SPUR Offers a Bold Bike Path Proposal for the Embarcadero


It would someday rank among the world’s most beautiful bike paths. Imagine a separated, 2.5-mile bicycle path between the northbound traffic lanes of the Embarcadero and the pedestrian promenade from AT&T Park to Fisherman’s Wharf. Not only would it provide a safe and dignified passage for cyclists, it would cut down on bike and pedestrian conflicts that occur on the shared sidewalk. Sound like a fantasy? Not so, according to a study sponsored by SPUR, which suggests that not only would the path serve an important transportation function, it would attract tourists and locals alike.

The study’s goal was to examine the feasibility of a wide, comfortable, car-free facility capable of serving cyclists well enough to attract bicyclists away from the pedestrians on the promenade and provide safe and convenient bicycling to fast and slow riders alike. The path would eventually connect to other links in the Bay Trail, providing a car-free beltway, so to speak, around the city on the shores of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

The plan was crafted by a summertime fellow sponsored by the Patri family of architects and urban designers. The Patri Fellow, Carrie Nielson, with the help of staff from the design firm EDAW/AECOM and the Port of San Francisco, looked at various alternatives and settled on the idea of a two-way, 15-foot wide cycle track using space captured from the northbound bicycle lane, parking, and the sidewalk. Her research found that it’s feasible, simple in some places, complicated and expensive in others. Total cost is estimated at $10-20 million.

Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR Executive Director, was enthusiastic about the potential of the path. "This is potentially one of the most transformative ideas out there for making the bicycle a primary mode for more trips in San Francisco. Compared to building infrastructure for cars or trains, bike infrastructure is cheap." He called for a more serious planning effort to nail down the cost and ensure there are no fatal flaws.

Pages_from_9_18_presentation_Page_1_Image_0002.jpgThe Hudson River Greenway provides a glorious 15.5-ft. wide path (with 3 foot shoulders) the length of Manhattan.

In a way, the project is the first step in correcting a planning mistake from the early 1990s. Then, planners of the new Embarcadero Roadway debated whether to include bike lanes or a bayfront bicycle path as part of their design. The Bicycle Transportation Advisory Committee – a self-appointed precursor to today’s BAC – advised the planners, "we want both." "You can’t have both. You have to choose," the planners said. The BTAC eventually settled on the current design: bicycle lanes in the roadway and no prohibition against bicycling on the promenade. Because bicycle transportation advocacy was dominated by proponents of vehicular cycling, the decision was not a hard one at the time. There was no way advocates would sacrifice on-street bike lanes for a sidepath of dubious safety and convenience.

Times have changed. The Embarcadero Promenade/Herb Caen Way is crowded with pedestrians and bicycling on it has become less tenable. Planners, meanwhile, have improved sidepath design and bicycle advocacy has become more inclusive of people who seek pathways as refuge from cars and as a necessary facility to attract seniors and children to routine urban bicycling.

Nielson’s work has sparked a welcome public debate about the alternatives for improving bicycle transit and safety along the Embarcadero, according to the Port’s David Beaupre, who said he applauded her efforts to identify issues and alternatives for creating a bicycle path along the Embarcadero.

The pathway seems like a real possibility, but there are plenty of challenges.

The design presumes the loss of the northbound bike lane, increasing the importance of the 15-foot width so that fast-moving cyclists can pass meandering tourists. The southbound bike lane will be preserved, and fast recreational cyclists will of course be permitted to use the roadway, which could be adorned with stencils to remind motorists that bicyclists may be expected in the roadway despite the path.

Before___After_.jpgThe Embarcadero today, and what it would look like after.

Intersections will be dangerous if they are not very carefully designed. Most will have to be signal-controlled, and parking on the piers should be limited to reduce the number of driveways. The proposed cruise ship terminal at Piers 27-31 includes a massive driveway that could pose a serious hazard to cyclists.

A railing between the southbound half of the bike path and the roadway will have to be designed to protect bicycle riders while not blocking the views of Embarcadero motorists.

Politically, the challenge is finding the funding and compensating for the loss of parking entailed with the proposal. Nielson’s analysis indicated the need to remove 145 parking spaces on the northbound roadway, but found where 178 parking spaces could be added by converting the parallel parking on the adjacent streets to back-in angle parking. Unless a citywide leader (say, a Mayor) brokered a deal, the Port would lose substantial meter revenue which the MTA would gain by this transfer of parking location.

Despite the challenges, Nielson’s proposal makes it clear that a wide, comfortable, car-free bike path is feasible, provided it gets the necessary funding and political support.

  • Peter Smith

    yes, yes, and yes. been wanting a real solution for the Embarcadero — this could get us there.

    on the drawings, i’d like to see more physical protection for bikers, instead of just those bendy plastic poles. without a big physical guardrail and distance, i imagine the atmosphere — being so close to cars speeding in the opposite direction — would not be all that pleasant.

    so we probably need a 20 MPH speed limit on the Embarcadero, too. and we should extend that to every road in the city. for motorized transport.

