Will the SFMTA Board Demand Complete Protected Bike Lanes on Polk Street?

Photo: Frank Chan/Flickr

The watered-down re-design of Polk Street is expected to go up for approval by the SFMTA Board of Directors in March. But support seems stronger than ever for a bolder plan that includes protected bike lanes along the whole length of the corridor, as many residents and merchants call for safety to be a higher priority than car parking.

SFMTA board member Cheryl Brinkman said the board could vote to hold off on approval of the re-design until it includes an option for a full-length bike lane, which the board requested in December 2013, though it hasn’t been presented by SFMTA staff.

“If we accept the notion that we can prevent traffic deaths and serious injuries, then we have a moral obligation to make sure that this project is a Vision Zero project,” said Brinkman. “That’s not something I take lightly.”

“This is their chance to show what Vision Zero really means,” said Tyler Frisbee, policy director for the SF Bicycle Coalition. “If the SFMTA Board is committed to Vision Zero, which they have been huge leaders on, we need to make sure that particularly when we’re [re-designing] high-injury corridors, that safety is our number-one priority.”

The current plan would create a protected bike lane only on a relatively small section of the street. Space would be reallocated by removing about 30 percent of the 320 parking spaces on Polk, or 2 percent of the 5,000 parking spaces within a block of the street. But even though 85 percent of people on Polk arrive without a car, and customers who drive spend the least per week, a vocal group of merchants and some residents demand that all spaces be retained for car storage.

At a 10 a.m. public hearing last Friday, about 45 speakers called for a safer plan, while 25 called for the preservation of the 110 parking spaces. According to the SF Bicycle Coalition, at least 220 letters calling for a safer plan have been sent to the SFMTA and other city officials, along with 320 petition signatures. And while some media reports have painted a simplistic picture pitting merchants against cyclists, at least 14 merchants have also sent in such letters.

“There are plenty of merchants who realize that their best customers are not driving and don’t need parking,” said Frisbee. “What they need are safer ways to get around Polk Street.”

A rendering of the raised, protected bike lane planned on Polk, only northbound from McAllister to California Street. Images: Planning Department

The initial 110 written comments sent to the SFMTA for the hearing “overwhelmingly” called a safer plan over parking, according to Brinkman, who said board members have received another batch of 84 letters, though she and SFMTA staff haven’t been able to tally those ones up yet.

Additionally, a city survey released a year ago found that out of the 140 respondents who use Polk Street, 48 said “the biggest challenge affecting Middle Polk” was the “unsafe environment for pedestrians and cyclists.” It was the top choice, while “not enough parking” was chosen by 16 respondents, making it the third-most selected choice.

In a city that has ostensibly committed to Vision Zero, safety should come first. But the half-measures put forward by SFMTA are aimed to placate a vocal parking-first crowd which has continued to reject fact-based arguments and spread misinformation.

Dawn Trennert, chair of the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association and a representative of the parking-first group “Save Polk Street,” said at last week’s hearing that re-purposing any parking spaces “makes it almost impossible to live in the neighborhood.”

“Our residents are crying out for places to park,” she said.

Dan Kowalski, another “Save Polk Street” leader and the owner of the furniture store Flipp, said, “We wish that we had the room to do protected bike lanes. Since we don’t have that ability, we’re doing our best to make sure that that happens in the areas where it’s important… the interruption of traffic, the removal of parking could be devastating. We’ve been really flexible.”

That’s the same Dan Kowalski who told attendees at an MPNA meeting on the project that economic and safety statistics about protected bike lanes “aren’t real,” and erroneously claimed that similar protected bike lanes had been removed in other cities.

Speakers who defended the status quo insisted that most residents and businesses along Polk rely on cars, and that protected bike lanes would only benefit the small group of people who are already willing to bike on Polk, braving dangerous conditions. Many also blamed the street’s dangers primarily on people who bike.

Police data shows that between 2006 and 2011, 53 pedestrians and 69 bicycle riders were injured by drivers on Polk, or about two people per month, and the city has designated the street as a “high-injury corridor.”

