New Study Analyzes Traffic Around Former Central Freeway

Traffic on Octavia Blvd at Market St. SFCTA
Traffic on Octavia Blvd at Market Street. Image: SFCTA

The Central Freeway sections damaged by the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 have been replaced by such a distinctive Octavia Boulevard, for many San Franciscans the double-decked behemoth that used to dominate the neighborhood has become a distant memory. Most of the traffic the freeway carried, however, has not disappeared and now city planners are tracking its displacement on city streets and devising scenarios for reducing it to make surrounding neighborhoods more hospitable to transit, pedestrians and cyclists.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) this week released baseline traffic information as part of the ongoing Central Freeway and Octavia Circulation Study and proposed solutions for improving the situation locally and regionally [pdf].

The most obvious finding in the study is that traffic levels, while somewhat reduced on Octavia Boulevard itself since the freeway came down, nonetheless continue to choke the study neighborhoods and affect numerous areas further afield.

The Central Freeway Circulation study area is roughly from Noe Street and 18th Street to the southwest, up to Turk Street and Franklin Street to the northeast, with some of the numbered streets in SOMA to the east and as far as Scott Street to the west. The neighborhoods include Hayes Valley, SOMA, The Mission, Duboce Triangle, Civic Center and the Upper Market/Castro, though it also attempts to measure impacts in neighborhoods as far south as Glen Park and the Mission, which have been dealing with commuter traffic that started using detour routes like San Jose Avenue and Guerrero Street to access downtown after the earthquake.

Despite the ubiquity of transit lines serving the Market Street/Octavia and Hayes Valley neighborhoods, most people traveling to and through the area use a car. While slightly below the city average for auto trips (59 percent), 50 percent of the study area’s 340,000 daily trips are by car, 21 percent by transit, and 29 percent by foot or bicycle.

“This study is like a microcosm of the city’s challenges,” said Tilly Chang, SFCTA Deputy Director for Planning. “If you look at mode share, it’s under-performing even the citywide average in terms of auto modes and non-auto modes.”

Projected housing growth in San Francisco over the next 25 years. SF Planning Deptartment
Projected housing growth in San Francisco over the next 25 years. Image: SF Planning Department

There are two reasons transit is not more attractive, according to Chang: the traffic, and the crowding on buses and trains, especially as they reach the study area. Viewed in the context of projected job and housing growth through 2035, the area will only get more crowded, both with regional and local trips.

At its first public workshop on the study this Monday, SFCTA staff highlighted how regional traffic patterns affect the local neighborhood, given all the vehicular traffic that uses Fell and Oak Streets to access the western neighborhoods and Franklin and Gough Streets to access the northern neighborhoods, just as it did when the freeways were present.

Though traffic volumes on Octavia Boulevard itself are between 50 to 60 percent of traffic volumes on the old freeway, attendees at the meeting argued much of the traffic dividend had been pushed to smaller streets, where rush hour backups can be severe and cause delays to Muni and create conflicts with pedestrians and cyclists.

After the presentation and initial discussion, workshop attendees broke into working groups and discussed possible improvements in broad categories, including:

  • Circulation improvements
  • Transit network improvements
  • Pedestrian and bicycle projects
  • Intersection and “hot-spot” projects
  • Policy and programmatic strategies
Image: SFCTA
Image: SFCTA

Within these broader areas, participants were asked to discuss a long list of projects [pdf], some of them already planned and programmed by city agencies, others more distant opportunities should funding and political support be secured.

Based on feedback from public workshops and presentations, discussions with partner city agencies, and a design charrette the SFCTA expects to hold this winter, the agency will develop three priority projects to design and slot into the grant funding pipeline in 2011.

Jason Henderson, a professor of geography at San Francisco State University and a representative of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association (HVNA), thought the presentation and the study were on the right track, but he critiqued the SFCTA for not collecting more data during the morning rush hours and on weekends, which he said were dominated by traffic nearly as much as the evening peak period.

“If they would just take the rest of the freeway down, we wouldn’t have this problem,” said Henderson, smiling.

Chang said they weren’t explicitly analyzing the further removal of the freeway to Highway 101 in the scope of this study, but that it would be considered in the context of the 30-year San Francisco Transportation Plan. “We will have to look at that in the context of a larger citywide plan,” she said.

