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West Portal

Commentary: There is Zero Ambiguity to the West Portal Tragedy

What happened in West Portal was entirely predictable and preventable. The city must now close Ulloa to through traffic and make sure it can never happen again

A family wasn’t run over by a driver here in Philadelphia, because the station area is closed to cars and physically protected by giant planters. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

I sat among birds and flowers watching trains go in and out of the western portal of the city's main light rail subway on Sunday, April 14. I didn't have to worry about cars in the Portal Gardens, because there are none.

I was visiting Philadelphia, sitting in the park by that city's "West Portal" for the train tunnel that connects downtown (or "Center City" as they call it) with the western suburbs. Fortieth Street Portal station used to look more like West Portal in San Francisco, but Philadelphia closed the area to traffic back in 1983 (the Trolley Portal Gardens were added in 2018).

The tragedy that happened last month in West Portal, where an errant driver blasted into the station area and wiped out a family of four that was taking Muni to the zoo, is personal to me. My brother and his family lived on nearby Wawona Street for many years. I used to take my nieces to the West Portal library and on transit. I did the best I could to keep them safe, but everybody knows the area in front of the station, with so many people competing with trains and traffic, was a tragedy waiting to happen.

My family got lucky. That's the only reason mine is alive and another family is not.

SFMTA has known about this risk for a long time. That's why they were able to produce plans for a safety redesign to close Ulloa Street in front of the station to through traffic so quickly—the plans already existed, and were just gathering dust.

But every time the city tried to divert traffic so it doesn't interfere with train movements and endanger riders, a small minority of merchants screamed and protested and the city backed off. As recently as 2019, merchants and a weak-willed then-Supervisor Norman Yee cut a modest pilot project to restrict traffic before it really started.

Part of a shrine made for the dead family in West Portal. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

One would think, now that such a predictable horror has actually happened, that the merchants who contributed to it would have the modicum of decency to shut the fuck up. Instead, they've created a web page and continue to protest any restriction to driving, right in the shadow of the shrine to the dead family.

West Portal, San Francisco.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar and the SFMTA held public outreach meetings for the newly introduced safety plans this week. I contracted COVID on my trip back East and couldn't attend, but I saw video and social media posts about it. Those who still protest safety improvements to West Portal know no shame and keep grousing about a supposed loss of parking and their need for "more time" to analyze what they claim is a rushed plan. Their behavior was and continues to be puerile and contemptible.

Outraged local families and safety advocates aren't having it this time. They are pushing back with "Safer West Portal" and making it clear that they won't tolerate the continued sophistry and delay.

Another look at Philly's "West Portal"

Nobody wants to see merchants go out of business. But the elimination of through traffic and a handful of parking spaces have nothing to do with that. The only reason the West Portal merchant corridor exists in the first place is because of the transit there—not the cars. But that's not even the issue. The simple fact is the merchants who are protesting safety improvements drive. And they don't want anyone interfering with that.

There's arguably never been a more morally clear situation in the safe-and-livable streets realm than West Portal. Ulloa must be blocked to through traffic. And the people who still want this dangerous situation to continue should be scorned or ignored. They contributed to the death of that family and it's clear they still aren't willing to suffer the tiniest inconvenience to prevent it from happening again.

SFMTA's has long had this "new" plan. It's festered because of politics

If San Francisco had acted in 1983, as Philadelphia did, or 1993, or 2003, or 2013, or 2023, and installed the easy and obvious changes pictured in the diagram above, that family would be alive. In that alternate universe, they would have had a nice day at the zoo, ignorant of the horrors they had escaped. Of course, the driver who hit them bears the majority of the blame, but everybody who blocked these improvements—and who continues to try to do so—is an accomplice. SFMTA must close Ulloa Street to through traffic in West Portal tomorrow, if not sooner.

***

Be sure to take SFMTA's West Portal survey before April 28.

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