Fell and Oak Street Neighbors Want Livable Streets, Not Residential Freeways

Cars barrel through on Oak Street at Divisadero. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Parents seeking a vibrant, community-filled urban lifestyle filled with chance street corner chats on the walk to the grocery store may find living on Fell Street leaves a lot to be desired.

That is, unless, crossing the street alongside four full lanes of car traffic is your idea of community.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Daniel, a father of two and five-year resident. “Fell Street is used basically as a freeway – it’s not really used as a street.”

For decades, neighbors of Fell and Oak have lived with the blight of at least 30,000 motor vehicles [pdf] invited to drive down each of the motorways every day. The one-way arterials were designed half a century ago to give priority to the massive waves of cars barreling through the neighborhood, creating an unwelcoming environment for those walking, riding a bike, or simply existing on the streets.

“If you live in a house on here, you’d better hope you have double-paned windows,” said Daniel. “It’s very noisy, and the amount of idling cars waiting for lights will make your house a dirty, dusty mess.”

Residents say dangerous, noisy, and polluted conditions brought on by the heavy motor traffic can present barriers to access in an area otherwise valued as rich with nearby shops, services, parks, public transportation and friendly neighbors.

An elderly woman crosses Fell Street with an aide. Photo: Aaron Bialick

“You want families to stay in San Francisco,” says realtor and Fell Street homeowner Bonnie Spindler, who warns that the threat of motor traffic can be restrictive to parents’ ability to walk with their children to enjoy the many amenities a neighborhood has to offer.

Walkability is an evermore important goal if San Francisco is to remain a place for children and reduce automobile dependency. “The more accessible a neighborhood is, the less you’re throwing your kids in the car,” said Spindler.

But with multi-block platoons of one-way motor traffic roaring through residential neighborhoods on a system of synchronized signals, drivers on the Fell-Oak arterials are prone to honk at others or even kill pedestrians with the slightest delay.

“If parents are terrified that they can’t get across the street with a stroller to get to the park because of the speed of the traffic, usage goes down,” said Spindler.

The playgrounds and green space of the Panhandle provide a “natural meeting place” in the neighborhood that’s ideal for families, she said. “But parents are really worried about their children and traffic, and it really reduces the livability.”

Four speed-inducing lanes split the Panhandle from the adjacent neighborhood. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Even able-bodied pedestrians sometimes feel rushed to cross the street, and navigating the area can be particularly risky for the elderly and disabled, noted Daniel. “Although San Francisco may consider itself to be more pedestrian friendly than some cities, I think in a lot of instances they increase pedestrian risk,” he said.

That appears to be the case on Fell and Oak Streets, where motor uses take dramatic precedence over those of people. At the cross-section of Divisadero, three gas stations packed into a single block create a machine-dominated environment that’s particularly hard to call home.

“Every business that goes in here shuts down almost immediately,” said Kelly, a resident living a couple of blocks over just off Fell Street. She’s referring to a mixed-use building that houses the only storefronts on the block, which are all currently vacant, save a laundromat.

The current prospective tenants for that building are contending with other issues, but the space’s availability and high turnover don’t seem to be a coincidence. Any sense of place that might attract business-nurturing foot traffic appears to be destroyed by skinny sidewalks and the overwhelming presence of cars.

“This gas station and the way the streets are utilized are a negative part of living in this neighborhood,” said Daniel of the Arco gas station on the corner of Fell and Divisadero. It’s notorious for its queues of cars that routinely block the sidewalk and bike lane on Fell Street. “It pretty consistently creates hazards,” he said.

Despite the Fell Street bike lane’s high traffic demand as part of the vital Wiggle route connecting the eastern and western parts of the city, measures taken to improve safety have so far only amounted to creating a queuing space and highlighting the lane in green, resulting in meager blockage reductions.

Even without the gas station queue, people riding the three-block Fell bike lane are squeezed between parked cars and three lanes of motor traffic with virtually no room to maneuver.

“The only thing I don’t like about [living in the neighborhood] is riding home,” said Kelly, who, like many in the area, depends on her feet and her bicycle to get around. “On my intersection of Fell and Broderick, I’ve seen so many people get hit. It’s just an accident waiting to happen.”

