SFMTA Launches “Muni Backward” Program

5 Fulton bus service had improved, but neighbors complained, so let the roll back begin

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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Advocates at the San Francisco Transit Riders were outraged to learn that another hard-earned transit and safety improvement is being rolled back, with a decision by the SFMTA to remove the recently installed traffic circle at McAllister and Steiner. “It is really disappointing that SFMTA is capitulating to a few neighbors without any input from the more than 20,000 daily riders who are currently benefiting from the circle,” wrote SFTR Executive Director Rachel Hyden in an email to Streetsblog. “They’ve already reinstalled stop signs, going backwards instead of forwards with a real traffic signal. And they’re doing it without public notice or comment.”

Earlier this month the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association posted on its website that it had successfully lobbied SFMTA to remove the traffic circle and return the intersection to a four-way stop.

From the Alamo Square post:

Due to the safety and noise concerns observed and documented by neighbors, the SFMTA will re-install stop signs and remove the traffic circle at McAllister/Steiner. The two-stop roundabout was not a typical design, and SFMTA has determined it was not the right design for this intersection.

As Streetsblog previously reported, the traffic circle was itself a compromise with local residents on the recently completed 5 Fulton Rapid project. Originally, the plan was to put in traffic signals that would favor the 5 Fulton bus, giving it transit priority over private cars, as part of the larger Muni Forward program to improve transit service throughout the city. But local residents lobbied against the traffic signal upgrades on some intersections along the route, including Steiner/McAllister, and a traffic circle was installed instead.

“The traffic circle on McAllister and Steiner is part of a larger transit project with added safety benefits for pedestrians. Removing it seems a little premature. It has been in place for only six months, barely enough time to allow drivers to alter their behavior and evaluate its effectiveness,” wrote Walk San Francisco Executive Director Jodie Medeiros in an email to Streetsblog.

Streetsblog has a request in to SFMTA public affairs and will update this post accordingly. However, Hoodline confirmed, via a spokesperson from SFMTA, that the traffic circle will be removed “as soon as the city agency can schedule crews to complete the work.” The San Francisco Transit Riders confirmed that the stop signs have already been replaced, so now there is once again a four-way stop at Steiner and McAllister.

A snapshot of the SFMTA's plans for McAllister [PDF].
A snapshot of the SFMTA’s original plans for McAllister. Notice McAllister and Steiner were supposed to get a signal [PDF].
“I’m surprised that the City would remove something that seems to be working pretty well so immediately after installing it. I’d strongly support a much longer testing period. It seems likely that over time the honking will reduce and people will learn to navigate the circle. Other neighborhoods in SF and other cities in the Bay Area have effectively adapted to traffic circles,” wrote Kearstin Dischinger, a resident of the Alamo Square neighborhood and an advocate with Walk San Francisco. “I’ve really benefited from having the traffic circle there – when I’m pedaling uphill I can ease my way into the intersection rather than stopping completely – this is a big help in keeping momentum up the hill.  I rely on the 5 Fulton often to get to work – SFMTA has done great work to speed up this bus. I support any measure, including this traffic circle, that can get all the 5 Fulton riders to work faster and more reliably.”

All of which raises the question: why pay SFMTA staff and outside consultants to do years of outreach meetings if plans can be cancelled, amended, or, in this case, reversed without input from the public at large? Streetsblog asked District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown and Mayor London Breed for comments, and will update this post.

As reported several times in Streetsblog, roundabouts, also known as traffic circles, reduce serious crashes. As reported in Streetsblog USA, a 1997 study done in Seattle found that the traffic circles reduced collision injuries by 97 percent and all collisions by 90 percent. They also reduce pollution, since motorists can often retain some momentum through the intersection if there isn’t already a vehicle in the roundabout. “Roundabouts are better… the most important thing is it slows traffic down, you don’t need traffic lights, it’s safe, people are more aware of other traffic, and traffic flow is better,” said Dutch transportation engineer Mark Sloothaak in a previous post.

