Eyes on the Street: The McAllister Makeover

A 5 Fulton navigating the traffic circle at McAllister and Steiner, now removed. Streetsblog/Rudick
A 5 Fulton navigating the traffic circle at McAllister and Steiner, now removed. Streetsblog/Rudick

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This spring, as part of the Muni Forward project, the city installed two new traffic circles and two new signals on McAllister Street to improve the performance of the 5 Fulton bus. The traffic circles, as seen on Steiner in the lead image, prioritize McAllister over cross traffic (stop signs remain for the cross traffic) so that buses don’t have to come to a complete stop unless the crosswalk is occupied.

Image: SFMTA
Image: SFMTA

“It does its intended job of slowing traffic down akin to what just stop signs would do, but it creates a sense of priority that you need to wait when the bus is there,” said Bobak Esfandiari, a transit advocate with the San Francisco Transit Riders who rides the 5 Fulton daily from the Outer Richmond to Van Ness.

Despite this stop sign, some motorists still aren't getting the memo that cross traffic doesn't stop.
Despite this stop sign, some motorists still aren’t getting the memo that cross traffic doesn’t stop.

However, Streetsblog observed several cars on Steiner blowing through this stop sign and treating the traffic circle as a yield. This put some motorists in potential conflict with oncoming buses. A local resident familiar with the intersection reported that she’s seen a lot of confusion from motorists who are still reacting to the intersection as if it’s a four-way stop, expecting the traffic on McAllister to stop too. It’s unclear if this has resulted in collisions (Streetsblog has requests in to SFMTA to get more information on how the intersection is working and will update this post accordingly). However, the city has placed an illuminated sign to remind motorists of the new design, as pictured below:

The city added this sign, temporarily at least, to help remind motorists that the intersection has changed
The city added this sign, temporarily at least, to help remind motorists that the intersection has changed

As previously reported, the 5 Fulton project was originally supposed to have five new traffic signals installed to prioritize the bus, but that was reduced after resistance from local residents and motorists. At Lyon and Steiner, which previously had four-way stop signs, traffic circles were used as a compromise (although there was pushback on that as well). Esfandiari, who is also a housing advocate and founder of Grow the Richmond, recalls community protests back in 2014 against putting in traffic lights. “It got watered down in that meeting and in many others,” he said.

“This is a classic example of what happens when transit riders aren’t at the table; compromises are made that favor parking and auto traffic over improving the reliability of public transit and safety for people walking,” said Rachel Hyden of the San Francisco Transit Riders. “It may seem like a small-scale compromise when it’s one intersection, one block. But it’s that one compromise that directly impacts tens of thousands of daily transit riders.”

IMG_20180615_162235
One of the bus-prioritizing traffic lights (this one at Steiner) that made it into the final design

Cyclists, meanwhile, are happy to have the new pavement that came with the project. “McAllister is better. The pavement quality is a marked improvement,” reported Tim Hickey, a local resident and advocate who bikes the route regularly (Streetsblog also tested the route and was very impressed). And Esfandiari added that despite the compromises, it has helped his bus ride. “I was like ‘put in all the lights, do it do it,’ but the circle seems to have marginally done the same thing,” he told Streetsblog.

He added that previously, impatient motorists would often go into the opposing lane of traffic to pass the bus at intersections, risking a collision and cutting off and delaying the bus. “They can’t do that if there’s a traffic circle.”

An eastbound 5-Fulton about to enter the traffic circle at Steiner
An eastbound 5-Fulton about to enter the traffic circle at Steiner

Traffic circles are still relatively rare in San Francisco, although more and more are popping up each year.

What do you think of the traffic circles and other changes on McAllister from the perspective of a pedestrian, cyclist, or bus rider? Post below.

  • Bruce

    😍😍😍

  • jonobate

    I do not like this intersection design, for two reasons.

    1) Forcing one street to stop while the other does not have to can be dangerous for traffic on the minor street, which has to wait for a gap in the traffic on the main street and oncoming street before moving. If going straight or turning left, this gap must be in both directions. Often this results in drivers not paying attention to pedestrians who are crossing in front of them, or crossing the street they are moving into, because they are focused on looking for a gap in the traffic. You can see this problem for yourself if you’ve ever tried to turn onto Fulton from one of the avenues, and the issue is made worse on this section of McAllister by grade changes that impact visibility.

