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Planning Dept Releases Design Guide for “Living Alleys” Around Hayes Valley

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The SF Planning Department’s new guide lays out concepts like “living zones” for SF’s alleyways. Image: Planning Department

The SF Planning Department released a design guide this week for “living alleys” [PDF], providing a template to transform SF’s narrow, low-traffic streets into places to gather and play.

Inspired by the Dutch “woonerf” concept, the ”Living Alleys Toolkit” lays out proven design measures that make smaller streets more inviting to stay and play on, giving street life priority over drivers moving through. The guide states:

The “Living Alleys Toolkit” cover, featuring the Linden Alley project implemented in 2010.

A living alley is a street designed as a place for people. It can be considered an “Urban Living Room”. Its design can reconfigure the geometry and surfacing of the street, or simply add low cost amenities for residents while maintaining the traditional curbed right-of-way. Whatever approach, living alleys prioritize the entire public right-of-way for pedestrians and bicyclists with alternative but clear physical boundaries. A living alley also has areas of exclusive pedestrian use and areas where vehicles are allowed to share space with pedestrians and bicyclists.

While the concept has been implemented more widely in northern Europe, the guide notes, similar ideas have been applied in Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. In SF, a section of Linden Street was redesigned as a living alley in 2010, and plaza projects have been implemented in SoMA on Annie Alley and Mint Plaza. In Oakland, two alleys in the Temescal neighborhood were converted into pedestrianized retail streets that delivery vehicles can enter.

The new guide, which started development in mid-2013, focuses on the potential for living alleys in Hayes Valley and just south of Market Street near Octavia Boulevard, since it was conceived in the Market-Octavia Area Plan with the removal of the Central Freeway. But in the future, as those initial alley transformations are implemented, the city will look at expanding them citywide, said the Planning Department’s David Winslow.

The guide includes prototype street designs. One is a plan to convert Ivy Street, between Gough and Franklin Streets, to a shared-space zone where cars are still allowed to pass through, as seen on nearby Linden.

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Should SF Streets Go Car-Free to Make Room for Nightlife?

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Vancouver’s Granville Street, seen here in 2013, is regularly closed to cars on weekend nights. Should SF do the same with its nightlife streets? Photo: Aaron Bialick

Polk, Valencia, Castro, Broadway — when bar patrons crowd these streets at night, should they go car-free?

While the idea may be novel to San Francisco, many other cities have done it. Up the coast in Vancouver, British Columbia, downtown Granville Street is often closed to cars on bustling weekend nights for people to roam the roadway, extending the street’s permanent pedestrian mall, which is several blocks long.

In a new report [PDF], city agencies recommend taking a look at nighttime car-free hours to improve streets for patrons and workers.

“Streets are the living room of our cities, where people meet, interact, and socialize,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who requested the report. “We should consider opportunities to foster these urban connections for the sake of supporting nighttime activity and advancing pedestrian safety.”

“So many of the events that really define San Francisco, both for locals and visitors, are events that happen when the streets are shut down and the people are in them,” said Tom Temprano, owner of Virgil’s Sea Room bar on Mission near Cesar Chavez Street, and a member of the city’s Late Night Transportation Working Group, which developed the report. “From Sunday Streets, to Pride, to Folsom Street Fair, to Bay to Breakers, these are all really events that are core to San Francisco’s identity and happen when we take cars off the road and let people have a good time.”

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Eyes on the Street: Construction Begins on Fell and Oak Bike Lane Protection

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The Oak bike lane at Divisadero Street, where one of the first protective islands is taking shape. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Crews are at work building the planted concrete islands that will separate the Fell and Oak bike lanes from motor traffic. As we reported earlier this month, the long-delayed project is now supposed to wrap by April. The new construction is a sign that city agencies may make good on that.

This week crews carved up the asphalt at several spots along the Oak Street bike lane’s buffer zone, from Baker to Scott Streets, to prepare for the installation of the islands. The construction barriers provide a preview of the better sense of protection along the bike lane once the islands are complete.

According to Department of Public Works spokesperson Dadisi Najib, DPW and the SF Public Utilities Commission expect to finish the islands on Oak by March 20, and work on Fell will be completed between March 2 and April 30.

The protective bike lane islands are the final component of the safety measures going in on Fell and Oak. Pedestrian bulb-outs with rain gardens have been under construction for months.

