First Polk, Now Geary: Half-Measures Won’t Fix the Problems on SF Streets

The removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, and the revitalization that followed, was the result of political leadership, not half-measures. Photo: ##

For those who dream of better transportation options on San Francisco’s streets, which were engineered in the 20th century to maximize space for cars at the expense of safety and efficient transit, the lack of city leadership on two recent major re-design projects has been troubling.

The concessions offered by city planners and politicians will probably do little to appease the parking-obsessed merchant groups fighting upgrades on Polk Street and Geary Boulevard. But they will mean that Polk won’t feel safe enough for most San Franciscans to try biking there, and that Geary won’t provide the kind of world-class transit service that the city needs on its surface streets.

For city leaders like Supervisor David Chiu, finding a position somewhere between sound, evidence-based transportation policy and those who simply yell the loudest is appealing because it’s considered a “compromise.” To them, the point isn’t to make city streets as safe as they should be, or to make transit more appealing than driving — it’s to avoid upsetting anyone too much.

That’s how Chuck Nevius described the Polk situation in his SF Chronicle column last week. “Both sides get some of what they want and think the other camp is getting too much,” he wrote:

The ongoing controversy over bike traffic along Polk Street will probably never be solved to the satisfaction of everyone. But there are signs of progress.

Polk is a primary north-south route to and from the Marina for cyclists, has a relatively gentle slope and isn’t as clogged with high-speed traffic as nearby Van Ness. Bicyclists wanted two separated lanes on both sides of the street, but merchants complained that the plan would wipe out too much parking and kill business.

The problem with framing the current Polk proposal — which includes one stretch of protected bike lane and many more blocks that don’t fundamentally alter the dangerous, car-centric status quo — as the “middle ground” is that the group opposing safety improvements has staked out a position so opposed to change that the plan is far from the people-friendly, bike-friendly street the SFMTA originally set out to create.

The merchants with a cars-first mentality have simply disregarded empirical evidence, like the survey showing that 83 percent of people arrive on Polk without a car. They don’t believe that improving bicycling conditions on the street would encourage more San Franciscans to shop by bike, or that taming car traffic draws more foot traffic. When it comes to reducing the number of pedestrian and bike crashes on Polk — two per month — the typical response from this camp has been to blame the victim. One merchant even tried to stop Streetsblog from filming the street out of fear that it might cast a sympathetic light on one of those victims.

It’s a similar situation on Geary, where a new option proposed for the Bus Rapid Transit line would forgo bus passing lanes that make it possible to operate both local and express service. In essence, it’s a watered-down version of the original proposal, designed to sacrifice transit speeds and choices to preserve all car parking. This comes despite a survey showing that 78 percent of customers on Geary arrive without a car, and that improving Muni service is their highest transportation priority.

If San Francisco has learned anything from its recent transportation history, it should be that the greatest successes come with bold changes, not half-measures.

Just imagine if Mayor Art Agnos backed down on removing the Embarcadero Freeway. In the northern Mission, where a section of the Central Freeway was rebuilt as a “compromise” with Caltrans and pro-freeway constituents in the Avenues, the neighborhood remains blighted by the structure, while neighboring Hayes Valley thrived after its section of the freeway was taken down. Both of those freeway removals were the result of fierce political battles.

Years down the road, leaders like Agnos owe their legacy to how far they went, not how much they backed down to the naysayers.

Those complaints may never stop, no matter how much the city retreats from its plans in the attempt to make everyone happy. Even in Vancouver — a city that has reduced car traffic even as its population has grown in recent decades — complaints continue to surface about new initiatives to reallocate street space from cars to other modes. In Vancouver, though, decision makers tend to follow through and move forward with 21st-century transportation projects.

If San Francisco’s political leaders continue to take a position somewhere between sound transportation policy and appeasing merchants who insist on shooting themselves in the foot with a cars-first stance, our city won’t overcome the transportation mistakes we made in the 20th century.

  • Anonymous

    I kinda liked his solomon persona, it was kind of a nice play on words.

  • Royal Liquors is where I drive when I polish off my gallon jugs of vodka and need to purchase some more.

