NoPa Neighborhood Fights to Calm its Residential Freeway

Fell_street_4.jpgCars regularly block the bike lane on Fell Street near the Arco Station. Photo: Bryan Goebel

In a city where people and cars regularly jostle for space, it’s not uncommon to have speeding traffic just inches or feet from pedestrians, homes, and parks. This spatial conflict is especially pronounced on Fell and Oak Streets, which serve all at once as de facto residential highways, major bike thoroughfares, and densely built-up residential and commercial streets, their sidewalks bustling with people on their way home or visiting the Panhandle.

For years, even decades, residents have fought to calm traffic along the corridor. Cars routinely speed down Fell and Oak, which were converted to three-or-four-lane one-ways half a century ago as a compromise with planners who wanted to build an east-west freeway, linking the Central Freeway to the Golden Gate Bridge, by demolishing the homes between them and wiping out the Panhandle. The compromise saved the homes and the park, but has left the neighborhood plagued with freeway-like traffic.

Now, some neighbors worry that new overhead
information signs for drivers, which are being installed as part of the city’s
traffic-management program, will encourage speeding on the already fast
one-way couplet. Residents are wary of anything that contributes to a freeway mentality on the street. Earlier this week, a 24-year-old San Francisco woman was killed by a driver while crossing Fell Street at Broderick.

"It’s been treated as a freeway by the city, much to the peril of everyone who lives along the densely-packed residential corridors that are Oak and Fell," said Michael Smithwick, chair of the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association’s transportation committee. "They’re obviously not designed for freeway use, and have kind of been force-fed" the high traffic volumes.

AAB_3661.jpgFell Street between Shrader and Stanyan, before it was converted to a one-way street. Photo: San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection

In recent years, neighborhood associations and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi have campaigned hard to scale back some of the freeway-like elements. They’ve had victories, like adding a bike lane to a stretch of Fell and getting rid of peak-time tow-away zones on Fell and most of Oak, returning a buffer of parked cars where there were once curbside lanes of speeding traffic.

Because parking wasn’t available on the street, Smithwick said, residents parked their cars on the sidewalk in front of their homes. "The sidewalks there were perilous, and sometimes completely impassible, because you’d have a car parked on it, and then the only way to get by was to step out into an active lane of speeding traffic curbside. So, obviously, no one walked on the street, it was just a mess."

"The city removed that fourth lane of morning traffic on Oak, and they predicted Armageddon, and it didn’t happen."

Smithwick also points to traffic light changes as a hard-fought victory and improvement. For a long time, stoplights on Fell and Oak were disabled late at night, and simply flashed yellow. Semi trucks rumbled down at high speeds, shaking the buildings in their wake and setting off car alarms. About six or seven years ago, that finally changed.

Neighbors and Mirkarimi said they’ve struggled to implement the incremental changes, which are improvements, but none have fundamentally changed the streets. "Fell and Oak is a freeway, for all intents and purposes," said Mirkarimi, who fought for removing the tow-away zones, and installing the bike signal at Fell and Masonic. "Unless we are willing to radically calm Fell and Oak down, then we’re just dancing around the edges."

3890829846_8741707330.jpgIt could have been worse: in the 1940s, planner envisioned a Panhandle Freeway. Flickr photo: Eric Fischer

BIKE NOPA’s Michael Helquist thinks that radical calming should involve returning Oak and Fell to two-way streets. "I think further consideration needs to be given to whether Oak and Fell should remain one-way, or not, whether the speed limit should be reduced, whether even reducing the speed limit would in itself be enough," said Helquist.

Smithwick also likes the idea of two-way streets, but suggested crosswalk pedestrian bulb-outs as an immediate measure. "Now that you’ve got parking on both sides of the street" because the tow-away zones are gone, Smithwick said, "there’s no reason, other than cost purposes, that you couldn’t do a sidewalk extension into that parking lane at each of the corners."

Supervisor Mirkarimi strongly supports traffic calming measures on Fell and Oak, but said the issue needs to be examined in the context of the broader traffic impacts the NoPa neighborhood has experienced as a result of the tear-down of the Central Freeway in Hayes Valley, which was replaced by Octavia Boulevard.

The freeway environment on Oak and Fell needs to be tamed, Mirkarimi said, "but the question can’t be answered unilaterally without talking about the blowback of Octavia Boulevard. That’s also what’s causing the small side streets that are becoming the alternative corridors for people to try to get where they want to go by not being on Fell and Oak."

The Board of Supervisors commissioned the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to complete a study "to assess all the positives and negatives due to Octavia Boulevard," said Mirkarimi, "because of traffic fluctuations and changes that travel westward because of the new boulevard." The study is due in mid-2010, but Mirkarimi said a similar study should have been completed before Octavia Boulevard was built.