    2) There is no reason to add a traffic circle to this intersection. The benefit of a traffic circle is that there’s no need for traffic to stop before entering it, providing traffic yields to traffic already in the circle, and to pedestrians crossing at the crosswalks. If you’re not going to put yield signs on both streets, there’s no benefit to the traffic circle and you may as well not bother with it. Using a traffic circle in a non-standard manner such as this only increases the cost of the intersection treatment and creates driver confusion as to the purpose of the traffic circle.

    Instead, I would love to see these four-way stop intersections replaced by traffic circles with a yield on every entrance. These are much safer than four-way stops, because there is a higher certainty as to who has right-of-way, and because the hazards you have to yield to come one after the other rather than all at the same time. And, they are more efficient for getting traffic through the intersection, because usually no-one has to stop.

    This means you get the benefit of not making every Muni bus stop at the intersection, without creating a dangerous situation by forcing traffic on the minor street to look for a break in traffic before moving. Remember that “traffic” includes cyclists, who are more vulnerable to this issue because they can’t accelerate as quickly; and that the victims of driver error are usually pedestrians.

    If for some reason you can’t build a proper traffic circle, use traffic lights instead.

  • paulsupawanich

    First, I was super pleased to see these treatments go in and prove that 60′ vehicles could make the turns without a huge issue. I also watched the implementation and it was interesting to see the phased approach (first cones, then hardscape, then cones and hardscape, then posts, then signage)

    That being said, I think there are some lessons learned comparing the two traffic circles installed on McAllister.

    If comparing the circles at Steiner and Lyon, my observation the latter works out *much* better for a few reasons.
    – Lack of through traffic (Lyon is book-ended by Anza Vista and GGP) – which means less vehicle volume overall
    – Flat grade (as compared to Lyon, the Steiner traffic circle itself is hard to see WB on McAllister and NB on Steiner because of the hill), it also makes stopping more difficult in vehicle and bike given the momentum on the downhill (Steiner is a Bike Route)
    – I don’t know the specific dimensions, but the sightlines at Steiner don’t feel as good, perhaps because there are more trees near the corner as compared to Lyon?

  • Grasshoppr

    As someone who lives on the corner of Steiner and McAllister, I have observed the impact of this traffic circle on a daily basis. Bus drivers have learned they need to honk every time they pass through, and they fly through. There is constant honking and screaming at other drivers because people are so confused about how to navigate a circle with a two-way stop. I avoid walking across the street here whenever I can because it’s terrifying as a pedestrian. There has already been one accident, and I’ve seen many other near accidents. Slapping additional signage onto the circle itself (and in the street leading up to the circle) only adds to the confusion: drivers do not have time to read all of the signage as well as look for oncoming traffic, pedestrians, and bikers. This attempt at making bus routes faster will come at the expense of pedestrian and biker lives.

  • Tim

    Tim Smith

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    A question about your first point: what is your alternative to two-way stop signs? Would you prefer to eliminate all the stop signs? To replace all two-way with four-way? Both of those would be more dangerous than two-way stop signs at most intersections.

  • chandru

    Exactly There are million of two-way stop signs all over (probably the majority, over 4-way ones.) Why is this ‘confusing”? Are SF drivers really so stupid? (I lived here 19 years and don’t believe it.)

  • chandru

    The benefit of adding this circle is to slow traffic down. Obvious. Also, the US does not have a “standard” for traffic circles as other countries do. There are quite a few in NYC with multiple traffic lights, which pretty much eliminates the reason for circles in the first place.

  • jonobate

    I think a four-way stop is safer than a two-way stop. The reason we use two-way stops instead of four-way stops is to prioritize traffic on the major road, not because it’s safer.

    Two-way stop signs should only be used at intersections where there will be low volumes of traffic on the minor road, such as when an alley meets a major road. If they are used, they can be made much safer by daylighting the intersection, and making the minor road right turn only.

    For higher volume intersections, replace them with a traffic circle with yield signs on all streets, or traffic signals.

  • randyw

    At first these new layouts are confusing (and thus more dangerous) BUT soon the drivers get used to the new rules. When GGP was painted with parking protected bike lanes car were driving and parking insanely bad, and I thought it was a bad design (too weird and confusing.) NOW, it works great. People just learned the new set up — Just be very careful till they do.

