Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Freeway Signs for SF Neighborhoods

"Wondering why you're stuck in traffic? Looking for the best way to get to your destination?" When a program overview begins like that, you know they're not talking about cyclists or pedestrians. San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) has embarked on an ambitious and expensive "Integrated Transportation System" to "make your travels in and around the city a lot easier. ITS is a bit awkward; and besides, San Francisco already celebrates its legendary "IT's IT" ice cream bars. How about "SFgo" instead?

SFgo has its merits. MTA notes on its website that most city street signals are 50-60 years old and most signals are coordinated via old and deteriorating underground cables. "The system doesn't repond to actual traffic volumes or roadway conditions." The new system will do just that with traffic cameras and message signs. Perhaps there will be less congestion and a reduction in travel times with reduced levels of exhaust fouling the air we breathe. Of course, this also means that cars, Muni coaches, and peds on intersecting streets may have to wait even longer for a green signal if traffic on the "arterial" streets is particularly heavy.

But is SFgo appropriate for the neighborhoods? The most visible and jarring intrusions of SFgo's traffic-moving benevolence are the stark freeway-style sign posts erected on sidewalks (and extending over the roadway) last month on Oak and Fell Streets near Divisadero. The electronic display panels have yet to be installed, but soon they will provide digital displays of traffic advisories. Even if you haven't noticed these silver standards in NOPA and Alamo Square, you know what they look like from any freeway trips.

There's the rub: traffic management signs on freeways make sense. "Accident ahead; expect delays", "20 minutes to get to the next bottleneck", "Amber Alert," "Detour ahead," "You're already late for the family dinner." All these give drivers information they might use. But do the same signs belong in the neighborhoods? Traveling west on Fell, will drivers be alerted to heavy traffic on Masonic Ave. just five blocks away so they take side streets instead? Won't freeway signs on neighborhood streets provide visual cues to motorists: "looks like a freeway so drive like its a freeway"?

At what cost, do we benefit? SFgo already takes its traffic management to SOMA at a cost of approximately $6 million, according to MTA's site. The NOPA overhaul with "vehicle detection, cameras, and dynamic message signs" along the Fell/Oak corridors registers $1.2 million. (But that was the estimate in 2003; MTA is a bit overdue updating this segment of its website).

"SFgo is all about cooperation and partnership": perhaps, to a point. SFgo strives to collaborate with other city agencies. Good enough. But the lofty goal has included little neighborhood input from city residents who live along the streets that MTA wants to make more speedy and efficient for motorists. Michael Smithwick, longtime neighborhood activist and Transportation/Safety Chair for the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association (ASNA), recalls the limited community outreach undertaken by MTA.

"Several years ago the Department of Parking and Traffic conducted a focus group on this issue among community reps from across the city." (Note: DPT is now part of MTA). "The SFgo proposal was met with a huge thumbs down by residents concerned with the impact of the program on their neighborhood streets." After that one meeting, Smithwick recalls, DPT issued a glossy newsletter that claimed positive support. "Blatant misrepresentation," he charges. "Community representatives were not notified that the purchase decision had been made and were not even notified that the electronic signs were going up. So much for community involvement and transparency."

I spoke with a number of other NOPA and ASNA folks about the new signs looming over the roadways. Most were puzzled and dismayed that just as the city is about to undertake a mini-makeover of the Divisadero Corridor to make it more friendly and more neighborhood oriented, the MTA plants these freeway-style structures a 1/2 block away. The city -- that means us -- pays to replace cobra-head street lighting with more attractive poles with a softer lighting on Divisadero and then erects these ugly standards just around the corner. Where's the "cooperation and partnership" among city agencies? Beyond Divisadero, neighbors are concerned about the negative impacts on Fell and Oak, and they point out, with exasperation, that the two streets are traffic corridors, not freeway extensions.

MTA has enfolded SFgo in so much livablity prose that you have to wonder how much they recognize that the program will intrude on neighborhoods', uh, real livability. On the MTA website, SFgo is found under "Livable Streets" among the School Area Safety Program, the Pedestrian Program, and the Traffic Calming Program. MTA then asserts that SFgo complements SF's Transit First Policy "by helping to preserve and enhance the City's alternative modes of transportation." Everyone wants MUNI to operate better and on schedule, but it's not really clear, or proven, how notification of "delays ahead" will improve performance.

Bicyclists, you will benefit: "Bicyclists will have the use of calmer, safer roads. Informed drivers are more patient and sensitive to sharing the road with other travelers." MTA believes that motorists who are informed about why they are stuck in traffic ("accident ahead," "LGBT Pride parade blocking streets") will be more relaxed and not direct their frustrations at bicyclists, who just might be cooly passing them by. Maybe.

Pedestrians too: "Pedestrians will also benefit from calmer, safer roads. It will also be possible to adjust signal timing during special events to enhance pedestrian movement." Again, more information leads to less road rage. (I hope so). Signals can be changed for the AIDS Walk, the marathon, and the Bay to Breakers to sanction ped crossings through intersections. Fine, although SFPD manages that already at much less expense. But isn't it more likely that pedestrians will be kept waiting for longer periods to cross the streets once central-controlled traffic lights allow longer drive times to lighten congestion?

Sorry, neighorhood folks who live nearby: Although SFgo "helps everyone," there's no special nod to how ugly freeway signs, bright digital readouts at night, more speeding cars, greater noise, and increased street crossing times will make your life calmer and better.

SFgo has been approved and partly funded with implementation underway. What's to be done? For NOPA neighbors, attend the next NOPNA neighborhood meeting: Thursday, Sept. 17, at Cafe Neon, 1801 McAllister (at Baker). 7pm: Meet and Greet; 7:30 - 9pm: meeting. Representatives from SFgo will provide an update and answer questions. Alamo Square Neighborhood Association officers will participate. You can also direct concerns to the NOPNA Board of Directors and to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and to the MTA.

1 comment:

  1. I would like our streetlights to be efficient, effective, durable, and reliable. I'm not sure they've achieved that yet. And adding on a networking system to speed traffic when there are special events isn't a high priority for me. I don't really understand whether those "ugly standards" are integral to the project. Seems to me like we could still get the networked traffic lights but eject the extra component - hopefully soon, before the light panels are installed.