Transit Riders’ Hyden just wants the city to prioritize safety and the needs of riders on the 5 Fulton. “Returning the stop signs is not the answer. Putting in actual transit priority traffic lights results in greater safety for everyone and improved transit service,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, this short video published by the Washington State Department of Transportation, explains why circles are safer than other types of intersections:

Editor’s note: Prior to publishing this piece, we talked about how some traffic engineers will take exception to us conflating “traffic circle” and “roundabout.” And I see this mentioned now in the comments section. To be clear, I (Roger Rudick) decided not to follow traffic engineering jargon, because Streetsblog isn’t a traffic engineering manual. In common parlance and understanding, traffic circle and roundabout are the same thing. In fact, the California Driver Handbook only lists roundabout. It says “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.”

  • Parque_Hundido

    If we are going to implement traffic circles (AKA roundabouts as the rest of the word calls them) then at least get rid of the stop signs. The entire point of a circle/roundabout is that you do not have to stop, thereby increasing throughput.

    Americans are freaking clueless about how these are supposed to work

  • Stuart

    roundabouts, also known as traffic circles

    Roundabouts and traffic circles are not the same thing:

    The fact that even Streetsblog is conflating them, and showing a video about roundabout safety as if it applied to this intersection, is pretty good evidence that concerns about driver confusion are well founded.

    See also the previous Streetsblog story about this where people were confidently (and incorrectly) claiming that people turning left have the right of way over people going straight under the theory that the intersection is a roundabout.

  • Michael Smith

    It is really important to differentiate between what was installed and a roundabout. What was installed was never intended to allow all vehicles to go through the intersection without stopping. The purpose was to speed up the 5-Fulton by having traffic calming that would effectively allow traffic along the bus route to flow through while having cars on Steiner stop. Hence the stops signs on Steiner.

  • Michael Smith

    Of course there is still a possibly Muni Forward solution. As was done for the N-Judah in the avenues, could simply not have cross traffic across the bus route at that intersection. Could leave in the circle to avoid speeding (it is an effective traffic calming device as intended) but add soft hit posts along the middle of McAllister so that cars cannot cut across McAllister. That solution would be incredibly inexpensive (a traffic signal will cost between $300-$500k and sometimes actually slow the buses) and effective because it would allow the buses to go through as quickly as possible. Plus the cars wouldn’t honk.

    A solution like this was recently implemented at Scott and Fell, to great success, for improving safety of bicyclists and calming traffic on Scott. Why can’t it be done on Steiner?

    Did SFMTA not even consider this kind of solution even though it is used elsewhere in San Francisco?

  • djconnel

    The city will never make significant progress towards transit first as long as it continues with its policy of NIMBY veto. It’s been left behind in leadership in pedestrian, cycling, and transit.

  • Mike

    Neighborhood traffic circles and roundabouts are not the same. https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Safety/roundabouts/BasicFacts.htm

  • David

    Traffic circles and roundabouts are not the same thing. The intersection in question has a traffic circle, not a roundabout. Please educate yourself: https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Safety/roundabouts/BasicFacts.htm

  • David

    Agreed. I’m disappointed that Streetsblog can’t tell the difference between a traffic circle and roundabout. As a transportation planner, I find it difficult to take advocates seriously when they don’t know the basics.

  • gb52

    This just goes to show that drivers are too impatient, too loose on their use of horns, and people need to learn to adapt to differing road conditions. The exact purpose is to slow vehicles down to a reasonable speed so that other vehicles can safely enter the intersection. (Do we need a speed limit sign to slow to 15 mph??) One notable problem may be that the approach to the traffic circle is too wide and allows vehicles to enter too fast, but also the yellow lines through the intersection may be confusing motorists and should be removed. I would recommend using the standard roundabout signage that indicates vehicles move around the circle.

    This really isn’t any different than other intersections in the city, people just need to slow down and pay attention, and people that do not like this street treatment will begin using other streets.