Over the next several months, the SFCTA will hold several more presentations for interested community groups, including one during the HVNA General Meeting on October 28th.

  • Mike

    You know, honestly, the single thing that would relief traffic congestion in the Octavia area is letting people turn right from Market onto that onramp. It would be very easy and simple. And think of the benefit.

    I know that bikes would have to give up a little inconvenience, but i think it would be worth it for the decongestion of the area that would lead to faster Muni rides on Haight, etc.

  • Brandon

    A proper metro system. Once its done, they could pedestrianize 1/4 of the city

  • ryan

    @Mike: I agree, maybe with a right-turn filter light and no right on red policy for that intersection?

    But in the long run, I really do think that the rest of the central freeway needs to be removed, maybe extend the new octavia blvd, in its current configuration, down its path to the 101.

    Speaking of freeway demolition, there should be some plan for the 280, it’s kind of a silly stub.

  • @Mike – while allowing that right turn would get people currently using Market onto the freeway faster, it would also encourage people who currently access the Freeway elsewhere to use Market.

    And getting run over is not a “little inconvenience”

  • Schtu

    By far the worst part of my bicycle commute is using the sharrowed local traffic lanes on Octavia Blvd. There is not room for a car and a bike so as a cyclist I must take the lane. This results in cars running the entire length of the blvd on my rear, sometimes with the horns blaring. It is accepted among drivers that “local traffic” does not mean, “I am looking for parking,” or “I am going to access one of the half block alleys” but rather “I am not going to Berkeley so I can drive from Fell to Market in the local traffic lane.” Maybe I am wrong and that is the intent of those lanes, but my understanding is otherwise.

    And yes, yes, yes on the right turn from Market onto the freeway. The well intentioned campaign to protect cyclists by not allowing that in fact had an opposite effect.

  • paul

    @schtu yes i regularly bike on those local lanes on octavia and at least weekly i am almost run down by a car trying to pass me or tailgate me. someone even pulled a gun on me when we got to hayes, just to show me who was in charge.

  • andrew

    #1 most important thing to do is establish one cross street (I recommend Haight) as transit priority, and either set up center transit only lanes both ways, or bar all turns, so the buses can get through. There is NO excuse for the inbound delays in the AM on the Haight St. lines.

    Oh but it’s such a beautiful boulevard! Still, transit was WAY faster when the freeway was elevated. (Keep this in mind when proposals to “beautiful boulevardize” Geary are considered.)

  • andrew

    Maybe the “sharrows”, nice as they seem in those glossy reports produced by expensive consultants, don’t actually do anything? Bike lanes would actually function.

  • andrew

    @John They could put a bike signal in, like at Fell/Masonic.

  • Greg

    Selfishly, I’m most concerned about ways to speed up the 16x morning commute, which always slows to a crawl for quite a few blocks before Oak and Octavia.

  • Alex

    If you get rid of the freeway, the cars won’t magically disappear. Who’da thunk it?

    That area does have a lot of transit passing through it, so where are the cars coming from? Perhaps from people traveling across town that don’t want to spend an hour or more making a trip? Having a multitude of bus and rail routes down Market, Hayes, etc doesn’t matter so much if you’ve got no easy way to access them. As much as it’s been completely discarded by now, perhaps the TEP should not have focused on trunk lines to the detriment of the feeder lines…

    @John So reconfigure the lights. Put in a protected turn, red arrow, and a bicycle signal.

    @Andrew Yes.

  • @Alex @andrew – good point, just like Fell/Masonic.

    Which give us…





  • First off, given that two of the city’s biggest traffic sewers feed into this area (Fell/Oak and Franklin/Gough, not to mention Market Street), I would say having only 50% car modal share is fabulous. I can’t quite believe it myself, because when I’m in that area all I see are cars, cars, cars.

    Personally, I kind of like the little Octavia side streets. Maybe it’s because I don’t take them at commute hours, but there are hardly ever any cars on them, making them lovely bike streets. In addition, I never feel guilty about taking the lane as cars aren’t supposed to be using them as a fast thoroughfare anyway. However, no one has ever pulled a gun on me for this, and indeed, if that happened, I might feel quite differently. If the city wanted to post signs on these side street saying “Bike street–local cars only” I certainly wouldn’t object.