  • Anonymous

    Bike anes on Valencia arre a lagging, not a leading indicator of change. They were made as a result of changes that were already happening. They did not bring about the change.

  • Anonymous

    So are you saying that Polk is a crappy place and it’s not getting better, so we shouldn’t put bike lanes in?

  • Anonymous

    No. Polk could go the way of Valencia. It will take time. Valencia before the boom was a tabula rasa. Polk has a bunch of irascible, old school merchants who arent going anywhere anytime soon.

  • Anonymous

    So you’re saying that Polk sucks, you’d like it to not suck, but you don’t think bike lanes will make it not suck.

  • Anonymous

    I said that Polk is not an iconic location like the Embarcadero. That doesn’t mean that it sucks. I said the day may come when there are protected bike lanes on Polk Street, but today is not that day.

  • Anonymous

    Willie Brown inked the deal on the Central Subway in its present configuration, but the Chinatown merchants were promised a subway when the Embarcadero was demolished.

  • Anonymous

    You said “Polk could go the way of Valencia”. Is Valencia iconic? Is Valencia good? Is it good if Polk goes the way of Valencia? And by “the way of Valencia” you don’t mean bike lanes, you mean “change”, remember you said that bike lanes are a lagging indicator of change.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not the one who introduced race into the discussion.

  • Anonymous

    But I liked Neil.

  • Anonymous

    They are all different. It’s possible for Polk to be more like Valenca if.its demographics change. Is that a good thing? Depends.. If you like Valencia street, yes. If you like the status quo, not so much.

  • Anonymous

    How is Valencia so different from Polk? What would it take to make it more like Valencia, or less like it? To me they are commercial corridors in eastern SF neighborhoods that end on Market.

  • Peter Lauterborn

    As Supervisor Mar’s lead aide on transportation issues, I am grateful for the coverage.

    option–Alternative 3C–isn’t only about parking and has significant
    transit benefits. In one presentation by the TA, current travel times
    from 25th Ave to Arguello hover around 9:40 minutes. The fastest BRT
    options, Alternatives 3 and 4, make this run in 6:10 and 6:30 minutes

    Alternative 3C makes this run in 7:00, but with
    the added benefit of more stops. Therefore, if one can shave off 30-50
    seconds off of their walk to a stop, the time difference is easily made

    All that said, Supervisor Mar is interested in all the
    strong alternatives and is supporting nothing short of full BRT. If you
    would like to contact me directly, it would be my pleasure to talk to
    you about your desires for this project and to share how we can all get
    this project delivered.

    Peter Lauterborn
    Legislative Aide
    Supervisor Eric Mar, District 1
    (415) 554-7411

  • Peter Lauterborn

    And I just posted data above that makes the transit benefits more clearly defined for alternative 3C.

  • Anonymous

    This gets to the real heart of it, right? If we make Polk more like Valencia, it will attract a different demographic than currently resides there, and that threatens the current residents – and merchants. If you have a furniture store that doesn’t (to your thinking) rely on foot traffic, turning the street into Valencia is a disaster, because you have to pay big bucks in increased rentals for foot traffic you don’t benefit from. If you are a residential renter, upward pressure on rents is bad (even if you are rent controlled, an increase in real estate prices means more incentive for the landlord to figure out how to get you out).

    That could be a real concern but watching the people against the changes I can’t quite get my head around them actually understanding this nuance – that this change will make their neighborhood “nicer” and a nicer neighborhood is *bad* for them.

  • Anonymous

    Peter – thanks for your note.
    This statement however is a bit “problematic”

    “Alternative 3C makes this run in 7:00, but with the added benefit of more stops. Therefore, if one can shave off 30-50 seconds off of their walk to a stop, the time difference is easily made up.”

    People who use the added stop end up getting to their destination in the same time frame, adding 30-50 seconds on the bus, but saving 30-50 seconds of walking. However – every person using one of the *other* stops, spends an extra 30-50 seconds on the bus, and saves zero seconds of walking.

