SFMTA Sets Out to Create a Safer, More Convivial Polk Street

Polk at Geary, where a parklet is hosted by Jebena Cafe. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/sfplanning/7657756942/##Scott Sanchez, SFPlanning/Flickr##

An effort to revamp conditions on Polk Street for walking, socializing, bicycling, and transit is underway by the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, and residents say they’re eager to see calmer motor traffic, wider sidewalks, better bike lanes and more public space along the corridor.

At a well-attended SFMTA community meeting on Wednesday, planners said construction on the redesign of Polk, between McAllister (at City Hall) and Union Streets, could start by early 2015, though a pilot project could also be implemented to test ideas on the ground by the time America’s Cup races return next July. That project will be developed in future community meetings, but it could result in anything from temporarily widened sidewalks, to restrictions on car traffic, to protected bike lanes. Roughly $8 million in Prop B street improvement bonds are already devoted to the pilot, in addition to street repaving funds.

D3 Supervisor David Chiu, who has lived near Polk for 16 years, walks and bikes the street regularly. “It’s an experience that can absolutely be improved,” he said. “This corridor has enormous potential to be a 21st-century model of transit-first living. Whether it be ideas around pedestrian safety, around bike lanes, parklets, or bulb-outs, in ways that allow all for all the modes of transit to be used and builds community, the conversation is very exciting.”

Polk was one of the corridors where Dutch bicycle planners joined the SFMTA on a ride one year ago to re-imagine it as a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly street using methods practiced in the Netherlands, which is known for its exceptionally safe street designs. The recommendations that resulted included expanding pedestrianized areas and providing continuous, parking-protected bike lanes — an idea also called for in the SF Bicycle Coalition‘s Connecting the City campaign as a safe, relatively flat connection linking Market Street to Fort Mason and Fisherman’s Wharf.

A suggested vision for Polk Street drawn up by a team of planners from the SFMTA and the Netherlands last year.

Although calls for physically separated bike lanes didn’t seem as prevalent at the Polk meeting as they were at a similar community workshop on improving Second Street in May (at that meeting, groups of attendees were able to actually propose street layouts), residents did say they’d like generally to see bike lanes improved and extended along the entire stretch of Polk.

SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum said the robust interest in major changes on Polk was encouraging. “I heard from neighbors, business owners, people who work here, that they all see a lot of potential for streetscape improvements to increase the liveliness and draw of the street,” she said. “A lot of people value the diversity of the street, but also feel like the streetscape isn’t living up to its potential.”

Intersected by a number of wide, high-speed, one-way streets, Polk sees an unusually high rate of pedestrian and bicyclist injuries. From 2006 to 2011, 20 pedestrians and 37 bicyclists were hit on the six blocks between McAllister and Geary Boulevard alone, according to data provided by the SFMTA from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS).

For bicyclists, that’s a rate of roughly 0.17 crashes per bike, when divided by peak hour bike traffic counts. By comparison, the crash rate on Market Street from Drumm to Kearny Streets is about 0.08, and for Valencia Street from 14th to 21st Streets, it’s about 0.11. Columbus Avenue between Jackson and Greenwich streets saw a rate of 0.13.

Pedestrian and bicycle crashes along Polk from 2006 to 2011. See the full ##http://sf.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2012/09/Presentation-v2.pdf##PDF presentation here## Image: SFMTA

The differences in pedestrian crash rates are even more pronounced. The crash rate on those same six blocks of Polk is about five times higher than on the previously mentioned stretches of Market and Columbus. “Polk is one of the 7 percent of city streets where the most serious and fatal pedestrian collisions happen,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe. “Tools like bulb-outs on those corners could do a lot to make the entire corridor safer.”

With development projects in the works like the nearby California Pacific Medical Center Cathedral Hill Campus, Stampe said making changes ahead of time to improve pedestrian conditions while discouraging and calming car traffic on Polk should be a priority. CPMC is expected to help fund pedestrian and bike improvements in the area.

“This project is a great opportunity to both make the street safer and more comfortable and roomy, with calm traffic,” said Stampe. “This is a shopping street, it’s a neighborhood street, and it can feel kind of cramped because so many people are already walking there.”

Comparative crash rates along similar corridors. Image: SFMTA

There was little discussion on how to improve service for the 19-Polk, though the Bus Rapid Transit route coming to the adjacent Van Ness Avenue is expected to provide faster, more reliable service along the corridor.

