Columbus Safety Plans Vetted By Community, Opposed By Merchant Leader

The SFMTA is looking to implement plans based on the concepts approved in a Columbus Avenue study three years ago, such as this vision for the Green and Stockton intersection, but removing traffic lanes may still face some opposition. Image: SFCTA

Over two-thirds of the space on Columbus Avenue is devoted primarily to cars, yet only one-third of the people on the street are typically in automobiles.

That’s according to a 2010 study of how to improve the design of Columbus, in which residents and transportation planners came to the conclusion that North Beach’s thoroughfare needs calmer traffic and more space for pedestrians, transit, and bicycling. Now, three years later, as the SFMTA looks to finally implement the ideas laid out in the plan, some merchants and residents are pushing back, dismissing the extensive analysis and community planning already done.

Columbus is set to be re-paved next summer, presenting an opportunity to cost-effectively implement the concepts in the SF County Transportation Authority study, which include bulb-outs on Columbus’ narrow, crowded sidewalks and an on-street plaza — dubbed “Piazza St. Francis, the Poet’s Plaza” — on an adjacent block of Vallejo Street. At the intersection of Columbus, Green, and Stockton Streets, traffic islands would be added to simplify motor vehicle movements, diverting traffic off westbound Green and southbound Stockton (converting it to a one-way street north of Columbus).

With a road diet, one stretch of Columbus, between Green and Union Streets, would get transit-only lanes, while 8-foot-wide buffered bike lanes would be installed between Green and Washington Streets (although the bike lanes weren’t included in the SFCTA study, the traffic impacts of a road diet were).

“Columbus is being re-paved, and probably won’t be re-paved for another 20 years,” SFMTA planner James Shahamiri said at a meeting with the Telegraph Hill Dwellers in October. “We have some funding, and we want to see what level of improvements we can make based on the community plan that was adopted by the TA.”

The “primary liaison between the [SFCTA] and the many stakeholders” involved in the development of the study, as described in the study itself, was Renew SF — Revitalize and Energize the Northeast and Waterfront of San Francisco. Wells Whitney, the organization’s founder, said neighborhood support for the plan still seems strong. “Almost everyone I’ve talked to is enthusiastic about wider sidewalks, more bulb-outs, bike lanes, and calming the traffic and making it more of a neighborhood boulevard than a thruway,” he said.

Leading the opposition to the safer street design is Daniel Macchiarini of the North Beach Business Association. Macchiarini told Streetsblog he doesn’t believe a road diet on Columbus will result in the kind of boost in livability and business that came with a similar, widely-lauded project on Valencia Street because, unlike Valencia, Columbus lacks alternative parallel routes for drivers. “This is another project that will stall traffic on Columbus Avenue,” he said.

The SFMTA’s plan for more pedestrian islands and bulb-outs that also act as traffic diverters at Columbus, Green and Stockton, based on the study concept above.
The plan for “The Poet’s Plaza” on a block of Vallejo at Columbus.

“I think there’s an agenda in this city against the private car, and I’m not necessarily against the private car, to tell you the truth,” said Macchiarini. “I come from working class businesses in the city, and we’re being pushed, and shoved, and beaten more and more, and part of that is taking away private transportation.”

But while people walking, biking, and riding Muni on Columbus are squeezed for space, traffic lanes and parking garages go underused, according to the SFCTA’s study, buttressing the case that re-purposing them won’t result in the “chaotic and dangerous situation” that Macchiarini predicts. The SFMTA has implemented dozens of road diets in the city, which typically make streets more attractive to be on, while predictions of carmaggeddon never come to pass.

No other commercial street may be a better candidate for a road diet than Columbus, where car traffic dropped heavily after the fall of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1989, and 86 percent of people arrive without a car, according to the SFCTA study.

“It is not the thruway that it used to be,” said Whitney.