“I’m not worried about getting hit by a bike. I’m worried about getting hit by a car,” said resident Gregory Arenius, who described nearly getting run over by drivers as he walks his baby carriage through crosswalks on Polk. “Free and easy parking isn’t a right… finding you parking isn’t the city’s responsibility. The safety of people on the street is.”

Protected bike lanes would not only reduce injuries, but also invite more people to bike. Retail sales on streets in New York where protected bike lanes have been installed have outperformed other areas.

Henry Pan, a Polk neighborhood native, said his parents relied heavily on their bikes in China before they moved to San Francisco. “They haven’t been on a bike in 25 years because it’s so unsafe to ride” on streets like Polk, he said at the hearing. Pan urged the SFMTA “to re-consider implementing separated bikeways throughout the corridor so that my friends and I, as well as my parents, can be safe riding a bicycle which would increase the vitality.”

The planned pedestrian safety improvements for Polk, including numerous sidewalk bulb-outs, are “really strong,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider, who emphasized the importance of installing them without further delay. Protected bike lanes would also “create, in general, a more livable street,” she said.

It’s not clear how much delay could be added to the project if the SFMTA board sends planners back to the drawing board. It’s already been delayed for a year after the agency scrapped its more ambitious plans to placate “Save Polk Street.”

Still, Brinkman said some delay may be worth waiting for. “I think this corridor is important enough, and the chances of us touching it again in the next decade after we do this project are so slim, given all the other things we need to do in the city, that it’s worth getting this one right.”

  • Gezellig

    Never too late to send in your support for complete streets on Polk to:

    MTABoard@sfmta.com

    Julie.Christensen@sfgov.org

    MayorEdwinLee@sfgov.org

    sustainable.streets@sfmta.com

    “‘If we accept the notion that we can prevent traffic deaths and serious injuries, then we have a moral obligation to make sure that this project is a Vision Zero project’, said Brinkman. ‘That’s not something I take lightly’.”

    Yes. This. There are definitely people at SFMTA who get it. But if the board keeps capitulating to an undemocratic, selfish, facts-ignoring minority at some point–it may be someday soon–the city may find itself under direct legal action for *not* implementing known best practices for safer streets.

    C’mon, SFMTA. Sharrows are not 8-to-80/Vision Zero/20% modeshare and you know it.

  • Easy

    Re: “Our residents are crying out for places to park”
    No, our residents are crying out because they just got hit by a car.

  • planning5

    It was interesting listening to all the comments at the hearing. The neighbors who had qualms about the plan discussed it in terms of what they were actually having to give up – parking for shoppers, for deliveries, for guest visitors, for visits to doctors’ offices, for visitors coming in zip cars; parklet removal, historic granite curbstone removal, etc.

    The bicycle path proponents also discussed the plan in terms of what they were giving up – but potentially giving up: specifically fully dedicated bicycle lanes on both sides of Polk Street, instead of on just one side. You might say one group was talking in Aristotelian terms of in-the-field observations and the other group in idealized Platonic ones.

    It also seemed that neighborhood values – the character of Polk and its local inefficiencies – was being pitted against city-wide ones, that is, of expeditiously moving people from one district to another.

    And it was very curious that so few of the bicyclists thanked SFMTA for all the work they’ve done and the infrastructure they’ve delivered. One SFMTA official told me that the special traffic lights with a bicycles-only phase proposed for two very dangerous intersections on lower Polk would involve fairly large capital expenditures (a normal four way signal box and conduit set cost something like $2 million, for which the city only budgets something like 12 units each year).

    *

    To me the current plan seems like a fair compromise in that it allows several significant pilot programs to be tested out. There will be a dedicated bicycle lane from McAllister to Bush, raised above the roadway but slightly below the sidewalk (are there any others of these in San Francisco?). There will also be a morning no-parking zone running along the balance of Polk Street to see if the 60%–40% commute/reverse commute numbers hold. SFMTA will be about to do counts on the increases of bicycle traffic, the success and failures, and then modify the plan accordingly. (Of course the “no project” alternative, missing here, would also be tempting.)

