Was the Turning Point on Taraval a Teachable Moment?

The contentious "Safeway Stop" on the L-Taraval. Photo: Streetsblog
The contentious “Safeway stop” on the L-Taraval. Photo: Streetsblog

A week ago today, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency decided unanimously to move forward with concrete boarding islands on the L-Taraval. And maybe, just maybe, it was also a concrete turning point towards finally putting safety first.

As Streetsblog readers know all too well, every time SFMTA develops transit improvements as part of its Muni Forward program, the agency encounters enormous pushback. It comes from competing agencies, local politicians, and from a loud minority of angry stakeholders. And whether it’s the Mission, Masonic, or Van Ness, it’s this pushback that gets covered in the mainstream press.

The resulting political pressure causes delays, watered-down projects, and—more often than not—a failure to adhere to the voter approved “transit first” policies dating back to the 1970s. In other words, a minority of self-interested and ill-informed people are given more political sway than the voters.

Streetsblog attended three different meetings on the now-approved L-Taraval improvement plan—two were in City Hall and the third was the now-infamous shouting fest at Diane Feinstein Elementary school. Each time, and at last week’s meeting at the SFMTA board, the same kind of victim-blaming and excuses were heard.

The new, Hail Mary tactic of opponents: delay the project. “Please allow entire project to be pilot project, then have six months to do joint design with SFMTA,” said one speaker, before complaining about the loss of parking. Loss of parking, as with other projects, was the overriding theme. “See if you can prevent that one-in-a million accident without causing such massive loss of parking on Taraval,” said Paula Katz of the organization “Save our Stops” in a side interview at the meeting with Streetsblog.

And then there was the man who shouted at the February meeting that 22 people getting hit while alighting the trains “doesn’t seem like that many” and does not warrant making changes at all.

At first, San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang seemed to cave to some of these noisier interests. But she correctly identified the group dynamics at play in the big public meeting and opted instead to work separately with small groups of constituents. This allowed SFMTA to parse legitimate concerns that could be addressed, rather than losing them in the rabble of  the traditional big-meeting format for community outreach.

This gave the SFMTA board the ability to strategically direct SFMTA staff. For example: yes, perhaps it makes sense to maintain the stop in front of the Safeway on Taraval. People carrying groceries probably do need the stop closest to the store.

The SFMTA board, with its unanimous vote to move forward with boarding islands, rejected the grumbling and specious arguments in a clear vote for safety. Photo: Streetsblog
The SFMTA board, with its unanimous vote to move forward with boarding islands, rejected the grumbling and specious arguments in a clear vote for safety. Photo: Streetsblog

The result was, perhaps, a new kind of politics. “Our office believes that safety is nonnegotiable,” said Ashley Summers, a staffer for Tang’s office, who came to address the SFMTA board prior to the vote on Taraval. “Boarding islands are the only way to address the safety of Muni passengers.”

That said, Jarlene Choy, a staffer for Supervisor Norman Yee, read a letter from her supervisor that missed its own point. “The priority has always been pedestrian safety,” she read, before supporting the same delaying tactics of the safety opponents. “I urge a six-month pilot program so SFMTA can evaluate input into the pilot project.”

SFMTA has to “evaluate” concrete boarding islands—which have proven their safety value on transit lines all over the city? Fortunately, the Board wasn’t having it.

Now, that said, Walk San Francisco is not happy that five stops won’t get concrete boarding islands right away, and they’re absolutely justified in their concerns. “We’re encouraged that the SFMTA Board unanimously approved the project as a whole, rather than bowing to anti-public transit and -safety voices,” said Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF. “The fight is far from over, however. In six months the Board will revisit the pilot treatment and decide whether or not to keep that option, based on a 90 percent driver yielding rate.”

Ferrara was referring to the five “experimental” boarding islands that will get paint treatments in the initial build of the project, rather than concrete. SFMTA chose the stops, which are inbound only, that have the fewest boardings and no history of incidents. However, it started to become clear that even this political compromise on safety is not going to last, as echoed in the statements of almost everyone on the SFMTA board. “I just can not see dropping people off into traffic,” said director Lee Hsu about the proposed six-month delay and the experimental boarding islands. “I don’t want to delay on the safety options,” added Cheryl Brinkman, another director.

All of which was very promising.

“One of the things that stands in the way is often times a small number of deluded people are the ones who show up. And they complain and their complaints may be irrational and factually incorrect. But because they show up, they’re the ones who win the day,” said Jeff Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting, in a previous Streetsblog post.

But this time at least, it seems that Tang and the SFMTA have started to figure out the political work-arounds to make sure safety and the needs of the many aren’t forever lost in the shouts of an irrational few. It’s done through smaller meetings. It’s done through more targeted outreach. And, in the future, perhaps it will be done by abandoning altogether the big-meeting format of community outreach.