While Macchiarini and some residents have voiced fears that reducing four traffic lanes to two would cause car traffic to spill over on to other streets, Mike Sonn, chair of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Transportation and Parking Committee, said he “fully supports a road diet on Columbus, [because] even at peak hours the traffic barely justifies four lanes.”

Putting aside the dangers created by prioritizing space for rush-hour drivers ahead of livability and other modes of transport, the traffic numbers support Sonn’s claim. According to a report from the Federal Highway Administration, road diets that reduce traffic lanes from four to two only result in spillovers on streets that carry more than 20,000 cars per day.

During rush hours, Columbus carries about 800 to 1,000 cars per hour, according to the SFCTA study. Though a daily traffic count wasn’t provided in the study, with those peak hour numbers, it seems unlikely that it would approach 20,000. Meanwhile, bicycling, walking, and Muni would become more attractive options with the improvements.

The extra capacity leads drivers to speed, said Sonn, creating “a dangerous and non-inviting atmosphere in the heart of North Beach.”

Some of the resistance to the SFMTA’s initiative may be related to the agency’s Central Subway project. Telegraph Hill Dwellers and a group of residents and merchants called “No North Beach Dig” are protesting the disruptions caused by subway construction in the neighborhood, which comes despite the lack of plans for a station there. Although backlash has already led the SFMTA to ditch its original plan to build a drill retrieval shaft on Columbus and close two of its traffic lanes for ten months — moving the work instead to the site of the abandoned Pagoda Theatre — opponents apparently will only be satisfied if the subway drill is left underground.

Macchiarini told SF Weekly in June of last year that “we will do whatever we can to stop this extraction plan.”

Image: SFMTA
Image: SFMTA

When SFMTA staffers presented the proposal at the October THD meeting, it elicited some concerns about car traffic moving to other streets and, of course, complaints about the behavior of people on bikes.

The SF Bicycle Coalition has formed a committee to help galvanize support for “robust” improvements to make Columbus safer and more livable. “We’ve heard loud and clear from both our members in the neighborhood and other community groups that they want to see the ideas scoped in the 2010 SFCTA study incorporated into the city’s upcoming repaving of the street,” said SFBC Deputy Director Kit Hodge. “This includes wider sidewalks, safe space for biking and continued strong support for all of the local businesses and the unique character of this incredible neighborhood.”

“It’s such an important part of the city for tourists and everybody who comes here,” said Eric Baldosser, a North Beach resident and member of the SFBC committee. Baldosser and Sonn both said wider sidewalks are the most pressing need along Columbus, where a few parklets installed by restaurant managers have been deemed a resounding success.

Other than bulb-outs, extensive sidewalk widening is not currently part of the SFMTA’s project, as staffers say they don’t have funding for it (it costs $1.5 million per block). However, the near-term improvements would set the stage for sidewalk widenings down the road, the real estate for which would come from on-street car parking, as recommended in the SFCTA study.

The near-term project would be financed by a mix of local funding sources, according to an SFMTA presentation:

  • Pedestrian bulb-outs and island improvements at the Vallejo and Green/Stockton intersections would be funded by $800,000 in Prop B street re-paving bonds and $500,000 in SFMTA revenue bonds.
  • Bus bulb-outs at Union Street and transit-only lanes would be funded by more than $300,000 in set-asides for the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project.
  • Planning and implementation of bike lanes would require $150,000, the source for which has yet to be identified.
  • The plaza at Vallejo would be designed and constructed using “private funds.”

It’s a good time to revisit our Streetfilm from 2009 about poet and City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s vision for “The Poet’s Plaza,” which will finally become a reality.

  • davistrain

    The “artist’s conception” drawing below the present-day photo doesn’t show the trolley-bus wires. Will electric bus service be maintained, or will those lines be converted to motor/hybrid coaches?

  • mikesonn

    They will remain trolley-bus as far as I know. However, those lines will see reduced service due to the Central Subway.

  • mikesonn

    If you support wider sidewalks and a road-diet for Columbus, please email David Chiu! The “do-nothings” are screaming loud and are winning. We are having trouble getting the SFMTA to even draft an option that shows Columbus with wider sidewalks.