The bulb-outs and wider median being installed on Divisadero Street, which intersects Fell and Oak, are part of broader efforts to calm traffic in the neighborhood, Mirkarimi said, but he’s frustrated with the MTA’s spotty approach to planning in the area. "The challenge I want to spotlight is the way it’s incrementally being patchworked, and the way answers have been slow-coming," he said.

Both Helquist and Mirkarimi identified the Fell Street Arco Station, where long queues of cars that spill out onto the street and block the bike lane, and the new Falletti Foods market, which has encouraged dangerous turns into its parking lot, as especially hazardous situations that need to be addressed immediately. The latest concern, though, is the installation of new freeway-style overhead information signs on both Fell and Oak, which are part of the SFgo traffic-management program. The signs are intended to give drivers information like garage parking availability and congestion-causing events to avoid.

Blog+pics+054-1_1.jpgInfrastructure for new SFgo signs over Fell Street. Photo: Michael Helquist/BIKE NOPA

"Once the neighbors noticed these new SFgo signposts on Oak and Fell," Helquist said,
"they wanted to find out what was going on, since we hadn’t been adequately notified ahead of time." Kevin Rafter, the president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association (NOPNA), contacted Cheryl Liu, the program manager for SFgo, and arranged for the MTA to send a speaker to NOPNA’s meeting tonight.

"The intent is, one, to get information from SFgo," said Helquist, "but also, finally, for them to get some input from the neighborhood about what these are. We’re really hoping the presentation that they give will last about five minutes, and then they will address either some of the questions that I listed on my blog, and certainly questions from the neighborhood."

Mirkarimi said there is some support from neighborhood organizations for the Fell Street sign, but he has yet to hear a strong argument for the signs on Oak Street.

"To be honest with you, I’m not sold [that SFgo signs are] needed both on Fell and Oak," said Mirkarimi. "Some make a better or stronger case for Fell, but nobody’s made a good case to me on Oak at all."

Walk SF’s Manish Champsee said the SFgo program is moving in the opposite direction of state-of-the-art traffic calming techniques. "Cities are moving away from that whole idea of giving people information and giving them a false sense of security," said Champsee. "Traffic calming is going in the direction of let’s give people a sense of danger," so they pay greater attention to their surroundings.

The meeting tonight will give neighbors a chance to discuss the SFgo program with its staff. In addition, Judson True, a spokesperson for the MTA, said the agency is open to hearing ideas from the community about the full range ideas for improving conditions on Oak and Fell. "We’re always open to talk to any neighbors about ideas to improve our streets," said True, who cited numerous changes the MTA has already made. In addition to retiming the signals to slow traffic, said True, "We’ve reduced green light time overall, installed newer pedestrian countdown signals on the street, improved visibility of signs and added more speed limit signs."

True added: "We would be open to conversation about other ideas. We’d be open to bulb-outs."

The Alamo Square Neighborhood Association’s Smithwick said neighbors have fought hard for all of those changes. It’s a fight for every single bit of accommodation to safety and pedestrian equal access," said Smithwick. "It’s a struggle, and it has been for the twenty years that I’ve been involved in this, all along the way."

Supervisor Mirkarimi echoed that sentiment. Converting Fell and Oak back to two-ways
"would be fantastic," said Mirkarimi, "but at the very minimum, in the areas that also intersect Fell and Oak, like Masonic, that’s exactly what we’re trying to aim towards, is significant traffic calming, and I think the MTA has yet to produce any substantive answers."

The fundamental message for the city," said Helquist, "for DPT and MTA and SFgo, is that congestion is not the problem. Speed is."

The SFgo presentation at the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association meeting will be held tonight from 7-9pm at Poleng Lounge, 1751 Fulton Street.

  • Can any traffic calming here involve a bike lane on Oak between Baker and Scott? Please, oh, please, oh, please?

    If the lights on Fell were timed at 20 mph, people would go 20, maybe 25 tops. Those lights are timed at 30 mph right now, and at times people go 40 to catch up to the timing. Of course the construction today on Divisadero at Fell slowed things down considerably. Made riding a bike by far the fastest option . . .

    Also, the speed limit on Masonic has dropped to 25, but the lights are still timed at about 33mph. Seems counter-productive.

  • Reducing the speed limit would be a great help. So would enforcing it.