Chiu and Shahum likened Polk to Valencia Street in the Mission, where a streetscape revamp completed in 2009, which widened sidewalks, is largely credited for increasing foot traffic and boosting business. Both corridors have also been popular places for parklets in the past couple of years, revealing the huge demand for more public space.

Kinani Ahmed, owner of Jebena Cafe at Polk and Geary, said he initially faced resistance in the neighborhood when he proposed his parklet and bike corral, but that perceptions quickly changed after they were put in. These days, he said, neighbors “really appreciate what I’ve done.”

“You know, there’s no park out here,” said Ahmed. “It’s sort of a community area where people can just enjoy the outdoors and have some greenery. This was a corner that a lot of people avoided… I think it helps that when people are sitting down and watching the activity, it deters the negative element from happening because there’s a presence of people.”

To continue fielding community input, the SFMTA has already scheduled four walking tours leading up to the next street design workshop on October 27, followed by another meeting on December 1 where planners will propose a preferred design.

Compared to the SFMTA’s past planning processes for street improvement projects, Shahum said it was promising to see the relatively quick schedule already laid out, including so many walking tours, as well as the $8 million in funds already dedicated to the pilot project. “It’s clear that [city staffers] really want to see change happen, and that they’re committing to a timeline that’s ambitious and smart,” she said. “If you drag a project out too long, you lose people’s engagement, and you lose their confidence.”

The SFMTA's schedule of Polk community meetings.
  • Hbike

    Thanks for the informative article on Polk street and its changing cityscape.  I did want to say that unless I missed something I didn’t see anything in the article about the safety issues for folks on Polk street especially the elderly.  I have walked cycled and driven Polk street numerous times over the last 30 years.  The stench of defecation, urination, and rotting garbage is pretty overwhelming.  Also the idea of having an elderly or physically vulnerable person walking down Polk street especially  between Sutter and McCallister is irresponsible.  The seedy characters are thick and plentiful.  Having just walked through that area with my partner (We are both over 60) in the late evening we were horrified on how creepy and dangerous it has gotten.  Each block had a new and vocal threat for us to ignore.  While I applaud the idea of trying to change the look of Polk street not much will really change if people don’t feel safe going their.  Its the same dilemma the the Mid-Market corridor has.  Its nice to change its clothing but unless people feel safe and comfortable their they may visit once but won’t be back.  

    Bob Anderson 
    SF, Van Ness ave.

  • jwb

    I have to agree.  When I read the headline I hoped “more convivial” wasn’t going to involved getting propositioned by desperate streetwalkers in broad daylight.  Probably the best thing the city could do for that corridor is get some help for the mental cases who haunt the sidewalks.

  • jry

    From that green slide, what really stands out about this plan: “Accommodates existing traffic volumes.” 

    I lived in Amsterdam, and can say the “exceptionally safe street designs” in the Netherlands are not because of super bike lanes or medians that shield people from the deadly traffic, it’s that it is IMPOSSIBLE to drive anywhere in Dutch cities, so people don’t. There are many other north/south arterials near Polk, so why can’t SFMTA work to actually reduce the number of cars if ped/transit/bike safety is actually the priority? (hint: it’s not)I now live near Valencia, and go out of my way to NOT bike on it because of the danger posed by the aggressive and distracted heavy traffic volume. Berkeley understands this concept, putting forced turns and speed bumps on non-arterial streets, making for pleasant streets to bike and walk. SFMTA, can we have ONE street per neighborhood where you discourage driving and actually live up to the Transit-First policy? 

  • Davistrain

    One doesn’t expect a “big city” to be as sanitized as Disneyland, but until SF figures out how to clean up the parts of town that resemble a low-grade hobo jungle, tourists are going to find more pleasant places to spend their dollars.  Is it time to bring back the “County Poor Farm” and the “State Home for the

  • Anonymous

    Not likely to happen @Davistrain:disqus. For Democrats having crazies wandering the streets is a civil rights issue. Republicans just don’t want to pay to lock them up.

  • voltairesmistress

    While these plans will do nothing immediate to change the number of drug addicts frequenting lower Polk Street and affecting the street experience for everybody else, they will do a great deal to improve the physical safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.

    Currently the sidewalks are too crowded to walk with a friend without having to constantly thread singly through the crowd.  Yes, widen them.  Getting almost doored on one’s bike is a constant problem.  Yes, create protected bike lanes.