Hopefully, the islands will also finally send the message to drivers to stop parking in the bike lanes, and the ranks of daily bike commuters who use them will swell from the current level of roughly 1,800.

Oak at Baker Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

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Market Street Has More Bike Traffic Than You Thought

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An unprecedented jump last month (on the right) reported by the Market Street bike counter appears to be explained by an improvement in the counter’s accuracy. Image: SFMTA/Eco Counter

The Market Street bicycle counter has been undercounting two-wheeled traffic — and not because of a computer glitch. Starting last month, the counter reported a huge jump in bike commuters. How come? All indications point to a recent tweak to the bike lane that guides more riders over the counter’s underground sensor.

On several days this year, the counter has tallied nearly 4,500 people cycling eastbound on Market at Ninth Street. On most weekdays, at least 3,700 riders have been counted. That’s about 1,000 more riders, on average, than were counted each day last January.

Last month may have been California’s driest January on record, but weather doesn’t explain the jump. Even in the warmest months last year, ridership typically ranged from 2,700 to 3,200. Prior to 2015, the record was 4,045, set on August 7 last year.

So what changed in the first week of January? The SFMTA installed plastic posts along the bike lane’s edge that guide bike riders to stay in the bike lane and roll over the bike sensor. Previously, many bike commuters passing by the counter rode outside the bike lane, instead using the adjacent traffic lane since it was closed to cars in 2009.

SFMTA spokesperson Ben Jose said that based on the agency’s manual bike counts, the bike counter remains about 95 percent accurate, the same rate as before. It’s “plausible” the posts explain the recent jump in the bike count, he said. No other likely explanation has been put forth, though the SFMTA has yet to verify with the counter’s manufacturer that it does not need to be recalibrated.

Getting a better read on Market Street bike traffic is one more way the SFMTA is improving the understanding of how San Franciscans’ travel habits are changing. Earlier this month, the agency reported its new survey methodology has revealed that most trips in the city are made without a private automobile.

Hat tip to Joe Chojnacki for pointing out the data jump.

Today’s count as of about 6 p.m. Photo: Aaron Bialick

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City College Property Could Make Room for Buffered Bike Lane on Ocean Ave

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Ocean Avenue could be widened in front of the City College campus, and a freeway ramp re-aligned, to make bicycling from Balboa Park Station much safer. Image: Planning Department

A proposed solution has surfaced for one of the most frightening gaps in the Ocean Avenue bike lane at Balboa Park Station, where the existing bike lane disappears and throws uphill bike commuters in front of a high-speed freeway off-ramp. City College of SF has proposed opening up the edge of its main campus property, currently occupied by a retaining wall and undeveloped land, to make room for the bike lane extension, sidewalk extensions, and landscaped medians.

With plans also in the works to remove the curved highway 280 off-ramp and replace it with a perpendicular, signalized ramp, that stretch of Ocean could become dramatically safer.

The fix was presented this week at the final open house meeting for planned streetscape improvements along Ocean and around Balboa Park Station. Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, a member of the BART Board of Directors, said the plans for bike and pedestrian improvements are “so far, so good,” and have been anticipated since the city began developing plans for the area in the late 90′s.

“The community has been remarkably patient, and the devil will be in the details,” he said. Still, the currently poor conditions for walking and biking to the station set “a low bar.”

City planners had originally included no substantial improvements to make bicycling safer on Ocean between the Balboa Park BART/Muni Station and CCSF, insisting on retaining both westbound traffic lanes, which Muni buses use. City agencies are now “working with City College to design a terraced landscape to eliminate the blank retaining wall currently in place and create a more inviting entrance,” according to Planning Department presentation materials [PDF].

Today, people using the westbound bike lane on Ocean are thrown into a traffic lane in front of a freeway off-ramp. Image: Google Maps

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One Year Into Vision Zero, Advocates Call for Bolder Action From City Hall

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SF agencies released a new two-year Vision Zero Strategy [PDF], and safe streets advocates say it needs to go farther.

A year after City Hall officials first pledged to embrace Vision Zero, safe streets advocates have released a report [PDF] reviewing the state of efforts to end traffic fatalities by 2024. City officials simultaneously released a “Vision Zero Strategy” [PDF] for the next two years. Both documents were released in conjunction with a new program requiring video training for city truck drivers on safe urban driving, announced at a press conference yesterday.

