SFMTA Board Approves Contested Transit Signals, Bulb-Outs on Haight

On transit streets like Haight, the SFMTA is looking to install transit-priority traffic signals to speed up Muni. But are they worth it? Photo: torbakhopper HE DEAD/Flickr

On Tuesday, the SFMTA Board of Directors approved plans to add traffic signals and bulb-outs along Haight Street, which could speed up Muni’s 6 and 71 lines and improve pedestrian safety. The approval came despite complaints from some Upper Haight merchants over removing parking for bus bulb-outs, and mixed support for new traffic signals from pedestrian safety and transit advocates.

Under Muni Forward’s “Rapid” plans for the 71, almost all stop signs along Haight will be replaced with either transit-priority traffic signals, or two-way stops combined with traffic calming treatments. The signals, which stay green when they detect buses, would be installed at Clayton, Baker, Broderick, Scott, Pierce, and Buchanan Streets. Either a two-way stop or a new signal would be possible at Shrader, Central, Webster, and Laguna Streets.

Muni has similar plans for Muni’s 5-Fulton and for other routes under Muni Forward, which previously was called the Transit Effectiveness Project. SFMTA planners say Muni riders stand to save a lot of time thanks to the new signals, combined with a relocation of bus stops from the near side to the far side of intersections. The SFMTA claims it takes an average of 18 seconds to clear a stop sign, counting deceleration, queuing behind cars, and acceleration.

But the speed benefits of signalization are contested by Michael Smith, the former Chief Technology Officer and General Manager of NextBus, who co-founded Walk SF. SFMTA staff have not responded to his challenge to their estimates — neither to a request from Streetsblog, nor at the board hearing — but street safety advocates say that they might not justify costly signals, which restrict movement for people walking and biking (in this case, on the Wiggle). “MTA hasn’t convinced neighbors and pedestrian advocates of that,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich.

“All of these proposals are great, but traffic signals are questionable,” Smith told the SFMTA Board. He presented data [PDF] he said he collected by riding the 71 with a timer “for several hours,” showing that delay times at stop sign intersections on Haight aren’t close to the 18-second estimate.

Based on his analysis, Smith concluded that most of the proposed signals would only save a few seconds, if any, and that the busy Scott Street intersection is the only spot that justifies a signal.

A board explaining SFMTA planners’ estimated stop sign delays, shown at a recent meeting on 5-Fulton improvements. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Michael Smith’s estimated delays from stop signs, compared to SFMTA’s theoretical 18 seconds. Image: Michael Smith

“Signals will still cause some delay,” said Smith. “Not every bus gets a green light, even with transit-preferential signaling.”

As for signals’ effect on injuries and speed, an SFMTA flyer [PDF] says that after a study of 12 intersections that were signalized, “We found that the total traffic related pedestrian collisions at these intersections decreased from 30 to 8, indicating a safer pedestrian environment.”

But Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider told the SFMTA Board she “comes at this with some mixed thoughts. ” Planners in Sweden, the birthplace of Vision Zero, say they avoid adding signals in favor of treatments like roundabouts, which maintain slower speeds and “forgive” mistakes by street users and minimize the risk of crashes. Traffic signals, meanwhile, give motor vehicle drivers carte blanche to coast through an intersection.

“If someone jaywalks, with a signal that might mean their life — whereas a stop sign, or things like roundabouts, might be safer,” said Schneider. “It sounds like we might need to take a better look at certain intersections and determine if a traffic signal is the best solution.”

Still, the plans were heartily supported by speakers from the SF Transit Riders Union at the hearing. Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant based in Portland and former SF resident, wrote on his blog that the SFMTA’s approach seems sound, though he declined to comment on the more technical questions about estimated stop sign delays.

Peter Straus, an SFTRU member and retired Muni service planner, told the SFMTA Board that he lives a block away from Haight and Pierce Streets, one of the intersections set to get traffic signals. “I don’t think they’re things that people should be afraid of, if they’re properly managed” by synchronizing signals for slower speeds, he said. The SFMTA says it plans to do so.

“It’s incumbent on us,” said Straus, “to move ahead and show results quickly” after voters approved funding for Muni improvements with Propositions A and B, and rejected the cars-first Proposition L, in the November 4 election. “I’m glad to see [these plans are] on a relatively short time frame,” he said. The project is set to be constructed late next year.

