Early Reactions as Masonic Makeover Nears Completion

Landscaping under way at Geary and Masonic. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick
Landscaping under way at Geary and Masonic. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick

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Construction on the $26 million Masonic Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project is almost finished–the final bits of work should wrap up at the end of the  month. The raised bike lanes and new center median are already in place. Yet to be done: green paint (okay, thermoplastic) for the bike lanes and finishing up the landscaping, on a project that started planning ten years ago.

Just to review the stats, from 2009 to 2014, there were 113 traffic collisions on Masonic Avenue between Fell Street and Geary Boulevard. Those include 14 pedestrian collisions and 24 bicycle collisions, including two fatalities.

Meanwhile, the first reviews of the improvements are in, and the San Francisco Citizen blog, for one, isn’t exactly enamored. It calls the bike lane/intersection treatments, specifically at Fell, “suicide lanes.” SF Citizen, which posted a long photo journal of the new infrastructure, also writes that “this project is hardly a ‘complete transformation’ or, indeed, any transformation at all.”

Streetsblog brought up some similar issues when the project was in the design phase. SFMTA piloted raised bike lanes on Market Street and learned that they don’t work–that delivery trucks etc. will continually block them. But they decided to use them on Masonic anyway (parking was eliminated to make space for them and the new median). At the time, the thought was that there are fewer businesses and therefore the lane will be blocked less frequently on Masonic.

But this:

A tree-watering truck blocking the bike lane late this morning with a UPS truck in the bike lane behind it.

Streetsblog also observed an Uber pickup in the bike lane and another car parked on it, in addition to the two vehicles in the picture above, all during one quick back and forth by bike from Fell to Geary.

The lack of protection also makes riding on Masonic continue to feel unsafe; this is hardly infrastructure that’s suitable for skittish riders, with giant trucks rumbling past a sometimes minimally raised, sometimes not raised, unprotected bike lane (in places where the lane is raised, it’s only by two inches, so it doesn’t even show in the photos).

Green paint is still coming, but it won’t make getting passed by a garbage truck, when you’re wedged against the curb like this, feel any safer

So why wasn’t there a protected bike lane in the designs? That may come down to the ten-year time frame–designs were out of date by the time work started, said the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Chris Cassidy. “Everyone acknowledges…there are some treatments that are being employed that probably wouldn’t make it into the plans if we were designing it today.”

A manager at SFMTA said (Streetsblog is withholding the name since he expressed his opinion outside of official channels) there could have been protected bike lanes between the street trees and the sidewalk, but neighbors refused to allow any sidewalk narrowing “…even though some are over twenty feet wide, with few pedestrians.” The official is referring to an early option that would have converted five feet of the sidewalk into a protected bike lane (which would still leave a 13-foot sidewalk and a wide buffer).

That still doesn’t explain why there couldn’t be some kind of barrier between the bike and automobile lanes. The same official–and Streetsblog has heard the same notion previously from SFMTA about the Masonic project–blamed the number of driveways. But, as Streetsblog has repeatedly posted, somehow they manage to design safe bike infrastructure around driveways in the Netherlands.

The bus boarding islands, meanwhile, are a welcome addition, at least where they’ve been implemented (which isn’t every stop). They eliminate the dangerous shuffle that cyclists and buses normally have to do to get around each other at bus stops.

The bus boarding islands, which also narrow the sidewalk, at least provide brief respites for cyclists where they are unexposed to cars, trucks, and buses

But where the project really falls down is, again, at intersections. The worst ones, as SF Citizens pointed out, are at Fell (as seen below) and Geary. The Masonic “bike lane” that feeds into Fell, if one can call it a bike lane, wedges cyclists between multiple lanes of turning traffic.

The “suicide” bike lane where Masonic meets Fell, wedged between multiple lanes of motor vehicles
Another look at the suicide bike lane at Masonic and Fell

But even the intermediate intersections are harrowing, such as the one pictured below at Masonic and Hayes. There’s no marking going across the intersection (one hopes this will be added) and the bike lane abruptly disappears, forcing cyclists and cars and trucks to vie for the same space. Advocates have been pushing over and over again for better intersection treatments that don’t squeeze cars and bikes together, at just the place where cyclists and cars need more distance, not less, to avoid turning conflicts. San Francisco’s Dutch-based intersection at 9th and Division provides safety for cyclists and pedestrians, so why not use similar designs on Masonic?

An example of the disappearing bike lane at intersections. This really needs a ramp or cut-through so bikes can get past the bulb-out without squeezing into the mix with cars and trucks.

Aesthetically, at least, the street looks nicer, especially with the new median, which hosts two species of trees, according to Chris Buck, Urban Forester with San Francisco Public Works.