  • ZA

    – 20mph should be the maximum speed for all traffic from Octavia all the way to Masonic.
    – I suggest the entire intersection of Baker/Fell have a non-vehicular cross-hatch, timed for pedestrian and cyclist signals, with red lights for all vehicles from all directions. Essentially treat it like one of those diagonal crossing intersections downtown.
    – Car access into Faletti’s garage and both gas stations off Divisadero should not come at the expense of that bike lane. One possible solution is a lane diet with the row of parked cars further away from the curb, with a bike lane on the inside space between curb and parked car, with enough distance to avoid dooring. With a cross-hatch area near the Panhandle access, moving the bike lane to the right side of Fell should be an acceptable compromise.
    – Remove the last parking spot on the right turn off Fell up Broderick with a large pedestrian bulb out.
    – Double the width of the sidewalks along all commercial areas.

  • Blah

    Could you please not indulge the real estate agent set and refrain from using the term ‘NoPA’ to describe either the Western Addtion or the parts of this article that are arguably part of the (upper) Haight?

  • Narrow the street by widening the sidewalk. Or put in segregated bike lanes, with parked cars as the barriers.

  • Peter M

    Why are Fell and Oak three lanes wide east of Baker but four lanes to the west? Surely they could be narrowed down to three lanes along the Panhandle, and the freed up space could go to widening the narrow sidewalk on Oak and there could even be a new pedestrian path on the north side of the Panhandle along Fell to compliment the bicycle path. Heck, Kezar Drive and Lincoln have two lanes each (And Kezar even narrows to one lane eastbound by the police station), maybe Fell and Oak could even be brought down to two lanes all the way and have much wider sidewalks and a bike lane on Oak from Baker to Scott.

    And I think the Oak and Masonic intersection could use some of the improvements Fell and Masonic has had. It doesn’t have the issue with the bike path, but it’s just as unpleasant to cross on foot. I’m not 100% sure how the left turn is set up from Oak onto Masonic, but I believe parking is allowed all the way up to the crosswalk at most times, which makes it very difficult for turning cars and pedestrians crossing Masonic to see each other. That corner should at least have a hatched no stopping anytime area like the one at Fell and Masonic.

  • As someone who a) used to commute on this years ago in a stupid car and b) really fears walking around there, let me just say this – that gas station will always be a menace to everyone – cars, bikes, peds – because it’s so cheap. Throw in that big car wash, and you will always have traffic jams like the photo points out. This is not good for anyone, not even those driving a car – it only takes a few idiots to suddenly be stuck in traffic.

    When I moved back here in 2005 I actually lived on Oak near Divisadero and let me tell ya, walking around those two streets always sucked. NO ONE obeys the traffic laws, and more than once I missed getting killed by a stupid car by like, mere moments.

    I think Sup. Mirkarimi is right on when he points out the half-assedness of the planning around this problem. For example – why did they make the Faletti’s garage such a pain in the ass? Couldn’t they have made this work for both the neighborhood AND the business? This isn’t rocket science.

    This is one of those times where if we had someone who could have the authori-tah to pull everyone in a room, say “Fix this, and fix it right”, you know, like a chief executive of a City or something, maybe someone could kick some asses on behalf of the residents. I think it’s called a “Mayor” or something, but I’m unaware of one that exists here.

  • If you can figure out how to persuade the MTA to prioritize pedestrians over cars, please share the secret with me in Rincon Hill. A 20 mph speed limit would be a great start along with 2-way Folsom Street.

  • I definitely support the de-freewayization of Oak and Fell, but as someone who lived in the way outer sunset for several years I can sympathize with the drivers out there and why they might want to go fast. The thing is that public transit to the outer sunset is ridiculously bad – getting downtown would take me easily an hour or more on the N-Judah, and in a car it was typically about twenty minutes. I sped down Fell as fast as the lights would let me (though I always looked out for cyclists and peds). What I wound up doing was moving into a more central location and ditching my car for a bike, but not everyone out there has that option.

    One frustrating aspect of the transit thing is that a large part of what makes the N move at a snail’s page out there looks an awful lot like traffic calming – to wit, a stop sign at almost every block along Judah from 9th Avenue all the way to La Playa. If they dug a tunnel that would improve things immensely, but I can’t see that happening in the next few years.

  • Aaron B.

    Some brilliant ideas in this article.

    whir –

    I believe the N takes +/-40 minutes or so from the beach to Market. Check the schedule, I don’t know what hour+ you’re talking about – I used to live on 47th ave, and now from where I live at 32nd Ave., it takes about 30 min. and driving still 20-25 min…

    Even so, I think a great solution for the N would be giving it a dedicated right of way, with some very prolific signage of course. I think it’s absurd that the train of a couple hundred people has to stop for the possibility of a car of 1. Dedicated right of ways work, people get it – if the MTA had the balls to do it in the face of its recently damaged safety image.