Aside from the signals, several merchants at the hearing protested the SFMTA’s plans to remove parking and loading zones to create sidewalk extensions at bus stops and crosswalks. A few, including the owners of Amoeba Music, also said they thought transit bulb-outs would cause car traffic to back up, since buses would stop in the traffic lanes to load passengers.

SFMTA’s plans to speed up buses on Haight. Click to enlarge.

Christin Evans, owner of Booksmith and a board member of the Haight-Ashbury Merchants Association, said the organization “unequivocally” opposes the addition of transit shelters and seating. HAMA and SFPD Park Station Raj Vaswani both think the shelters will be attractive places for people to drink and deal drugs, according to a letter from Vaswani read to the SFMTA Board by Supervisor London Breed’s aide, Conor Johnston.

But Muni Forward Program Manager Sean Kennedy said that shelters, seating, and loading zone changes were not among the items up for approval by the board. Only roadway changes, like bulb-outs, traffic signals, left-turn bans, and two stop removals, were under consideration. Altogether, Muni predicts the improvements will save three of the 11 minutes — 25 percent — of the average time it takes the 71 to travel between Laguna and Stanyan Streets.

“This is how we think we’re going to get to a more reliable transit system,” said Kennedy.

Breed doesn’t have a specific position on the proposals, said Johnston, but she is concerned that shelters and signals could affect public safety.

Evans said that the Muni Forward plans for Haight “are in conflict” with the Haight-Ashbury Public Realm Plan, a community planning effort that the Planning Department is undertaking, with a focus on streetscape improvements. City planners have said the two plans will work in tandem, and that the Muni improvements up for approval were vetted by the public through the Public Realm Plan.

In April, Evans told Streetsblog that HAMA may be split over parking removal, but might be open “to make the trade off, if the planners design compelling streetscapes which accommodate improved flow to/from the neighborhood.”

Last week, though, HAMA’s letter to the SFMTA Board read, “The SFMTA joined the process late, and always appeared to have a clear agenda of driving through transit-first initiatives, such as bulb-outs, stop lights, and the addition of transit bulbs with bus shelters… there’s been very strong opposition to seating and bus shelters in particular.”

Haight and Baker Streets, one of the 10 intersections where signals have been approved. Photo: torbakhopper HE DEAD/Flickr

The plans would complement the contra-flow Muni-only lane that opened on the Haight’s two easternmost blocks last month, providing eastbound buses with a more direct route to Market Street. The center-running transit lane bypasses a queue of freeway-bound drivers from Laguna to Octavia Boulevard, and will be extended one block west to Buchanan.

The only SFMTA directors who voted against approving the changes were Jerry Lee and Gwyneth Borden, the board’s newest member. Borden said more time was needed to work out the issues, and that she “had a hard time with” the appearance that those voicing concerns weren’t being taken seriously. “I don’t think you can overlook when there are so many diverse groups of people, with varying problems, in a particular area,” she said.

Radulovich of Livable City said the plans for bulb-outs don’t go far enough. “They don’t round the corner, as called for in the city’s” Better Streets Plan, and bulb-outs are “missing from some important intersections,” he said. “Haight Street was SFMTA’s first opportunity to make a TEP project into a complete streets project, and they fell short. We hope they’ll keep at it until they get it right.”

  • boter_op_je_hoofd

    Haight and Clayton needs a traffic light, just like at Ashbury, because it is too hard for peds to cross safely, and takes forever in a car. A two way stop at Shrader would make it dangerous for peds to cross Haight street there. Bulb outs and bus shelters would be a great place to pan handle and camp out, and should be avoided

  • Michael Smith

    One other question to ask is how credible the stated data is on whether traffic signals are safer for pedestrians. Pedestrian advocates have long advocated for “traffic calming” measures, the antithesis of traffic signals. The vast majority of serious injuries and deaths occur at signalized intersections.I believe that the data SFMTA is using is predominately for intersections where stop signs were replaced by signals *due to safety issues*. For example, if there is a road with two lanes in each direction, such as 30th & Dolores, then a 4-way stop can indeed be problematic because drivers don’t always notice pedestrians crossing. One would expect that replacing a 4-way stop with a traffic signal for safety reasons, as was done at 30th & Dolores, would indeed improve safety. But this is not the situation along Haight and McAllister.

    It would therefore be very useful for the SFMTA to publish the details of the intersections that they are using data for and what the specific data is. That would help the powers that be make a more informed decision.