The progress report from the Vision Zero Coalition, a group of nearly 40 community organizations led by Walk SF and the SF Bicycle Coalition, says City Hall has “made important progress” with nine agencies endorsing the goal. Extensive research has also been done in recent years through the WalkFirst program to identify which streets see the highest rates of pedestrian injuries.

But to ensure that City Hall’s embrace of Vision Zero turns into life-saving action, advocates say efforts need to ramp up in 2015 to slow driving speeds and curb the most dangerous driving behaviors. Physical street design measures, data-driven traffic enforcement, and education campaigns are key to creating a safer driving culture.

Expectations this year “are definitely going to be high,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider.

“There’s huge public support for Vision Zero. Now Mayor Lee and his city team need to turn this into action,” said a statement from Noah Budnick, the new executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition, who previously campaigned for Vision Zero in New York City. ”The SFMTA must get proven safety improvements onto our streets as fast as they can, and the SFPD must crack down on reckless drivers who put San Franciscans at risk. There’s no time to waste to save lives.”

The Vision Zero Coalition’s report calls for three goals to be met this year, including a city-led campaign already underway to change state law to allow enforcement through speed cameras. The Coalition also want SFPD to increase the share of “Focus on the Five” citations to 37 percent of all traffic citations in 2015 and to meet the department’s official 50 percent minimum by 2016. So far, all SFPD stations except one have yet to come close to that goal, and the new Traffic Company Commander, Ann Mannix, has not promised to meet it.

The report also calls on agencies like the SFMTA and Department of Public Works to expedite physical safety measures on 18 miles of high-injury corridors annually. The city’s two-year Vision Zero Strategy, which is an update to the Pedestrian Strategy and the WalkFirst plan, sets the annual bar at 13 miles.

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Eyes on the Street: 3 Blocks of Bus Lane on Haight — How About One More?

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Photo: Jason Henderson

The SFMTA extended the red Muni-only lane on the east end of Haight Street last week, adding a third block to the red carpet rolled out for the 6-Parnassus and 71-Haight/Noriega lines in November. The lane, which includes a contra-flow block connecting directly to Market Street, lets Muni riders headed downtown bypass the queue of cars turning toward the Central Freeway.

Street Fight author Jason Henderson, who lives on the block of Haight with the bus lane extension between Buchanan and Laguna Streets, said “it works well.” But he also noted that Muni buses are still delayed by queued drivers between Webster and Buchanan Streets, so it looks like the lane should be extended upstream another block. Henderson photographed a 6-Parnassus bus that he said “took about two minutes to crawl half the block to the bus stop.”

Since there is a curbside stop on that block, Henderson suggested that the Muni lane there may need to run along the curb, where there’s currently a car parking lane. Of the three blocks of transit lane on Haight so far, two were carved out of former traffic lanes, and the contra-flow block replaced a parking lane.

Plans to speed up Muni on Haight approved by the SFMTA in November include a transit-priority traffic signal at Haight and Buchanan, replacing the existing stop sign.

Between Webster and Buchanan, drivers still block buses on Haight. Photo: Jason Henderson

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Eyes on the Street: Embarcadero Bike Lane Gets Greater Priority at Battery

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The southbound Embarcadero bike lane was re-aligned and painted green this week to smooth out a tricky junction where people on bikes have to merge with right-turning drivers between Sansome and Battery Streets.

Previously, the bike lane disappeared on that block, and people biking were left to battle it out with fast-moving drivers. SFMTA Livable Streets staff wrote in a Facebook post that they “repurposed the third travel lane and shifted the location of the bike lane near the intersections of Sansome and Battery (southbound Embarcadero) so there is a continuous path of travel for people riding bikes.”

Before this project, there was a significant gap in the bike lane which created a merge that wasn’t very comfortable. Now, we’ve eliminated that gap so that vehicles, not people biking, must merge,” SFMTA staff wrote.

While the bike lane still won’t attract as many risk-averse riders as the proposed two-way protected bikeway, regular Embarcadero bike commuter Bruce Halperin said he had long pushed the SFMTA to at least make this fix. He launched an online petition on Change.org, which gained 58 signatures, and raised the issue to SFMTA planners at public meetings as well as through emails and phone calls.

Photo: Bruce Halperin

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Hearst Corp Backs Off Bid to Tear Out Annie Alley Street Plaza

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The Hearst Corporation has withdrawn its appeal against the Annie Alley street plaza [PDF] after talks with city planners and the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District.