These trees will widen a bit but should be able to survive in the narrow median, according to an official with Public Works

The “Ginkgo biloba (ginkgo is the common name) and Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree is the common name),” should do well in the narrow median, he said. “Public Works and Friends of the Urban Forest have both planted the two species above in pretty confined locations and they do just fine….you have to be a tough species…to survive the streets of San Francisco and these two species are up to the challenge.”

Meanwhile, the SFBC is hopeful improvements will continue, such as adding safe-hit posts to keep Ubers and delivery trucks off the new bike lanes. And intersection treatments, which are  desperately needed. “Nothing in the city is permanent,” said Cassidy. “We will continue working on improvements.”

Have you ridden or walked Masonic lately? Tell us what you think.

  • jonobate

    If there was no median, we could have had protected bike lanes without having to narrow the sidewalks.

  • LazyReader

    For all San Francisco’s environmental whining, they didn’t bother to plant trees native to it’s environment. Like California Buckeye, live oak..

  • Frank Kotter

    no problem with the sidewalk narrowing there, per se. However, does anyone know why the benches are placed so far back from the curb? do people in this neighborhood have exceptionally long legs?

  • I think it’s a little unfair to complain about the tree watering truck. Thats like the only legitimate use of the lane because theres no way else that can be done.

    The rest is spot on.

  • The Palm Trees on the Embarcadero come to mind here too.

  • Roger R.
  • LazyReader

    Not to mention the Eucalyptus trees in San Francisco and the Channel Island they introduced and protested their removal….

  • p_chazz

    Maybe Masonic wasn’t the best street for a bike lane in the first place. Stanyan-McAllister-Arguello or Broderick-St. Joseph-Baker would have been better N-S bike arterials. Some streets should emphasize cars: Masonic, Sixth, the Bush-Pine couplet. Other streets should emphasize bikes.

  • sebra leaves

    How many millions of dollars must we spend to “share” the streets? How many bad designs and experiments must we go through before we realize that the premise is flawed?
    Do people expect to live without mail and delivery services, trash pickup and and all the other services delivered by trucks?

    Why must we “share” the streets? Why not separate the motor vehicles from the bike routes? Moving the bikes to the side streets will slow the traffic on those street and solve most of the safety problems. Only local traffic will want to travel on bike lanes. You wouldn’t need to put up signs or speed bumps to convince most vehicles to avoid the bike streets. And all the major traffic and parking would return to the major arterial streets. You would have less double parking and more “friendly” streets.

  • mx

    This is what I keep coming back to. We can work toward cycletopia with protected bike lanes on every street, but given how far we are from that, we should put resources where they make the most sense.

    And SFMTA knows this, because they’ve done it elsewhere. Van Ness for cars, Mission for buses, Valencia for bikes. Franklin/Gough cars, Van Ness for buses (in the fullness of time, maybe), Polk for bikes (for a couple of blocks, then we meet the optometrist). Masonic is a tricky case because the streets around it don’t go through, but can we really say that this dangerous mess is an improvement over a first class protected bikeway on a quieter street nearby?

    It feels like a bunch of the planning is being done on aesthetic grounds: that’s an ugly stroad and we should put bike lanes on it to make us feel better about that. I’d far rather ride on a quiet street, even without cycling infrastructure, than squeeze myself between four lanes of busy traffic and start calculating the odds that everyone proceeds through the intersection the way they’re supposed to. And being boxed in by a double-parked car in the bike lane next to heavy traffic zipping past you puts you in a far more dangerous situation compared to taking the lane on, say, Valencia.

    And why did the city care that neighbors “refused to allow any sidewalk narrowing?” You don’t have a god-given right to 20′ sidewalks in front of your house on a street with little to no pedestrian traffic.

  • Flatlander

    I don’t think this logic really applies to Masonic because there are no other continuous N-S streets in the area. It’s got to do the job on its own.

    As far as the other criticisms in the article. Eh. Yeah, there’s room for improvement but it’s about ten times better than it was.

  • p_chazz

    I listed two alternatives.

  • Flatlander

    0/2. Not continuous nor close. Why do we feel we need to relegate bicyclists to indirect routes to reach their destinations? Especially considering bicyclists don’t have dashboard GPS units like cars do.

    That is not Vision Zero or low-carbon thinking.

  • p_chazz

    Because putting bicyclists on more direct routes with insufficient infrastructure puts their lives at risk? The Wiggle is an indirect route that follows the lay of the land from Market over to the Panhandle through Duboce Triangle and the Upper Haight and people seem to have no problem following it.