    *

    Now I do live in the neighborhood – on Polk Street. I’ve bicycled in New York and Los Angeles (where I lived for four years without an automobile). I don’t bicycle in San Francisco because of the topography and because of the fairly fast and intense clip of bike travel here. And I’d never be able to properly negotiate the new bicycle path lines like the ones on Eighth Street running towards Brannan which, at least from the bus, look like ballroom dance instructions or notations of a rare Merce Cunningham piece.

    I am a bit way wary of having to cross lanes of anxious looking bicyclists on Polk Street as cautiously as I do on Market Street or when I step down from the N-Judah at Church Street almost immediately into the (guillotine) lane that’s part of the Wiggle route. And having the Polk Street neighborhood look like a tennis court by day and empty at night (parked cars do add a protective layer and human scale to empty streets) is also a bit of a concern. How much will these changes alter the neighborhood character? We’ll see next year.

  • Lego

    I actually heard a pedestrian cry out last week on Polk, “THIS IS A CROSSWALK” as they were almost hit in one. Car was going a few miles an hour in the usual clustermess, more preoccupied with wading through it than any street markings, vulnerable-road-users’ safety and/or legality.

  • Lego

    Gezellig: is there any way I can follow your comments? Thanks!

  • gb52

    Trial projects are great to experiment with new street treatments, but it feels like that time has come and gone. We need to focus on complete streets. We need to be bold, and focus on what is most important to the people and not special interests. We need safe streets!

    I applaud SFMTA and believe that many staffers and the agency is forward thinking, but as part of their duty they need to work within their bounds and address opposing views. And get this, if things dont work, we can change it again, but of course we want to get it right on the first try. Let’s build Polk Street as a complete street. If it doesn’t work, we can always add parking back later, but before that happens, we need to manage parking on the neighborhood streets. Striped and metered where necessary.

  • A “bike lane” that peters out after a few blocks doesn’t cut it. The lack of vision (zero vision) is disgusting. Why is the city catering to these entitled scofflaws? (Merchants who park in front of their stores and illegally feed the meter all day 😉

  • The city catered to these merchants because they made a lot more noise several years ago than we did, and at the time there was little counter argument. We didn’t take the “save the Polk street” campaign seriously enough. A serious campaign promoting a protected cycletrack all along Polk street only started after the SFMTA released their watered down designs. If we would have this much energy into a protected cycletrack at the same time the Save Polk Street campaign was in full swing before the design phase of this project was complete, we’d probably see a fully protected cycletrack, or at least an option for one in the final design. We were slow, and we should learn from this mistake.

  • I don’t think we can count on the SFMTA to do the right thing and build a fully cycletrack. I think the best way to make this happen is to show designs of what a fully protected cycletrack all along Polk street will look like, and bring the proposal to the voters directly. This will avoid any potential NIMBY lawsuits and further watering down of this important project. A Polk street cycletrack will dramatically improve the quality of life for many people in the city, not just people who live in the area. With the right campaign, this project will probably pass with a majority of most San Francisco voters.

  • Jordan Klein

    “While some media reports have painted a simplistic picture pitting merchants against cyclists, at least 14 merchants have also sent in such letters.”

    As an economic development planner and cyclist, I pay pretty close attention to media stories on these topics. And from my perspective, when it comes to perpetuating the false dichotomy of cyclists vs merchants, Streetsblog has been *the worst*, as guilty as any other media outlet. I appreciate this website’s reporting, but when it comes to small businesses, your empathy and objectivity always seem to get thrown out the window.

    So I’m glad to hear that you guys are aware of this trend. I hope that in the future you take a hard look at your own reporting, make more of an effort to consider the perspective of small business owners, and think twice before demonizing them.

  • Kyle

    I’m very sceptical of SFMTA’s claim that they examined collision data by block and this latest plan is designed around that data. This would imply that NB McAllister to Pine is the most dangerous section for cyclists, followed by all of SB, then NB Pine to Broadway (only in the am), and NB Broadway to Union has no collisions. Anecdotally, these bike lanes appear more planned around the vocal merchants than cyclist collisions. I think SFMTA or the SFBC should release the data by block, direction and time of day to validate the claim.