    The real issue here is not bikes or right turn signals or traffic circulation. The real issue is why so many people are bringing cars to the city. I happen to be at the intersection of Oak and Octavia almost every weekday at 3:45 pm, and I am astonished at the number of people lined up at that hour to get on the freeway. (The situation is worse on Fridays and sunny days. Do people just come to the city when its sunny and they have nothing better do?) Congestion occurs on Oak three or four blocks before the cars even make the right turn to Octavia. Who are all these people who get off work at 3:30 in the afternoon and where exactly do they work? Just how many jobs are there in the western half of San Francisco that people commute to from the East Bay? (Anyone living on the Peninsula would take 19th Ave to 280.) Why isn’t BART a better option for them? Do there need to be more shuttles from BART stations directly to major employers in the western half of the city?

    If San Francisco were truly concerned about the environment and climate change, we would embark on a major campaign to convince people in our suburbs that the best way to come to the city is via transit. Buses would specifically be scheduled to meet each train and BART arrival to give people easy, speedy connections. Then, these buses and the speedy transit times they offer to various City destinations would be widely publicized in suburban media. (I give up on MUNI ever getting the T or the N to offer timely connections for Caltrain riders.) Transfers from BART or Caltrain onto Muni would be free.

    Major employers outside the downtown area (such as UCSF, CPMC, Kaiser) would offer their own express shuttles that met BART and Caltrain and whisked their workers across town. Businesses would be rewarded for providing shuttles that met transit and actively discouraged from providing their employees parking. A transit support tax would be imposed on any business or non-profit that had more than a quarter of its employees arriving at work alone in a private car.

    On the weekends, there would be an express Caltrain/Civic Center BART/Golden Gate park bus that got folks from Caltrain to the Academy of Sciences in 20 minutes. (BART to GG park in 15 minutes.) This bus would be well-publicized to the folks who might actually take it, unlike the failed stealth Culture Bus. (Maybe it would also go to the Presidio/Crissy Field since that seems to be a traffic-inducing weekend destination.) Caltrain and BART would offer weekend family fares so that driving the family van 60 miles wasn’t five times cheaper than taking a family of four on public transit.

    Either a bikeshare system would be set up so that people could easily grab a bike from BART or Caltrain stations and bike the last couple miles to their destination, or people would be enthusiastically encouraged to bring their bicycles on board transit at all hours of the day. Safe dedicated bikes lanes would be available so that even tentative riders could navigate the city with confidence.

    On Friday and Saturday evenings, the symphony, opera and ballet would operate shuttles that met Caltrain so that their Peninsula attendees could arrive by transit and not clog the area as they all simultaneously tried to park in the performing arts garage. All three organizations (along with the restaurants in the Civic Center area) would offer incentives to their patrons if they arrive by public transit. Many security guards would patrol Civic Center Plaza on these evenings so that East Bay folks felt absolutely safe walking two blocks to the Civic Center Bart.

    Well, one can dream. I think it’ll take a major gas shortage before any of this happens.

  • @mike, forget about bikes. What makes you think allowing right turn from Market onto 101 will relief traffic congestion?

    Base on what I see from Oak to Octavia intersection, it ensures a long line waiting for the right turn clotting the right most lane. Furthermore, like Oak St, the traffic is likely going to spill over to the 2nd lane. Since Market St only has 2 lanes, this mean the entire East bound traffic are going to be clotted. I don’t see how it relief traffic congestion. You’re probably won’t like what you see if it happens.

  • Sean H

    Taomom for Mayor!

  • Jane

    Market street should not become a freeway access ramp. Allowing a right turn across the bike lane would be extremely unsafe. (Ultimately I think the they never should have rebuilt the freeway to Market.)

    We need better transit options out to the western half of the city so folks can get to work in a reasonable amount of time without driving.

  • Alex


    While I didn’t see anything to indicate that the bicycles had the right of way… and personal experience suggests that most bicycles don’t heed stop signs or signals… hell the last time I drove through Hayes Valley some hipster on a fixie kept pulling out in front of cars and skidding to a stop. I digress.

