Hope for the Hairball?

A dedicated group of advocates and city officials gathered at the western entrance to the hairball Saturday  morning. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
A dedicated group of advocates and city officials gathered at the western entrance to the hairball Saturday morning. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Some 20 bicycle advocates and city officials met up on Saturday morning to share ideas for fixing the eastbound bike lanes of the Hairball, San Francisco’s notorious maze of freeway ramps, bike lanes, and homeless camps where Cesar Chavez crosses under US-101. “There will be ten rides to understand the Hairball” and what can be done to improve it, explained Charles Deffarges, who organized the ride for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “This is ride number one.”

As Streetsblog readers are surely aware, the Hairball has been a problem area, both for cyclists and the homeless, who camp under the relative shelter of the overpasses. “The first thing I would fix is the homeless situation,” said Chris Waddling, a cycling advocate. “Get them a place to live.”

Chris Waddling and Tyra Fennell, two advocates who went on the Hairball ride. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

The group met at the patch of grass just east of the Allstars Gas station, where the eastbound bike path begins. Tyra Fennell, Executive Director of Imprint City, an arts non-profit, wants to see more safety lighting. Peter Khoury, who commutes from the Caltrain station via the Hairball, is also concerned about the homeless. He said bike commuters were co-existing with the camps, until they grew to the point that they were blocking the whole bike lane. “Somebody put a tarp fully across the lane,” he said.

Encampments, sandwiched onto the bike lane by fences, create a collision hazard that’s dangerous both for cyclists and the homeless. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
This crosswalk is frequently blocked by cars. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
This crosswalk is frequently blocked by cars. Cars nearly never stop at the stop line. Notice the white car in front of it in the photo. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

The group, which included representatives from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Sustainable Streets division, the Department of Public Works, and homeless services, rode east through the Hairball, but got split up a bit at the signalized crosswalk where the east-bound bike path crosses the roadway ramp to Potrero and Cesar Chavez. The timing of the light is too short for the group to get across and cars kept stopping on the crosswalk. When cars weren’t stopped directly on the crosswalk, they were, without exception, all well past the white-striped stop line. The reason for this was obvious–bad engineering. The traffic signal should be before the crossing, instead of after it, so that cars aren’t tempted to overshoot the stop line. This kind of design, where the traffic signals are placed well beyond the point where cars are supposed to stop, encourages conflicts and needs re-thought (more on this in a future post).

The group crowded onto the sidewalk to reach Marin. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

The group re-assembled and crowded together on the sidewalk at the intersection of Marin and Bayshore Boulevard, where pedestrians and cyclists have to share the space.  Thalia Leng, SF Municipal Transportation Agency, tried to explain SFMTA’s Sustainable Streets division’s plans for that corner, but it was hard to hear over the roar of the traffic. “The plan divides the hairball into segments, prioritized for safety,” she said. “Near term there will be paint only, this summer, with striped bike lanes on Jerrold, curbside. On the southbound-side it will be adjacent to the parking.”

A map of one of the areas of the Hairball scheduled for near and long term improvements. Image: SFMTA
A map of one of the areas of the Hairball scheduled for near and long term improvements. Image: SFMTA

Later she added that safe-hit posts would be added where possible to prevent cars from driving on and/or blocking the lane. She said, however, that the plan is to use more robust safe-hit posts than are currently used. The SFMTA will also add continental crosswalks, and greenback sharrows. Eventually, she said, in another year, more substantive dividers would be added.

One thing that was hard to miss during the meeting–the breakneck speed (and noise) of the traffic. From Streetsblog’s perspective, this is no place for paint and safe hit posts, even as a short term answer. For the on-street approaches to the Hairball, SFMTA should be dropping in temporary crash barriers, such as the type used to protect pedestrians and workers during construction, as seen in the picture below. There’s no reason transit agencies can’t use these orange crash barriers, or something like them, to create truly protected bike lanes at locations with heavy, fast-moving traffic.

Construction barriers can keep cyclists safer than paint, and take less time to put in. Photo: Streetsblog
Construction barriers can keep cyclists safer than paint, and take less time to put in, as seen here in Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog

Leng also pointed to new way-finding signs to help cyclists navigate the confusing paths of the Hairball. However, they were too small and placed a bit high for cyclists. The signs are actually well above the eye-line of Andy Thornley, who stands over six feet, as seen in the photo below-right.

Andy Thornley under one of the new way-finding signs. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Andy Thornley under one of the new way-finding signs. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Meanwhile, the group collectively decided it was too noisy and oppressive to remain where they were, so they headed back west to the relatively quiet spot of dirt where they had started the tour. Once there, David Froehlich with the SF Department of Public Works, talked about plans to improve the gradient of the bike path. As Hairball users are no doubt aware, there’s a point where the bike path dips down very sharply to clear one of the roadways. They will also widen the path and add more lighting. “I ride it every day,” said Froehlich. “And I [call] 311 about the lights, but people tamper with them to charge their phones.” One of the advocates suggested they add some electrical sockets so the homeless can charge phones without cutting into wiring from the lighting fixtures.