  • AP

    Great idea, but I would be hesitant to support a proposal that reduces the width of the pedestrian pathway. One of the characteristics of the promenade that makes it so attractive for pedestrians is its width and the ability to comfortably stroll two, three, four people on side. Narrowing the space would degrade that quality, especially on the weekends when the promenade is bustling.

  • Dave Snyder

    @Peter, the study’s author recognizes a robust barrier is necessary. The specific design of the barrier is important but beyond the scope of the study, so the author rendered a minimalist barrier to indicate that *something* needs to go there. My own preference is for a barrier akin to the Golden Gate Bridge sidepath barrier, that works really well for sidepath users while preserving motorists’ views.

    @Andy, the loss of width on the Promenade is a negative; the removal of bicyclists from the Promenade is a positive. These are the tradeoffs that will have to be addressed segment by segment, perhaps reducing the width of the bikepath at those few locations where the promenade is especially narrow. The existing light ribbon will probably also have to be sunken into the pavement along the entire length of the Promenade, as it is in the vicinity of the Ferry Building.

  • The article doesn’t say how much would be taken away from pedestrian space. If it is only a couple feet, I don’t see it as that much of an encroachment. In general, take out parking and put in bike lanes should be our mantra.

    Tourists love to bicycle in San Francisco. I see them bicycling in the Presidio on winding, blind roads with almost no awareness that they may be clobbered by cars at any moment. It makes all the sense in the world to create a flat, beautiful, safe place for them to bicycle (and residents, too!) Make sure there are enough bike racks at the Ferry Building and Pier 39 for when they want to shop.

    This cycle track will bring more people to the Port area, increasing spending and increasing revenue. The whining about losing parking revenue when we have a chance reduce our contribution to climate change and make San Francisco a more desirable place to visit has got to stop.

  • I’m not privy to the proposal itself, but your description of this dedicated bike path, along with the pictures, seems like overkill. It gives the impression that SPUR is aiming deliberately too high so that they can still get what they want with the inevitably scaled-back plan. There’s also something patronizing and controlling about the green-and-white markings, as if the path were laid out for kindergartners (or maybe tennis players). What happens when somebody wants to pass somebody else? Is there room for that, with the opposing bike traffic coming your way? Or would everyone ride exactly the same speed (as in the picture, apparently)?

    Trying too hard.

  • Stephanie

    Do we want to improve cycling conditions and increase its acceptance as a valid alternative, displacing a significant percentage of cars on our streets? Or do we just want a nice place to play bikey-bike?

    Let’s bump the parking as this plan requires, then paint the entire curb lane, both sides of the street, green with sharrows. Take back the streets, don’t throw up a “separate but equal” barrier which only gives motorists more justification to keep us off streets they already see as theirs alone.

  • Jym

    =v= If SPUR is overreaching, that would be a welcome switch from the “let’s water down our proposals and then make it clear that we’ll settle for even less” approach that has stymied progress for the last two decades.

    It doesn’t look too elaborate to me; it looks exactly like Kent Street in Brooklyn.

  • Alex

    Looking at that first illustration I thought, yes! Give the tourists and weekend warriors their own separate track out of the way of the rest of us!

  • zsolt

    I don’t think this plan is overreaching. And bike lanes painted bright colors is quickly gaining popularity around the world. Yes, it’s like kindergarden, but car drivers apparently need that to keep out of the bike lane. I wish more bike lanes were painted this way in the city.

  • the greasybear

    Taken as a whole, there is more than enough right-of-way along the Embarcadero to afford cyclists a track. It should work well if–and only if–the design includes adequate barricades to keep double-parking motorists from shutting it down like they do our existing bike lanes.

  • Chris

    As a daily bicycle commuter that commuted along the Embarcadero for years when I lived in Russian Hill, I personally would prefer a solution that was more similar to the condition along Crissy Field. Painted bike lanes in the street for more experienced cyclists, and painted bicycle lanes on the promenade for recreational cyclists. I would rather have the promenade widened to accommodate a designated area for recreational cyclists than building barriers and placing them in the street closer to the cars and with the more experienced cyclists. I do understand that not every cyclist is comfortable riding in the street, but many cyclists, like myself, prefer to be right there with the cars (I actually find cars to be more predictable than pedestrians)and feel the need for bicycles to be treated more like a vehicle than a pedestrian. Removing parking, building barriers to give the cars their own space, and moving bicycles out of the way is only going to make the cars on the Embarcadero travel faster.

