Traffic backs up along Sixth Street on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Sixth Street pedestrian safety project approved despite business opposition

Pedestrians are struck by vehicles on Sixth Street once every sixteen days, according to city data.

Now that trend may end.

Sixth Street will lose one southbound traffic lane and gain wider sidewalks in an effort to enhance pedestrian safety, after a 6-1 vote by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Tuesday. The board also approved eliminating a traffic lane on nearby Taylor Street to widen sidewalks for safety.

The approvals came despite heated opposition from business groups to the Sixth Street improvements, including the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Council of San Francisco, who feared the lane closure would increase nearby traffic congestion.

But Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the neighborhoods Sixth Street runs through, both support the traffic changes, arguing they will save lives.

Speaking to the SFMTA board before the decision, Kim noted traffic collisions are 37 times more frequent on Sixth Street than the San Francisco average.

“I keep quoting the statistics, but we know there are real faces, and communities, and family, and friends who are forever impacted by the serious injuries and fatalities on our street,” Kim told the board.

SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin highlighted the impact of the projects, telling the SFMTA board “We are doing this once in a generation.”

Changes to make Taylor Street in the Tenderloin safer would benefit residents of nearby single room occupancy hotels, who often lack space to relax and unwind, SFMTA staff noted. From 2011 to 2016, there were 109 collisions on Taylor Street from Market to Sutter streets, with one collision occurring there every month, according to SFMTA. The proposed street fixes include wider sidewalks, more street art, the removal of a left turn at Taylor and Eddy Streets, and a reduction in metered parking spaces to make way for sidewalk widening and increased loading zones.

The number of traffic lanes on Taylor from Market to Ellis Streets would also be reduced from three to two, one through-lane and one turning lane.

But the changes to Sixth Street, while similar to Taylor, were more hotly contested by business groups.

Those safety treatments include removing one southbound traffic lane on Sixth Street between Market and Howard Streets, to allow sidewalks to be widened by four feet generally and five feet at the corners, to make it safer for those walking. Alleys will receive new marked crosswalks, and new low-level lighting at the height of walkers, will be installed.

Those changes were protested by local landlord John Handlery, as well as a coalition of 14 small businesses along Sixth Street, including Frena Savery Baked Goods, Jeresey Tomatoes, Fred’s Liquor and Deli, Chico’s Pizza and WERK Beauty Supply.

“A choke point at First (Street) is bad, a choke point at Sixth is deadly,” SFMTA Board of Directors commissioner Malcolm Heinicke told SFMTA staff. He urged diverting parking control officers to ensure the fears of the business community did not come true.

In answer to merchant opposition, SFMTA staffers pointed out the safety measures would benefit a diverse community around Sixth Street, where half of residents belong to communities of color and a third of residents are seniors, said SFMTA project planner Shayda Haghgoo. She argued making Sixth Street safe from traffic collisions is a social justice issue.

However, in deference to pressure, a parking protected bike lane on Taylor Street was removed from the project proposal, angry cyclists alleged.

The Sixth Street project will begin in 18 months, and take 18 months of construction to complete, according to SFMTA staff.

Local groups like the Tenderloin Community Benefit District and advocacy groups representing communities of color praised the safety projects.

“Some people think of SOMA as the next financial district, but they should remember this project falls within a family and residents zone,” said Rachel Lastimosa, arts and culture administrator with the SOMA Pilipinas group.

Art Torres, who was perhaps the SFMTA board member most skeptical of the plan, voiced opposition to the Sixth Street plan in particular, and asked SFMTA staff if sidewalks were being widened for bikeshares to be deposited and homeless people to camp on them.

Maguire answered, “right now the sidewalks aren’t wide enough for a person in a wheelchair to pass safely.” He noted that there is not bikeshare infrastructure planned for the sidewalk on Sixth Street.

SFMTA project planner Shivam Vohra said the Taylor Street project helped the agency learn more about how street design intersects with The City’s homeless population.

“This whole process has also been a class in gaining cultural competency about life in the Tenderloin,” he said. “Things like encampments, and drug use, those are wider considerations we cannot ignore … a street project cannot solve that problem by itself, nor is it a cause of the problem by itself.”

SFMTA Board of Directors Chair Cheryl Brinkman praised SFMTA planners for being responsive to the needs of the poor living in single-room housing and on city streets.

“Everyone who lives in the neighborhood is a neighbor, whether they are housed or not,” Brinkman said.

Correction: This story earlier stated that a parking protected bike lane was removed in plans for Sixth Street, however that is incorrect, they were removed from Taylor Street. The San Francisco Examiner regrets the error.

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