North Beach Meeting on Sidewalk Bulbs Gets Tense; SFMTA to Paint Demos

A public meeting in North Beach became tense yesterday as residents and firefighters opposed to basic street safety measures continued to assert that sidewalk bulb-outs are dangerous. To appease skeptics, the SFMTA announced that the bulb-outs planned at four intersections on Columbus Avenue will be tested first by installing painted “safety zones” in August. Construction of concrete versions will begin next year.

A sidewalk extension on Columbus Avenue at Washington Square Park. One man complained yesterday that "there should be a warning saying that you are now much closer" to motor traffic. Photo: SFMTA
A sidewalk extension on Columbus Avenue at Washington Square Park. One man complained yesterday that “there should be a warning saying that you are now much closer” to motor traffic. Photo: SFMTA

The Columbus bulb-outs were approved months ago, and have already been heavily watered-down during a planning process that’s lasted years. The SF Fire Department signed off on them as safe for turning fire trucks.

The bulb-outs “being proposed for Columbus Avenue are not that scary,” said D3 Supervisor Julie Christensen, who told attendees she convinced the SFMTA to implement the painted versions as a trial. “We’ve been looking at all these really carefully… modifications were made, and what we’ve got now is kind of a river stone that’s been smoothed over by all kinds of forces.”

“Nobody that I know is particularly freaked out by what we ended up with,” she added. “But just to make sure, we’re going to paint these on the street. And if somehow, something comes up with the templates, and the reviews, and the tens of hours of community meetings that was not brought to our attention, I guarantee I will go and fix it.”

It was the second recent meeting about bulb-outs held by North Beach Neighbors. At the first meeting on April 30, Hoodline reported, members of SF Fire Fighters Union Local 798 protested life-saving curb extensions claiming they hinder fire trucks. Since that meeting, the union’s president also sent a letter [PDF] to SFFD Chief Johanne Hayes-White calling the department’s approvals of bulb-outs “very troubling.”

Unlike the first meeting, officials from SFFD and the SFMTA made presentations and answered questions on the issue, which seemed to quell fears among some attendees.

A few people remained unconvinced, however, and raised their voices. Here’s one of the arguments between an opponent and SFMTA planner Oliver Gajda, about whether it’s safe to assume that trucks can turn around bulb-outs without conducting a field test:

Firefighter Tony Rivera also repeated an anecdote to scare people about the prospect of wider sidewalks that he told at the April meeting, according to Hoodline.

At Columbus and Union Streets, where the block of sidewalk along Washington Square Park was extended last year to make the bus stop more efficient, Rivera said he became alarmed when his six-year-old son bent down to pick up a penny at the curb.

“The bus came by — I didn’t realize I was now standing in traffic,” Rivera said. “Before, there used to be a buffer of cars. There should be a warning saying that you are now much closer. If you’re a little kid, or my mom who’s 93 — she needs glasses — she cannot tell that she’s standing right in the way of a vehicle.”

He also complained to Gajda that taxpayers have to pay for the curb extensions, and that he didn’t get a notification about them. “It’s wrong, man. You don’t live in the neighborhood, I do… I think it’s bullshit.”

Rivera said he “has to drive a car,” and that if bulb-outs remove more parking spots, “I’m not going to go there and help our neighborhood because I’m going to be driving around, distracted. It’s going to be crazy.”

Daniel Macchiarini of the North Beach Business Association has continued to fight the 2010 Columbus Avenue study that recommended more space for people. He claimed that the SFPD told him there haven’t been any pedestrian injuries since 2013, except for one “criminal” one, at the intersections set to get bulb-outs, which will “destroy small businesses.” He said SFFD only approved the bulb-outs because of “pressure from the mayor’s office.”

Macchiarini also said that SFMTA staff hasn’t returned his emails over the years requesting statistics on pedestrian safety to explain “why we’re doing this.”

Gajda said he could provide his email responses to Macchiarini, and pointed to city websites like WalkFirst which show pedestrian injury data. Later in the meeting, Natalie Burdick of Walk SF said she’d looked up the numbers on her phone, and that there were 15 injuries at Columbus intersections between Union and Vallejo Streets in recent years.

Many of the parking spots where the planned bulb-outs will go have already been removed for daylighting, the SFMTA said. The bulb-outs will actually result in a net gain of one parking spot, since one of them is a transit bulb which will require a shorter bus zone than the existing one.

While SFFD has shown signs of softening its opposition to bulb-outs and narrower roadways, SFFD Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi said the agency’s stance has never changed. As he explained in January 2014, “it’s hard to pinpoint” what has slowed emergency response times, but the department has “shut down” or watered down safety improvements nonetheless.

After showing stats and pictures of broken fire truck components caused by hitting “obstacles,” he said he couldn’t say how many of them were caused by bulb-outs. He said, however, that SFFD would like to see more daylighting and bike lanes, as long as they’re not protected by “hardscape” structures.

Several residents voiced their support for making Columbus safer and changing its cars-first design. “We’re a city famous for being painfully slow, for obstructing decisions,” said one man. “A city of naysayers.”

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