    Not in the plan but it should be: open up a few small lots or spaces for people to pay to park off street, off of Polk.  The business owners there get customers on all modes, so let’s accommodate that, instead of telling everybody to take a bus to a non-destination neighborhood.   Last weekend the Lumiere theater closed.  They often showed movies that played nowhere else or in just one other theater.  Part of the reason they closed: decent, but lower attendance than possible, because there was no place to park in the evening for a reasonable fee.

    Lastly, pedestrians are endangered not by so much by car traffic on Polk, but rather by car traffic crossing Polk, often speeding and running red lights.  I would suggest installing red light cameras on every arterial street crossing Polk.  And lengthening the wait time between a red light in one direction and the green light in the opposite direction.

  • mikesonn

    Lumiere closed because they jacked the rent way up. But nice try.

  • voltairesmistress

    No, Mike, you are not fully informed.  I talked to the Lumiere folks quite a bit.  The rent raise was the trigger, but the Lumiere was on the edge andcould not get more people into the theater even after improving the interiors and showing some darn good films.  Attendance kept hitting this invisible limit.  Some of the folks working there really felt they couldn’t compete with their sister Landmark theaters at Opera Plaza and Embarcadero, both of which have either free validated parking (Embarcadero) or a  garage with really reasonable rates next door (Opera Plaza). It’s really a shame.  I was within walking distance of the Lumiere and will really miss it.

  • mikesonn

    Like most merchants, they incorrectly assume parking is the end all, be all of their business. There are many lots available near Polk/California, 4 within a 5 min walk. Not to mention that street parking, while somewhat difficult, isn’t impossible. Then add in many Muni lines nearby, including VN routes and the romantic California Cable Car. Yes, validated parking might sway some customers, but I doubt it was anywhere near the number they assume and/or needed to maintain their business. And this is coming from someone who really enjoyed that theater (it was one of my wife’s favorites as well).

  • @b9079a2928b221307247ecba46d1ed0f:disqus and @pchazzz:disqus , SFGate is a lovely, convivial place for bigoted folks like you to register your disgust at anything that offends. May I suggest you try there for your trolling?

    As for the other posters in this thread, thanks for your observations, but the point of the post was to discuss how streetscape improvements pay off in such dividends as more foot and bicycle traffic and how that in turn pulls together an urban center. 

    You don’t make a neighborhood more safe by turning it into a police state or sweeping out the economic undesirables. Maybe if this were China, you’d try that. But then you’d just end up with deserted streets with cars barreling down the road. I’d rather walk down a crowded street with eyes and ears all around, and I’d certainly rather cycle down a street dominated by pedestrians. 

    Better street design attracts people of all economic/social strata. You just don’t notice the ‘undesirables’ as much when you’re in a well-designed corridor with all sorts of people around.

    Also, more people around means more people to let city services know when someone needs help or something needs attention. Bob Anderson, did you bother even calling 311 to report the garbage on the street or the non-emergency police line if anyone in particular made you feel threatened?

  • theaters at Opera Plaza and Embarcadero, both of which have either free validated parking (Embarcadero) or a  garage with really reasonable rates next door (Opera Plaza

    I think you forgot “right next to a BART/MUNI station”

  • voltairesmistress

     Murphstahoe, I think Lumiere had three, decent-sized screens.  Opera Plaza has four, but at least one of them is so small it kind of defeats the purpose of going out for a movie instead of downloading one for your tv!  Lumiere’s revenue problem (made acute by that landlord jacking up the rent) may have had multiple causes.  I just keep wondering why one Landmark location struggled, while the other two seem to be doing better business.

    Mike, I enjoy biking to theaters, etc., often a few miles and then back up steep Nob Hill  My lovely spouse, however, balks.  Valuing the preservation of my marriage over the environment, I have often driven to Embarcadero or Opera Plaza or farther afield where there is parking.

    Though this is merely anecdotal evidence of some people’s preference for driving & parking (paid or free), it does make me wonder how prevalent and strong this preference is.  From what I gather, from spouse and other friends of a similar inclination, they would shift from cars to transit, if it were fast, frequent, and reliable (Munich, Paris, etc.)  Muni is rarely any of these things.  Eliminating parking doesn’t make them take poor transit.  Rather, they drive to Sausalito or Daly City or West Portal for the same movie.  Or they download a movie for home.  They just don’t want to spend hours on second rate transit.  I don’t defend this set of behaviors or choose them as an individual, but it’s there, and I believe, is not going to go away by taking away parking.