Although the number of commuters willing to brave the gap continues to grow by the month – doubling from March 2009 to 52,000 in September 2010 [pdf] – the number of potential commuters who continue to forego bicycling without a dignified way home remains to be seen.

Rush hour bike commuters brave conditions on Fell at Broderick. Photo: Aaron Bialick

“I’m kind of just waiting to get doored one of these days,” said Arjun Bhat, a nearby resident and architect who uses the bike lane. “While I personally am able to navigate the street alright, I would by no means feel safe if I was a less experienced city rider or a parent riding with my children in tow, or a tourist for that matter,” he said.

Neighbors and would-be cycling commuters seeking a return to civil, livable streets may soon see progress on the horizon. Recent support by Mayor Ed Lee and the SFMTA Board for a proposal to create physically separated bikeways on Fell and Oak present the potential to calm traffic and invite people of all ages to walk and bike in the neighborhood.

The proposal is a high-priority piece of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Connecting the City campaign for continuous crosstown bikeways. The plan was roundly praised by neighbors and is sparking interest in new ways to transform the streets into better places for walking, talking, and cycling.

“The residents will benefit from improvements by being respected as human beings,” said Stuart Chuang Matthews of Fix Fell, an activist group which took direct action last year, calling for the closing of the Arco gas station driveway that encourages drivers to line up in the bike lane and endanger riders.

A physically separated bikeway plan that re-purposes travel lanes [pdf] could help solve the bike lane issues and have a major traffic-calming effect while reducing crossing distances for pedestrians. If it happens, the transformation could be one more step forward in the decades-long fight to return the residential freeways to places for people who live on them.

“They will be able to walk safely and breathe fresh air outside of their homes,” said Matthews. “They will be spared stressful traffic and honking noise while trying to relax inside. Their children will be able to play outside.”

“These are basic human rights issues.”

A father crossing Oak Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick
A driver accesses street parking the only way that seems possible on a residential freeway: by risking a multi-car wreck and invoking the angry honks of the drivers behind. Photo: Aaron Bialick
A quick hello between two people in front of a wall of cars. Photo: Aaron Bialick
  • Nice to see some new members in the reality-based community, especially Wai Yip Tung. The anti-car bike movement is in danger of overreach with the Fell Street proposals. You better wait until after the city screws up Cesar Chavez and Masonic before another ambitious anti-car project.

    Someone mentioned tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, but the Central Freeway, Octavia Blvd. fiasco is a more relevant example of how these well-intentioned projects can have disastrous consequences for our neighborhoods.

    The outright lies about the safety of Fell Street are the same lies the anti-car folks are making about Masonic to justify screwing up traffic on that important north/south city street.

  • Just like how Arguello and Valencia got all screwed up… in the fantasy-based reality of the anti-bike nuts, at least 😉

  • The smiley face is in keeping with the contents of the comment. Not all streets are the same, and the EIR on the Bicycle Plan told us that implementing it on Masonic will have “significant impacts,” including delaying the #43 line that carries more than 12,000 people a day.

  • Sprague

    Just like well lit streets and pedestrian activity improve the subjective feel of a street’s safety in regards to criminal activity, separated bike lanes improve the subjective sense of safety and provide perceived protection from automobiles. This is what is missing from San Francisco. Many willing but afraid cyclists will not ride until the streets have such features. The sense that the streets are not safe for cyclists may not be based on statistics, but the chances of a serious car-bicycle collision happening seem to be less if there is a greater buffer between them.

    I recently spoke with someone who moved here from Holland and, although she biked in her home country, she does not feel safe doing so in SF. By European and NYC standards, we’re missing the boat.

    The Masonic proposal gets it almost right. Signal preemption for the 43 Masonic, and maybe dedicating an existing lane to transit only on Masonic between Oak and Hayes, would help keep Muni moving along.

  • What some of these commenters don’t seem to understand is that it’s a zero-sum game on city streets as far as space is concerned. If you’re going to create separated bike lanes on city streets, you have to either take away a lot of street parking or take away traffic lanes. Both those alternatives can have political repercussions on busy streets in neighborhoods that are already short of parking.

