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Human Life Wins: Masonic Ave Redesign Survives Tree Removal Appeal

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The Masonic Avenue safety overhaul will move forward after the SF Board of Appeals upheld tree removal permits protested by a handful of neighbors at a hearing yesterday.

Ariane Eroy. Image: SFGovTV

Ariane Eroy. Image: SFGovTV

The project calls for the removal of 49 trees. Even though each tree that will be removed will be replaced with three new trees, neighbors filed an appeal to preserve all the mature trees.

“When one considers that trees are living members of our communities, one must recognize that they also have rights,” said appellant Ariane Eroy. “They cannot merely be removed without damaging us as a community.”

The Masonic project was initiated in 2010 after a “grassroots campaign from residents,” noted Tim Hickey, president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association. “It is unfortunate that trees have to be removed, however we are looking forward to the greater number of trees, and we are more concerned about the safety of the street overall.”

Elroy, who complained that she wasn’t made aware of the tree removals, said she didn’t live in the neighborhood when the community outreach meetings were held.

While she passionately defended trees, much of Elroy’s testimony consisted of downplaying the danger on Masonic that threatens human life, even though her sister was killed by a driver who ran a red light. “There have been some injuries and some fatalities” on Masonic, she said, but “thousands of cars move safely and smoothly on a daily basis.”

The city has seen “a rise in impetuous, if not reckless, driving,” Elroy admitted, then said “it’s naive to think that the Masonic Avenue Streetscape Project will improve safety.”

“To claim that the city could effectively reduce one of its busiest throughfares of six lanes to two and diminish the rate of fatalities on this strip of Masonic seems fantastical.” (The lanes will be reduced from six to four, and raised protected bike lanes and a tree-lined median will be added.)

Nine trees on a concrete triangle at Masonic and Geary Street will be replaced with a plaza with many more trees. Image: DPW

The appellants focused on nine trees that will be removed to create a plaza, where many more new trees will be planted, at the southwest corner of Masonic and Geary Street. Elroy said that filling in the roadway, which has a right-turn traffic lane and two parking lanes that separate the sidewalk from the existing concrete triangle, will somehow lead to an “exponential increase” in injuries.

Among Elroy’s other talking points: Police say there are “a hundred hit-and-run accidents on a daily basis now,” and “buses, bus routes, and bus stops are some of the most dangerous vehicles and sites on our public thoroughfares.”

Members of the Appeals board did ask follow-up questions after some of these claims, but none seemed to seriously consider upholding the appeal.

Department of Public Works landscape architect John Dennis told the board that moving the redesign forward is key to “the saving of human life as the highest priority.”

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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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In 1954, Turning Market Street Into a Parking Lot Seemed Like a Good Idea

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How some envisioned a “better Market Street” in 1954. Image via SFMTA

In an alternate universe, the streetcar tracks that line the center of Market Street would have become car parking.

That was an actual proposal in 1954, put forward by Supervisor Marvin Lewis. The plan [PDF] was recently dug up by SFMTA staff from the agency’s archives. Today it’s an appalling idea, but back then it was typical. The conventional wisdom among city planners and elected officials held that the answer to traffic congestion in downtown SF was to tear it apart with freeways and parking spaces.

While the plan to turn Market into a parking lot was never realized, the pursuit of abundant parking left its mark on downtown SF. The dense urban core is dotted with massive parking garages, including the country’s first underground parking structure, under Union Square. It could have been worse — the Fifth and Mission Garage, for example, was envisioned to be five blocks long, with exterior car ramps.

San Francisco, perhaps more than any other U.S city, successfully resisted many of those would-be disasters. The city’s identity would be very different today if SF had torn up its neighborhoods and iconic streets, like Market, to create parking lots.

While SF fought off the worst impulses of 1950s-era thinking, the plan for Market Street is a reminder that for all the “bullets we’ve dodged,” as one SF planner put it, players at City Hall were indeed able to dramatically reshape the city around the car.

Our streets are shaped by deliberate public policy decisions, and the way they are currently designed is not the natural order of things. Every curbside parking spot that opponents of change cling to so fiercely today was at one point bestowed by policy makers, who decided to reallocate street space from general public use to private car owners.

As we revisit streets like Market in 2015, let’s remember: It’s an era for new possibilities.

Ah, iconic Market Street. Image via SFMTA

Ah, iconic Market Street. Image via SFMTA

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If Trees on Van Ness Matter So Much, Good Thing They’ll Double With BRT

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Image: SFMTA

After the construction of bus rapid transit, Van Ness Avenue will have more than twice the number of trees it does today. But the SF Chronicle and local broadcast news reporters didn’t let that get in the way of blowing a story about tree removal notices completely out of proportion.

Reports from the Chronicle, which kicked off the media fracas yesterday, as well as ABC, KTVU, and NBC featured misleading headlines like, “San Francisco officials to cut down nearly 200 trees.” The whole manufactured controversy, which the Chron doubled down on today, depends on glossing over the fact that the BRT project involves planting about 400 new trees to replace the 193 trees set for removal.