SFMTA's Sean Kennedy attempting to discuss the L-Taraval meeting with an audience that constantly interrupted and shouted over each other, during a now infamous February meeting. Photo: Streetsblog
The angriest people in San Francisco. SFMTA’s Sean Kennedy attempting to discuss the L-Taraval meeting with an audience that constantly interrupted and shouted over each other during the infamous February meeting. Photo: Streetsblog
  • RichLL

    “the agency encounters enormous push back. It comes from competing agencies, local politicians, but, more often than not, from a loud minority of angry stakeholders”

    Roger, did we ever establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it was a “minority” of local residents who opposed these boarding islands?

    As I recall, even your own report at the time indicated that about 2/3 of the meeting opposed them.

  • A lot of times, the city and SFMTA will do major safety improvements after a pedestrian gets killed on our streets. There’s many examples:

    47th Avenue and Fulton: Used to be a two way stop with those on Fulton going as fast as 35 without stopping thru intersection. I advocated to the city to change to 4-way stop, but they wrote back to me saying it would “delay Muni.” It wasn’t until one day, a pedestrian was hit and killed, they finally put in 4-way stop, and now there’s a signal in place.

    Sunset Boulevard and Yorba (near Sloat overpass): Pedestrian killed by a car. That crosswalk was dangerous as hell, even with the flashing lights telling people there’s a pedestrian wanting to cross. Now there’s a traffic signal, more traffic signals along Sunset, and lowering the speed limit.

    Sloat and Forest View: A Lowell High School student was hit and killed by a DUI driver. Everybody knew crossing Sloat was dangerous, and the city and state (since it’s highway 35) forked the money fast to put in a new crosswalk signal.

    For the Taraval project, I’m happy the SFMTA is shoving back at the anti project people. They are willing to be proactive instead of waiting for the next death.

  • neroden

    That’s certainly a minority of local residents.

    When a majority of local residents care enough to come to a meeting to oppose something, the meeting invariably has to be moved to a much larger room. (They never expect very many people to care either way.)

  • RichLL

    So wait, what you are saying is that the majority of those who showed up to oppose these islands were actually a minority because otherwise the venue would have been bigger?

  • njudah

    It’s amazing how terrified supervisors are of their own constituents, esp those on the west side. wtf?

  • SuperQ

    I saw one complaint about a stop being removed at 24th ave. Mainly because they bought a house there. Yet, there’s already a stop with a boarding island at 23rd, and another stop at 26th. These are stops within a few hundred feet of each other, which is utterly crazy for a light rail system.

  • RichLL

    So elected representatives should ignore those who elect them? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for further electoral success.

    The pesky thing about democracy is that it doesn’t always give you the result you prefer.

  • Agreed. In fact, there really shouldn’t be a stop at 22nd AND 23rd OB. But, they had to put the ramp somewhere and removing a couple parking spaces next to the park versus up at 22nd was probably the trade off for the OB stop not being at 24th.

  • Mostly opposition based on purely selfish reasons and petty whining like “Now I have to walk an extra block” and “No one is going to shop at my store anymore because there isn’t a metered space directly in front.” WAAAAAH! If the success of your business rests on a few parking spaces then you really need to revisit your business model.

    No one is surprised that 2/3 of the people at the meeting opposed the changes. That’s usually what happens at community meetings. You can be guaranteed that if someone who opposed the boarding islands was hit, or knew someone who was hit, by a vehicle getting on/off the train would be first in line to complain.

    The real problem isn’t about safety, preserving parking or improving transit. It’s about people being self-centered with their heads stuck in the past.

  • It shouldn’t take an injury or tragedy to implement safety measures. It should be common sense when designing or upgrading a transit system. Also, where are all the complaints about stops not being ADA compliant? Taraval only has 3 wheelchair ramps along its entire surface route (over 2.5 miles). Hey opponents: If you’re so gung ho on preserving stops every two blocks shouldn’t each one be ADA accessible which would require a boarding island and ramp? But we can’t because that would remove parking spots and anger businesses and residents on side streets.

  • Well then, what is YOUR solution? Please be clear in your response and provide details on how to solve this problem.

  • RichLL

    Mark, I think local communities should be able to make decisions locally about what type of neighborhood they want. So my solution would be a voter initiative in Katy Tang’s district with a simple up or down vote on whether to enact boarding islands.

  • In this case it goes beyond just what a particular neighborhood wants. Did I get a vote on adding traffic signals to Sunset? No. They were added by the city to improve safety for pedestrians and as a traffic calming measure for a dangerous stretch of road.

  • L Taraval

    We talking about the street of the L-Taraval route.

  • L Taraval

    I agreed with current stop OB 23rd avenue improvement and IB 22th Avenue improvement and removing IB 24th Avenue. OB 23rd Avenue a good location for safety as is a 3 way traffic supposedly.
    This will allow further safety improve expand.

  • L Taraval

    L-Taraval Plan is good no more delays and no more insecure people obstructing the insertion of the L Taraval safety plan with assumptions. Muni L Taraval Plan moving forward

    Let see how effective is their Painted Pilot plan work out.

  • zippy_monster

    The IB 24th ave stop is great, it even blocks the entire sidewalk now that it has a shelter.

  • L Taraval

    The train should be stopping at the already installed boarding island stop IB 22nd Avenue..Removing 24th Avenue is the best
    All Students would have goto 22nd Avenue if they want go Inbound direction.