    There is a form email at the top, please add your own thoughts and experiences.

  • zoehoster

    Can someone please explain the logic behind the idea that taking away space from private autos is detrimental to working class businesses?

    Seems we heard this from Polk St merchants too.

  • voltairesmistress

    Thank you for the link. I hope many will write Supervisor Chiu. He too easily bends to merchant pressure, is running for Assembly, and will be more pliant than he already has proven re Polk Street fiasco.

  • Upright Biker

    The bigger question is “what working class businesses?” Macchiarini’s jewelry store certainly doesn’t qualify…neither does Al’s Attire or the rest of the boutique clothing stores, nor any of the pricey bars and restaurants that make up North Beach. The hardware store moved out years ago. Everybody walks to the barber shops and the laundromats.

    That argument is a red herring.

  • hp2ena

    Macchiarini says there are no alternative routes for traffic to get by. Assuming all that traffic is headed to Marin, I’m sure the Broadway Tunnel will accommodate that traffic just fine. If headed to Fisherman’s Wharf, Powell and Stockton Streets are viable alternatives.

    Also, will the transit lanes be shared bike-transit lanes? If so, this would allow for a safer bicycle connection between Fisherman’s Wharf and FiDi while using less street space.

  • coolbabybookworm

    Thanks for the link, definitely worth fighting for. Even if we don’t get complete street, we’ll get more than we would and we build organization we need moving forward.

    I would also like to note, r.e. recent trolls on the polk st. thread, this is an example of primarily bike riding folks pushing for wider sidewalks and calmer streets.

  • mikesonn

    Rush hour traffic on Columbus is headed to Bay Street then to the bridge to avoid Broadway/Van Ness/Lombard. Lots of the older driving residents of North Beach feel that reducing lanes on Columbus will bring about gridlock throughout the surrounding areas. The traffic counts show that isn’t the case.
    North Beach shouldn’t be a thru-route for Marin commuters. Having a 4-lane Columbus is like having a huge parking lot at a suburban shopping mall just for Black Friday, the capacity isn’t needed 95% of the time.

  • Upright Biker

    North Beach needs a major makeover, and this is a good first step. Thanks @mikesonn for shepherding this through THD, which one would have expected to be largely against this degree of change.

  • mikesonn

    Yes, the group was organized by SFBC (thank you!). Once we all got together and started talking, it quickly became apparent that wider sidewalks was the most common goal.

    It has also been great to meet some amazing fellow North Beach residents!

  • coolbabybookworm

    We ran into the same problem with 2nd street meetings. There’s gridlock sometimes so reducing lanes will only make it worse. Rather than, there is a better way of doing this and part of that is accommodating alternatives like biking and walking.

  • Upright Biker

    Just sent him a note. I’ll also buttonhole him at any community events he attends.

    Anyone who lives in the area should also stop in to their favorite merchants and talk it up.

  • Sean

    I noticed that as well. I think some of the lines are legacy routes (remember Route 20?), so the trolley wires may be less busy if new turnarounds are found. Maybe the repurposing of Kearney St will be possible now. Such a great flat stretch to cycle to NB, but it needs a diet as well. What a great connection to Columbus…

  • Bruce Halperin

    I don’t much like the traffic diverter at Green, but other than that this is fairly awesome. Moar bike lanes plz!

  • disqus_e4qPyvtwW2

    Macchiarini’s main concern is getting his own lazy ass around town

  • mikesonn

    The thinking is that it’ll prevent southbound Columbus traffic from turning right there and slowing down the 30/45/8x buses. The real bottleneck though is the turn from Columbus southbound onto Stockton, lots of peds so only a few vehicles can turn each light cycle. A transit-only Stockton would do wonders for this… but alas…

  • Bruce Halperin

    A pedestrian-only phase of the cycle (“scramble”) would work too, like they have at most of the intersections along Stockton (Chinatown) and Montgomery (FiDi). Peds shouldn’t have a signal to cross while buses are trying to turn right from Columbus onto Stockton.