    SFMTA must continue to move forward and make the difficult decisions that have left us mired in congestion. The loudest complaints should not dictate policy and supervisors should not meddle in traffic design, but only to focus attention on objectively seeing what is and isn’t working and pushing forward to improve our streets and city.

  • Roger R.

    Actually, we are aware that American traffic engineers have come up with this distinction, which means absolutely nothing to a lay motorists, cyclist or pedestrian. In common parlance and understatanding, they are the same thing. And plugging a stop sign into a circle or roundabout or whatever you prefer to call it, just confuses people, especially when it’s only in one direction. Enough jargon. Let’s make street treatments that don’t require a munual.

  • jonobate

    Roundabouts are an excellent tool to speed up transit (and indeed all road users) while reducing the right-of-way uncertainty caused by four-way stops and therefore improving safety. But, they have to be done correctly, which means putting yield signs on every entrance, not a mix of yield and stop signs as was done here. There is a ton of understandable right-of-way uncertainty at this intersection caused by the non-standard design, hence the honking, hence the complaints.

    Doing roundabouts badly just creates more opposition to them, especially when there are so few examples of them done well in the US. SFMTA should change all the entrances to the roundabout to yields, and see if things improve. If they must remove the roundabout, they should replace it with traffic signals rather than going back to the four-way stop.

    Note: I’m not getting into the traffic circles vs. roundabouts terminology debate, as despite the distinction made by highway engineers the terminology is often used interchangeably in the US, and also differs from the ways in which the terms are used in the rest of the world. Stop sign controlled “traffic circles” rarely exist outside the US, so outside of the US there simply isn’t a term for them.

  • Roger R.

    Thank you.

  • You could have said something like: “Traffic circles like this one reduce crashes. They are sometimes incorrectly called roundabouts, but roundabouts have only yield signs.” That would use both the common terms and also educate readers at the same time. The safety performance of each type is good, but quite different.

  • City Resident

    Love your headline for this article and the points you make. Agree that this trial should have lasted longer and that other approaches should be tried (with sufficiently lengthy trial periods) before reverting back to the 4-way stop intersection. On a related note, if honking motorists are so problematic shouldn’t the SFMTA have installed a few of these:

  • City Resident
  • Parque_Hundido

    The only real difference is size – roundabouts in Europe are bigger than circles here. my point stands

  • The thing that was installed made zero sense.

  • Stuart

    I think you’re missing the point of the complaints (certainly mine): it’s not about the jargon, it’s about the fact that this intersection is *not* the thing the video is talking about, or the thing you described in your note.

    The fact that your article strongly suggested that what is being removed is something well understood with a clear safety record, when in fact it’s something nonstandard and confusing, is the issue.

    I agree, let’s make street treatments that don’t require manuals. Let’s also take people to task when they do the opposite though, instead of pretending they haven’t.

  • Stuart

    Do traffic calming circles with stop signs in one direction actually have a good safety record though? Are there even enough of them to know?

    Most descriptions I’ve seen suggest they should be used at low-traffic, uncontrolled intersections.

  • Roger R.

    Okay, now I think I understand what you’re saying. And yes, the jargon seems to be used as cover for the fact that the engineers installed a nonstandard variation of a mini-roundabout that doesn’t work as well (which they’ve decided to call a traffic circle, even though that phrase already has a definition). It’s a mini-roundabout, as the Brits would call it, but they threw in stop signs and took out the yield markers to try and get a speed improvement on the 5 Fulton without upsetting the neighbors.

  • David

    No, the traffic control is different too. Vehicles in the roundabout have right of way. Vehicles approaching traffic circles follow right of way of whatever is posted (e.g., stop signs).

  • David

    Great, at least someone gets the point. I am generally opposed to traffic circles, such as the one installed at this intersection, because they confuse motorists and don’t have a clear track record of safety. They should not be confused with roundabouts, which have a specific type of very effective traffic circulation and a good safety record. We need more roundabouts and fewer traffic circles.

