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Some Residents Urge City to Make Bolder Safety Upgrades on Potrero

Potrero at 21st Street. Image: DPW

The city's latest proposal to improve safety and transit service on Potrero Avenue is slightly different than earlier versions of the plan. While the redesign would expand pedestrian space, some residents at a public meeting yesterday pointed out that it could do much more to make the street safer for biking and walking.

Staff from the Department of Public Works, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, and the Planning Department presented the plan at a community meeting yesterday at SF General Hospital, which sits along the stretch of Potrero between 21st and 25th Streets where street improvements are planned to complement an ongoing rebuild of the campus. Planners announced that the project's scope has been expanded to 17th Street, but the basics haven't changed much since the last public meeting about this project in March.

Under the new proposal, Potrero's narrow 9-foot sidewalks would be widened to 14 feet on the east side of four blocks (not quite as much of an addition as the original proposal for 15-foot sidewalks). The plan also calls for corner bulb-outs and a planted median, six to seven feet wide, with pedestrian refuges and some left-turn lanes, and the northern crosswalk would be re-opened at the intersection with eastern 23rd Street.

In response to assertions from a few residents that the sidewalks fronting the hospital don't need to be widened because few people walk there, Amnon Ben-Pazi of the Planning Department said that "it's incredibly important when we have a new hospital that it be accessible by foot or by transit."

With Potrero's narrow sidewalks obstructed by poles for overhead Muni wires which can't be moved, "there's really no place to get through with a wheelchair, a walker -- you need a clear path of travel to do that," he said. Potrero's sidewalk widths, he noted, will still be "under-optimal on one side, and on the other side we're under even the minimum" for current street standards.

"We're all in a position where we would love to have all these things happen on Potrero, but the reality is we only have so much space," said Ben-Pazi.

Potrero between 21st and 25th Streets.

Planners are sticking with the removal of the northbound transit lane, which they say is too narrow for buses. However, they're now proposing a new colored bus lane on the southbound side of the street, from 17th to 25th. Some Muni stops, which are generally a block apart, would also be removed to speed up service, expanding the spacing between stops two to three blocks. Altogether, the improvements are expected to boost Muni speeds by over 20 percent on this stretch of Potrero, said SFMTA planner Chris Pangilinan.

All four of Potrero's existing traffic lanes would remain in the plan, as would over 90 percent of the roughly 1,150 car parking spaces within a block of the street, said Pangilinan.

Pangilinan claimed removing a traffic lane to make room for sidewalks, bike lanes and transit lanes would result in unacceptable car congestion. But some attendees, like Josh Handel, didn't buy it.

"I think the solution to everyone's problems is quite, quite clear," said Handel. "We can have efficient transit, a wide sidewalk, and protected bicycle lanes if we just eliminate a private auto travel lane."

"This does not need to be an alternative to 101, this does not need to be a high-speed route," he added.

Potrero's bike lanes would see little change in the plan -- they would still be marked only with paint, and mostly retain their 5-foot widths (5.5 feet in some places), though the northbound lane would run curbside between 21st and 25th, where parked cars would be removed. Under an option proposed at the first meeting, the bike lanes would have gained a 2-foot buffer zone and up to an extra foot of width.

Although planners insisted that a center median was needed to create pedestrian refuges and left-turn pockets, Elliot Schwartz, a neighbor who bikes with his son in a rear seat, said some of that space should be re-allocated to create protected bike lanes that are comfortable for families. He also said center medians seem to create a "tunnel effect" that encourages drivers to speed.

"These bike lanes are kind of the last of the 1980s standard bike lanes, which are maybe good for fearless bikers, but not great for people with kids," he said. "Cities like New York and Chicago are building bike lanes to a much better standard now that have more protection from cars."

Removing the bike lanes on Potrero and placing them on Hampshire Street instead was among the options planners considered but didn't adopt.

That plan might have pleased John Wilson, a resident who called for the removal of the Potrero bike lanes at both community planning meetings. In response to Schwartz's calls for family-friendly protected bike lanes, Wilson said that "children will never be safe on Potrero with a bicycle path."

Merchants on 24th Street are also unhappy about the roughly 100 parking spaces that would be removed for wider sidewalks because they believe many of their customers drive, said Eric Arguello, a co-founder of the merchant group Calle 24.

"I never see people on Potrero," said Arguello. "Parking is really important."

The project is expected to be funded with $3.2 million in Prop B Street Improvement bonds, as well as funds for the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project that could go to the ballot in November 2014.

It is expected to be constructed from April 2014 to August 2015.

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