the past week or so, when community leaders in Chinatown repurposed parking lanes on the most crowded blocks of Stockton to make more room for merchants and shoppers during the busy Lunar New Year season. If the still-overcrowded sidewalks were any indication, the parking didn’t seem to be missed.

“If anything, we’ve benefited from it,” said Brian Kan of Pacific Seafood Trading Company, who was selling groceries from a stand off the curb like many other merchants. “We think it’s brought us a lot of business, actually, instead of losing business. And it’s a great way for us to interact with the people walking around, too.”

While giving public parking spaces to private businesses may not necessarily achieve the same goals sought by public space expansions like parklets and plazas, the experiment highlighted the competing demands for street space in the densest neighborhood west of the Mississippi. In Chinatown, a disproportionate amount of real estate is devoted to moving and storing cars despite having the city’s lowest car ownership rate of 17 percent. According to a Department of Public Works press release, a study by the SFMTA estimated the corridor sees about 2,000 pedestrians per hour — and that’s on an average day.

The temporary transfer of space was a coordinated effort between Chinatown neighborhood and merchant associations, the mayor’s office, and a slew of city departments “to enhance and improve the experience in Chinatown during this peak holiday time,” said D3 Supervisor David Chiu in a statement. “Chinese New Year is celebrated by thousands and we want to provide an environment that supports the small business community and improves pedestrian flow along Stockton and connecting streets. We are creating a public space that meets the growing needs of this community and beyond.”

Cindy Wu of the Chinatown Community Development Center said that drawing shoppers to linger on already congested sidewalks didn’t necessarily help the crowding problem, but she believes the street needs some changes. She wants to explore how to allocate more space on Stockton for merchants and pedestrians in a way that is most beneficial to the neighborhood.

“There are so many competing uses of the street, and parking plays a role in that,” said Wu, “but we need to figure out, for however many feet from storefront to storefront — Stockton Street is wide — what is the use that benefits the most people at one time, or what is the right balance of use?”

See more photos after the break.

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Tepid Response from SFMTA, Mayor on Car-Free Market Resolution

Bicyclists still have to contend with a mess of private auto traffic on Market Street, especially below 5th Street. Photo: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography

In a unanimous vote, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this week passed Supervisor and mayoral candidate David Chiu’s resolution calling on the SFMTA to initiate more pilot projects on Market Street to further restrict private auto traffic and make it car-free on a trial basis in advance of the 2015 redesign. The 11 votes were a strong message to the SFMTA that it needs to take more immediate steps to calm private auto traffic on parts of Market Street that are a mess for Muni, and a danger to bicyclists and pedestrians.

The vote comes at a time when a growing of number electeds and mayoral candidates are backing a car-free Market Street. Asked to respond to the passage of the resolution, SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said the agency “is committed to making Market Street more efficient for Muni, safer for pedestrians and even more user-friendly for cyclists.”

“We are currently exploring pilots that can be used to test concepts down the road,” he said. Those options include deploying a traffic control officer to New Montgomery to “help coordinate the flow of pedestrians and vehicles” and installing a green right-turn arrow signal at New Montgomery on eastbound Market Street “which alternate when cars and pedestrians have the right of way.”

Drivers turning left onto Market from Montgomery (which turns into New Montgomery) are an ongoing problem, because they use 2nd as a cut-through to the Bay Bridge, creating a backup on Market that sometimes delays Muni all the way up to 6th Street.

Yesterday, a number of parking control officers (PCOs) had already been deployed to Market Street, including the congested 3rd/Kearny/Geary and New Montgomery intersections. At New Montgomery, some drivers had trouble complying with the PCO’s orders. I witnessed an angry SUV driver hop out of his vehicle in the middle of the intersection, and confront the PCO in a threatening manner. He backed down after an SFPD unit pulled up, but then nearly ran over a cop, and was ordered to pull over. I wasn’t able to witness the conclusion.

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Bike Coalition Endorses John Avalos for Mayor Followed by Chiu, Lee

John Avalos Rides SF from John Avalos on Vimeo.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition announced today that it is endorsing John Avalos as its number one pick for mayor, followed by David Chiu and Ed Lee. Avalos, the District 11 supervisor, has been especially aggressive about courting the bicycle vote, showing up at bike events, and spreading the word about his campaign in bike shops.

Chiu, the car-free District 3 supervisor who is board president, has also been reaching out to bicyclists, and the SFBC said the ranked-choice endorsements reflect the three candidates “who are mostly actively supporting a better city through bicycling.”

In an email sent out to its members, the SFBC outlines why it’s supporting each candidate:

Our #1 mayoral endorsement is John Avalos. In his role as the District 11 representative of the SF Board of Supervisors, Avalos has been a strong voice for better bicycling and livable streets. He has worked with the SF Bicycle Coalition to advance bike improvements, including essential funding for those projects. Avalos, who is a regular bike rider, has also been a steady supporter of Sunday Streets, Bike to School Day, our Connecting the City vision, and transit and public realm improvements. Avalos is currently drafting legislation to increase bicycle access to commercial buildings. Find out more about John Avalos, including his bike video, here.

Our #2 mayoral endorsement is David Chiu. Chiu serves as the President of the SF Board of Supervisors and represents District 3. He doesn’t own a car and has helped to raise the visibility of biking by executing his Board duties by bike, by transit, and on foot. He has worked with the SF Bicycle Coalition to advance bike improvements, including Market Street trials for better biking, walking, and transit, as well as supporting Sunday Streets and Connecting the City. Chiu sponsored an important policy statement to reach 20% of trips in SF by bicycle by 2020. Find out more about David Chiu here.

Our #3 mayoral endorsement is Ed Lee. Lee has been a vocal supporter of the SF Bicycle Coalition’s goals since his appointment to Mayor in January. His support for better bicycling, especially our Connecting the City initiative, has moved our vision substantially toward action by prioritizing these projects among City staff and helping to find funding. Lee has been a strong supporter of Sunday Streets and has leveraged his many years of experience in city government to prioritize and expedite bike-positive work on the streets. Find out more about Ed Lee here.

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Growing Momentum for a Car-Free Market Street Ahead of 2015 Repaving

An unprecedented planning effort is currently underway to redesign Market Street, and transform it into a grand car-free thoroughfare in 2015, when it’s scheduled to be repaved. But why should we have to wait that long for a car-free Market Street? There is a growing momentum to do more aggressive trials that would inform the Better Market Street planning process, and divert more private automobiles off Market to improve conditions for people who ride transit, walk or bike.

“I do think that now is the time to accelerate our efforts to improve Market Street,” said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu.

The District 3 supervisor and mayoral candidate introduced a resolution [pdf] yesterday that calls on the SFMTA to implement more “near-term pilot projects, including increased private automobile diversions, to speed up transit along Market Street while improving the safety and comfort of people walking and biking, and supporting the local commercial and cultural function of the street.”

His comments at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting followed a q-and-a session with Mayor Ed Lee, who was asked by Chiu if he supports more trials to improve Market, and specifically what “on the ground pilot programs should happen soon while the long-term planning process goes on.”

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