California Street may lose a lane to bolster safety

Effort among first crop of ‘quick-build’ projects by SFMTA meant to address traffic dangers

The City may strip a car lane from California Street in the name of safety.

Running from Arguello Boulevard to Park Presidio Boulevard, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s California Street Safety Project would reduce traffic lanes from four to three so they can be widened for safer driving.

SFMTA’s reasoning? Private cars — and Muni buses — crash too often on the corridor.

The first public hearing for the project is slated for Thursday, November 7, with a temporary “quick-build” version of the project set to be completed by the end of 2019. More permanent safety features on California may follow, depending on feedback, according to SFMTA.

This California Street Safety Project is also among the first of SFMTA’s first “quick build” projects, intended to more quickly implement safety changes. The agency committed to delivering 15 quick-build projects through 2020 after it was criticized for lagging on street safety improvements.

Two side lanes would remain, with the center lane becoming a turning lane for each direction. High-visibility crosswalks and other safety improvements for people walking would also be installed on the corridor.

In the past five years there have been 57 collisions resulting in injuries on that short stretch of California, which also sees a high rate of Muni-involved collisions — 35 Muni-related collisions in the past five years alone.

In a description of the safety project, SFMTA staff wrote “the travel lanes are not wide enough in this area for Muni vehicles.”

Muni vehicles are 10.5 feet wide, and the traffic lanes are 8-9 feet wide, resulting in Muni vehicles straddling multiple lanes and sideswiping cars on the road. The 1-California route primarily runs on the street.

“Those lanes are too damn narrow,” Winston Parsons, a board member of the Richmond District Democratic Club told the San Francisco Examiner. Parsons lives in the neighborhood, and works down Geary Boulevard at a senior center.

“It makes perfect sense from a safety perspective to me,” he said, especially after a senior was killed after being struck by a car at 18th Avenue and California Streets in February this year. “You don’t need to be a traffic engineer to know that it’s often dangerous to cross that street — it feels that way.”

Advocacy group Walk San Francisco also invoked a recent traffic death when calling for the project to move forward.

“California Street is in desperate need of serious safety improvements,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, in a statement. “On the same day Zhao Guan was fatally hit while crossing the street to babysit her grandkids, there was another pedestrian hit just blocks away at California and Polk. This street is deadly with its wide lanes of fast-moving traffic and far too few safe crosswalks.”

A pro-housing development group called Grow the Richmond also is in support of the project, and wrote publicly on Twitter Friday “this is the kind of project that could keep kids safe as they walk around trick-or-treating in our neighborhood.”

Multiple lanes are also known to encourage people to drive faster, making conditions unsafe for nearby elementary school children and others who walk California Street daily, according to SFMTA.

Still, not all neighbors may be receptive to the traffic changes.

Kevin Chen, a manager at the popular Burmese restaurant Mandalay at California and Sixth Avenue, said he’s worked there for ten years and has only seen it get harder for patrons to drive to the neighborhood. Reduced parking makes it tougher for customers to frequent all the new cafes and shops that have popped up in recent years, he said.

“Muni drivers drive very carefully, they are very, very well trained,” he said. Changing the lane configuration, he added, “I don’t think it’s good. It’s going to make more traffic.”

Chen specified that he was only speaking for himself. However, the community at large will have the opportunity to sound off at George Peabody Elementary School, Thursday night at 6 p.m., when SFMTA holds its first hearing on the project.

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