    Unless you believe that more people will use that added stop than will use all the other stops combined, this is a net time loss for riders. In addition to the cost to those riders in time loss – Scott Wiener has spent time calculating the economic costs of that sort of time loss, we have plenty of data to show that incremental increases in time loss for riders of public transportation results in reduced ridership. The most relevant example around here is Caltrain, which eliminated some stops completely and put in bullet trains with very few stops. The result is that over the past decade ridership has doubled.

    If the time loss leads to reduced ridership, some of those lost riders will drive. Which of course means more cars on the road delaying the bus even more.

  • Peter Lauterborn

    I think those are all fair and valid points! But the conversation between various transportation trade offs is very different then the framing that there are not transit benefits to 3C and that it’s only suggested as a parking fix. There is a real debate as to which service arraignment is best within all the center-running options.

  • Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the data — I really would’ve liked to get those numbers from Parisi when I asked. He said they didn’t have them yet.

    As for the debate between the service benefits of each option, and it’s still apparent that all riders would have a slower ride under 3C (and fewer options for local stops), as John explained, while Alt. 3 would provide the fastest service plus a local service option. Whichever way it’s put, lower speeds for the majority of long-haul commuters and fewer choices for riders sounds like a downgrade.

  • Anonymous

    Simple example. Once or twice a week I ride the 72 bus from Piner Road Depot in Santa Rosa to San Francisco. The 72 runs local through Santa Rosa to Rohnert Park, the 72X expresses on US-101 to Rohnert Park. Both buses run express on 101 from RP to SF.

    The 72X fills up at Piner Road depot. Riders downstream figured this out and some opt for the 72. A lot of these riders live close to stops nearer to downtown Santa Rosa. What do they do? They drive to Rohnert Park and hop on the 72 local at the last stop before it expresses. But the buses are full because either way, you are basically “as fast as a car” because there are no stops until SF, and we get the carpool lane.

    Make this bus screaming fast and *everyone* will use it one way or the other. Though you will definitely have to RPP the areas near the stops 🙂

  • Anonymous

    The data Peter is referring to can be found below on page 28. Note that alternative 3-Consolidated is referred to as alternative 5.

    For me, the bottom line is that having a local bus that stops every single block, and a limited or BRT bus that stops every half mile or so, is not an appropriate way to run this corridor. The limited is only necessary because the existing service is so slow. Once you get to the point where a BRT bus only saves you 70 seconds over the local for a 25 block ride, as in alternative 3, you may as well combine them together and effectively double the frequency. Instead of having two lines with ~8 minute headways you now have one line with a ~4 minute headway, which has stops close enough together for the folks who used to use the 38 and is still a huge improvement over the current speed of the 38L.

  • That speculation may have been viable in the late 1990s, because changes to Valencia were coincident with the dot-com boom, but that bubble broke and during the decline of the “dot-bomb” years, Valencia continued to do better — much better — than similar streets without livability improvements.

    Valencia was thus poised to do well for the current boom, definitely a leading indicator by nearly a decade.

  • Anonymous

    The people who live and work on Polk were there first and have a substantial investment in the status quo.

  • Anonymous

    Valencia had many vacant storefronts so there was no one to object. Not so with Polk.

  • Okay, I guess I have to spell this out. Agnos campaigned to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway but it required a vote the Supervisors for it to actually happen. He offered a quid pro quo of a subway to offset lost Chinatown business, but 1) he didn’t have the authority to make that happen without the Supes, and 2) the feared loss of business never materialized.

    Chinatown did not go for this deal and withdrew their support for Agnos. So we got Frank Jordan for mayor. Jordan didn’t move on the subway, nor on the other transit projects that he was actually required to work on as per a Proposition passed by the city’s voters.

    Then we got Willie Brown, thick as thieves with Rose Pak, who rephrased Agnos’ rejected offer as a “promise” and got the boondoggle rolling.

  • Anonymous

    That’s pretty much what I said.

  • youmei434

  • Anonymous

    many = no one? That’s funny because Polk has vacant store fronts, and the merchants seem convinced that their profit margins are so razor thin that any change will bankrupt them so there’ll likely be more vacant store fronts to come.


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