  • patrick

    I went to the NOPNA meeting and here is what I took away:

    Lots of anger in the neighborhood about the sign. There was some very heated comments, and a bit if raised voices, particularly near the end.

    There was also a deal of emotion about the general safety issues around Fell and Oak, particularly between Divisadero and Masonic.

    I think there is a feeling in the neighborhood (and I personally feel this way) that the MTA is more focused on speeding traffic through the area than on improving safety.

    There were two suggestions that I felt were very good:

    1) Move the sign to the Freeway offramp that feeds onto Octavia.

    MTA claims the sign will only be used to inform people of parking problems in the park and to drive safely. If that is the case, then moving the sign to the freeway off-ramp makes a lot of sense. It is my belief that most of the people going up Fell to the park looking for parking are coming from outside SF, otherwise they wouldn’t be taking Fell and would probably already know parking sucks in the park. Therefore putting it at the Octavia off-ramp would pretty much catch everybody that would benefit from the sign at Fell & Divisadero.

    2) Shorten the duration of the green lights on Fell & Oak.

    This makes a lot of sense to me. The lights are timed for the speed limit (which I believe is 30mph currently, but might be 25) but are green for a pretty long time, so people at the front can’t really go any faster, but anybody at the back of the pack is actually incentivized by the long green to speed until they catch up to the pack.

    There were a few other good suggestions, but I don’t remember them specifically.

    There was also a representative from Ross Mirkarimi’s people who said he supported the sign on Fell as its intended purpose is to calm traffic of people looking for parking at the park, but was surprised to learn of the sign on Oak, and is opposed to that, since it will really only be used to inform people trying to get on the freeway, thus sending them onto side streets when there is traffic. She also mentioned that the signs were intended to improve traffic conditions and safety for those living around the Museum area of the park. I don’t think the support for Fell was very well received by the people at the meeting. I think this is probably due to the perception that even if it does improve conditions near the museum it will worsen them around the sign, as people will be taking their eyes off the road to read the sign at an already very dangerous location. I certainly believe that the sign will only worsen conditions where it is placed. It seems to me that the safety around Fell & Divis is being sacrificed for safety around the museum.

    Mirkarimi’s representative she will bring the two ideas above to his attention.

    After the meeting I felt completely unconvinced that there’s any real benefit to the improvements, particularly given that there are many other improvements that could be done first that would be widely supported all over the city.

  • janel

    The meeting was super interesting and quite emotional. I am really surprised about MTA’s lack of interaction with the community regarding the signs and the program. Some people stated the neighborhood disapproved of the project 6 years ago and seems the MTA went behind their backs and did it anyway, now the public is angry and ought to be. I just hope MTA takes the neighbors concerns to heart.

    I think it is interesting that a similar ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) program is being pushed through on the freeways to reduce traffic congestion. That seems to be the Bay Area’s answer to transportation planning. It is too bad they are so short sighted.

  • GeorgeC

    I’d also like to see enforcement of the measures that have been put in place – such as the left arrow onto Masonic from Fell. It was a great idea, but probably about one time in four when I’m on my bike with my kid on it, some driver tries to turn into me even though the arrow is red for them. I’m typically pretty calm, but the amount of times I’ve had to yell for my life on that turn is ridiculous. I’ve been down on the peninsula where they have cameras that measure people who don’t stop before turning on red. Its over a $500 fine (my friend got one so I know). Why not put a camera up there WITH a warning. It would cut down offences ie make the turn safter AND increase revenues. We have the technology people – lets use it!

  • Nick

    SF needs at least one area of the city where there is hyper-enforcement of the traffic laws. The whole town of Pacifica is like this; everyone knows you don’t speed there because the Pacifica cops will be on you.

    The Fell freeway leads to problems on other streets. During rush hour the bike signal at Masonic is ignored about 30% of the time. At night cars rush through JFK going 40+ mph while often completely ignoring the Stop signs.

    5 or 10 years from now the problems of speeding and congestion will still be there. It’s probably more feasible to build a 2 way bike bridge from the Panhandle to the Wiggle than to redesign the street so it’s safe for everyone.

  • The SFgo debate shifted some once neighbors learned of the pedestrian fatality on Fell at Broderick earlier this week. At the NOPNA meeting there was as much anger and frustration expressed about the Fell/Oak “residential freeway” as there was for the expensive SFgo signs. The two are very much entwined but may require different strategies to deal with the problems. For sake of brevity here, see BIKE NOPA post today about the speeding issue and next Monday about the SFgo discussion last night.

