Why Townsend Street Needs Protected Bike Lanes at 4th and King Station

Anyone who uses Townsend Street’s eastbound bike lane to commute to Caltrain is sure to run into a litany of obstacles: Taxis, shuttles, private autos, and Muni buses obliterate the poor bike lane in the fight for curb space. (Much of the curb is reserved as a taxi stand.)

Sam McCandlish sent in this video, filmed by a friend of his, showing the chaotic scrum faced by bike-to-Caltrain commuters. The often-impassable conditions cause some people to resort to riding on the sidewalk. In 2011, the SFPD targeted sidewalk riders at the Fourth and King station while ignoring drivers blocking the bike lane.

In the video, a few Bay Area Bike Share users can be seen walking their bikes in the bike lane in the opposite direction to get through the mess. Fourth and King is the busiest bike-share hub in the city at peak commute hours.

Image: y2c/Vimeo

Townsend’s unprotected bike lanes, striped in 2010, are clearly failing to provide safe bike access to SF’s Peninsula rail hub. The constant blockages at the station are the culmination of an often harrowing ride to Caltrain through SoMa’s wide, speeding-plagued streets. On the rest of Townsend, navigating the potholed pavement requires some skilled maneuvering. And for anyone heading east of Fourth Street, the bike lane disappears for nearly half a block along a curbside bus zone (with only sharrows instead). The bike lanes end at Second Street.

There are still no plans on the table to install parking-protected bike lanes on Townsend, which could eliminate conflicts between drivers and bike commuters. However, the city is planning a smarter street designs on nearby Second Street, which will include a bike lane running alongside the sidewalk, separated from traffic lanes by a curb and space for parking and loading. In that design, passengers can alight from vehicles before crossing the bike lane.

To see similar configurations in action, just pay a visit to the protected bike lane and boarding island at Duboce and Church Streets or Polk Street’s contra-flow bike lane. SF knows how to build these streets. Now it’s just a matter of execution

The plan for raised, protected bike lanes on Second Street. Image: DPW
  • murphstahoe

    A large group of cyclists do end their trip 30 yards West of 4th Street in a location where motorists make unpredictable turning movements (into the lane and u-turns). I’d rather be to the right of that in a protected lane.

  • Doh! I was thinking of Missionites getting out of Caltrain at 4th and King (when I usually ride past in the morning), not getting on.

  • Bruce

    That could be addressed with a dedicated crossbike at 4th Street – which would also provide a safe mechanism for traveling west on Townsend from the station.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think passengers transferring to Caltrain want to get stuck on the bus waiting to go through an intersection that they will have to cross again.

  • Bruce

    Streetmix attached for the block in question.


  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think U-turns are legal to begin with anyway.

    An idea to address the illegal U-turns is to convert 4th Street into 2 ways between Townsend and Brannan, so traffic to the south don’t have to go all the way to 3rd.

  • murphstahoe

    Bah – they are whisked on their golden chariots, not janky Caltrain.

  • Bruce

    The problem with that is all the pedestrians crossing over the bike lane to reach the buses.

  • That’s a sound idea, and also allows space to be then used for cycletracks too.

  • That would involve Muni actually working with Caltrain. That’s like trying to get our divorced parents to have dinner together! Muni would rather setup razor wire fences between it’s platforms and Caltrain if it could! All of our little transit systems compete against each other. We sink more money than most other cities on all of our little independent transit systems for worse service. Sadly it’s unlikely this will ever change.

  • Pedestrians crossing won’t be a major problem as long as the design is good. A cyclist may not be able to fly through at 30 MPH, but an experience like pictured above would also be highly unlikely. As long as it’s designed right.

  • I suppose I can buy that. I still probably would’ve just taken the lane at the first sign of slowing, but I use lane control in a lot of lanes that most people wouldn’t take.

  • There’s plenty of room along Townsend street for a protected bike lane. They could even make a 2-way protected bike lane paralleling the train tracks until it hits 7th street. That would make it much safer and easier for cyclists to get in and out of Caltrain.

  • Even when the new Transbay tunnel is finished, it’s estimated that only 1/3-1/2 of all Caltrain trains will run into there because of design limitations. With only 3 tracks servicing 6 platforms, no loop tracks, and HSR trains, there isn’t enough room for all caltrain trains to service the new Transbay terminal.

  • I’d definitely concur with that idea. That’d even allow bicyclists to avoid having to stop at all the T intersections. Though there should definitely still be at least another regular bike lane on the other side of the street too.

  • A well designed protected bike lane will greatly improve safety. They could easily fit a 2-way protected bike lane all the way between 4th and 7th street paralleling the train tracks on the inside of the angled parked cars. If the bike lane is physically protected, and there’s curbspace between the protected bike lane and the loading zone for vehicle passengers to load and unload, it will make traffic flow for everyone much smoother.

