New Supes Proposal Would Expedite Sidewalk Expansions

[Note: This proposal was approved by the full Board of Supervisors.]

Widening sidewalks in San Francisco is a time-consuming task — it’s the only city in California where even minor changes to a sidewalk’s width require legislative approval. But a new proposal headed to the SF Board of Supervisors would cut some of the red tape standing in the way of implementing such street improvements.

"Bulb-outs", or curb extensions, like this one at 7th Avenue and Irving Street could be installed more easily under a new proposal. Image: Google Maps

The proposal, sponsored by Supervisor Scott Weiner and Mayor Ed Lee, was moved forward by the SF Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee today. It would streamline the bureaucratic process for building sidewalk extensions (a.k.a. “bulb-outs”) — a street design tool often used by planners to calm motor traffic, improve pedestrian visibility and comfort, and ease transit boardings at stops — by eliminating an outdated requirement for changes to sidewalk widths less than one block long to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

“This will be a significant improvement in our process in terms of making our city more pedestrian-friendly and safer for pedestrians, improving the vibrancy of our commercial districts, and creating more public space that is not for cars, but rather for people,” said Wiener.

“Upon adoption of the Better Streets Plan, we’ve seen more and more projects come through for minor sidewalk changes such as corner bulb-outs for individual projects that don’t exceed one linear block,” said Nick Elsner of the SF Department of Public Works (DPW), the primary agency responsible for implementing sidewalk extensions. “This would greatly expedite and make the process much more efficient.”

According to legislative documents [PDF], the proposal would amend an ordinance passed in 1910 requiring project approval from supervisors, which “result[s] in a very lengthy process and often lead[s] to project delays.” It would also establish a speedier approval process for the SF Planning Department, but projects would still need to be approved by other affected agencies like the SFMTA. The change would save the DPW an estimated $2,500 in processing costs for a block of construction, said spokesperson Gloria Chan, and the SF Planning Department would save about $1,375 in reviews.

Bulb-outs, the documents note, are an important tool in pursuing the city’s goals of improving the pedestrian environment. Stephen Shotland of the Planning Department said the proposal is intended “to be able to move projects forward that really are consistent with the General Plan and consistent with the adopted Better Streets Plan,” which, along with several neighborhood plans cited in the documents, call for improvements like widening congested sidewalks, minimizing crossing distances, and discouraging high-speed car traffic on local streets. “Staff would be able to review projects to make sure that, in fact, is the case,” said Shotland.

The proposal passed the committee today without objection and is expected to go before the full board in the coming weeks.

  • I think it’s great that it will be easier to add corner bulbs, but I hope they will add a new paper trail that will track the changes for historical interest in the way that amendments to this ordinance have traditionally done.

    If anybody wants to read the original version and see just how much former sidewalk space has been taken away from San Francisco’s pedestrians over the years, Google Books has the 1903 version of the ordinance.

  • Aaron Bialick

    It did say that the DPW would still be required to keep a record of sidewalk width changes.

  • SFwalkman

    I support the sidewalk widening concept, but PLEASE lets also add a lot more sidewalk greening and trees.

  • Guerrero

    Wow. That means in 1903 my street would have had a 19′ sidewalk. Today it has 8′

  • I’m all for more pedestrian space and reducing government overhead costs, but couldn’t this law be used to reduce pedestrian space also?

  • Fortunately it says (on page 24) that any sidewalk narrowings have to go through the normal approval process by the supervisors (as does anything affecting more than one block).

  • Anonymous

    Wouldn’t it be easier to plant the greening right in the street? Just dig a hole in the asphalt, build a little curb, and plant a tree. Here is an example:,144.985207&spn=0.002014,0.002757&hnear=Melbourne+Victoria,+Australia&gl=us&t=h&z=19&layer=c&cbll=-37.853657,144.984915&panoid=iKB_ZNkHTPai98M8AHnCTQ&cbp=12,99.24,,0,9.11

  • Sprague

    Thank you for shining the light on this seemingly important change, Aaron.  It seems as if Streetsblog’s coverage of local issues has been kicked up a notch, under your helmsmanship.  There are many intersections and blocks in SF that would benefit from sidewalk widenings.  For starters, bulbouts and other improvements to the oh-so-wide-street-surface Market and Noe/16th and the Market and Sanchez/15th intersections would be welcome.

  • marcos

    Bulbouts are good. 

    Bulbouts along bike lanes are problematic. 

    Bulbouts along bike lanes and surface transit lines are dangerous.


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