  • Anandakos

    Dawn,

    If “re-purposing any parking spaces” makes it “almost impossible to live in the neighborhood” then perhaps you should reflect on how little you actually like the place in which you live.

    If the removal of some parking makes it anathema to you, then you probably are not really suited to the environment. You depend too much on the ability to control your surroundings; that’s a psychology more appropriate for Mississippi where flat lands and low land prices invite wide buffers between neighbors. “Help” is cheap and there is simply no crowding.

    And if all else fails, there are Mint Juleps for stress relief.

  • M.

    Hello, Jordan – Agreed. Folks for Polk has contacted the various journalists and would-be Polk boycotters for doing just that. Also, after personally getting to know most of the business owners, we’ve publicly presented letters of support from the forward-looking merchants – a majority – who were *always* on board were ignored by all until recently. Otoh, your office, the Mayor’s IIN Initiative has emboldened self-proclaimed neighborhood groups whose membership is tiny and simply *does not* represent their neighborhood and whose MO actually stymies meaningful development.

  • M.

    Bandwidth and budget aren’t there to keep tweaking designs.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I have the block by block data, I am pretty sure it was released to the public. It was part of the data released at the first big community meeting about the project about two years ago.

    IIRC most of the accidents happen in lower Polk and then a big bunch at Broadway and Geary.

  • NoeValleyJim

    It’s not over until it’s over. I trust you showed up to the early design meetings, bicycle helmet in hand? 🙂

  • NoeValleyJim

    I am really confused how the MTA Board can approve something that goes against Vision Zero, which the Mayor supports, goes against the 20% by 2020 bicycle policy, which the Board of Supervisors supports, goes against their own professional staff’s initial design and instead come up with a plan that only is supported by only by a tiny vocal minority.

    When I voted and campaigned for Prop E, I thought that it would help create an MTA leadership structure that would make it less immune to petty politics and instead work for the good of The City as a whole. This current board seems to be worse than that older governance structure.

    I think more than anything, this fiasco shows the need for reform at the MTA. That is the issue that needs to go to the voters. It is much worse than just one cycletrack.

  • It’s definitely not over, but this fight would’ve been a hell of lot easier if we would’ve fought it before the SFMTA released their final design. Even if the SFMTA board votes to down the current proposal in favor of one that includes a two way cycletrack, it will delay the project by at least a year. There’s no way they could stay on the current timeline for construction if the SFMTA board orders a entirely new design.

    Next time the city has an opportunity to make a protected bike lane as part of a repaving project- like Columbus Street, we need to be proactive from the start and build community support rather than letting the NIMBY protesters drive the dialogue.

    Yes I was at every hearing and public outreach meeting and I voiced my concern.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I was there, where were you? Folks for Polk was started pretty much from the beginning to help create a popular vehicle for people who wanted to support a complete and safe street design.

  • Gezellig

    How flattering! Not sure exactly how it works…I think if you click on anyone’s Disqus name a window pops up that allows you to choose to follow them.

  • Gezellig

    “It also seemed that neighborhood values – the character of Polk and its local inefficiencies – was being pitted against city-wide ones, that is, of expeditiously moving people from one district to another.”

    One thing about building infrastructure that accommodates more people on foot and bike to pass through is that, unlike through expediting through car traffic, people on bike/foot/mobility scooter/etc. are much more likely to stop at points along the way and partake in local street life/shop/socialize/etc.

    Let’s also remember that complete streets benefit everyone, not just the most able of us. Complete streets benefit those of all abilities, even people who cannot physically use a bicycle or walk:

    I myself live a block from Polk so I’m there practically every day.
    I’ve happened to speak with people on Polk who use mobility scooters/wheelchairs who’ve pointed out how people often forget that they, too, would benefit from protected bike lanes. Why? Even the best sidewalks are often suboptimal for mobility scooters/wheelchairs, but people in these situations using conventional bike lanes/sharrows are especially vulnerable to the inevitable problems of double parking/careless driving/etc.