  • Sprague

    Haight Street’s currently narrow sidewalks accommodate panhandlers and camping now. These things occur regardless of how wide a sidewalk is – if only it were that simple.

  • patrick_sf

    I agree 100%. On top of that, bulb outs, which would be the major safety improvement for pedestrians, can be installed without a traffic signal.

  • yermom72

    Seriously, what’s with all this fetishization of speed? Walking is best and four-way stops work fine. They also encourage drivers to slow down and pay more attention to their surroundings.

  • Sprague

    Objections to new transit shelters at Haight Street bus stops appear to not be grounded in reality. Our family regularly uses Haight Street stops (especially those at Stanyan – each of which has a shelter). Never have any of us observed any illegal or unsavory activity at one of these shelters. Needless to say, such activity may occur in fairly close proximity but this has nothing to do with a bus shelter. It’s the general location. Drug dealing and drinking both occur regularly along upper Haight Street and at the Stanyan Street entrance to Golden Gate Park but not at the transit shelters at Stanyan. Due to a few bad apples, must we really force disabled passengers and others to stand as they wait at upper Haight Muni stops that lack any seating? Should all transit riders be punished due to the actions of a few?

  • Sprague

    An increase in Muni’s speed is welcome to all transit riders, especially residents of the Sunset district that rely on the 71 bus to get them downtown and elsewhere. And since we all contribute financially to Muni’s operation (and we all benefit from its utilization), it’s in our collective interest to have Muni’s buses operating quickly and efficiently on the streets of San Francisco.

  • yermom72

    Faster buses should run down faster corridors, not busy streets with pedestrians and businesses.

    And nobody those 18 seconds when they’re the ones running for the bus…

  • jonobate

    Busy streets with pedestrians and businesses are the places where you see high transit ridership, as is the case for the 71. It’s important to speed up transit on those streets as doing so will benefit the most people.

  • yermom72

    The people trying to get across town quickly, and the people going through busy corridors for errands, entertainment, etc. shouldn’t be put all on the same bus on the same street.

    And it seems problematic to me to assume that speed is inherently equivalent to efficiency and benefit, when people move for a wide variety of reasons. Isn’t that the same logic that created “level of service?”

  • Haight Street had already been identified as a high-capacity/high-frequency corridor and the trips are not only from the sunset to downtown. It also differs by time and day: work, coffee, dinner, and errands are likely not all at the same stop downtown.

    It’s those heavily walked businesses people are riding the bus to get to. For faster service there’s the 71L, still hitting key points in each neighborhood it passes through. Those often align with transfer points to other lines.

  • Great to see the merchants taking a stand by putting their needs above the safety and wellbeing of the people who shop at their stores. Stay strong, merchants!

  • Amanda

    Does anyone know what happened to the proposed traffic bulbouts at Haight and Laguna? They’re not shown on this new schematic.

    I have no idea how anyone will be able to cross Haight at that intersection if they put in a two-way stop. And there are about to be hundreds of new housing units within three blocks of that intersection, including all the new units at 55 Laguna literally at that corner.

  • 1776notinvain

    Thank you, Michael Smith. Clearly 6 of the intersections may not warrant the expense of a stop light. as no time will be saved And thank youJerry Lee and Gwyneth Borden, for asking for a fuller review.

  • sebra leaves

    As a driver and pedestrian, I prefer stop signs. The flow of traffic is always smoother and everyone’s wait is shorter at stop signs than at traffic signals. There must be a contractor who wants to sell a lot of traffic signals because there is no reason to put them where they are not wanted. Supervisor Breed should stop the signals.

  • Sprague

    Speeding up transit is part of the “carrot” approach to encourage transit usage. The SFMTA is decried by some for an allegedly punitive (or “stick”) approach to transportation (ie. parking meter installation, high fines for parking violations). Now, the SFMTA is attempting to reward and encourage transit usage and, again, they’re met with opposition.

    With current transit ridership along this corridor, it seems unreasonable to expect that some of the buses should be diverted off Haight Street (this would result in reduced service for Haight Street). The MTA held hearings and encouraged public input. Questioning the merits of some of the proposed changes seems reasonable, but isn’t it now time to move forward for the sake of all current and future Muni riders?

  • Christin Evans

    Aaron, a customer just alerted me to this post which misrepresents my position and that position of the Haight Ashbury Merchants Association (HAMA).