  • p_chazz

    Or, you could stay on Stanyan and then via Jordan to California. Also, Scott Street goes through all the way from Duboce Park to the Marina. There are several N-S routes through the Western Addition.

  • SF_Abe

    “How many millions of dollars must we spend to “share” the streets? How many bad designs and experiments must we go through before we realize that the premise is flawed?”

    Yes! It’s time to abandon this expiriment— there’s just no way to fit private autos into a city. Thank you, Sebra, for finally saying it. Our streets are for people!

  • SheltonTodd

    As much as the street looks nice, I still see the problematic behaviors that make Masonic so dangerous.

    Drivers still speed, especially when it comes to trying to beat the upcoming yellow-about-to-turn-red light. I was nearly run over twice last week, as both drivers (Uber! Surprise, surprise!) blew through their red light at Turk and Masonic. Bright shiny lines on the street and traffic control signs/devices are still open to wide interpretation.

    No surprise to see a bicyclist using an auto lane after all the work went into the bike lanes, either.

    And if you look hard enough, there will be the occasional delivery truck or ride share driver blocking one lane.

    The dedicated left lane at Anza (heading north) is a long overdue improvement.

    So, since some folks can’t get things through their thick skulls, how about some enforcement?

  • City Resident

    In general, the new Masonic is a vast improvement over the old but thank you for pointing out its many shortcomings, particularly in the block between Hayes and Fell in the southbound direction. This very weak link to the Panhandle (“the suicide bike lane”) limits the success of this entire project.

    Hopefully soft-hit posts, or more substantial measures, will be added without delay to help delineate and protect the bike lane – including in the “suicide” block between Hayes and Fell.

  • The SFMTrA could add soft-hit posts, but driveover bollards aren’t really a solution.

  • City Resident

    Having the benches placed so far from the curb seems to be a nice touch. This will help ensure that those who use the benches won’t block the bike lane, with their luggage or other items, and it provides more space between exhaust spewing motor vehicles (and potentially errant motorists) and seating for Muni passengers waiting for the 43.

  • City Resident

    Very true. Soft-hit posts don’t protect (and I corrected my post in light of your comment) – although they help increase bike lane visibility and help keep motorists from parking or driving in bike lanes.

  • @LazyReader – Dismissing concerns as “whining” is bad form, especially when followed by untenable suggestions. The trees native to San Francisco have a wide, spreading habit and don’t work at all in the narrow spaces available for street trees. They would have been ideal for the plaza at Geary and Masonic, though. (If this city would ever commit to traffic circles in reasonable sizes, they would also be ideal places to plant our native trees.)

    In general, streets aren’t native ecosystems, so native species rarely work as street trees. At best you find an analogue to native trees that can additionally handle the constrained root ball, drainage when surrounded by hardscape, and the harsher reflected sunlight from street surfaces.

    Palm trees are terrible street trees in any event. They have zero traffic-calming benefit and require a lot of water.

  • @Flatlander – Both alternatives have geographical disadvantages or unsafe drivers in their own right. The kind of “solution” offered by someone who doesn’t actually think of or much care about what would actually work for bicyclists.

  • @SheltonTodd – There is no such thing as an “auto lane,” they are travel lanes and it is perfectly legal for a bicyclist to use it when reasonably necessary.

    This treatment does not seem to have slowed down speeding motorists, and there have been well-known approaches to doing that well before this project’s ten-year timeframe.

  • Gee, how about investing billions in a real transit system which takes more folks off the road and out of their cars.

  • TheFacts

    That’s like killing an ant with a sledgehammer. Fire hydrants should not be used to water plants!

  • LazyReader

    Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), Quaking Aspen

    Are tall and narrow, perfect for narrow streets.

  • mx

    This is a comparatively small quibble, but is there a reason the double yellow lines up near Page and Haight aren’t straight? Are these just temporary or something? It’s downright comical.


  • John R.


  • p_chazz

    So pray tell, what sort of “geographical disadvantages or unsafe drivers” do these alternatives have?

  • p_chazz

    Quaking Aspen: Populus tremuloides

  • “Do people expect to live without mail and delivery services, trash pickup and all the other services delivered by trucks?”

    With 2 motor vehicle lanes and only 1 bike lane, the logical thing to keep traffic flowing is for delivery truck drivers and motorists who need to stop to use the outer traffic lane. That maintains bike access to the 1 bike lane and 1 traffic lane still open to traffic.

    In fact, that’s exactly what Muni does when buses need to stop.

  • SF_Abe

    Why not?

    I mean, fire extinguishers should definitely not be used to water plants (don’t ask me how I know) but what’s wrong with using a hydrant?


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