Wednesday, September 9, 2009

SFgo = Traffic First in NOPA, Alamo Square?

Most NOPA and Alamo Square neighbors had never heard of SFgo. But the "freeway functional," newly erected sign standards on the already too narrow sidewalks along Fell and Oak streets grabbed attention. Their reaction was more WIMBY than NIMBY, as in "Why In My Back Yard"? How will freeway signs add anything to our neighborhood and why now, just as the city invests $3.3 million to help make our prime transit and traffic corridor more livable?

In an earlier post, BIKE NOPA introduced neighbors to what seems an egregious intrusion in our midst. Today we present more in-depth coverage of the goals, uncertain messages, and specific concerns of the people who live here.

SFgo is an ambitious -- some say misguided -- program to upgrade the city's arterial traffic management and traffic signal system. Program goals include: manage traffic in real time, provide transit signal priority, and support emergency services. The plan envisions signal upgrades at 100 intersections, signal controller replacements at 400 intersections, fiber optic communications, transit priority measures at 500 intersections, and installation of variable message signs and traffic cameras, according to a June 26, 2008 presentation by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

When transportation planners developed what would evolve into SFgo ten years ago, local livability and transportation expert Dave Snyder was already against it. "They all questioned how I could be opposed to innovative, state-of-the-art improvements," he recalled. "I thought it represented poor priorities. They planned this when a different team was in there. Part of what we're witnessing is the delayed effect of transportation priorities of the old guard." Snyder added that the $72.5 million alloted to SFgo would be used much differently by today's planners. "They wouldn't be putting message boards on Fell and Oak streets; they'd focus on more important public transit corridors."

Snyder believes that theoretically the SFgo system could be a good thing. In the case of the traffic message signs on Oak and Fell Streets, SFgo could manage the traffic signals to make sure the Muni #24 bus gets a green light every time it approaches the two intersections. Once the bus passes through the intersection, the east/west traffic could be given a longer green light until the next bus approached. That would really screw up Fell Street traffic though, according to Snyder. "To be really effective, traffic signals all along Divisadero would have to allow Muni preferential passage, and that's not likely to happen. The way SFgo is being implemented now it seems to be just a way to speed up traffic."

The primary purpose of SFgo sometimes gets muddled by program managers' own descriptions. There are the three goals listed above, but then the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) also gets down to basics with its statement that SFgo is "largely motivated by the need to upgrade existing equipment and infrastructure. Fair enough: traffic signals in the city are old and ill-suited for tech upgrades. But note this treatment of the benefits touted in its goals: "...the benefits, such as the ability to provide transit priority, pedestrian scramble phasing, incorporating bicycle elements into signal elements, are expected to accrue as a byproduct of the upgrade." (my emphasis). That reads, to me, as if the progam is primarily an infrastructure improvement with a very big price tag and a few good perks along for the ride.

SFMTA has good reason to spin the positives, and the agency knows its opposition. Another presentation ("Smart Corridors Task Force Notebook") about SFgo answered the question, What's the greatest challenge to the program?

  • "Addressing the prevailing skepticism about the benefits of the project and the prevailing resistance to modernization borne out of a fear that the project would encourage auto traffic." (my italics)
"Prevailing skepticism" in NOPA and Alamo Square: check. Fear about encouraging auto traffic: check. But "resistance to modernization": not so fast.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Freeway Revolt that stopped plans to better manage traffic flow by thrusting the proposed Panhandle/Golden Gate Park Freeway from the Central Freeway, up Oak and Fell while slicing 60% of the Panhandle for the pavement and then tunnel under Golden Gate Park to reach Park Presidio. Advocates then were, no doubt, derided for their "resistance to modernization." Today they're considered local heroes.

NOPA and Alamo Square residents cite three primary concerns with SFgo in their neighborhoods:

  • SFgo seems to undermine the benefits of the Divisadero Corridor makeover
The city plans to revitalize the Divisadero Corridor from Haight to Geary to encourage more social interaction among neighbors and shoppers in a more conducive environment, i.e., less dominated by vehicular traffic. Expect to see bus bulbouts, a wider median planted with trees, upgraded light fixtures (no more ominous "cobra-head" lights), and landscaping. While the Divisadero makeover has been criticized by several livability advocates for being too limited in its scope -- not widening the sidewalks and calming traffic more -- NOPA and Alamo Square neighbors will nevertheless welcome even these changes for the long-neglected streetscape.

After two years of neighborhood input for the re-design and the expected expenditures, why is the city also spending millions to erect freeway-style message signs on Fell and Oak right next to Divisadero? Take out the cobra-head lights but erect functional/ugly sign standards? How will the digital displays -- bright lights -- enhance the neighborhood? Part of the long-term thinking for Divisadero is to encourage new housing, especially at the Fell intersection. But "up-close to SFgo signs" hardly fits the "location, location, location" mantra for developers or renters and homeowners.

  • SFgo may be used to delay Divisadero traffic, causing more congestion, while it stalls Muni and makes pedestrians and cyclists wait even longer to cross Oak and Fell Streets.

During the Divisadero re-design planning process, Muni reps were adamant about not slowing the #24 bus in any way. But Muni #24 will definitely be stalled if Oak and Fell traffic gets more of the green.

  • SFgo may encourage faster, more dangerous driving on Oak and Fell with longer green lights and with visual cues (e.g., the freeway-style message boards).

For some motorists, Oak and Fell are the most direct and quickest routes across town and onto the freeway. Everyone's busy and pressed for time; if the corridor allows fast driving as a result of traffic signal timing, who will resist? The signs might also present more distractions for motorists right where they encounter more bicyclists and pedestrians using the streets.

What do neighbors want? Tomorrow BIKE NOPA will focus on neighbors' questions for the SFgo reps to address when they discuss the program at the North of the Panhandle Neighborhood Association (NOPNA) meeting*. We will also take a look at SFgo's record of community outreach.

*Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009, Poleng Lounge, 1751 Fulton between Central and Masonic; 7 pm meet and greet; 7:30 pm meeting starts.

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