    More enforcement is needed. I fully support additional police or DPT presence, altho I suspect even a camera would be enough to increase compliance.

    @taomom BART does not serve the western portion of San Francisco at all. By virtue of having a Daly City station, the Parkmerced neighborhood is served, sorta. But that’s about it. Additional shuttle buses would do little to make BART more appealing because of the additional travel time. How many people really want to spend 40 minutes just getting to BART instead of driving to BART in a third to a half of that time or driving door to door? The real fix involves fixing MUNI. Full stop. Without that you’ve got absolutely nothing.

    For the Presidio/GG Bridge crowd: The Presidio has the 29 and Crissy Field has the 28, but they’ve been paring back service annually on both routes for as long as I can remember. It shouldn’t be so difficult to catch a 38 from your Union Square hotel, transfer to a 28 and get to the park or bridge. But it is. Whatever happened to the idea of timed transfers? Good luck transferring from a 38 from Union Square to a 28 in a timely manner.

    While I’d like to see a more thorough reorganization of the routes, there’s gotta be some serious rejiggering of the process first. The TEP suffered from two things: 1.) a downtown routes only mentality and 2.) stiff opposition by the TWU. At this point even restoring service to 2004 levels would go a long way towards getting people out of their cars.

  • Alex – personal experience shows that drivers on Fell turning left on Masonic are all color blind, and don’t know that a “Green Bike” and a “Red Arrow” means “You can’t turn left now”. Of course, this could be explained by the fact that they are looking at their cellphones instead of the traffic light.

    Generalizations and anecdotes don’t make a point. Given your implication that the people who got hit at Fell and Masonic got hit by their own fault, then changing Market/Octavia won’t matter – the cyclists will just figure out how to screw it up and get themselves killed.

  • Alex,

    The emphasis in my post was to deal with people from outside of the city who bring their cars into the city, thus creating high volumes of traffic in the Octavia/Market area. Those are the people lining up for the freeway on Octavia and Oak in the afternoons. Yes, for San Francisco residents, getting Muni to work properly and good bicycle infrastructure is the answer, as well as making car ownership and parking more expensive. I don’t think anyone would argue that BART, as it stands, serves the western half of SF at all.

  • Alex

    @taomom I’d say that, at the very least, BART does not think that it serves the western neighborhoods. Sure, the Daly City station is dangerously close to San Francisco (altho not very westerly)… but you pay a pretty hefty premium for its use. Even the 88 BART shuttle doesn’t go very far into the western hood (unless you consider Parkmerced to be the heart of western SF). Last I checked, Balboa Park is not in a western part of the city (and everything else is further east).

    If you want to target commuters that would otherwise take BART or Caltrain to the downtown stations, that’s fine. There’s already local service to those stations. You don’t need goofy shuttles, you need… we need a restoration of service. The 6 should cover enough of Hayes Valley, if it didn’t provide enough service, why was the 7 (which provided some peak service overlap) so under used (and eliminated)? Likewise Golden Gate Park already has plenty of routes covering it. We don’t need another culture bus, we need to get the existing routes working reliably.

    Focusing on commuters exclusively as Golden Gate Transit does will absolutely help to atrophy the system. If there is one commuter oriented service that ought to be fixed it’s the Caltrain to MUNI connection with the T and N. If the MTA can’t fix that with the existing infrastructure, what hope is there that any improvements will be made?

  • I lived on Octavia while the freeway was being demolished. One of the reasons we decided to leave, knowing that the Boulevard would be beautiful, was that no matter how lovely it would be all of that traffic would be at ground level and there was no way I was going to live with that.

    So we moved to Monterey Blvd. Now, 16 years after leaving Octavia, I find myself continuing to live with the traffic nightmare of the Central Freeway. People came here to go west and they never left. Even when Octavia was finished, those who moved their commute to Monterey never left, only we never got follow up planning to make all of that increased traffic liveable here- we still only have spotty intersection control, poor pedestrian safety, unhealthy traffic noise, decreased air quality…

    Those areas that were effected by the demise of the Central Freeway are more far flung than most people realize. The ripples continue to spread. We have to get a handle on it by all means available to us- improve Muni, improve BART, improve the bike network, improve the pedestrian experience, redesign the streets to reflect the reality of 21st century SF.


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