SFMTA Sets 25 MPH Limits on Four SoMa Streets. Time for Speed Cams?

Speed limits have been lowered from 30 MPH to 25 MPH on Howard, Folsom, Harrison, and Bryant Streets in the South of Market area, the SFMTA announced yesterday.

Howard Street. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/geekstinkbreath/3712436302/##geekstinkbreath/Flickr##

The agency approved the speed limit reductions last year as “an effective way to improve pedestrian and traffic safety in the area,” said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin in a statement. “When traveling at a slightly reduced speed motorists have more time to react, making the roadway safer for everyone.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe applauded the measure to calm traffic on “wide, fast, freeway-like streets,” which see the highest rates of pedestrian fatalities in the city. “Every day, more people are living, working, and walking in SoMa, and safer speeds here will be better for everyone.”

But while physical changes to the street will also be needed to effectively slow car traffic, SFMTA board member Cheryl Brinkman said that “enforcing those speed limits will continue to be a challenge,” and she’s “determined to get camera-based speed enforcement on the legislative agenda for next year.”

“If we cannot afford the level of police officer coverage needed to keep drivers from routinely breaking the law and endangering our citizens, we need to move with the technology of the times and start automating enforcement as Chicago is doing,” said Brinkman. Chicago recently approved a program that enables the city to blanket streets near schools with speed enforcement cameras.

A statement from SFPD Chief Greg Suhr didn’t mention any plans to increase enforcement in the area, though he said “traffic safety is one of the many missions of the SFPD.”

“Through the combined efforts of SFMTA traffic engineers and SFPD education and enforcement campaigns, we can make the city’s streets safer for all who use them,” said Suhr.

The new speed limits are now in effect on Howard from the Embarcadero to South Van Ness Avenue; on Folsom and Howard from the Embarcadero to 13th Street; and on Bryant from the Embarcadero to 11th Street. The SFMTA said it installed 13 signs in addition to the ones they replaced to help ensure drivers are aware of the change.

Brinkman said she’s “thrilled that we’re continuing to review and lower speed limits in SOMA and across the city,” adding that she “can see a time coming when all but a few key streets will have 20 MPH speed limits, making walking, biking and just being on the street much more pleasant and safe.”

  • Sprague

    Speed kills and the existing higher speed limits are not adequately enforced in SOMA (or in most of the city).  The only realistic way to achieve widespread compliance with the new lower speed limits is with speed cameras.  Of course, as your article mentions, traffic calming (road diets, parking protected bike lanes, “ladder” crosswalks…) would help.  But greater use of technology to enforce laws that are routinely ignored, at great peril to the public, is needed.

  • Ryan Holman

    It sounds nice on paper and it’s cheap to do, which is why it was done. However, without major street redesigns I don’t think pedestrians or drivers will notice a difference.

  • Andy Chow

    Speed cameras will certainly the same attract controversy as red light cameras: a revenue generating device. I understand the city’s intention of reduce use of automobiles, but pretty much everything is done self ass (SFpark, etc), which erode community support except the more ideological folks here. While Prop E is supposed to protect MTA directors from political interference, but if they do more things that cause a significant opposition from another community (which can be as politically liberal as the rest of us), Prop E can easily overturned by the same process that created it. The same folks could turn to Sacramento and they can put a stop into it too.

  • Sprague

    I am not aware of there being a controversy surrounding the use of speed cameras in other countries.  In Europe they are fairly common.  The only lasting objection to them comes from those who like to speed.

  • mikesonn

    And red light camera objection comes from those not paying enough attention to stop at a red light.

  • Andy Chow

    Why the focus on survivability unless the city believes that pedestrians should be able to walk willy-nilly across the street. The area has sidewalks and legal crossing points, and more could be done to prevent crashes without resorting to survivability.

    There are people in the city that do walk willy-nilly across the street because of certain conditions they have. Let’s try not to pretend that the city doesn’t have those people.

  • Sprague

    Andy, reducing the speed limit improves safety for everyone on the street, including those behind the wheel of a vehicle.  But reducing the speed limit also makes these SOMA streets quieter and more pleasant places to live, work, and recreate.  We might live to see the day when the primary consideration is no longer just about moving as many motorized vehicles as fast as possible through the area.

  • Jacob Lynn

    Reducing speed limits on one-way roads with three or four huge lanes doesn’t make any sense. The real way to slow cars down is to make the lanes narrower (add separated bike lanes!) and make the roads two-way.

  • Jacob Lynn

    I should add that I’m not convinced that speed cameras are a good idea. It’s likely to feel basically punitive and piss people off. 25 MPH is just not a natural speed for roads like these that are wide, flat, and straight.

  • Guest

    what have speed cameras got to do with anything beyond a desire for control and punishment and surveillance? none of which are positive parts of living in a great city.

    if 25mph is a more appropriate speed (which it might be; frankly 30 seems fine to me if it really is 30), the solution is to *time the lights* to that speed. make it *convenient* to go the speed. put up a sign saying that’s what’s happening, and people will learn.

    i think the lights are supposed to be timed at 30 now. the few times i drive those roads it’s very erratic–sometimes i go 15 to catch the green light, sometimes 40 and that wasn’t quite fast enough. howard is slightly better, beyond 4th you can often go 30 and make the lights.