  • If we want only 1 to 2% of the population to ride bikes, then yes, let’s leave the bikes with the cars. If we want 20 – 30% of the population to ride bikes (yes, this is possible in places that invest in infrastructure) then create bikeways that are separate from cars. Please remember that even if you are young, in great shape, and have nerves of steel, it doesn’t mean that everyone else is in the same situation. A city has not over-engineered its bike infrastructure until people from ages 8 – 80 can use it.

  • Bob

    The good news is, since California has no mandatory sidepath law, cyclists will retain the right to use the public roadway. There we’ll enjoy the safety and convenience and protection of the ordinary rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. Even better, with the mandatory bike lane stripe removed, we’ll have the right to exercise our own judgment in lane positioning decisions.

    The bad news is, cyclists can expect tremendous harassment from motorists who don’t know (1) cyclists are not required to use the sidepath, and (2) cyclists have the right to control a full lane if it’s too narrow to share.

  • Chris

    Taomom… I apoligize if in my haste to post before dinner I came off as saying everyone should have to ride in traffic… I completely agree that bicycle infrastructure has to be designed for all users of all ages and abilities. I just think that the bicycle lane that is with traffic (as it is today) is very important to people whom use the bicycle as a vehicle. If we are talking about taking out a traffic lane (10′-12′) plus parking lanes (7′-8′) why can’t we have both (as it is at Crissy Field… but with a much larger pedestrian area along the Embarcadero). I sold my car years ago and rely on a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation… and as often as I like to take a leisurely ride on my bike… many times I am simply trying to get from point A to point B. In those instances, I don’t necessarily want to be weaving in and out of children nor do I want to be forced of the road or harassed by cars that don’t understand that I can take up a full travel lane. The Embarcadero is an important route for so many modes of transportation I just think it is important to make sure it is done right. I’m really not trying to be argumentative here… I’m just stating my personal opinion about what I would like to see.

  • StuartH

    There is actually lots of room on the sidewalk even on sunny weekends when the pedestrians are out in force; however because they tend to spread out, bicycling on the sidewalk becomes extremely difficult at anything other than very slow speeds (or, some rude cyclists treat the walkway like a slalom course terrorizing pedestrians). So I think you could easily lose many feet of sidewalk without affecting the ability of large volumes of pedestrians to use and enjoy the sidewalk.
    It is interesting that one person wants to limit speeds to 20 MPH (on ALL city streets) and another person is disgruntled because they think separate but equal is somehow unfair. Really this just shows how people on this site are largely anti-car and are unwilling to accept that for the vast majority of people, bicycles are not an alternative. This proposal would really provide a major benefit to cyclists and, if the parking issues are dealt with, would not have a negative impact on motorists. But for some, a “win-win” situation is not sufficient. It is essential that cars must lose; that bicyclists must be deemed equally worthy etc. What a load of PC crap.
    The fact is that cars and bikes sharing the same roadway does not work very well; it is frustrating for both the bikes and the cars. Here is a proposal that by segregating the traffic, the bikes could obtain a major benefit. People should embrace that rather than insisting that cars must suffer.

  • zsolt

    StuartH, I suggest you read up on things before you make proclamations about things you clearly have no experience with or clue about. The discussion amongst bike advocates about the best way to achieve right of ways for bikes is historied and multi-dimensional. Also, taking single comments and deriving general conclusions about the entirety of the community on this site is obviously a very flawed way to make your point. Do you even have a point?

  • localsonly

    I’m for whatever gets them off the sidewalk so I don’t have to keep calling the police.

  • wheelchairgirl

    “it would cut down on bike and pedestrian conflicts that occur on the shared sidewalk.”

    Is the sidewalk there seriously “shared”? I don’t get down there very often, but I was under the impression that there wasn’t a sidewalk-marked bike path for the whole length yet, and I’m still under the impression that it is technically illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk in this town.

    I look at those proposed dividers, and I assume that the bicycles are supposed to stay in there, just as the cars are supposed stay on “their” part of the road. I can easily see how motorists would get very annoyed at bicycles deciding arbitrarily to ride in the street *even when they have a designated path of their own* (and possibly more prone to ignoring non-fenced bike lane privileges as a result). Sidepath law is going to be pretty obscure to most motorists – especially considering that the Embarcadero is going to have a high percentage of tourist traffic (what sane local would drive down there?).

    @taomom: No amount of over-engineering is going to make it possible for some of us to ride a bike. And some of us need more sidewalk room.

    @Chris: Why do you commute on the Embarcadero when you know it’s going to be clogged with tourists? Is it actually so important a navigational throughway despite that hazard? I go a block or two out of my way to avoid tourist-clogged sidewalks and usually still save time. It seems to me that the Embarcadero shouldn’t be a commuter route for any sort of commuters. Is there any alternate route, or anything being proposed?

    If this works out, I’d love to see a tourist-friendly bike rental down on the waterfront, and some more bike rickshaws for those who can’t ride.