    I understand of course that many commenters seem to think the city’s number one priority should be to make cyclists feel safe on city streets, but cyclists are a small minority even in SF.

    A “transit” lane between the Panhandle and Hayes Street? After all the “improvements” the city makes to Masonic, that would leave one lane for all the other traffic. Besides, there’s only one Muni line on Masonic—not including the express buses that only use a few blocks during rush hours—and that’s the #43 line. What the city is planning for Masonic will not only jam up traffic on that important north/south street but it will delay the #43 line, which carries more than 12,000 people a day.

  • Sprague

    The Masonic Boulevard proposal includes three southbound lanes at the start of the block, then increasing to four southbound lanes in the middle of the block, between Hayes and Fell. In the block between Fell and Oak, a total of five lanes (north- and southbound) are planned. With transit priority measures, like a transit only lane with queue jumps for Muni along this stretch, Muni service would further profit from the Masonic plan.

  • Simply untrue. Masonic now has only two lanes in each direction, and the city creates an extra lane by prohibiting street parking during commute hours. The city is going to remove all that street parking to make bike lanes, making the two lanes in each direction permanent, with all traffic confined to those four lanes at all hours of the day. The city claims that this will have little impact—apparently based on computer projections—but it’s hard to believe that it won’t. (It will all be done just in time for the opening of the Target store at Geary and Masonic.) There will be no “profit” for the #43 Masonic Muni line, which moves quite well now between the Panhandle and Geary Blvd. The anti-car bike people give lip service to “transit,” but it’s only rhetorical cover for “calming” all traffic on Masonic, including Muni buses.

  • Sprague

    The facts are easy to see, even for the illiterate, with nice graphic illustrations (see pages 47 and 48):


    Naysaying doesn’t get us anywhere. It keeps us right where we are today, burning cheap oil from the other side of the globe while polluting our own neighborhoods and kids with our own exhaust. We can work to improve our neighborhoods and our city or we can fight it tooth and nail, and keep spinning our wheels.

  • TK

    “What these commenters don’t seem to understand is that it’s a zero-sum game on city streets as far as space is concerned”

    This commenter included, because you are absolutely wrong. Any planner can tell you that if you take away a lane and put in a left-turn lane, you actually speed up traffic. And let’s not even talk about the value of a separated bike lane, separating slow from fast. Check a map. It’s a bike route. Get over it.

    Also, Rob, nice job completely misreading Sprague’s comment (#56), but thanks for playing.

    Of course, I may be inadvertently pointing out a problem: Are there enough left-turn lanes? If they just would scrap that dumb median (which so many of us have pointed out is bad street design), wouldn’t there be more flexibility for speeding up traffic that way? Disallowing left turns during “peak” hours always seems to only do so much, because DPT never adjusts the hours to suit traffic patterns anyway.

  • We’re not talking about a left-turn lane on a small portion of Masonic but taking away all the street parking to make bike lanes between Geary and Fell. You can’t take away traffic lanes and/or street parking without impacting traffic on that street and in surrounding streets and neighborhoods.

    The city admitted in the briefs it filed during the litigation about the adequacy of the EIR on the Bicycle Plan that implementing the Plan will indeed have “significant impacts” on traffic, including delaying Muni lines:

    “The City found that, despite the significant impacts from approval of the Bicycle Plan…the benefits of approving the Plan outweighed the unavoidable impacts it created (page 25)…the City determined that by implementing the Bicycle Plan, more people would chose[sic] to ride a bicycle than currently do—the idea of “mode shift” (page 26)…Nothing in the Statement[of Overriding Considerations] downplays the number or magnitude of traffic or transit impacts, or overstates the number of bicyclists, the primary beneficiaries of the Project’s benefits (pages 27 & 28, Respondent City and County of San Francisco’s Opposition to Petitioners’ Objections to City’s Return).”

    In short, the city knows that doing what it’s planning to do to streets like Masonic and Cesar Chavez is going to make traffic worse for everyone but cyclists. It’s going to implement these projects anyhow based on nothing but the “mode shift” theory—which is really only a hope—that enough cyclists will use the new bike lanes to justify making traffic worse for everyone else.