  • jonobate

    Pretty much every country other than the US uses traffic circles in the way I described, with yields on all entrances. There are variations in the more complicated designs, but 90% of them work exactly the same wherever you are in the world. The fact that the US doesn’t follow this standard is a large reason why adoption has been so low over here.

    I guess these traffic circles slow down traffic in the same way that any obstacle left in the middle of an intersection slows down traffic? But there are better ways to calm traffic, if that’s your goal, and using traffic circles for the purpose just creates confusion around how they should be used. It’s far easier to navigate traffic circles if every time you see one in the road ahead of you just have to remember to yield to traffic already on the circle.

  • jonobate

    Two-way stops are pretty rare in SF, and the ones that do exist are pretty dangerous. Can you name any major two-way stop intersections that you think are safe?

    I mentioned the intersections where the avenues meet Fulton – these are a large part of the reason why Fulton is such a dangerous, high speed street in the Richmond. The traffic on Fulton never has to yield to cars, so they fly through the intersections without looking for pedestrians. The Oak/Fell couplet has the same problem.

  • Actually, four-way stops are the safest (at least for two two-lane roads), but they’re not exceptionally efficient, especially when one street has markedly more traffic than another.

  • crazyvag

    There are two way stop signs everywhere in the US. It’s just part life. I’d guess it’s no more dangerous that driving on a highway at night. You simply pay more attention.

  • jonobate

    Can you name any major two-way stop intersections in SF that you think are safe?

  • Any new sign should be accompanied with two red flags on top. That is standard. A portable temporary stop sign should also be placed on the center line

  • One thing I dont understand. In traffic circles, the standard is to yield to those already in the circle.

    So say someone enters the circle with no top sign. Great. They want to turn left. Who has the right of way, they, in the circle, or those entering in the opposite direction?

  • crazyvag

    I’m confused. How much struggle is it for you to maneuver a vehicle across a two-way stop sign? You wait for a slot, and navigate across. It’s as safe as the gap that you decide is big enough. If you feel unsafe, you wait for a big enough gap until you feel safe.

  • jonobate

    I’m confused as to why you can’t answer the question. Show me an example of a safe two-way stop intersection.

    It’s not the drivers who are most at risk here. Have you ever tried to cross the major street of one of those intersections as a pedestrian? Say, crossing Fulton at 11th Ave? The fast moving traffic on Fulton doesn’t have yield signs, and is probably not gonna stop for you, even though you have right of way. You could wait for a gap in the traffic before you cross, but then you might end up in conflict with a driver turning onto Fulton from 11th, who was also waiting for a gap in traffic and seized the same gap as yourself to make his turn.

    Similarly, have you ever tried to turn left from 11th onto Fulton as a cyclist? You don’t have the acceleration of a car, so it’s much harder to find and get into a gap in traffic that’s big enough for you. Try that, and let me know how safe you feel.

    (Btw, the only reason 11th/Fulton isn’t worse than it is is because it’s a T junction rather than a full intersection. Imagine if 11th Ave continued through the park – it would be even worse. I can’t think of a full intersection in SF that has stop signs on only one street, probably because it’s insanely dangerous and inappropriate for an urban environment.)

  • Michael Escobar

    traffic circles shouldn’t be dependent on low traffic volume. in other countries there are major intersections with roundabouts as a matter of routine.

  • Michael Escobar

    question: how does a yield sign instead of a stop sign alleviate the problem which you describe (drivers looking to their left for a gap in traffic failing to see pedestrians in front of them)?

  • jonobate

    Michael, I wrote a reply but it’s caught in the spam filter. Hopefully Roger will let it through.

  • Parque_Hundido

    Vehicles already on the circle have ROW.

    Except in France where they do not

  • Parque_Hundido

    Jonobate is correct – with traffic circles the vehicle already on the circle has right of way, and so vehicles waiting to enter the circle have to yield

    I would dispute that you actually need a yield sign. As long as the rules are consistent then drivers would quite simply know that. We only need yield signs because Americans do not get how circles work.

    But traffic circles with stop signs make no sense. The ones installed on Euclid are ridiculous.

    The entire point of a circle is to speed up traffic and improve throughput.- because cars only have to stop if their path is not clear,

  • crazyvag

    I’ve managed to cross many such intersections in my life around the world, so it’s unclear why it’s unsafe only in SF. Since this is an urban environment, pedestrians have right of way on the cross walk, plus, with traffic lights on either side, gaps will invariably form.

