On any given day, buses along Columbus Avenue south of Washington Square Park lurch along at 2 to 6 mph, according to city transportation planners.
Drivers continuously circle the North Beach neighborhood for parking, and pedestrians navigate narrow sidewalks crowded with restaurant tables and chairs.
While it’s all part of North Beach’s charm, some neighborhood residents and merchants say the neighborhood could be safer and more accessible. While no decisions have been made, they have proposed simplified intersections, wider sidewalks and even some street closures to improve the crowded conditions.
Earlier this year, with the help of city transportation planners, a group called Renew SF received a state-level grant to launch a study on Columbus Avenue transit woes. The corridor, which links the Financial District and Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina, serves 45,000 vehicle and transit trips each day.
The City is also proposing to extend the Central Subway tunnel, which would connect the end of the Third Street rail line to Chinatown, as far as North Beach, drawing even more people to the area.
“People there every day feel the pedestrian experience could be improved,” said Claudine Cheng, a member of Renew SF.
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which oversees a voter-approved half-cent sales tax, has added Columbus Avenue to its neighborhood transportation-planning program, which already includes the Tenderloin, Outer Mission and Bernal Heights. Under the program, transportation planners meet with neighborhood stakeholders and draft designs to improve the streets, which then head to The City for approval.
Two intersections on Columbus Avenue have so far been identified as major trouble zones, including where Powell and Union streets and Stockton and Green streets meet the corridor. Vehicles are able to head in so many directions that it creates confusion for drivers and pedestrians, said Rachel Hiatt, a senior transportation planner at the authority.
Some residents are also troubled by the sidewalks, which are nine feet wide on each side of the corridor — narrower than sidewalks on Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. Many cafes and restaurants also allow sidewalk service, which makes it even more crowded.
“We have the cafe culture and the restaurants love to set up tables and chairs out there and be part of the neighborhood,” Cheng said. But “if most restaurants have their space outside, it takes a lot of space away from pedestrians.”
Residents have also considered closing a portion of Vallejo Street between Columbus Avenue and Grant Street to decrease the number of entry and exit points to the corridor.