Media outlets would have their audiences believe “dozens” protested the dastardly replacement of trees as part of the BRT project, but none provided an actual count of the speakers at the Department of Public Works hearing on permits to remove the trees. So here it is: There were 26 speakers; 16 against, five in support, and five who were neutral but expressed concerns about the importance of urban trees. Those numbers are from Bob Masys, a senior engineer for the SF County Transportation Authority (not the SFMTA, as the Chronicle reported).

The last-minute complaints don’t seem to pose a serious threat to the construction of Van Ness BRT. DPW’s approval of tree removal permits is a late and minor step for the project, which has already been severely delayed. After launch was originally scheduled for 2012, it’s now on track for 2019.

None of the sensationalist coverage bothered to consult transit advocates for the story.

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Upper Market Street Gets First Phase of Safety Upgrades

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The SFMTA has completed its first wave of safety upgrades on Upper Market Street. The changes include painted sidewalk extensions (a.k.a. “safety zones”), high-visibility crosswalks, and signs prohibiting drivers from turning right at red lights.

SFMTA officials and Supervisor Scott Wiener held a press conference today to mark the completion of the improvements between Octavia Boulevard and Castro Street.

The 10 newly-installed safety zones narrow the roadway and reduce crossing distances, which should help calm motor traffic at the three Market intersections where they were installed: 16th/Noe, 15th/Sanchez, and 14th/Church Streets.

Most of Upper Market’s intersections converge with two other streets. The legacy of cars-first design at these complex six-point intersections is a disaster for public safety. Pedestrians must traverse long stretches of pavement in crosswalks regularly blocked by drivers, while drivers often speed up to beat the light.

Upper Market has six wide traffic lanes and a median strip that seems to encourage speeding. Walking and biking were an afterthought in its design.

From 2007 to 2012, motorists injured pedestrians in 27 crashes and injured bicyclists in 32 crashes on Market between Octavia and Castro, according to the SFMTA. During the same period, an additional 102 crashes involved only motor vehicle drivers and passengers.

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SFMTA Approves 2nd Street Protected Bike Lane Redesign, Ponders Car Bans

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Second Street will get raised, protected bike lanes, sidewalk extensions, and Muni boarding islands with a redesign approved yesterday. But SFMTA Board members wonder if car restrictions are needed, too. Image: DPW

The SFMTA Board of Directors yesterday unanimously approved a redesign of Second Street which will remove traffic lanes and add safety upgrades like raised, protected bike lanes and sidewalk extensions. After years of delay, SFMTA Board members and some attendees at the meeting said it may not go far enough, and that the agency should consider car restrictions to prevent private autos from clogging the street.

The redesign [PDF] will remove two of Second Street’s four car traffic lanes and bring one of the city’s first routes with raised bike lanes protected from motor traffic by curbs and parked cars. Muni boarding islands will also be installed to allow buses to make stops in the traffic lanes and passengers to alight without conflicting with bike traffic.

The approval is “a resounding victory for safer SoMa streets,” wrote SF Bicycle Coalition Business and Community Program Manager Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, in a blog post. The SFBC submitted support letters from nearly 100 residents and a dozen businesses on the street, Cosulich-Schwartz told the SFMTA Board, noting that it’s the only north-south bike route in that area of SoMa.

Walk SF’s new policy and program manager, Cathy DeLuca, also lauded the plan. In addition to safer crossings (including removal of dangerous double-turn lanes at Harrison Street), and more room for pedestrians, she noted that the protected bike lanes will “make it easier for pedestrians and motorists to navigate” Second, which is “in the heart of such a fast-growing part of our community.”

The redesign “will give the residents, employees, local business, and visitors who use Second Street the great street they deserve,” Davi Lang, an aide for D6 Supervisor Jane Kim, told the SFMTA Board.

DeLuca noted that the plan for Second is the first street redesign to come out as part of the citywide Green Connections plan.

Second’s redesign has been delayed for years. Most recently, completion was pushed back a year from its previous schedule, to fall of 2017, apparently due to delays in completing the environmental review. Before that, the year-long construction was scheduled to be finished by the end of this year.

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Will the Bay Area Continue to Reduce Driving With Improved Transit?

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Commuters in SF and the East Bay are ditching cars faster than anyone in the nation, as evidenced by regular crowds packing on to BART at 19th Street in Oakland. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Commuters in the Bay Area ditched cars faster than in any other major metropolitan area between 2006 and 2013, according to a new U.S. Census report. With studies showing that car traffic in San Francisco is declining, the report is one more sign that efforts in SF and the region to attract commuters to transit, walking, and biking may be working.

The report looked at work trips in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Metropolitan Statistical Area. The Sacramento Bee summed up the findings:

Commuting by private car in the densely populated region, including carpooling, dropped from 73.6 percent of workers in 2006 to 69.8 percent seven years later, giving it the nation’s third highest level of alternative commuting.