  • There should be no reason to. If they have a wide enough 2-way bike lane that’s protected from traffic and has a curb wide enough for pedestrians, then traffic could flow much more smoothly. They should also consider making Townsend 1-way eastbound to provide two-curbs airport style along the side of Caltrain, with an white zone for taxis, and a separate curb for busses. There is space there to do just that. Two way traffic there is half the reason for that big mess!

  • The big problem is the access for private vehicles and parking them. So remove that and there’d be plenty of space. Only allow transit/taxis and bikes/peds. Problem solved.

  • Bruce
  • hailfromsf

    Well, I’d expect those that do go all the way downtown will be the bullet trains that all these commuters are packed into.

  • Dian Xiao

    That area is a mess! Between the taxi stand, MUNI, private buses, uber, bikes, jaywalking….

  • theqin

    I believe the central subway construction project is converting Townsend to 2-way once the rail line is put in.

    The U-turns aren’t legal, SFPD supposedly cracked down on them a year or two ago but obviously only constant supervision will keep the taxi drivers in check. Obviously their customers get quite upset about having to pay the extra fare for them to go the roundabout way on 3rd street.

  • aslevin

    Last I heard, this was low priority for SFMTA and also low priority for the SFBC. Has anybody tried to talk to Supervisor Kim, yet? Anyone interested in doing so?

  • aslevin

    The “plan” to have only partial Caltrain service to Transbay dates back to an earlier version of the High Speed Rail business plan where HSR was wanting to have 10-12 high speed trains per direction per hour serving transbay. That number got reduced to a more realistic 3-4, which is the level of service for Paris-London and NY-DC. There are going to be important decisions made in the next few months about Caltrain/HSR compatibility that may affect the ability for Caltrain to provide full service to Transbay.

    Even when the downtown extension to Transbay is completed, may it happen speedily in our lifetimes, there will still be a need for service to the SOMA/Mission Bay Area, so I expect a station to be somewhere near 4th/King, instead of closing it.

  • hailfromsf

    Right. I’m not suggesting the 4th & King station will go away, but I’m sure the majority of commuters are headed downtown and will therefore choose the trains that begin/end at the transbay center. That should significantly cut down on this crowding on Townsend.

  • aslevin

    Maybe. If SF ridership triples, and a smaller share use 4th and King, that could still be more people.

  • aslevin

    Last night, the Bicycle Advisory Committee agreed to agendize the Townsend hazards at the next upcoming meeting. At the meeting, the SFMTA staff member confirmed that there aren’t any plans for this area.

    Also, Supervisor Kim wrote me back, copying Ed Reiskin and Neil Patel, and said that she would work with SFMTA to improve safety for cyclists on Townsend.

  • At this point Vehicular Cycling has been thoroughly debunked. We’ve achieved all we can by asking people to take the lane. Now it’s time to address the infrastructure.

  • Debunked for…? No one is saying to stop building bike lanes, just that there are plenty instances where they don’t work. Like the one seen here. It’s pretty clear from the video that this particular bike lane is a classic example of just about everything that can go wrong with a bike lane. Even the guy in the video agrees that going around by taking the lane probably would’ve been better.

  • Debunked for areas that are making an effort to provide safe and sustainable transportation. The idea is that the roads shouldn’t only be for people who are comfortable taking the lane and mixing with large bus and car traffic. Because not very many people are willing to do that, as you yourself point out. Can you see how that limits who uses bike lanes and by extension who has more transportation options?

    You can read more about it here: https://www.planning.org/research/streets/resources.htm

    Perhaps the biker in the video agrees that it would have been better to go around. But she also clearly asks a vehicle operator not to stop in the bike lane. So how can infrastructure make a difference in that scenario?

  • Luke Stewart

    There was a horrific looking injury on Townsend at 4th this morning around 10AM. Don’t know details, but there was a man on a stretcher, too much blood, a big “Storer” corporate shuttle bus stopped in the middle of the street with its doors open, and police blocking/re-routing traffic around the scene. Anyone know what happened?


SFMTA Wants to Remove King Street Bike Lanes, Won’t Improve Alternative

The SFMTA wants to remove bike lanes and sharrows on King Street in SoMa’s South Beach area to discourage bicycling on the truck-heavy street, Hoodline reports. The agency wants to divert bike commuters to the parallel stretch of Townsend Street, but has no plans to improve the bike lanes there, which are unprotected and routinely blocked by drivers near […]

Parking-Protected Bike Lanes, Ped Safety Upgrades Coming to Division at 9th

Bike lanes on the block of Division Street between 9th and 10th Streets will get some much-needed protection this fall. Earlier this week the SFMTA Board of Directors approved a design that will put people on bikes between the curb and parked cars. The massive 9th and Division intersection will also get safety improvements like large painted curb […]

South Bay Cities Build Region’s First Separated Bike Lanes

New on-street bike lanes separated from auto traffic are nearing completion in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, and a handful of neighboring cities have plans to install them too. Separated bike infrastructure gained traction among local planners after Caltrans approved Class IV Separated Bikeway design standards [PDF] in December 2015. The first protected intersections were built […]