S.F.'s Ambitious Plan to Turn Two Deadly SoMa Streets Into People-Friendly Boulevards

4 min
A parking protected bike lane on Howard Street, just east of Eighth Street, in San Francisco's SoMa district.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Updated Wednesday, July 3

When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board voted unanimously last month to approve a $35 million plan to redesign two dangerous South of Market thoroughfares, it was taking a step toward embracing what planners and advocates of pedestrian and cyclists say is the future of the city's fastest-growing neighborhood.

The project promises a makeover for major sections of Howard and Folsom streets. The changes feature expansive new bike lanes, improved pedestrian crossings, and sophisticated traffic signaling designed to eliminate conflicts between bicycles and motor vehicles on the two boulevards between Second Street and 11th Street.

The project will also create a transit-only lane on Folsom that promises to make Muni bus service more reliable and new "public realm" sidewalk areas -- spaces akin to miniparks -- to be designed by community groups along the Howard and Folsom corridors.

The main driver for the changes is improving safety: The SFMTA notes that 391 traffic collisions have occurred over the last five years on the two corridors, which span roughly a mile and a half of each street. Of those crashes, 166, or about 40 percent, have involved pedestrians and cyclists.

Inside those statistics: Three cyclists and three pedestrians have been killed in the corridor since January 2013. Those incidents, the most recent of which occurred in March, have spurred demands for heightened safety measures and prompted the city to try a series of mostly short-term fixes to make the two streets safer.

Those immediate measures included the rapid expansion of a parking-protected bikeway along Howard Street after 30-year-old cyclist Tess Rothstein was killed March 8 while riding in an unprotected cycling lane between Fifth and Sixth streets.

An unprotected bike lane on Folsom Street, between Third and Fourth streets. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The Folsom-Howard project, which has been under development for three years, is also driven in part by a recognition that the neighborhoods through which the two streets pass have changed dramatically from the light industrial and warehouse uses that characterized them in the mid-20th century.

Both streets are three-lane thoroughfares -- Howard one-way westbound, Folsom one-way eastbound -- that carry a sometimes chaotic mix of commute traffic, trucks making local deliveries and an increasing number of bicycle riders.

"There was just a different feel in this area of the city 50 or 60 years ago," said SFMTA engineer Paul Stanis, the Folsom-Howard project manager. Over the past couple of decades, the area has been marked by explosive growth in housing and employment.

"What we're doing is addressing that," Stanis said in an interview before the SFMTA board vote on June 18. "While these streets were designed for vehicles for many decades, we're now designing them for people."

Reconfiguring the streets will involve reducing the number of traffic lanes from three lanes to two in most areas. About 120 curbside parking spaces would be eliminated -- a typical point of contention for businesses that seek to ensure nearby parking for customers and need to load or unload merchandise and supplies from the street.

The SFMTA says it will accommodate businesses by increasing the number of loading zones along the corridor by 20 percent, a feat accomplished by removing some short-term parking and passenger loading zones along the two streets.

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Bradley Dunn, an SFMTA public information officer who did community outreach on the project, said providing more loading zones will solve a chronic problem in the corridor: trucks double-parking or parking in bike lanes.

"We did an initial survey and found that 80 percent of the businesses reported that they either loaded or unloaded in the bike lane or the travel lane," Dunn said. "So fixing that is a boon for local merchants that are already facing a lot of challenges."

The biggest change on the two streets would involve the dramatically improved bicycle infrastructure. The current bike lanes -- some of which are protected by a parking lane that's been shifted to the left from the curbs, some of which are simply painted lines adjacent to traffic lanes -- would be replaced by two-way parking-protected bikeways.

Intersections along Howard and Folsom will feature new traffic signals -- separate lights to govern the movement of cyclists proceeding straight through an intersection and drivers making turns at the same corner. The signals would eliminate the "mixing zone" at intersections, the stretch of pavement where bikes and turning motor vehicles merge across each other.

A "mixing zone" -- a point where turning vehicles moves across a bike lane -- at Howard and Seventh streets in San Francisco. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The project also includes fresh safety features for pedestrians, including "bulb-outs" that reduce the crossing distance at intersections and new, signal-protected midblock crossings.

The agency's planning process involved advocacy groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF, as well as SoMa community organizations like the sponsor of the Folsom Street Fair, United Playaz and the South of Market Community Action Network.

Brian Wiedenmeier, the bike coalition's executive director, praised the Howard and Folsom plan as a potential model for reimagining streets throughout the city.

"This really is the highest quality of infrastructure when it comes to bikes, pedestrians and transit that the city has put forward to date," Wiedenmeier said.

He noted that the Folsom and Howard project has combined a series of near-term fixes -- like the parking-protected bike lanes installed recently on Howard Street -- with a broader vision.

"We are iterating and learning from these pilot projects as we go, getting improvements in the ground quickly and then learning from those to inform the larger, long-term design," Wiedenmeier said.

The project was almost unanimously applauded during public comment at the SFMTA board meeting.

But John Elberling, who runs South of Market nonprofit housing developer TODCO, asked the SFMTA board to remove one block from the project -- Howard Street between Fourth and Fifth -- so it could be redesigned.

He said the planned two-way bikeway on the block would endanger the 250 residents of TODCO's Woolf House senior housing facility, at Fourth and Howard.

"You cannot safely assume that they are going to see bicycles coming from both directions," Elberling said. "... In fact, what you can assume is that a significant portion of the time, they won't see them coming."

The board approved an amendment from Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden directing SFMTA staff to confer with TODCO and adopt design changes that address the Woolf House safety concerns.

SFMTA board approval of the transformation proposal kicks off a two-year planning process for the city's Public Works department. Construction could begin in 2021 and take about two years to complete.

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