The bid to get the plaza torn out was surprising, since Hearst had been involved in creating the plaza, leading to speculation that closing the alley to cars had irked executives at the company.

“We withdrew the appeal based on the positive discussions we have been having with YBCBD and other stakeholders to assess the situation and make improvements,” said Marty Cepkauskas, director of real estate for Hearst Western Properties.

The plaza is safe at least until its permit renewal comes up in August, according to Robin Abad Ocubillo, project manager for the Planning Department’s Pavement to Parks program. Ocubillo said Hearst agreed to support the project “as long as there is follow-up traffic monitoring,” though that “was always part of the plan.” Hearst and YBCBD will also assess whether they need someone to direct traffic during rush hour at Jessie and New Montgomery Streets, one of the exits still available to drivers leaving the Hearst Building parking garage.

“We’re pleased that the appeal was withdrawn and we look forward to continuing our conversations with Hearst,” said Andrew Robinson, YBCBD’s director of neighborhood partnerships. ”Because this project is a pilot program, neighborhood feedback is important to its long-term success.”

Robinson said YBCBD can now focus on “testing Annie Street Plaza as a great place for art, performance, music and other programming to create a vibrant place for the neighborhood as it was envisioned by the community.”

The YBCBD is calling for artists and musicians who want to perform on the plaza to reach out through the organization’s website.

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New Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf: “Time to Re-Envision Our Roads”

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New Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf showed promise as an executive with a smart vision for her city’s streets at the annual kick-off party for Young Professionals in Transportation’s SF Bay chapter this week.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf: “Our roads were built to accommodate more cars than they need.” Photo: Cynthia Armour/Twitter

In an interview at the event with Sam Greenspan of the podcast 99% Invisible, Schaaf said “it’s time we re-envision how we use roads” and that “we need to create a physical environment that encourages active transportation.”

An Oakland native and former council member, Schaaf was endorsed by Transport Oakland, a group formed last year to advocate for safer streets and better options to get around the city.

Here are some highlights from Schaaf’s appearance this week:

  • “I think it’s time we re-envision how we use roads. It’s their public right-of-way. We’ve got a great story to tell at Lake Merritt… There used to be a freakin’ freeway on either end of the lake, and we removed multiple lanes of traffic, we put in a public plaza on one end, where there are free Salsa dance lessons — I mean, it is a party going on every weekend where there used to be roads… Nobody misses those lanes of traffic at all. Our roads were built to accommodate more cars than they need.”
  • Schaaf intends to hire Oakland’s first mayoral transportation advisor, whom she “plans to announce soon.”
  • When asked about how she sees Vision Zero, she said “twenty is plenty” (referring to the UK-based campaign for 20 mph speed limits), and noted two recent pedestrian fatalities within the past week. “I don’t think anybody supports traffic fatalities,” she said.
  • “Oakland is multi-modal… we need to create a physical environment that encourages active transportation. It’s good for our health, for our social interactions, for our humaneness.”
  • When asked about expanding Oakland’s bike network, Schaaf pointed to the city’s first protected bike lane going in on Telegraph Avenue this year. She also emphasized the need to re-pave the city’s roads since potholes “can be deadly” for people on bikes, and because the costs of road maintenance increase dramatically when neglected for too long.
  • Schaaf plans to campaign for a transportation bond measure in 2016 to add to Measure BB, the half-cent sales tax increase approved by Alameda County voters in November that will raise $7.8 billion in transportation funding over 30 years.
  • On the proposals for streetcars on Broadway and San Pablo Avenue, and the contrast with bus rapid transit improvements, she said “that’s going to be a big hot debate — one (bus transit) is more of a transportation solution, and the other is more of an economic development solution.”
  • “The issue about bus vs. rail is part of the gentrification and equity conversation… it’s incredibly important to educate our elected officials not to always just look at the shiny, pretty thing, because buses are what we need to actually get people to their jobs.” (No comment specifically on the Oakland Airport Connector, though it sounds like her take could apply to that project.)
  • Schaaf noted the blight caused by freeway underpasses, and suggested turning them into a “tunnel of wow” possibly with decorative features, shops, and amenities to make them feel safer and more attractive. “What about those freeways?” she asked, stopping short of mentioning freeway removal.
  • On the proposed second Transbay BART tube through Alameda and Mission Bay: “It will not be cheap… I think it will really reduce congestion. I hella love Oakland, but we do need to think regionally, and it would make a lot of sense for the region.”