Froehlich also said they will replace the chain-link fence that separates the path from the grassy areas with a more robust, iron fence.

But as Streetsblog readers will recall from past articles, one of the reasons the bike path is blocked by encampments is because Caltrans chases the homeless off the grassy areas under the ramps. They then get chased back onto the grassy areas when the bike paths are cleared. “Improving” the fencing seems at cross-purposes with encouraging the encampments not to block the bike paths. Rather than protecting the bike paths from encampments, they may give the homeless nowhere else to set up camp but the bike paths.

Emily Cohen, with the SF Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the correct approach is to “work with people in the camps so they have somewhere to go.” But Streetsblog and others pointed out that until enough public housing can be found, it seems cruel to make it so hard to get under the freeways during bad rains. Cohen said there are over 80 known encampments in San Francisco. The city is slowly trying to take them apart and move the residents to city shelters. However, she said the Hairball encampments aren’t even in “the top six” on the list of those prioritized to move to ‘navigation centers.’

Either way, “We need to bring the residents of the Hairball into the conversation,” said Deffarges.

True enough. But as an advocate from the audience quipped, the only real solution to the network of ramps, with all its noise and speeding traffic, might be to wait for it to get damaged by an earthquake and then tear it all down.

Emily Cohen, SF Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing
Emily Cohen, SF Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the homeless need to be given real housing. Everyone agreed. But since there are over 80 encampments, it seemed a bit cruel to fence them off from the only shelter they have right now. That’s SFMTA’s Thalia Leng to her left, and David Froehlich of DPW in the safety vest. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
  • Bruce

    I put together a design using protected bike lanes and signalized crossbikes:

  • bobfuss

    ““The first thing I would fix is the homeless situation,” said Chris Waddling, a cycling advocate. “Get them a place to live.”

    Yeah, start with the cheap, quick and easy stuff huh?

  • voltairesmistress

    For the Hairball: Place the bike lanes right on the roadways. Separate them with sturdy barriers against errant drivers. Light them completely. Make them narrow for that short stretch, so that there is never a way to pitch a tent without immediately blocking all walking or biking. This will make it unlikely that anyone will see it as a separate and acceptable living space.

    Stop linking building bikeways to solving a 40-year, nation-wide affordable housing shortage. If you wanted to build a road, would you wait until we had converted all transport to renewable, clean energy and reversed global warming? I did not think so.

  • jd_x

    Yep: agree that it is utterly absurd to say nothing can be done to solve this crappy bicycle infrastructure until SF solves its homeless problem! That’s an excuse worse than sharrows.

    I too have thought about adding protected bicycle lanes on Cesar Chavez under 101, at least westbound since it’s one lane at the split with the SB 101 ramp and then absurdly grows back to 2 lanes right after so there’s no reason this second lane couldn’t be appropriated for a protected bike lane. The problem is the damn freeway-like entrance ramp to SB Bayshore which is engineered to encourage people to take it a high speeds. I’m not sure how you make this conflict zone safe without completely re-engineering the road ….

  • Chris W

    The cheap, quick, and easy stuff is already being started on by SFMTA and DPW (sections MNO and F&G). We can put in all the paint, fences and barriers we want, but until the people who live in the hairball have supportive housing to go to, they’ll remain where they are.

  • bobfuss

    There will never be “supportive housing” for all the homeless on cost grounds alone. And even if we could do that, it would simply attract more homeless folks from elsewhere since no other place is that generous.

    So, yeah, do what you can with paint etc. because the homeless aren’t going anywhere. And one thing with that location is that nobody actually lives in the immediate area so the homeless cause less immediate harm there than elsewhere.

  • Chris W

    No, it wouldn’t be cheap or easy, but we’re already paying for people who are chronically homeless to remain on the streets, so why not pay for people who are chronically homeless to help them get off the street instead? http://projects.sfchronicle.com/sf-homeless/supportive-housing/

  • bobfuss

    Because the average new “affordable” home costs half a million to provide. If SF has two thousand homeless folks then that’s a billion right there.

    And then how do you project how many homeless find a way of moving here if they know that there is new, free home for them?

    You’re trying to fill a bottomless pit.

  • Chris W

    If you haven’t already, please read the article from last year that I posted above. Your $500K figure is for traditional apartments, but the article provides some interesting lower-cost solutions that could see us spending about $200M to get ahead of the homelessness problem and then $50M annually to stay ahead of it. According to that article, taxpayers already spend about $120M annually on our chronically homeless population. If the numbers presented there are right, we would spend over the next three years $360M to keep people on the streets or $350M to get people off them. Note too that our chronically homeless population is about half what it was in 2004 (3000 vs 1500), with some 6000 supportive housing units having been found for people in that time.