  • Parque_Hundido

    It s those signs that are the problem. A yield sign probably isn’t too bad. But a stop sign is redundant and overlooks the fact that the whole point of a roundabout/circle is to keep traffic moving versus stop signs.

  • David

    The are significant differences in the English language between English-speaking countries. Streetsblog is targeted towards the U.S. market, so it stands to reason that American terminology should be used. Would Roger go to the effort of calling big rigs lorries just to make a point? Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised!

  • David

    On another note, what’s with the yellow stripes in the middle of the intersection? Can SFMTA’s design of this intersection get any more non-standard? I’m surprised a traffic engineer put their stamp on this monstrosity.

  • It’s very confusing when there’s a stop sign at one of these. We have one in the Richmond District at 23rd and Anza. No one knows how to navigate them…everyone just makes a guess, and basically whoever is the most aggressive gets through the intersection first.

    Here’s a crystal clear reason why these are stupid.

    I come to a stop sign at a roundabout/traffic circle. I want to turn left. I put my left turn signal on…but the first thing I do is turn *right* to go around the intersection, which confuses people across from me, who don’t know if I am going right or am going to continue on around to turn left.

  • Roger R.

    If American traffic engineers started telling people a Lorry is not the same as a big rig, I might. 🙂

  • jonobate

    Something isn’t true just because US traffic engineers believe it is true. As with many things, you need to look outside the US to find the best practices.

    It doesn’t make any sense to make the distinction where “roundabout” means a circular intersection with yield signs, and “traffic circle” means a circular intersection with stop signs, because there are many more ways of controlling circular intersections than just those two. Using the terms in this way implies a precision of meaning that simply isn’t there.

    For example, what do you call the intersection that’s the subject of this post, where half the entrances have stop signs and half the entrances have yield signs? Is it a semi-roundabout? Or perhaps a roundabout/traffic circle hybrid?

    It’s much more precise to say “roundabout with yield signs” or “roundabout with stop signs” or “roundabout with two stop signs and two yield signs”. The word “roundabout” in this context isn’t telling you anything about how the intersection is being controlled – it can’t, because there are many different ways of controlling a circular intersection. And even in the US, most people wouldn’t expect the word “roundabout” to be telling you how the intersection is controlled.

    Another example – outside of the US it is common to see circular intersections that are controlled by traffic signals, usually at freeway interchanges. These are called… “roundabouts with traffic signals”. What would they be called in US traffic engineer terminology, if “roundabout” means a circular intersection with yield signs?

  • Razzu Engen

    FWIW Berkeley has it’s share of roundabouts/traffic circles with varying signage. Some are 4 way stops (eg Fulton and Russell), some have stop signs only on one of the streets (eg Fulton and Stuart). It is confusing and should have a uniform treatment such as yield signs in all directions. I think these are all on residential streets without bus service though.

  • Roger R.

    You don’t even have to go to Europe. Here’s the cover of the Federal guide on mini-roundabouts. Notice the traffic sign says “Yield to traffic in circle.” So it’s not a traffic circle, it’s a roundabout on which you’re supposed to yield to traffic in circle? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6616049249bb00c0cef3a3741b194a3192c3a23313202db0f6b33760ad1a168c.png

  • david vartanoff

    For historical perspective, the raised railbed on Judah was originally supposed to go all the way to the Ocean, and be cloned on Taraval. Once the auto centrics in the effected areas saw what was coming, out came the torches and pitchforks, and no further raised ROW was built. So much for transit first (to be sabotaged). While I don’t like the mini traffic circles because in Berkeley the drivers often turn the wrong direction and the planters obscure vision endangering cyclists, of course what should have happened was indeed a real traffic signal w/ transit priority. Muni/SFMTA has stonewalled/caved on this issue on transit arterials for years.
    About vocabulary; roundabout may not be a synonym for traffic circle in the academy or consulting offices but in the vulgate spoken by the majority of the citizenry it is.