  • Guest

    btw a consistent speed can be good for bicycles too–i might be able to pull of 20 (i can pull off oak from masonic in, which is timed at 25 most of the way, but is also steep downhill most of the way), but probably barely through soma and most people couldn’t (and a few could easily). but i once had a commute on a similar stretch w/lights timed at 25 or 30, and it wasn’t bad–i’d make it about 3/4 mile, stop on red, then go again for another 3/4 mile (which was the end of the road).

  • Anonymous

    Control and punishment are what pedestrians already experience in this area.  

  • Guest

    “Control and punishment are what pedestrians already experience in this area” — perhaps. so you want to lash out at others too? Calming traffic is good–cameras are just additional agression. Things like lights timed at reasonable speeds, including additional ones as needed (e.g. the new one on folsom between 7th and 6th), are more mediatory effects. (New lights with random timing = just more agression.)

  • mikesonn

    For how well drivers adapt to timed lights, see: Valencia. There are signs all over the place saying the lights are timed and you still have drivers gunning it then slamming on their brakes, then gunning, then slamming on their brakes, etc etc etc.

    But really, the only way to control speed is to squeeze the lanes, make the roads two-way, but right now those might as well be 101 to drivers. And using speed cameras isn’t “lashing out” at drivers. If you speed, then you are speeding and deserve a ticket. Just like a parking ticket, feed the meter and you won’t get a ticket. I don’t see why getting punished for your actions is somehow a stretch by the local authority to either unjustly punish or stick their hands in your wallet.

  • Punishment accomplishes nothing if it doesn’t also produce a deterrent, and this is no deterrent.

  • Sprague

    murphstahoe, I think it’s clear that the prospect of being mailed a speeding ticket is an effective deterrent to not speed.  Just like red light cameras have prompted motorists to be mindful of not running red lights, speed cameras prompt motorists to not speed.  I know that in Austria the boxes that house speed cameras are pretty apparent and when motorists spot them, they slow down.  The real risk of being slapped with a fine will deter people from speeding.

  • I have a better opinion of Austrians than of Americans. I was almost run over on Central Expressway by a guy who I ended up having a chat with (I was forced to exit unexpectedly to make sure I avoided him). He said he didn’t expect to see me there since I wasn’t supposed to be riding on the freeway.

    Nevermind the 6 cyclists I had passed within a mile of that exit that he had certainly passed. It looked like I-80 ergo it is I-80. A wide road looks like a 40 MPH zone, ergo it is. The only way to change the perception is for a lot of tickets to be written and get a lot of PR. How do you think that story will be spun? An Austrian might decide that the speed limit cameras are there for a positive reason, but the American media will make sure that the party line is that this is a government money grab.

  • Sprague

    Perhaps I should know better than to think the media and the public would support objective enforcement of laws that enhance public safety, especially when the personnel involved in such law enforcement would be minimal.  I agree the streets should be narrowed and much more should be done to make SOMA streets less like freeways and become more accomodating of non-motorised uses.  But certainly, if it can be done in Chicago it can be done in San Francisco.

  • mikesonn

    “But certainly, if it can be done in Chicago it can be done in San Francisco.”

    Don’t hold your breath. “Green” here is only as green as the latest Prius.

  • @sprague – two words. Rahm Emanuel

  • CBrinkman

    An important thing to remember is that we don’t have the money to narrow the streets to calm traffic. Yes traffic calming works very well, and is expensive.  Reducing speed (through speed cameras or other means) will save public health dollars, Fire and Police dollars, and reduce congestion and transit delays resulting from crashes. And can make our streets more pleasant which encourages biking and walking. With speed cameras we might even catch a few hit and run drivers.

  • voltairesmistress

     Ms Brinkman,
    If you at SFMTA don’t now have the money to narrow the streets, then make a part of your budget moving forward.  Do a bit each year, and each year the South of Market area will get a little better.  Just because you can’t redesign all the streets at once, doesn’t mean you can’t work with Public Works and non-profit community groups to start making some changes — timed lights set to 25 mph, soft hit poles to protect bike lanes, pedestrian only alleys, trees planted along these wide streets to signal to drivers that this is a neighborhood, not an expressway.  Design is the 99% invisible determinate of driver and other users’ behavior.  Speed cams are a cop-out and will only engender more ill will toward the SFMTA which most drivers/parkers believe is only interested in sticking it to drivers while continuing to provide unwieldy service to transit riders.