    By the way, Mike, where are those 4-5 parking lots near California and Polk?  I know of only one that charges $10-15 flat rate — kind of steep when you are staying for less than two hours.  Thanks, VM

  • mikesonn

    You’d rather drive from Nob Hill to EMB or Opera Plaze then go to Lumiere via transit or walking?

    Also, I did a simple Google search for parking near Lumiere. But street parking isn’t impossible, though not that easy (need metering during the evenings). $10 for parking for an evening is a steal, just not when compared to highly subsidized (see: free).

    But I think @twitter-14678929:disqus hits it on the head: proximity to BART/Muni Underground. That, and Lumiere’s neighbors would rather drive than walk or take the bus a couple blocks.

  • voltairesmistress

     Mike, that’s a good suggestion:I will do google searches for parking from now on — just hadn’t occurred to me to do that in neighborhoods I thought I knew, but clearly don’t know well enough.

    For me, I’d rather not drive most places — EMB from Nob Hill or whatever.  But spouse often works 70+ hour weeks and is a bit cranky about walking, biking up Nob Hill or taking bus when tired.  😉  Bart and Muni Metro (the underground parts) have been a better compromise for us.  Perhaps their proximity to the other two Landmark theaters explains some of their higher attendance figures.

    As to other modes, my wife has also started biking but is pretty timid about doors/traffic.  Besides advocating more underground transit, I keep pushing too for safe bike routes, because I see how big a difference a separated, protected bike lane will make for her (and us, by extension).  Anyway, I find our domestic differences over transit more illuminating than not, because it helps me understand what will get all those *#* drivers out of cars.  And that’s not always what advocates think it is.

  • Let me ask you this – which is a more likely revenue center. A threeplex in say, Healdsburg, with enough parking for the whole theatre, or a threeplex smack dab in one of the densest sections of the 2nd most dense city in America? The latter.

    Now – which is a more likely PROFIT center. The overhead in SF is much higher.

    Their problem wasn’t parking. It might simply be that a movie theater isn’t going to make it in that spot – this has happened in other neighborhoods in SF. They take up a lot of space and that land doesn’t cost less just because it’s a movie theatre. The business is very compressed – most of the day you get no customers. And when you do get customers they all come at once. And stay for 2-3 hours. A small parking lot that serves 20 customers (and is shared with all the other businesses in that corridor) is not going to make a failing theatre a success.

    I do not have evidence that retail space in the Embarcadero is less expensive but there sure as heck is a lot less late night foot traffic, and my (unresearched) guess is that the population density around Embarcadero – and Opera – is lower than that of Polk.

    Then again maybe Lumiere figured out that people lazy enough to drive to see a movie in SF also consume orders of magnitude more candy, soda, and popcorn. 

  • voltaire – we are married to the same woman, I think.

  • Anonymous

    Based only on my own anecdotal evidence, I think the primary reason the Lumiere closed was just because the neighborhood is dodgy and a lot of people just don’t want to deal with that area. It’s further exacerbated by the fact that less people are going out to movie theaters (especially small, independent ones) with the advent of NetFlix and streaming video … and by the gentrification of SF where less and less people with the $$ want to deal with sketchy areas. Even if you added free and convenient street parking, I don’t think it would have made a difference as to whether Lumiere stayed open or not. Their problem was simply a poor location in the minds of your average theater-goer. But I agree that having better access to reliable, frequent, and safe public transit would have helped their cause.

  • Caren

     The city needs to take properties from land barrens across downtown that leave things empty and in disrepair. two years and it should become city property to redistribute like is done in other cities. Property speculators drive rent up constantly forcing out residents and business, then nothing fills because it was stupid speculation….places fall in disrepair and there is a fine that is laughable and nothing is done about the rest of us who suffer due to land greed. Then streets get creepy because they are not inhabited and there is no tax base to afford services to humanely sweep them off the streets and into assisted/transitional housing….ugh. I am excited about the city taking action to increase the visible poeple on the streets though that is a step in the right direction. You don’t see the ugly when its a smaller percentage and people are moving

  • Caren

    True about Berkeley, but it is still not safe for kids in bike lanes due to driver aggression and narrow bike/absent lanes, when not a purple bikeway street.

    It would be nice to be on the sidewalk with slower traffic out of car doors as a RULE. If you have ever been doored you know what I mean – car and human are never the same.


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