    I’ll concede that intersection is unsafe if you are impatient and don’t give yourself a minute or two for a gap to happen. When I walked to school in Omaha, there were tons of intersections like that, and unless you’re in a big hurry and want to run across, a safe gap always opened up eventually. Or maybe I was just born lucky. SF intersections are even safer given lower car speeds than in midwest and more clearly marked crosswalks. There are also more pedestrians, so drivers expect to see them in crosswalks, something that I’ll admit is not as common in the MIdwest.

  • Stuart

    Given the signage, this doesn’t seem to be a roundabout (where all approaches would have Yields), but a regular intersection that has a circle in the middle of it to calm traffic. So I would expect oncoming traffic to have the right of way. It would be crazy for oncoming traffic to not have the standard roundabout yield sign but have to know to yield anyway.

    The fact that this is a real question shows that we need, at least at the state level, some clear standards about what the signage and expectations are for a roundabout vs. a traffic circle vs. whatever this would count as. I can’t even find definitions of those terms in the CVC, and while the driver’s manual does mention roundabouts, it doesn’t define them, and the picture prominently shows a yield sign on every approach.

    The Townsend/8th/Division/Henry Adams intersection, for instance, is a pretty clear demonstration of the fact that people are often confused by intersections that are hybrids of roundabouts and regular intersections. I’m not sure adding more variants is going to help anyone.

  • Stuart

    This isn’t just new though, it’s something that looks sort of like a roundabout, but doesn’t (according to the signage) have the right-of-way semantics of a roundabout.

    Actively confusing/misleading is a step above just being new in terms of the potential for ongoing problems.

  • randyw

    I agree. I first instinctually approached these as roundabouts, since they look like roundabouts. I ‘ve adjusted, and do fine now.

    A lot of these changes, are so weird that people just end up driving slower and more careful. Which I suspect might be the point.

  • SF Guest

    The rule of thumb as you mentioned is those already in the roundabout have the right-of-way and those entering should yield at the dashed yield lines.

    Having a roundabout with a two-way stop without dashed yield lines can only cause confusion. Even without the dashed yield lines the vehicle making a left turn has the right-of-way despite the absence of a stop sign so if the intent behind this is to prioritize the McAllister corridor it technically doesn’t accomplish that in the sense buses must yield to vehicles already traveling within the roundabout even without a stop sign.

    If there weren’t any stop signs or dashed yield lines it’s implied everyone entering the roundabout must yield to those already driving within the circle.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/841f0335ea52cd5d055eda1f3bf6ff0414739011793f63804df373938be1fd6a.gif

  • City Resident

    As a Muni rider, the 5 seems to be traveling faster in this area – the traffic circle at McAllister and Steiner seems to be working. Having also recently driven through this intersection on a few occasions (traveling on Steiner), no problems were encountered and it seemed safe and straightforward.

  • Stuart

    Even without the dashed yield lines the vehicle making a left turn has the right-of-way

    Can you find anything in the CVC that says that, or that even defines a roundabout? I looked for a while, and couldn’t find anything, so as far as I can tell there’s nothing that gives this intersection special rules different from the signage.

  • SF Guest

    I couldn’t find any CVC’s on roundabouts. The following is from the California Driver Handbook:

    A roundabout is an intersection where traffic travels around a central island in a counter-clockwise direction. Roundabouts do not have bicycle lanes, so traffic must share the road. Vehicles or bicycles entering or exiting the roundabout must yield to all traffic including pedestrians.

    When you approach a roundabout:

    ● Slow down as you approach the roundabout.
    ● Yield to pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the roadway.
    ● Watch for signs and/or pavement markings that guide you or prohibit certain movements.
    ● Enter the roundabout (heading to the right) when there is a big enough gap in traffic to merge safely.
    ● Travel in a counter-clockwise direction. Do not stop or pass.
    ● Signal when you change lanes or exit the roundabout.
    ● If you miss your exit, continue around until you return to your exit.

  • Grasshoppr

    Someone just hit a bicyclist at this intersection. He was driving east on McAllister (no stop sign or yield), and she was biking south on Steiner (stop sign). There is not enough time for a biker to get through the intersection before cars approach on McAllister and fly through. The driver said he has had several close calls, and he is a resident of the area, conscientious, and understands how it is supposed to work. This is not a matter of simply learning the way it works. It’s completely illogical. This biker got lucky – she was lucid enough to scream for the driver to stop and exchange information with him.

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