  • RichLL

    You asked you for my solution and I gave it. I’m not in the business of telling people in other neighborhoods what they should and should not do.

    There’s going to be unhappy people no matter what solution is adopted. But I’d go with the majority, this being a democracy and all.

  • Victoria Fierce

    > As I recall, even your own report at the time indicated that about 2/3 of the people who had time and energy to make it to the meeting opposed them.


  • hailfromsf

    Reasonable people understand that safety and efficiency trump personal convenience, but we aren’t going to spend our time arguing about it at community meetings with the selfish folks who care deeply about their favorite parking spots.

  • hailfromsf

    Neighborhoods are not islands unto themselves. They are all part of the larger city, which has a voter-directed goal to make our streets safer and our transit more effective. Local residents are not traffic engineers, are not the only users of our streets, and should not have the power to block sensible improvements.

  • p_chazz

    Using your rationale, the Board of Supervisors should not have listened to the local residents who opposed building freeways in San Francisco during the 1950s because they were not traffic engineers and not the only users of the streets and they should not have had the power to block sensible improvements, as freeways in the 1950s were considered to be.

  • drporkchop

    The “rationale” is not that our elected officials should always act in opposition to majority opinion, but that they should (since we presumably elected them for their wisdom and sense) choose wisely and sensibly for the greatest benefit overall to their constituents. in your example, sure, certain people at the time probably thought freeways were the best, most important thing for them, regardless of the effects on everyone else, just as some people now feel some parking spots in front of stores need to be preserved at all costs, safety be damned.

  • RichLL

    By that argument we should implement 10 mph speed limits everywhere because that would increase safety.

    But the voters would not support that because time, convenience and throughput matter too. There is a limit to how much inconvenience people will tolerate just to reduce accident statistics.

    Vision Zero notwithstanding, we have to balance reasonable safety with reasonable convenience and capacity.

  • Well put.

  • RichLL

    Victoria, how do you know what the people who didn’t attend that meeting think? What is your evidentiary basis for believing that they think differently from those who did attend?

  • hailfromsf

    Sure… everything in moderation. There’s a significant difference in magnitude between the handful of transit platforms we’re talking about here, and the proposal to plow a 6-lane freeway through the middle of the city.

  • hailfromsf

    Yeah, that’s why I said “sensible.”

  • p_chazz

    My comment was intended as a caution against placing blind faith in experts. The principal is operative whether we are talking about a handful of platforms or a 6-lane freeway.

  • hailfromsf

    I can agree with that.

  • RichLL

    The problem with the word “sensible” is that it is subjective. But at least you see the principle – that safety is not the only factor to be considered.

  • p_chazz

    Of course people will act in their own self-interest when it is at stake, rather than for some nebulous greater good that usually conceals a hidden agenda. That is not a problem.

  • keenplanner

    The supes/mayor don’t want to annoy what they perceive as the big, Asian, west-side voting bloc. That’s why it took ten years and three ballot initiatives to get rid of the Central Freeway.

  • citrate reiterator

    Setting aside the question of whether a majority of Sunset residents oppose the proposed upgrades along the L (I’d be surprised), the problem with this is that you have arbitrarily defined majority as “majority within a certain neighborhood,” not as “majority of San Franciscans.” But focusing on one of these is not necessarily more democratic than another. In fact, giving a small number of local residents veto power can be anti-democratic if the proposed changes would be popular with the majority of San Franciscans. And of course, what counts as the “neighborhood” is arbitrary: is it everyone who uses the L? How often do they have to use it? Or is it only people who live in the southern Sunset? Or is it only people who live on Taraval itself? Etc.

    In reality, of course, those scales have to be balanced and that’s the job of elected officials.

  • citrate reiterator

    It is not controversial that open public forum attendees rarely constitute a representative sample of the community. Even getting a random sample of *poll* respondents that is representative of local residents is actually difficult because of non-response bias, requiring things like oversampling and other adjustments for demographics. In light of this, the onus is actually on you to show why you believe that the people who attended these meetings were in fact a representative random sample of local residents.

  • sebra leaves

    There was no turning point on Taraval. If anything, the SFMTA Board won more opponents in that neighborhood by ignoring the requests of thousands of Muni riders and merchants and residents to start with a test and ACTUALLY LOOK AT THE RESULTS PRIOR TO MAKING A DECISION.
    The turning point may come soon as many vote to oppose that Board.

  • neroden

    Absolutely, they were a minority of the neighborhood population.

    Every project attracts a number of cranks who oppose it. The people who support the project or don’t care say “Oh, the city is doing a project” and stay home.

    The number of cranks who showed up to oppose the project was a small number, obviously a minority of the neighborhood. You can assume correctly that anyone who didn’t show up probably supported the project.

    If an *outright majority of the neighborhood* showed up to oppose the project, you’d have needed a much bigger venue. And yes, *I have seen that happen* with certain projects in certain towns.

  • neroden

    And now perhaps you get my point. If the city proposed implementing 10 mph speed limits everywhere, how many people do you think would show up at the meeting in opposition? You’d need to get a gigantic auditorium.

    Now you see my point, RichLL?


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