    What the city is planning to do on Masonic will definitely have an impact on traffic and Muni and other streets in the area. We just won’t know exactly what that impact will be until after it’s done.

    The whole project is also poorly timed, since the new Target store at Masonic and Geary will be opening about the same time.

  • Aaron Bialick

    It’s understood that the Masonic redesign will impact car traffic – it’s largely the point. Under the current design, car traffic is having significant impacts on bike traffic, neighborhood livability and safety, among other issues. The new design includes bus bulbs, which will give the 43 priority in the right lane, since its average speed is lower than those of automobiles.

    Again, the prevailing issue is priorities. Why continue to put private automobile peak travel times above all else – especially at the expense of offering alternatives? That notion, Rob, is the key I think you need to understand.

  • jd

    Yes, Rob, as Aaron said, you just keep repeating the same thing without acknowledging the arguments against your point of view. Specifically, you are putting the *convenience* of drivers over the *safety* of cyclists. People are making the case that:

    1) It won’t be as bad as you think (witness just about every other street in SF that has been “calmed” … I know you think this one will be different, and maybe it will, but you at least must acknowledge that the fears you express aren’t always realized).

    2) Even if it does make traffic worse, as you quoted from the briefs in the EIR for the Bicycle Plan, the city (and everybody here arguing against you) is arguing that it’s still a NET benefit to our city.

    Now look, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be problems or improvements can’t be made or criticism leveled against bike plans, but we are just running circles around each other if you refuse to acknowledge the very premise of your argument: putting motorists’ *convenience* over cyclists’ and pedestrians’ *safety*.

  • According to its own numbers, Masonic is not now unsafe for anyone (see the Powerpoint presentation from last year; http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/CDG/docs/masonic/Masonic_Community_Meeting_One.pdf, page 29, page 31, and page 32)

    Very few cyclists use Masonic now, but more than 32,000 vehicles do daily, and another 12,000 ride the #43 every day, which now moves very well between the Panhandle and Geary. I know because I ride that bus several times a week. That is, Masonic now works well for everyone but cyclists. This is nothing but a power play by the city’s bike people that will benefit only that interest group with an effective political lobby.

    Instead of serving the interests of the more than 44,000 people who now use Masonic every day, the city is allowing the small minority of anti-car bike people to trump the interests of everyone else.

    I understand the PC anti-car movement in SF very well, Aaron, but I don’t think the people of SF do. Once you people screw up traffic on this important city street, they will understand it a lot better.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Well Rob, good luck going to NOPNA meetings and telling the neighbors that Masonic is safe, works well for everyone, and that the design they composed and overwhelmingly approved over the past couple of years is “nothing but a power play by the city’s bike people that will benefit only that interest group with an effective political lobby.”

    No, really, I think it’s a wonderful way to spend your time and energy.

  • jd

    Rob wrote: “According to its own numbers, Masonic is not now unsafe for anyone.”

    You haven’t been listening. Look, how many people have told you about the externalized costs of cars? It isn’t just about accidents (though go look at the statistics for how many people are killed and inured by cars in SF compared to how many by bicyclists). Cars kill people, period. They kill them in multiple ways: through accidents, through pollution, through contributing to the obesity epidemic, and from fighting wars to defend an oil supply that mostly fuels these cars. All these issues must be considered, not just one. Again, it is the idea of externalizing the true damage of cars.

    Bicycles are a net health benefit, *even* when they have to deal with cars:

    Now just imagine how much of a health benefit they would have if they weren’t so neglected in our urban design?

    Then you have to factor in the simple environmental issue that we can’t supply enough fuel to keep running cars like we are indefinitely. People are looking at ALL these issues (it’s called the “big picture”) and saying, yes cars are faster, but there is much more at stake here than speed (especially since you can make other forms of traffic just about as fast if you invest the same amount of energy and resources into them as we do cars).

    So again, your argument is based on the idea that one group of user’s of transit (automobiles) *convenience* trumps all others’ safety, even if that one group is the majority. That is *not* how anybody would argue we should design our cities.

    Rob wrote: “Very few cyclists use Masonic now.”