    I’m referring to this sentence in particular,… “Christin Evans, owner of Booksmith and a board member of the Haight-Ashbury Merchants Association, said the organization “unequivocally” opposes the parking removals and the addition of transit shelters.”

    This is not accurate. HAMA has not taken a position on parking loss, as the merchants are divided on this topic. If there are improvements to the corridor that require loss of parking spots, there is some interest to give up a
    limited amount of parking for thoughtful designs to add pedestrian level
    lighting, permeable paving and greenery (as were supported by the over 200 community members who were involved in the public realm planning process an completed the planning department’s survey).

    What is accurate is that HAMA and the community have opposed the addition of the standard bus shelters with seating. The survey revealed a clear majority of community members who opposed adding seating of any kind to Haight street. If seating were added, the most popular option was planter edge ‘informal’ seating (photos were included in the survey), several other types of seating were shown in the survey and they were all rejected by survey respondents.

    Merchants who attended the meeting have been in discussions with SFMTA planners since about alternatives to the traditional bus shelters for the Haight as there have been numerous problems & complaints according to the police Captainon and the neighbors to the transit shelters in front of McDonald’s and at the intersection of Masonic & Haight.

    Frankly I was shocked to hear the SFMTA plan represented as an output of the public realm process. We started that process 3 years ago with Alexis Smith and the topic of bus shelters and transit bulb outs never appeared on the visual depictions shared by planning. I think this is a case where SFMTA planners showed up late to the party, didn’t listen to the input from the community being given, and layered their cookie cutter designs down on top of Haight street. You might say it’s been frustrating, in the least, that one city
    department is leading us through a process now over three years in the
    making, collecting community input, and then turning around with another
    department and riding roughshod over that input.

    Also I’ll add on a personal note that everyone who works at the Booksmith uses transit, walks or bikes to work. So we are in support of efforts to improve the bus times, but not at any cost.

  • Dark Soul

    Agreed with parts Stop Signs does not major delays compare to Traffic Lights. TSP or not the traffic lights are one that can cause harm to the streets and traffic jams. (Time to time lights simply break

  • Hi Christin,

    I apologize for the misunderstanding and changed the text to reflect this. The statement was that HAMA is “unequivocally opposed to this proposal,” and it was unclear to me which parts exactly, since the measures before the board included the bulb-outs but not the shelters/seating.

    P.S. Hope to attend another Shipwreck soon!

    Cheers,
    Aaron

  • Christin

    Thanks Aaron for the correction! Yes, we had gone back and forth with Felipe and Sean about why the bus shelters were in the visual designs in their presentation but not in the text of the legislation. They explained that bus shelters aren’t legislated but transit bulbs (curb lines) are. So, really there isn’t any other time to oppose the shelters but at this junction as far as we understood them.

  • SFnative74

    Keep in mind that four bulb outs can cost more than one signal.

  • SFnative74

    As a transit user, I’m less concerned about whether my trip is 20 minutes vs 18 or 19 minutes. I’m more concerned that I know my trip will consistently be a certain length so I can plan for it. When a trip can vary from 18 minutes to 40 minutes, it becomes very frustrating, which is why I usually walk or bike. I know how long those trips will be. I don’t see signals addressing that issue.

  • Filamino

    “They don’t round the corner, as called for in the city’s BSP” – Wow. Another “Hey, I just want attention to my BS” comment Tom Radulovich. Who said they have to be? The side streets are narrower, so pedestrians don’t have to cross a wide street like Haight Street. Why narrow the street when it’s already narrow?! It only shows how ridiculous this guy is.

  • Filamino

    It depends. Stop signs work better at lighter volume intersections, but not at higher volume intersections. (When I say volumes, I mean all modes of traffic volumes – peds, bikes, motor vehicles) I do not know how heavy the traffic is on this street, but it should be a big part of the equation of whether this corridor should be signalized.

  • sebra leaves

    This is a case of wasting millions of dollars on a controversial project that no one agrees on. Haight Street is one of the slowest two-lane streets in town. So far there is no plan to remove the grand old Victorians that line it, so there is no reason to do anything to it. Residents should appeal this project. Start by contacting Supervisor Breed and the London Breed and Haight Ashbury Improvement Association. haia_sf@yahoo.com

  • timsmith

    Prop L lost, big time. Time to find a cause other than stopping transit improvements.

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