Sup. Christensen: Make the Stockton Tunnel Better for Walking and Biking

Supervisor Christensen (left) listens as Richard Ow speaks, along with SF Planning Director John  Rahaim and Department of Public Works Director Mohammend Nuru. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Supervisor Christensen (left) listens as Richard Ow speaks, along with SF Planning Director John Rahaim and Department of Public Works Director Mohammend Nuru. Photo: Aaron Bialick

D3 Supervisor Julie Christensen wants to make the Stockton Tunnel more comfortable to walk and bike through. She announced today that she procured at least $100,000 in the city budget for a study of improvements in the next fiscal year.

Photo: Aaron Bialick
Photo: Aaron Bialick

“Union Square is known all over the world. Chinatown is known all over the world,” Christensen told reporters today. “This is the wormhole that connects the two of them, and we’ve sort of left it as a transit afterthought.”

“Lots of us walk through the Stockton Tunnel, mostly out of necessity. I’d like people to do it because it’s safe and fun, if that’s possible… I know when I’m cycling, those flat shortcuts are really preferred.”

Christensen said the specifics of the study would be developed through community participation. But she suggested ideas ranging from public art and better lighting to removing a traffic lane, which could quell the roar of motor traffic and make room to physically separate cars from people walking and biking.

Richard Ow, a senior who lives in Chinatown, said he’s been walking through the tunnel since he was 10 years old. “This should’ve been done a long time ago,” he said. “We want to see some action.”

The idea of removing one of Stockton’s three traffic lanes already seems to have strong support. Pius Lee, chairman of the Chinatown Neighborhood Association, told the SF Chronicle in February that local merchants and residents already agree it’s a good idea. He noted that it would skirt the merchant controversy of parking removal.

Trolley buses on Muni's 30-Stockton and 45-Union lines run through the Stockton Tunnel, which was originally built primarily for streetcars. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Trolley buses on Muni’s 30-Stockton and 45-Union lines run through the Stockton Tunnel, which was originally built primarily for streetcars. Photo: Aaron Bialick

It seems widely agreed that there’s excess southbound motor vehicle capacity in the tunnel. That’s been especially true since the southern section of Stockton is currently closed to vehicle traffic for construction of the Central Subway.

“When’s the last time we saw a backup in the tunnel?” said Christensen. “It doesn’t happen.”

The Stockton Tunnel has narrow sidewalks protected by guard rails, and a narrow bike lane striped only in the uphill, northbound direction. For people pedaling slowly up the slope, the experience of being passed within inches by Muni buses and other vehicles can be harrowing.

“To those who say nobody bikes through the Stockton Tunnel, I say, of course not,” said SF Bicycle Coaltion Executive Director Noah Budnick. “It’s a horrible, horrifying place to ride. But if you build it, they will come — if you make it a safe and enjoyable connection.”

Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara praised Christensen for “connecting various projects that will really change the landscape of Chinatown and Union Square.” Plans shaping up under Muni Forward include transit bulb-outs along Stockton through Chinatown, and the Central Subway will boost foot traffic in the area when it opens with a station at Stockton and Washington Streets in 2019.

In 1915, the tunnel wasn’t built primarily for cars, but for Muni’s F-Stockton streetcar line (now served by trolley buses on the 30-Stockton) in preparation for the World’s Fair.

Auto traffic now dominates the tunnel, but Budnick suggested limiting private cars to help move people more efficiently, as it was originally intended to. “Such is the arc of history,” he said.

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