    We’ve been through this one before, so you’re just repeating yourself without acknowledging the case that’s been made against you. Yes, no cyclists ride Masonic *because* *it’s* *too* *dangerous*. That would be like me telling you that, since no cars drive down the bike path in the Panhandle, we certainly don’t need Fell or Oak St for cars. Or like saying that since there are no pedestrians walking through the Bart tunnel under Market St that must mean nobody wants to go walk downtown.

    Rob wrote: “Once you people screw up traffic on this important city street, they will understand it a lot better.”

    You just keep saying this, just like you said it for the bike plan, but it simply doesn’t happen. Traffic isn’t any worse in SF, even after all the bike lane improvements. And this is neglecting the whole issue — which everyone here keeps trying to impress on you but which you keep ignoring — that developing our cities around cars is anachronistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy (and I’m going to repeat myself for the millionth time as to the reasons why).

  • Your perspective—and the city’s—is based on a fantasy, that cars are somehow obsolete, that we’re going to run out of oil soon, that screwing up traffic on city streets with bike lanes will lead to a significant increase in cyclists. There’s no evidence for any of these assumptions.

    According to the city’s numbers, during the last 10 years on average 1.8 cyclists have died on city streets per year, none on Masonic, except for Nils Linke last year, and he might have survived that accident if he’d been wearing a helmet.

    The Bicycle Plan hasn’t yet been implemented on a major city street. Cesar Chavez and Masonic will be the first two, so we’re really in uncharted territory here.

    What you and the city are gettng ready to do is redesign a major north/south street in the middle of the city on behalf of your small minority. If it turns out badly, it will discredit the bike/anti-car movement politically, which is okay with me.

  • @Rob “and he might have survived that accident if he’d been wearing a helmet.” Everyone loves blaming the victim.

  • jd

    Rob wrote: “Your perspective—and the city’s—is based on a fantasy, that cars are somehow obsolete, that we’re going to run out of oil soon”

    Rob you sound irrational to say that something that is mentioned all over our society is a “fantasy”. Here are a handful of sources:

    National Geographic

    The Economist

    And look, I’m not even saying that we even fully understand the issue or that it can’t be debated, but to call it “fantasy” is denigrating to the whole discussion. And to yourself.

    And besides, obviously we will run out of it eventually, right? I mean, maybe you think it’s a 100 years away, but you do understand that it’s a finite resource, right? So we all know it’s going to run out, it’s really a question of when. So why not start preparing for that future now? Why do we have to wait until it reaches a point of desperation, where we’ll have completely destroyed the planet in our last-minute panic to get it all out when we could have been preparing decades earlier? And all, nonetheless, so people can shave some time off their commute? Which is already way too long anyway thanks to the car? Really, this is your argument?

    By the way, nobody here is saying cars will be obsolete. However, what will be obsolete is the way we use cars now, namely, mostly a single person and otherwise empty traveling to places that were designed for the car and hence require the car to get around. It is horrible design from an engineering standpoint (never mind the environmental and health concerns) to design a 4,000 lb vehicle to move only a couple hundred pounds of “cargo” (a person and a bag or two) around, which is how we use our cars today the vast majority of the time. However, cars have many uses, for example: hauling huge loads, emergency vehicles, for the handicapped or disabled, traveling to remote places not served by public transit, etc. This is what cars should be used for, and they always will. However, this and always be a small *minority* of our uses; for the day-to-day stuff, yes cars will be obsolete. We will always have roads for cars, but they will not dominate like they do now (now how far away this future is, I have no idea … 30 years, 50 years, longer? … but it will happen).

    It’s to radicalize the side arguing against you — by saying that we want the car to be obsolete — rather than accepting that the issues is more subtle and complicated. I’ll say it again: nobody wants to get rid of cars, but we’ve grown tired of all their downsides being neglected to the point that other forms of transit, all of which are more healthy and environmentally-friendly to boot, are being neglected which has put the safety of other road users (and other motorists, since pollution, obesity, and wars hurt us all) in jeopardy.

    “that screwing up traffic on city streets with bike lanes will lead to a significant increase in cyclists. There’s no evidence for any of these assumptions.”