    This isn’t about any one label of person vs. one other label of person. It’s about creating more equitable streets for all modes. How many people of all abilities currently avoid Polk because of the unbalanced nature of its layout? While I personally am of the physical capability to dodge most cars blatantly disregarding the crosswalks on Polk, I cringe every time I see yet another near-miss of a senior citizen just trying to cross the street when it’s their turn.

    We’ve sacrificed so much in the way we structure our public spaces, and it’s not just esthetic.

    The facts are there regarding best practices for complete streets of all modes and all abilities. Paltry, watered-down, quantifiably bad-practice facilities for the 85% of people who arrive on Polk without a car are undemocratic, unequitable and, as Cheryl Brinkman points out, morally unconscionable.

    As for politeness, it’s my experience that the majority of the merchants/stakeholders are perfectly nice people 🙂 Whether or not someone specifically says “Pretty Please and Thank You, SFTMA” though shouldn’t really matter (though as far as I’m concerned erring on the side of extra politeness is never a bad approach)–it’s best-practices backed up by data and metrics the SFMTA should be basing its decisions on, not how loud/vocal/quiet/polite/impolite/etc. any particular speaker is.

  • NoeValleyJim

    No, your activity is marked as private so people cannot follow you.

  • jd_x

    Are you saying that most small business are for making the street more bicycle-friendly (i.e., adding the cycletrack) but have been lumped in with a minority that are against it?

  • M.

    Yes, that’s true, jd_x. None of us is just a bit in a monolithic bloc but nuance just isn’t click bait.

  • M.

    Again, the MTA Board is not a monolithic block. They also hear the same din that everyone else does. I’ve found them to be quite receptive to facts presented clearly.

  • M.

    …and talk with merchants and others in the neighborhoods at issue? And we will all get involved with constructive, not scapegoating, efforts in future?

  • M.

    Columbus is, indeed, next at bat.

  • M.

    Have differing conclusions, but yours are interesting observations, planning5.

  • M.

    If only that clear vision could get through to those who need to ‘get’ it.

  • M.

    You can get email alerts when someone you follow comments on any Discus platform, unless their privacy is setting disallows it.

  • Look, the merchants have already been “flexible” with their god given part of street. And if they’re ok with a murderous street design, maybe we should be too? http://dearestdistrict5.blogspot.com/2014/11/save-polk-street-crowd-still-ok-with.html

  • Lego

    Yes, that’s what i noticed. Thanks

  • M.

    Union and Vallejo, as well.

  • c2check

    Yes, perhaps it is “almost impossible to live in the neighborhood” when you’re without adequate bike/ped infrastructure and facing a nice risk of death in traffic.

    If a couple of businesses that don’t believe numbers and are cool with people getting hurt on their street go out of business, I’m certain something better will be happy to take their storefronts.

  • Gezellig

    Ah, didn’t realize that my settings were doing that. Just changed them–how’s it now?

  • Tweaking not required, just pay the €90 for the CROW manual and follow that. Proven bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure from the safest country to be both in the world. Fewer pedestrian deaths and injuries go with good bicycle infrastructure like peanut butter and jelly.

  • neutral_corner

    How many of the proprietors on Polk who object to bike lanes displacing consumer parking spaces have yellow metered loading zones in front of their businesses?

  • Abe Froman

    “I’m not worried about getting hit by a bike.”

    Well that’s your opinion…

  • murphstahoe

    Gotta love the Sausage King of Chicago quoting The Dude.

  • Gezellig
  • I’m kinda sick of The Dude at this point. Yeah, I know, that’s like just my opinion, man.

  • NoeValleyJim

    There are some really great people on The Board. But what matters is what comes out of the process. I am not holding my breath on this one.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Perfect! I am following you now 🙂

  • M.

    Sure, we know that but until someone finds the magic wand that with a wave gets everyone to understand – or gets us a mayor willing to inform and lead – we’re left with doing it usual way – slogging through uninformed objections. Besides, our homegrown NACTO Guidelines build on other guidelines and lay it all out beautifully.

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