    Or just add a green right-turn arrow phase, like the ones at Stockton/Sutter and Market/5th.

  • mikesonn

    Agreed. And the SFMTA is open to that and may be including it in upcoming plans.

  • mikesonn

    The 41 still runs trolley-buses on Columbus. I do miss the 20 though.

  • Sprague

    Maybe a green right-turn arrow only for Muni buses (activated as soon as possible as the bus approaches the intersection).

  • gb52

    Agree. Wider sidewalks would be MUCH more beneficial than keeping parking on Columbus. But also agree that expanding sidewalks is hugely expensive. When they repave the street it would be great to use permeable pavement and install a block-long parklet similar to the installation on Powell between the cable car turnaround and union square. It would also be amazing if we could find a sponsor like Audi to help fund the project. It would transform and perhaps even revitalize the area.

    It makes no sense keeping the traffic sewer while the sidewalks are jammed with diners, and pedestrians stumbling over planters. I almost think some people avoid the area because it is so hard to navigate the sidewalks and are threatened by cars at every intersection. I’m almost surprised there haven’t been more auto-pedestrian collisions given the chaotic nature of the intersecting streets.

  • jd_x

    This seems like a huge improvement. Wider sidewalks are desperately needed, so I hope this actually happens. I have to admit: I pretty much entirely avoid this area because 1) riding my bike in the area is utterly miserable, and 2) I just can’t handle how overcrowded the sidewalks are and how much of a mess the roads are with cars everywhere; trying to cross the roads seems like Frogger and it’s clear that the current infrastructure was designed to prioritize the automobile over all else. Because of the steep hills, Columbus is really the only good bike route, yet it’s gotta be one of the worst roads to ride on: Muni buses, cabs, clueless tourist drivers, etc. Columbus has so much potential to be a fantastic pedestrian-friendly street that it is utter shame that it’s such a traffic sewer right now.

    But again, with the bike plan, I have to say: why can’t we get the protected bike lane on the *other* side of the park cars? Just think of it as a second sidewalk but for bikes and halfway in height between the road and the sidewalk. We all know damn well that this bike lane as proposed will have even more double-parkers in it than Valencia St. I just cannot for the life of me understand why the MTA doesn’t get this really key aspect that is necessary to get significant numbers of people on bicycles.

    Finally, the city has got to call out people like Macchiarini who keep using false arguments. It’s a proven fact that car ownership increases with wealth, so if one really cares about the working class, they would be all about public transit, walking, and cycling. I just don’t understand why the city doesn’t counter this sort of misinformation. It’s one thing to just say that *you* personally want to be able to use a car, but this co-opting of the whole “but you don’t care about the working class!” bogus argument has just got to stop.

  • Upright Biker

    Hear Hear! Protected bike lanes, yes!

    Just stripe it! Leave the parking meters where they are, or move them only if the sidewalk is to be widened.

    Why this fetish of traffic planners to put vulnerable users so close to moving traffic — on purpose?!

  • Upright Biker

    I was also at the 2nd Street meetings, and what those neighbors who oppose the project couldn’t grasp is that it’s a lot better for them to have _one_ lane of idling traffic waiting for the bridge rather than two.

    They kept saying “it’s complete gridlock now — just think what it will be like if you remove a lane of traffic!”

    Um, that would be _complete gridlock_.

  • gneiss

    The influence of John Forester.

  • gneiss

    There is a strong conservative element in this city which believes that the changes the SFMTA are proposing on the city streets are somehow a reflection of the changing demographics and focus of the city. What is remembered as a rather bucolic and insular place for 30 or 40 years (from the 1950’s through the 1990’s) has more recently been transformed into a world class city with growing population, inequality, and increase in tech jobs fueled by money and influence from the peninsula.