  • bobfuss

    But also from that article:

    “Officials estimate, though, that at least 450 new chronically homeless people appear on San Francisco’s sidewalks every year, both from within and outside the city, meaning public services can never catch up.”

    “The cost would be significant. Supportive housing units cost $400,000 each to construct from the ground up, whether they are part of a larger affordable-housing complex or in stand-alone buildings of their own.”

    “”People don’t go to Beverly Hills and say, ‘Give me a free place to live,’ so why do we create the fiction that you can just come here and get housing?” said (Randy) Shaw, head of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. “Perhaps it makes sense to compassionately, intelligently help them — but not for staying here. At least for some. The rest of the region should step up its efforts, too, and help in this.”

  • Chris W

    “So, the total construction tab for adding 2,500 supportive housing units within two years? About $200 million for 500 conventionally built units, and no cost for 1,000 Lego units and 1,000 converted residential hotel units.

    The ongoing annual cost of supportive services for 2,500 people? About $20,000 per person, or $50 million a year.”

    “…nearly one-third of the people now living in supportive housing could be transitioned into simple affordable housing. Considering there are about 6,000 people living in supportive housing, that means about 2,000 spots could be freed up to handle annual influxes for at least four years.”

  • murphstahoe

    The cheapest quickest and easiest fix for your sanity would be to block the user you are “debating” with. You can’t “win” the debate – he was a high

    school debater. A master one.

  • murphstahoe

    Does the bottom of the underpass flood in winter?

  • bobfuss

    But you are still discounting the fact that such a generous treatment of the homeless could increase the numbers of new homeless people.arriving well beyond your assumed number.

  • Chris W

    Have Salt Lake City or any other cities that are attempting to provide supportive housing seen exorbitant increases in new homeless people arriving?

  • jonobate

    All this feels like lipstick on a pig. The only good solution is to tear down down the hairball and replace it with a standard diamond interchange, with two on ramps and two off ramps ending at Cesar Chavez directly next to the main freeway roadway. Bayshore and Potrero would connect with each other at an at-grade intersection with Cesar Chavez, which might actually be a safe and pleasant intersection once free of the shadow of freeway ramps. Neither Bayshore nor Potrero would have a direct route to the freeway, drivers on those roads heading to the freeway would turn on Cesar Chavez and drive 300-500ft westbound to access the on ramps.

    The Planning Department is currently studying tearing down I-280, so they could study this, too. It would be a simpler and less controversial project with similar benefits.

  • Joe R.

    If I recall, a big part of the reason many of these people are homeless is laws requiring sex offenders to register. Basically, no community wants them, so they’re forced to live under a highway overpass. Building affordable housing won’t fix that. The community still won’t want these people to live there. Not sure what the solution here is other than just keeping these people incarcerated for life (and that’s way more expensive than any type of housing). It would be nice if we could repeal the laws requiring sex offenders to register but I’m not seeing much public support there.

    Another possibility here is some large fraction of these people might be here illegally. Under the current climate, I doubt you’ll have much luck trying to get them to live in a regular community where it’s a lot more likely their immigration status will be discovered.

  • Califa G

    Homeless? Perhaps! But mainly bicycle thieves, heroin drug addicts and all sorts of very young criminals. By the way: if your bike gets robbed there is a 99% chance that it will end up there BEFORE it gets scrapped! And THERE means at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Potrero. SOLUTION: 24/7 police presence!

  • Erica G

    You make claims of the guys or people who reside @ the hair ball of being sexual offenders thus being the reason theyre homeless, please let me in on your source, i mean otherwise your nothing more than an ignorant and prejudice prick, who obviously doesn’t know shit about shit.

  • Joe R.


    I’m not saying all, or even most, of the homeless there are sex offenders but some are. So long as that’s the case, it won’t be possible to completely solve the homeless problem there (or elsewhere) for the reasons I mentioned.

    Another common reason people are homeless is substance abuse. Again, this is a population nobody wants in their neighborhood. As much as I’d love to solve the homeless problem, I’m just not seeing any politically viable solutions. Sure, we can take care of people who are just down on their luck because of losing a job, but these are typically people who will do fine once they have a place to live. The chronically homeless typically have issues beyond just lack of sufficient income for housing.

    Oh, and living in NYC I’m quite familiar with homeless people. Obviously I don’t know their sex offender status, but quite a few of those I see have either obvious mental or substance abuse problems. They really need to be in a place where those problems can be treated but society doesn’t seem to consider that much of a priority.


Advocates and city officials discussed the plight of the homeless on the Hairball last night in the Mission. Photo: SFBC

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