Advocates hold signs at a rally in favor of the Better Market Street plan ahead of a vote at the SFMTA Board on Oct. 15, 2019. That plan has now been changed, leaving many who worked on it feeling that their input has been disregarded. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>

Advocates hold signs at a rally in favor of the Better Market Street plan ahead of a vote at the SFMTA Board on Oct. 15, 2019. That plan has now been changed, leaving many who worked on it feeling that their input has been disregarded. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Opportunity to transform Market Street could be squandered, advocates say

Changes to bike lane plan made with little public input to save money

Street safety advocates and city officials remain at odds over the future of Better Market Street, designed to improve safety along the road that’s home to half of San Francisco’s 10 most dangerous intersections for injury collisions.

The revised plan eliminates the signature sidewalk-level bikeway, reducing the hoped-for safety benefits and leading advocates to question whether their voices are being heard.

“We’ve already lost lives of people biking on Market Street, and sharing a lane […] is not an improvement to safety at all, and not the plan we’ve worked hard for during all these years,” said Paul Valdez, a daily Market Street commuter and frequent participant in project planning activities.

For the last decade, bike and pedestrian advocates have worked with The City to transform San Francisco’s premiere downtown corridor into a worthy destination for visitors and tourists alike, one that prioritizes those who aren’t traveling by car, but rather by foot, bike, public transit or other forms of environmentally-friendly transportation.

They secured the win last year, but the recently announced revision to the Better Market Street plan appears to walk back much of that victory.

Now, the sidewalk-level protected bikeway between Fifth and Eighth streets will be nixed, keeping cyclists in the existing curb lane where they’ll ride among taxis, paratransit and delivery vehicles.

Janice Li, advocacy director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said it feels to many like “10 years of hard work is being thrown out,” and “that’s hard to stomach.”

That feeling is shared by Jon Bate from Streets for People, who said the “backroom deal” could dismantle trust between The City and the advocacy community writ large for a long time to come.

‘Sharing is not caring’

It remains “unclear” whether public response will have any impact on The City’s plans.

Roughly 100 comments have been received via the town hall, mostly from cyclists who are disappointed with the decision to remove the protected bikeway, said Cristina Olea, Department of Public Works project manager.

Valdez says the “watered-down” alternative compromises the safety guarantees of the original design.

He was especially “baffled” that the plan would stick with sharrows, essentially painted lines to signal to vehicles that cyclists could be in the adjacent lane.

“In this case, sharing is not caring. Sharing can be deadly,” he said.

Passionate as the feedback might be, technically The City is under no obligation to heed it.

Olea told the San Francisco County Transportation board Tuesday these revisions don’t compromise the project description that was approved October 2019, and they don’t want to de-legislate the sidewalk-level bikeway should The City choose to revisit it once budgets have recovered from the pandemic.

Staff will ask the SFMTA Board of Directors for approval of a few parking and traffic changes in January 2021, and it will request funding for this initial phase of the project in early 2021.

The changes

The City quietly made public the scaled-back plans at the end of September.

Officials pitched it as a necessary adjustment to cut costs during the pandemic budget crunch, respond to higher-than-expected volumes of cyclists and reduce negative impacts on local businesses.

The revisions in question apply mostly to the three-block stretch of Market Street between Fifth and Eighth streets, the site of the first phase of construction slated to begin in early 2021 in order to take advantage of a federal grant that stipulates a certain timeline.

Safety-related changes include swapping the 8-foot sidewalk-level bikeway for the 11-foot-wide existing curb lane, which will be treated with painted buffers and shared with taxis, paratransit and delivery vehicles.

Matt Brezina, organizer with People Protected, said he was “deeply disturbed” by this idea, namely because he believes it encourages cars to speed on freshly paved, less-crowded roads and condemns cyclists and pedestrians to dangerous travel conditions unmitigated by speed tables (similar to speed bumps) or sharrows, the specific design of which The City has said remains under review.

According to agency officials, though, these modifications will provide room for the 25 percent more cyclists that were seen on Market Street once it went largely car-free in January. It also means they don’t have to tear up the sidewalks, which could hurt businesses along the corridor.

Intersections along Market Street will still receive pedestrian safety and traffic calming treatments such as traffic signal upgrades and curb ramps, and Muni routes in this three-block stretch will move to a center transit-only lane, buttressed by larger boarding islands.

People hold signs at a rally in favor of the Better Market Street plan ahead of a vote at the SFMTA Board of Directors meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Questions over outreach

Advocates say The City’s approach to outreach has been lackluster, and often unclear about the degree to which public feedback will actually influence the new version of the Better Market Street plan.

Key stakeholders such as the SF Bike Coalition, Walk SF and SF Transit Riders weren’t originally included in the re-scoping of the plan.

Coma Te, spokesperson for Public Works, said they were looped in the day The City announced the design changes, and representatives from each who sit on the Better Market Street Citizen Advisory Committee met on Sept. 28 to discuss the plan, later followed by three information sessions.

“The advocacy groups have been and will continue to be important partners, but we also have to be responsibly responsive to the realities of the unprecedented pandemic economy and the changes of a car-free Market Street,” Te said.

Li said the news “came as a huge surprise” to the coalition of stakeholders.

A virtual open house launched on Nov. 2 and is ongoing. The agencies have also already hosted two virtual town halls where they were able to interact directly with attendees in a virtual format, with another planned for Nov. 12 geared toward those who experience disabilities or mobility impairment.

“It’s just unclear what The City is after. I have to honestly say I’m not sure,” Li said when asked what difference she thought feedback could make on how the project moves forward. “It’s deeply frustrating because there is a moving target, or moving goalposts and ultimately it’s unclear.”

Cutting costs

The City has tweaked its strategy, providing more time and more ways for people to connect.

Originally planned to run through Nov. 13, the virtual town hall is now scheduled to continue through the end of the month in order to give people more time to provide feedback.

SFMTA and DPW also announced they plan to release a survey by Wednesday morning that will allow the public to provide more detailed feedback on the design.

Te said both agencies appreciate feedback and “will look at the feasibility of incorporating suggested improvements.”

The City says the changes are mostly needed to cut expenses, a constraint almost all advocates who the Examiner spoke to understood, recognized and were ready to consider as a crucial factor in what’s feasible moving forward.

Phase 1 of the project, essentially the changes to Market Street between Fifth and Eighth streets, is still expected to cost roughly $128 million for implementation and redesign, $60 million down from the original bill.

Phase 2 of the project will address the F-Market streetcar, replacing some portions of the route along Market Street as early as 2024.

Olea clarified the bulk of expenses across both phases must go toward critical infrastructure work such as sewage and water lines, overhead wire replacements and other utility upgrades. The City will no longer overhaul the system’s entire infrastructure outright, but it will still need to upgrade much of the current hardware for safety purposes, even without Better Market Street.

She also added the late-stage project planning can still evolve, as only the full construction of Phase 1 is currently fully funded through a mix of federal grants, sales tax and other allocations.

Opponents say this is way too high given the loss of substantive safety improvements.

Anyone interested in learning more or providing their thoughts should attend the virtual town hall.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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