    During the decades of 1960, 1970, and 1980, the city lost population to the tune of -4.5%, -3.3%, and -5.1%, declining from a high of 775,000 in 1950 to 678,000 in 1980. It only started rising again between 1980 to 1990, going up to 723,000. So the fact that he could find parking and drive his car easily when he was younger was real, but a result of demographics more than anything else. There were simply fewer people living in the city. With more people living here there’s no “war on cars” just more people using a finite resource.

    It seems like many of the older generation of business and property owners can’t take out their anger and frustration over these changes on the actual people who are moving here. After all, their livelihoods and personal wealth have been enhanced by the new additions, but our streets are acting as proxy, and given the way politics work in this city, the easiest venue where they can vent their resentment. Unfortunately, the SFMTA is getting caught in the middle of this. Changes that 30 or 40 years ago would have been much less controversial are now being met with bitter opposition from the very people who would have been thrilled to see this happen when they were younger. Listening to what Mr. Macchiarini says, it sounds like more of a lament for a place he used to know rather than actual anger over the plan itself. I only wish he’d be able to see that there’s no turning back the clock – we have now over 825,000 people living in the same space that 678,000 did when he was younger. We simply can’t continue to use the streets the way he’s been able to during the earlier years of his life.

  • People LIVE in North Beach. Why should the merchants dictate how their neighborhood evolves?

  • NoeValleyJim

    How does a member of the petit bourgeoisie declare himself a spokesperson for the working class? There is this weird thing in San Francisco where all these wealthy businesspeople want to claim they are sticking up for working people instead of admitting that they are just looking out for their own self interest.

    At least find an actual member of the working class to do the talking, if you are going to try and claim such a thing.

  • p_chazz

    How do you know Macchiarini is a.wealthy businessperson? Have you seen his tax returns?

  • Dave Moore

    This is a nice summary of the situation. While I don’t agree with all aspects it’s a lot more reasoned than the typical “moar bike stuff” posts. Thanks for taking the time to explain your point of view.

  • murphstahoe

    Dave –

    After spending a lot of time on a reasoned post and getting “moar war on cars!” in response it’s hard to convince yourself to spend the time on reasoned posts when the audience has a clear confirmation bias.

    I think the only time Rob Anderson said “you have a point there” was when someone tried to DMCA his blog for stealing photos without attribution. Why would anyone try to discuss anything with that?

  • murphstahoe

    He’s owned property in SF for decades. If he’s not wealthy, then he’s got some pretty lousy financial skills,

  • Dave Moore

    I believe that’s true in both directions. Can we agree that both sides engage in hyperbole and arguments to the extreme instead of trying to get to the core of the issues and finding areas of mutual benefit?

    And if you’re not willing to spend the time to write reasoned arguments aren’t you just screaming into the echo chamber?

  • John Rogers

    Incorrect assumptions on this one, murph. I assure you Dan Macchiarini is not a wealthy businessman. It was probably his Dad, who was the original property owner. Peter Macchiarini was a sculptor and a jewelry maker with a studio on Grant Ave. for over 50 years. He worked as a stone carver during the WPA, made avant -garde jewelry, and would probably have gotten quite a chuckle out of your characterization.

  • murphstahoe

    Did Dan inherit the property?

  • John Rogers

    I don’t know.

  • rickbynight

    Columbus Avenue screams pedestrian-only. Build the central subway’s stop in North Beach (and in a magical world, put another subway stop north of there at Chestnut or Lombard or Bay). I can’t imagine another street in San Francisco that has such pedestrian-only potential.

    Start by handing over extra space to the merchants in front of their stores for additional outdoor seating to help win them over. If merchants are upset about parking themselves, give merchants a certain number of dedicated parking passes to park close to their own businesses. Maybe allow delivery vehicles during early morning / late evening hours.

    I can’t see how this wouldn’t be a major boon for merchants in that corridor. It would revolutionize the corridor up by Chestnut and Lombard that sits with empty storefronts today.


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