  • Troy

    I was at the meeting and quite disappointed with the govt officials. Disappointed to lear that **Mirkarimi** supports the Fell Freeway sign and disappointed in the traffic engineers who claimed they were there to LISTEN to us when at the same time it was clear that there was no way they were going to back down on this really dreadful idea.

    As far as the “Watch out for bikers” PSA’s that the signs will broadcast? The only thing they will add is a megadose of irony when a driver looking at it instead of the road slams into someone.

  • Aaron B.

    @GeorgeC –

    Yeah, Fell/Masonic is pretty bad. I make it a point, when I see a car pull forward looking to turn, to look at them and point at the RED left turn arrow and green bike light. They just don’t see the arrow for some reason.

  • Filamino

    This. Is. RIDICULOUS. I can’t believe how much false information is in this article. Boy, where to start?

    “The city removed that fourth lane of morning traffic on Oak, and they predicted Armageddon, and it didn’t happen.”

    FALSE. Traffic is backed up even worse on all streets approaching Octavia with all 3 Oak St lanes at a standstill at peak times. I ride the 16X everyday, and the “X” is now a joke compared to what it used to be. It used to slip slowly by all the freeway-bound traffic in that narrow curb lane to get downtown. Buses couldn’t go fast due to the narrow lane, but at least we kept moving.

    “…nobody’s made a good case (for the electronic sign) to me on Oak at all.”

    1. Show when the peak hour lane is open or closed. Perfect placement. I’ve seen my share of near rear-enders when people don’t realize the lane is closed and continue east in the left lane. If a car rear-ends a parked car, they could ricochet into the sidewalk. I think it will make the pedestrians waiting to cross Oak feel safer if drivers clearly know to merge right. The static signs don’t work.

    2. Street closures. For bicyclists like me who brave downhill Oak, I can make a decision which route to take to get downtown – via Baker/Fulton or Page. For example, one time, I needed to get to Leavenworth/McAllister quickly, so I bravely biked Oak, and turned onto Baker/Fulton/McAllister. However, I didn’t realize it was Gay Pride Weekend and all the Civic Center streets were closed. Although there were emergency lanes open, there were still a lot of people, so I quickly walked my bike instead through the area. Unfortunately, I was too late to the meet my appointment. I think I would have gotten there faster if I knew about the Gay Pride Event and avoid it by taking Page/Market instead. Of course, NOPA/Alamo Square NIMBYs will shrug it off like that it doesn’t matter – I’m only one bicyclist from the Sunset/Richmond.

    3. Public Service Announcements. IE Bikes Belong – Share the Road, Slow it Down – Watch for Peds, etc. They can be valuable in emergencies too.

    “Cities are moving away from the whole idea of giving people information…”

    FALSE. The exact opposite is happening. SFgo style traffic management is happening in many cities around the world. Simply go to any major city’s transportation website, and they will mention these type of traffic management centers.

    Moving the sign: Bad idea. You’re forgetting the people who come from Gough/Hayes. Not everyone on Fell comes from Octavia. If it really needs to be moved, it should be in front of the DMV or in the Panhandle itself.

    Sign sending drivers to side streets: Um, they’re doing it already due to the bad design of having only one lane feed into Octavia from Oak. The sign will make no difference no matter what road closure is up ahead. This just shows the hypocrisy of these NIMBYs. They push for using the grid network to spread out traffic and now they say they don’t want traffic on their streets. What the F***? This exactly what will happen too if Fell/Oak are converted to two way.

    Sign diverting driver’s attention: FALSE. It’s not much different from reading any other permanent or temporary static sign.

    This is another reason why I don’t join the SFBC. They claim to think outside the box, but again, anything that is normally associated with driving a car is automatically bad for bicyclists. I, as a bicyclist, want to avoid them street closures/events just like drivers. I don’t understand why bicyclists want to go through street closure events unless they are going to the events themselves. Do these SFBC bicyclists want to mow pedestrians down going through the event area? I don’t get it. That’s another reason why people hate bicyclists.

    I’m all for traffic calming the streets, increasing enforcement, and other safety improvements mentioned here, but I am not convinced by any argument here that the new STREET-style electronic signs will increase speeding or detrimental to the neighborhood. These are NOT “freeway-style” signs! They are MUCH, MUCH smaller.

    This deal with the STREET-style electronic sign has NIMBY-ism written all over it. NOPA/Alamo Square/Hayes Valley has done everything to screw Sunset/Richmond District residents from getting downtown/Bay Bridge/Peninsula by car, bike and bus. Now they are making up this false, ridiculous idea that these small STREET-style electronic signs will increase speeding by giving drivers and bicyclists from the Sunset/Richmond valuable information on what is happening ahead. Damn NIMBYs….


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