Commuters in the New York City-centered metropolitan area were least likely to use private cars to get to their jobs in 2013, but even so, a majority – 56.9 percent – still did. Ithaca, NY, had the second lowest use of cars, 68.7 percent, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s not clear which modes of transport the 3.8 of commuters who ditched cars switched to, as the local breakdown wasn’t immediately available. Record-breaking transit ridership on BART and Caltrain have continued to make headlines over recent years (though, per capita, ridership has declined over the last 20 years).

“The Bay Area continues to be a leader in shifting away from driving and toward alternative transportation modes, particularly public transit, but we need to do much more,” Supervisor Scott Wiener, who sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, wrote in a Facebook post today.

Wiener emphasized the urgency of some of the major expansions envisioned for regional transit: “A second transbay tube, train service to the Transbay Transit Center, electrified Caltrain, more subway lines, and a lot more bus service everywhere.”

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SFPD’s Sanford Explains His Evolving Views on Bicycling and Traffic Priorities

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John Sanford rode a bicycle yesterday for the first time in an untold number of years. Then, he sat down for nearly two hours to have an insightful discussion with a couple of his staunchest critics. Streetsblog’s recorded interview with Sanford is posted at the bottom of this article.

SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The new-ish captain of SFPD’s Park Station is taking strides to build relationships and learn from safe streets advocates after his short-lived crackdown on innocuous bike violations at stop signs last week, which led to dozens of protesters packing a community meeting Tuesday.

By the end of the hours-long meeting, Sanford announced an end to the bike crackdown (at least for now). After listening to compelling explanations as to why people on bikes treat stop signs as yield signs, he also promised to refine his enforcement efforts to account for differences between bikes and cars. (Supervisor John Avalos has since proposed it as a policy.)

Sanford paused the bike crackdown after two days, and then reached out to me and the SF Bicycle Coalition for one-on-one meetings. At Tuesday’s meeting, he told the crowd that his intention was to “get the attention of the cyclists. I think we got the attention of the cyclists.”

I caught up with the captain yesterday after Katherine Roberts, a longtime advocate for safer streets in Cole Valley, invited me to tag along on a neighborhood walk that Sanford had arranged with her. Roberts planned to point out the daily dangers of using crosswalks on streets like Stanyan, where drivers routinely fail to yield to pedestrians.

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Record-Breaking Bike Traffic on Market Street Neared 100,000 in July

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Record-breaking bicycle traffic on Market Street nearly broke the 100,000 threshold in July, according to the bike counter on SF’s most heavily-pedaled thoroughfare. Last month, 99,461 people were counted in the bike lane on eastbound Market at Ninth Street, topping the previous record of 97,302 in March.

"So, so awesome to be in the company of this many bikes commuting in a US city," writes Jess Zdeb on Twitter.

“So, so awesome to be in the company of this many bikes commuting in a US city,” writes Jess Zdeb on Twitter.

The record for daily bike counts was also set in April at 4,475 (monthly total: 91,685). July’s daily counts didn’t approach that record, generally ranging between 3,400 and 4,000 bikes. But July had enough consistent days of high bike counts to add up to a new record.

It seems safe to say that joining the waves of rush hour bike commuters on Market is the closest thing to experiencing a bicycling mecca like Copenhagen or Amsterdam this side of the North Atlantic.

And the momentum is only poised to grow after private auto drivers were banned on Tuesday from turning on to Market between Third and Eighth streets. With more car restrictions, the downtown section of Market east of Eighth, which lacks bike lanes, will only become friendlier to biking, walking, and transit. And just wait for the Better Market Street redesign (whenever that happens).

Now, it is possible that bicycling records on Market have been broken in recent years. After a design tweak to the bike lane in January, the counter captured bike trips more accurately. On the other hand, some bicycle riders still don’t ride over the sensor in the bike lane, so we may have already hit that six-digit milestone.

Hat tip to Joe Chojnacki for keeping an eye on the bike counter data.

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Help Streetsblog Shine a Light on SFPD’s Bike Crackdown — Submit Your Video

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SFPD was spotted ticketing bike commuters on the Wiggle as late as 11:30 p.m. last night. Help by filming the crackdown on your commute. Photo: Kristin Tieche

SFPD was ticketing bike commuters on the Wiggle as late as 11:30 p.m. last night. Help by filming the crackdown on your commute. Photo: Kristin Tieche

Streetsblog needs you and your devices to provide eyes and ears on the Wiggle, Page Street, and wherever the SFPD is lurking to ticket bicycle riders who harmlessly roll stop signs.

It’s been clear from the start that Park Station’s bike crackdown is a huge waste of resources. But there are things that video can help us understand better. What are bike riders doing that triggers a ticket? Are tickets going to people who actually violate others’ right-of-way? Are police accurately enforcing laws?

So, the next time you head out in the Park Station district, if you’ve got a few minutes and you come across officers staked out at an intersection, get some video footage. Let’s see if we can get a look at this bike enforcement in action.

Although no SFPD bike stings were reported this morning on social media, it’s a good bet they’ll be back soon — and not just during rush hour. Police were issuing citations to people on bikes between 10 p.m. and midnight last night, according to posts on Twitter and Facebook.

If you get something on video, send your file or link to abialick@streetsblog.org.