  • jonobate

    A mini-roundabout would have been perfect for McAllister and Steiner. There wasn’t any real need to build a physical roundabout.

  • Walt Arrrrr

    How embarrassing. I was just visiting from Los Angeles last month, walking through this neighborhood and looking at this roundabout with envy, wondering why L.A. so woefully lags behind on street safety improvements that S.F. is getting done. Sadly, this is another victory for the Bob Gundersons of California.

  • KJ

    I prefer roundabouts to stop sign/lights as a bicyclist, driver, pedestrian… but agree that stop signs here make no sense as all streets should be equal for them to really work. Also, the ‘circle’ area needs to be bigger, so that it is recognized as an obstacle to get drivers to slow down before entering; if a driver can see all the way through the intersection, he is not going to slow down much.

  • KJ

    The stop signs are confusing and, hence, dangerous; please get rid of them!

  • Kieran

    Interesting..Now that makes sense why the L doesn’t have the raised trackway as well….Though come to think of it, since most cars ignore the N’s trackway being raised and simply drive on it anyway, Muni should’ve done this with the N and L tracks-Just have the N and L right of way constructed like the M’s 19th ave right of way-Exposed railroad tracks in the right of way, that way no autos would try driving on the tracks.

    If Muni did that originally, then at least the N and L would move faster along Judah and Taraval sts if anything.

  • Kieran

    It’s a huge letdown that Muni doesn’t plan on giving the 5 Fulton signal priority at major intersections anymore…This work should’ve been done years ago not only on the 5 but also on other major routes in the city such as the 24, 14, 38, 1, 27, 29, 30, 45, 8, 22, 49, 47, N, J, L, K, T, M, F(along the wharves), E(along its entire route), 9, 10, 19, 28, 7, 43, 44, etc By prioritizing the traffic lights the Muni vehicles on said route will move faster from there…

    I don’t mind the traffic roundabouts at all but it pisses me off Muni hasn’t truly gone outta their way to install/modify traffic signals on major Muni routes to prioritize buses/streetcars which would definitely speed up the routes I listed above.

  • Stuart

    For example, what do you call the intersection that’s the subject of this post, where half the entrances have stop signs and half the entrances have yield signs?

    But the non-stop directions don’t have yield signs.

    I’d call this intersection an intersection where traffic in one direction has to stop and the other doesn’t, which would be just like hundreds of other intersections in the city except that the circle they stuck in the middle of it confuses a lot of people into thinking that traffic should treat it as a roundabout (i.e., following the rules Roger quoted from the CA driver’s manual in the added note) in violation of the actual signage.

    Or, more briefly, “a mess”.

  • jonobate

    I didn’t catch that there are no yield signs. Are you even supposed to yield when on McAllister? If not, maybe they should just pull the roundabout out and leave it as a two-way stop (*not* a four-way stop.)

    I’m good with “mess” as an appropriate term for this intersection treatment.

  • Roger R.

    Succinctly put: *Or, more briefly, “a mess”.*

  • Ironic that I read this the same day I read the Mayor had complained to Muni’s head that Muni is so unreliable. Here’s why: death by a thousamd cuts. Each one may be of limited impact, but together they create the slowest transit system in the country. That in turn creates terrible bus and driver utilization, which increases costs while slowing service still more.

  • I have heard from traffic engineers that traffic circles are safer, but I don’t have any documentation. They are so variable as to size and signing that it would be difficult to answer definitively. Single lane roundabouts are well researched, though, and though they don’t necessarily reduce crashes, they nearly eliminate fatalities and severe injuries.

    Roundabouts depends on significant deflection to slow speeds, but traffic circles often don’t have enough deflection to be effective.

  • ScottRAB

    We call them neighborhood traffic circles when stop signs are used on only two of the intersection legs.

  • ScottRAB

    Neighborhood traffic circles in Portland, OR, reduced intersection crashes by 58%.