SF transit officials to begin studying car-free streets

Transit officials want to make some San Francisco streets car-free.

The chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, Malcolm Heinicke, directed the agency to study what city streets could become Muni-only at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday.

“I realize it’s a grand question,” Heinicke told SFMTA staff.

But, he said, the request is in line with more than an hour’s worth of public comments from the community on Tuesday, many of whom ride bikes or Muni, who called on transit officials to make streets safer following the deaths of eight people in traffic collisions so far this year.

The call for safety was also sparked by the death of Tess Rothstein, 30, who was struck and killed while riding her bike in the South of Market neighborhood two weeks ago.

Heinicke said the public “tasked” SFMTA with thinking boldly.

Heinicke’s request also followed a report from SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum on Muni service, which said that while SFMTA is slowly improving, it has not yet met goals for on-time performance.

Street traffic is a commonly identified impediment to reliable Muni service, leading transit officials to increasingly install so-called “red carpet” transit-only lanes, like the one on Mission Street, to allow buses to glide through congestion.

With that in mind, Heinicke suggested the city look at corridors, “particularly ones that aren’t that great for car flow in the first place, and just make them entirely ‘red carpet.’”

There are, he added, “many streets that are narrow but nevertheless flow very well. Turk Street comes to mind.”

Ed Reiskin, the SFMTA director of transportation, told the San Francisco Examiner that they would take Heinicke’s direction and study possible streets to be car-free. He noted that Heinicke’s suggestion is borne out by SFMTA’s experience: When they make streets only partially car free, during certain hours for instance, few drivers heed those rules.

Making only a few streets car-free may prove challenging without strong traffic enforcement to back up the new engineering designs, Reiskin warned.

“Every street is part of a grid, and enforcement is difficult,” he said. But painting the lanes red can help because they “send a visual clue.”

Meanwhile, the planning process for San Francisco’s first truly car-free street, the Better Market Street Project, has moved further in its environmental review process. A draft environmental report was posted by the Planning Department in conjunction with SFMTA in late February, and the agencies are taking public comment on the environmental review through April 15.

The Historic Preservation Commission will hold a hearing on the project at its March 20 meeting, and the Planning Department will also hold a hearing on the project on March 21..

Back at Tuesday’s SFMTA meeting, Cheryl Brinkman, an SFMTA board director, said that future car-free street designs wouldn’t just benefit Muni but could lead to increased safety for people who walk and bike.

“Let’s be transit first. Let’s be bicycle first. Let’s be pedestrian first,” she said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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