    Stop using the phrase “screwing up”. It’s not helping your case, and is clearly a biased statement which reflects your opinion, but not that of everybody else’s, since making our city more livable is hardly “screwing things up” for a lot of people. Your inability to acknowledge the arguments against you and to keep repeating the same comments, as well as using biased language in a community where clearly others who don’t think making cycling and public transit better is “screwing things up”, might be part of the reason you had no success with convincing the city to stop the bike plan, and might be why you aren’t winning a lot of people over here or elsewhere.

    By the way, I’m sure you have good points, but they get lost in your radicalizing/misrepresenting of the opposite argument, your biased language, and your inability to acknowledge anything that’s been stated to you repeatedly, which is in turn disrespectful of all those spending their time trying to discuss these issues and come up with real solutions and compromises.

  • jd

    By the way, in the middle of my previous post, I meant to say, “It’s easy to radicalize ….”. Forgot the “easy”.

  • Sprague


    i commend you for your patience and for reaching out respectfully. It’s always great to read comments that are rooted in respect.

  • The Facts

    @TK “Any planner can tell you that if you take away a lane and put in a left-turn lane, you actually speed up traffic. ”

    Any Planner (or person) who says that is full of ****. Left turn pockets increase visibility of oncoming traffic allowing drivers to turn better judge when to make the turn. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers all benefit from this. This is especially true if there is another driver making a left turn in the opposite direction. It also puts less stress on the left turning driver to make an unsafe turn because drivers behind get impatient because of the lane blockage. They also help reduce red light running because impatient drivers stuck behind the left turning vehicle are not encouraged to beat the light once the left turning driver makes the turn. (Chances are, the left turning driver is turning on yellow which means the drivers in back will run the red if they try to beat the light)

    Increase speeding? Baloney. The safety factors above FAR outweigh any minimal speeding that you or this “Planner” claims. I wonder who this joke of a “Planner” is…

  • “Cars kill people…in multiple ways: through accidents, through pollution, through contributing to the obesity epidemic, and from fighting wars to defend an oil supply that mostly fuels these cars.”

    I don’t think the million-plus civilians killed in Iraq should be blamed on our cars. Getting access to oil doesn’t require war, just that you pay the requested price.

    The Iraq war was more about getting a short-term popularity boost for Bush. (And it worked — yay!) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/russ-baker/real-reason-for-iraq-inva_b_819426.html

  • “Your perspective—and the city’s—is based on a fantasy, that cars are somehow obsolete, that we’re going to run out of oil soon…”

    No one says that. The world will never run out of oil. We *will* run out of cheap oil, though, as global production declines and each additional barrel is more costly to produce. When that happens, it will be like the 70’s oil shocks, except it won’t end in a couple of years.

    You can call that a fantasy, but there is plenty of evidence that it’s already happening. The current high price of oil could well be the “new normal” and a sign of worse to come.

  • jd

    peternatural wrote: “I don’t think the million-plus civilians killed in Iraq should be blamed on our cars. Getting access to oil doesn’t require war, just that you pay the requested price.”

    Sure, and obviously we need oil for more than cars (like buses and airplanes, making plastic (though we also need to get real serious about recycling plastic), etc.), so I never said that *all* the deaths in the Middle East are because of cars. But the reality is, 70% of our oil consumption goes to the transportation sector, and so some large percent of that is wasted on our inefficient use of cars. So, if we didn’t waste so much oil on cars, we could get enough oil without having to depend on the Middle East, thereby preventing the wars. Or, even if we do have to get some oil from there, clearly it’s not as big of an operation since we would need much less. In conclusion, you simply have to include *some* percent of the death and destruction that is happening in the Middle East as a direct result of our inefficient use of the personal automobile. Sure, the exact amount is obviously debatable, but the point is, you most certainly cannot externalize this cost when you talk about the automobile.

    “The world will never run out of oil. We *will* run out of cheap oil, though, as global production declines and each additional barrel is more costly to produce.”

    Agreed – this is a better way to state it than I did. We’ll never fully run out, just as the supply diminishes prices will increase to the point that we’ll only use it for uses which really need it (for example, airplanes, which aren’t anytime soon going to find another way than fossil fuels to get power … but we will most certainly be using them a lot less when that day comes).


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