  • Guest

    how would a speed camera catch hit and run drivers? should it also target scofflaw bicyclists?

    check out this: http://wsdotblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/smarter-highways-102-variable-speed.html . slightly different scenario, but similar idea.i checked my memories i posted below: last night i drove down folsom. do you know what speed i went between 7th and the new light at the park? got up to an indicated 50mph, and just barely caught the new light on the green cycle. that is the speed the city has chosen to make the ‘correct’ speed for that stretch–and the rest of the street wasn’t much slower, leaving one light on fresh green and barely catching the next few by speeding. i don’t know why they’ve chosen to do this, it may be because many of the lights are old and hard to time. but surely retiming far cheaper than demolishing all of soma and reconfiguring it. and far more effective than trying to catch a few people who are following the natural flow of the created system.someone mentioned valencia below. it’s timed at 13, but that is an absurd speed for drivers. the signs about this are small and targeted at bicyclists. but there’s many alternates, and irritating drivers to take the alternates is sort of the point.

  • Rku

    I fully support this change and thank the SFMTA for their work. I think every small action that tries to make SOMA more amenable to pedestrians is wonderful. I’m a SOMA resident and often walking down Folsom or Howard street feels as if you’re walking along a freeway on-ramp. When you drive here please be careful when you make turns, we’re walking here. 

  • Anonymous

    Some people who support more cameras do so because they know they are immune to the tickets.  There’s not just a few of these people, either.  The Orange County Register revealed that1.5 million private cars have confidential plate numbers, in California.  Eligible for confidential plates are politicians (all levels, including local), bureaucrats, retired cops, other govt. employees, and their families and ADULT children!  (To see all 24 categories that are eligible, read CVC 1808.4.)  The confidential plates make them effectively invisible to agencies trying to process camera and toll violations.   There’s been three bills in Sacramento to rein in this outrageous perq, but none has passed.  This year’s bill, AB 2192 died June 1, when it was held “in suspense,” by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. 

  • CBrinkman

     It happens:

    “Frassinetto said investigators tracked down his Volvo by analyzing speed
    camera footage of the road and green paint chips on the guardrail near
    where Owens’ body was found – a canal close to a busy state highway
    running through the town of San Giovanni Valdarno, between Florence and


    And of course the MTA is working towards calming traffic through engineering means, however, I fail to understand why we should have to spend so much money when we could achieve so much by slowing the cars through other means.  If you have a cheaper and possibly faster option, why wait for the expensive option? 

  • Sprague

    voltairemistress, the SFMTA is implementing transit improvements (all-door boarding, increased budgetting for system maintenance – to improve reliability, experimenting with new bus routes, pursuing TEP).  Sure much more needs to be done to make SF the transit first city it claims to be, but the SFMTA is perhaps finally on the right path.  Speed cams are an objective, effective, and fiscally responsible way to enforce existing laws.  If the livable streets community is strongly behind this then the reactionaries at large will have weaker ground to stand on in their opposition.  As an occasional cyclist in the streets of SOMA, I’d certainly be thankful if I knew that the speed laws are being more frequently enforced.  It could be argued that the driving public may be more inclined to accept traffic calming measures once they have already become accustomed to 25 mph speed limits (that do in fact mean 25 and not 30 or more).  Only with the 24 hour speed limit enforcement provided by speed cams, along with an appropriate informational campaign announcing increased enforcement, can both cyclists and pedestrians reasonably expect the speed limit to be honored by most motorists at all times.

  • CBrinkman

     It is quite easy to be immune to speed camera tickets: don’t speed.

  • People with confidential license plates aren’t immune to the tickets. 

  • voltairesmistress

    A cautionary tale: Some European countries are saturated with speed cameras.  But just like that, presto, technologies have been employed to frustrate all sorts of traffic cameras.  The most effective are smart phone apps that alert drivers to the presence of red light and speed cameras and other traffic devices.  A bit less effective have been attempts to obscure license plates from flash cameras by coating the plate with clear spray paint; placing a slightly convex clear cover over the plate that obscures the numbers from angled camera shots but not from officers traveling behind the vehicle; and the old fashioned trailer hitch.  Just thought blog readers and public policy people should know that for every seemingly cost-free, cure-all resort to surveillance cameras, there is or will be a way developed to thwart it.  Again, I would advise the SFMTA, SF Planning Dept, and Public Works to work together to engineer streets that make high speed driving SEEM UNSAFE OR INAPPROPRIATE TO DRIVERS. That is the effective way to make every driver pay attention. It’s expensive to redesign streets for multi-modal use, but I think that is what we should budget to do over the long term — 30-50 years.  We can do this right, even if it doesn’t satisfy our desires for an immediate solution now.

  • Southvannessavetraffic

    The speed limit is 25 mph on South Van Ness from Division ti Cesar Chavez. This doesn’t stop most traffic from driving 35 to 50 mph.

    It seems as if the light timing has been modified to allow the traffic to do so which has turned the street into a race track.

    The constant speeding and horn blowing as cars run red lights is outrageous.

    The light timing can be easily adjusted but it is not being done. Last week I had a black Crown Victoria and a white truck wreck in the intersection. The crown Victoria was propelled on to the sidewalk and could have killed a pedestrian if it had occurred five seconds later.


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