Parking–Not Bike Advocates–Trumped Fire Department Concerns on Upper Market

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It was celebrated as a victory for safety by cycling and walking advocates when the SFMTA voted last week to approve plans to add safety enhancements on Upper Market, including parking-protected bike lanes.

But not, apparently, by San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross. “Bikes win, Fire Department loses in Market Street redo” was the headline of their column over the weekend. The piece started with:

Score a big victory for the politically potent San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which won approval the other day for protected bike lanes along several blocks of upper Market Street — despite a Fire Department protest that the reconfiguration will interfere with ladder trucks in an emergency.

They concluded with:

Mayor Ed Lee himself signaled his support for the biking crowd last year when he issued a directive pledging support for protective bike lanes in the city, and calling for at least 13 miles of additional bike lanes and related infrastructure annually. Safe for bikes, perhaps, but maybe less so for anyone needing help in an emergency.

Perhaps it’s necessary to review what this project, and others in the pursuit of Vision Zero, are really all about. From the SFMTA’s fact sheet: “From July 2011 to June 2016 there were 174 traffic collisions on Market from Octavia to Castro. Out of this total, 22 collisions involved a pedestrian, 51 involved a bicyclist, and 71 percent resulted in an injury. The Upper Market Street Safety Project is an effort to increase safety and comfort for everyone on Upper Market Street between Octavia Boulevard and Castro Street.”

Anything that reduces the frequency of those crashes on Upper Market means fewer calls the fire department has to respond to in the first place. “Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White warned that the design comprised the safety of local residents. You know what compromises their safety more? The current design that doesn’t protect people biking and walking,” said Cathy DeLuca, Interim Executive Director of Walk San Francisco. “Those are the people suffering regular injuries on Market Street. And they deserve safe streets.”

And, by the way, here’s some perspective on the types of calls the fire department has to deal with on Upper Market, in the form of a Tweet from bike safety advocate Kyle Grochmal (hint, it’s not so much about putting out fires).

Still, to counter the argument along these lines allows Matier & Ross to misframe the issue. The fire department’s concern was to make sure they could still maneuver ladder trucks on Market to access upper floors of buildings.

Bikes don’t block ladders or ladder trucks. Neither do bike lanes.

Parked cars and trucks get in the way of ladder trucks.

In fact, Matier & Ross explain this in the very same column “…the parking lane will be right in the spot where a ladder truck would normally pull up to an emergency scene.” Again, the bike lane is not the issue. The parking is the issue.

“As the SFMTA staff detailed at the hearing, they accommodated SFFD concerns by making significant modifications to project designs,” said Chris Cassidy, spokesman for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “We’re also grateful to our members who shared their perspectives and to the SFMTA Board for having the moral compass to vote for data-backed safety improvements serving everyone who lives, walks, bikes, or drives along this stretch.”

A curbside bike lane, free of parked cars, helps the fire department by giving them even more room to maneuver. If there’s still an issue for the SFFD, it’s with the parked cars. If the city really wants to maximize safety, forget a parking protected bike lane. Let’s get rid of the parking lane altogether and put in a concrete divider to protect cyclists, making sure that divider is mountable by ladder trucks and other emergency vehicles.

Maybe some day. But for now, let’s fix the Chronicle’s headline. It should read: “Parking wins, Fire Department loses in Market Street redo.”

  • gb52

    Agree with the analysis and if we made the bike lane wide enough it could be used as an emergency lane for fire trucks. But the best solution would be remove the parking. Market street is not a good place for vehicle storage!

    On a related note, Uber/Lyft should be banned from allowing pickups on Market St and other major thoroughfares that have issues with vehicles blocking bike lanes or double parking in traffic. It creates hazardous situations for all street users and since there are no good places to stop, it would make the most sense for the apps to redirect patrons to the nearest passenger loading zone. (Yes, you’ll need to kick out all the people parking in those passenger loading areas).

    And guess what, UBER Eats and other meal delivery services are creating a heck of a wait, in restaurants and on the curb. Sometimes I see more drivers double parked and waiting as there are people waiting in line to get into restaurants. Their cars blatantly blocking a lane of traffic for 20 min at a time, sometimes with 3 or 4 cars idling all together. Sadly all these apps were supposed to be efficient but really they just create more traffic and more pollution, one order at a time.

  • Bruce

    Excellent article, Roger. Thanks for calling out M&R on their lazy reporting and pro-car bias.

  • John French

    Private vehicle access is already so limited on Market. Why not eliminate it entirely? Last I heard that was the long term goal.

    And what about the taxis? Why do they get to ignore forced right turns and bus lanes on market? Only paratransit vehicles should be permitted to disregard restrictions which apply to private cars, IMO.

  • thielges

    The origin of this misdirected conclusion is eternal entitlement to street parking. Many people expect that street parking will be there forever as an integral part of the driving experience. Parking removal is like a destructive calamity. Parking is an American holy cow.

    A good way to counter that expectation is for cities to adopt policies that explicitly spell out the priorities of road space usage. Travel should take priority over storage. Cars can be parked anywhere, including several floors above the ground and underground. But travel between points A and B requires using the road surface between those two points. Once this priority is clear and documented it becomes easier to make the right decision when push comes to shove on allocating road space.

  • sebra leaves

    Being stuck in traffic caused by SFMTA priorities for narrowing and removing traffic lanes has nothing to do with parked cars. If SFMTA spent as much time listening to Muni riders and operators as they o listening to the anti-car non-profits we might have a system that residents trust and take and a Fire Department that feels more confident in its ability to do its job.

  • dat

    …but removing a lane here or there and narrowing lanes only nominally affects throughput. Didn’t read the study? Your argument is invalid.

  • neroden

    Taxis end up serving disabled people, particularly visitors from out of town (since it’s been made impossibly hard for out-of-towners to get a paratransit pass).

    The taxis should be allowed to act as the *public transportation service* which they are and given access to Market Street (though, like buses, they should only be allowed to pick up and drop off in specific places).

  • John French

    Certainly when they are currently carrying or picking up someone with limited mobility, taxis should have access. The rest of the time though?

  • You could always use one of the modes that isn’t stuck in traffic.

  • Guest

    The problem isn’t with where the fire trucks park, it’s that if they have to park in the center lanes of Market Street all the overhead Muni wires get in the way when they need to raise the ladders to get to the fires. The overhead wires obstruct so much of the sky that maneuvering the ladders underneath them will be very tricky once the outside lanes (furthest from the wires) are eliminated. If I lived in a new building along Upper Market I’m not sure I’d be thrilled with finding out after the fact that the ladders didn’t work in an emergency.


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