  • Chris,
    I like the way Crissy Field has two sets of bike lanes, too, and can accommodate both the I-want-safety and the I-want-to-move demographics. Perhaps wherever possible, we should aim for this? Surely the Embarcadero is wide enough and important enough to deserve all the bike functionality we can give it.

    Wheelchair girl,
    It seems to me getting bikes off the sidewalk will make all sidewalk users a lot happier. Again, it depends on the amount of encroachment. In general I’m happy for wide sidewalks because they create an important shared public space where people interact with each other on a human rather than mechanized level.

    From my point of view, reducing the CO2 produced by private cars before we render our planet uninhabitable for ourselves and the majority of other species is far more important than the convenience of individual motorists. We can do this many ways–bicycles, electric bicycles, walking, public transit–but we’ve got to do it fast. In addition, Peak Oil and Peak Credit mean that within five years very few people will be able to afford gasoline. If you expect to be in the wealthiest 5% of the population,then arguing for private cars makes sense. If you expect otherwise, you might want to get other things in place.

  • Chris

    Wheelchair girl,
    The Embarcadero is a major route for me because it is flat and gets you around several hills in the northern neighborhoods. It also has fewer signals(making it the quickest route) and well designated turn lanes (so the conflict with turning cars is more predictable). Really, the same reason all of the cars want to be on the Embarcadero is why I want to be there. (when I am referring to commuting on the Embarcadero, I am talking about using the bicycle lanes on the street… not riding on the promenade). BART also requires bicycle commuters to get off and on BART at the Embarcadero station during commute hours, which makes this route another draw for commuters.

    The issue here is that the promenade is also part of the regional Bay Trail (which means that bicycles are permitted on the promenade) and it has a very broad range of users. The conflict really is between the pedestrians and the bicyclists whom don’t feel comfortable riding on the street and chose to ride on the promenade. I completely agree that this conflict has become worse over the years and needs to be resolved, I just personally would prefer that in order to address the conflict on the promenade, the bicycle lane on the street not be eliminated. Some bicycles tend to act more like pedestrians and some bicycles like to think that they are cars and I think that mixing those two types of users is just shifting the conflict.

    All of this really is just my personal opinion as someone whom had commuted along that route for years. I appreciate all of the design efforts that have gone into this and if all the transportation planners (we have a bunch of great ones in SF) support this as the best solution (even if its not the perfect solution) then I will support it as well.

  • Dave Snyder

    It seems to me this proposal is not complete unless sharrows are added in the mixed traffic roadway lanes to make it absolutely clear to motorists that bicycle riders are permitted in those lanes as well as in the bike path.

  • Rocco

    Sounds like a great idea- just move it the west side of the Embarcadero. For the record, the sidewalk along the eastern side of the Embarcadero is not a bike path. It’s a sidewalk and cyclists don’t belong on it.

    The plan makes no mention of truck access to the Ferry Plaza market. At the moment it’s a delivery only/permit parking area.

    I hope this new bike lane comes about. At the same time, let’s have cyclists pass a written test on the rules of the road, have plates on their bikes, and have to maintain a minimum of liability insurance.

  • Jackson

    Rocco makes a great suggestion about the bike lanes being on the west side of the Embarcadero.

    Also the green paint needs to go. It’s just another high maintenance item for the City.

  • How would a west side bike lane be better? There are MULTIPLE intersections. The east side just has some drive ways here and there and then the Ferry Building (which will be an issue for the farmers market and taxis).

    And the green paint might be needed to show that the bike lane isn’t just another spot to double park.

  • marcos

    Why isn’t the MTA doing its job as the government agency in charge of bicycle planning to plan bicycling facilities and why are nonprofits not working within the system to keep public planning process public?

    The way that tradeoffs of how we allocate scarce resources are sorted out is through the political process. Private agencies commissioning studies on select alternatives short circuits the reasonable give and take that is going on broader based forums like this and would be brought to bear in the political process involved in scoping and carrying out a study.

    Instead of putting forth pre packaged solutions where criticism of that promoted alternative is neutralized as NIMBYism by a full court press of paid staffers and erstwhile interns, why aren’t we planning these projects from the ground up in the public sector, under sunshine,where political decisions are supposed to be made?

    It is through this kind of short-circuiting of the public process by the private sector that is promoting a decidedly narrow interest that communities get disenfranchised. The broader based public sector is where these conversations need to be originating.

    SPUR’s demonstrated track record is of promoting some of the least livable “improvements” to our “urban fabric” by such “built environments” as the dysurban hell that is 4th and King that has every desired livability “treatment” in the book, residential density, BRT on steroids, regional transit, ground floor retail, mixed use jobsites, yet fails miserably as a neighborhood. It isn’t even “vibrant,” what, for “livability treatments.”



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