SFMTA approves new slow streets in ‘underserved’ areas but struggles with outreach

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors approved a new batch of Slow Streets on Tuesday, all of...

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors approved a new batch of Slow Streets on Tuesday, all of which fall in neighborhoods that, to date during the pandemic, have been left without any of the partially car-free corridors.

However, a vote on four of the nine new streets that were up for approval was delayed after agency staff asked for an additional four weeks to respond to community calls for deeper engagement and more extensive outreach with residents on proposed closures in Bayview-Hunters Point.

Tom Maguire, director of streets at SFMTA, described the “key tension” the agency faces in implementing transformative changes such as Slow Streets as a choice between moving quickly to achieve its goals versus moving more diligently.

“We know that if we are going to do substantive community-led work, we need to be especially intentional about how deep our outreach is in this,” Maguire said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Going back to November, SFMTA touted its outreach plan around this fourth wave of Slow Streets, which is intended to bring much-needed open space and mobility access to “historically underserved” neighborhoods, the same areas that historically have often simply been told by public agencies what will happen to their communities as opposed to being engaged in the decision-making process.

Over a roughly one-month period, SFMTA concentrated its outreach on 10 neighborhoods.

It sent direct mailers to homes, hosted four virtual events and three neighborhood events, posted flyers along proposed corridors and distributed neighborhood-specific surveys that yielded 1,278 responses.

But Shamann Walton, the supervisor who represents Bayview-Hunters Point, says the agency fell short in his district, and when he asked for a list of community groups and residents that SFMTA had been working with to conduct effective outreach, he said the agency couldn’t provide specifics.

“People always want to play a role in discussing what happens to their neighborhoods,” he said. “At the very least, MTA should be able to say who they met with and who they reached out to. They haven’t been able to do that yet.”

Erica Kato told the Examiner that in addition to the aforementioned efforts, the agency presented to and gathered feedback from the Bayview Citizen Advisory Committee on Jan. 6 and the Bayview Hills Neighborhood Association on Feb. 1, and also hosted four virtual office hours sessions.

She also said staff discussed Slow Streets with “community group representatives,” but she did not provide additional information as to who the people were or who they represent.

Walton challenged the transit agency to think beyond online outreach, a tool that doesn’t reach many of his constituents and solicits responses from a limited swath of The City’s broader population, and instead consider diversifying outreach methods.

In a mea culpa of sorts, SFMTA acknowledged it could have done more to tailor its approach to the Bayview, for example, but also emphasized the challenges in face-to-face interaction during this time.

Maguire said the agency recognized the “cookie cutter view” of online workshops and virtual workshops didn’t work effectively, and, moving forward, said SFMTA would not “simply assume that the tools that work elsewhere are the answers there as well.”

“We want to honor the fact that we have been asked to do more,” he said of the need for the four-week delay before voting on the four Bayview-specific Slow Street corridor proposals.

Delaying the vote for approval should not delay implementation. An ongoing shortage of materials needed to create the delineators and barricades that signal a Slow Street mean all new rollouts are on hold for at least a couple of weeks.

The board almost delayed the vote on the entire fourth wave of Slow Streets, per staff recommendation, but after heated testimony during public comment demanding action, it decided to separate the five corridors in higher density neighborhoods where the same concerns over outreach hadn’t been raised and move forward with those.

Residents and street safety advocates from SoMa made a particularly strong showing during public comment expressing their “utter disappointment” at the idea of further delays. Many of them have been demanding a car-free corridor since the launch of the Slow Streets program in April 2020.

“There’s very fast moving traffic in SoMa, it’s dangerous for pedestrians and there’s huge support for Slow Streets in the neighborhood,” Supervisor Matt Haney said, echoing their frustration. Residents have been asking, fighting, begging for SFMTA to create Slow Streets in SoMa and across District 6. We can’t accept more delays.”

With the board’s approval, implementation will begin as soon as materials are available, which SFMTA expects to happen later this spring.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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