Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Further Fixes for Fell Street / ARCO Station Hazard

Two more fixes for the traffic tangle on Fell Street at the ARCO gas station have joined the proposal developed by the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). All three plans try to ensure safe passage for pedestrians and bicyclists while accommodating motorists who want to gas-up at the ARCO station at Fell and Divisadero.

Michael Smithwick, a long-time Alamo Square resident and livability advocate, envisions keeping motorists in the traffic lane at all times, even while waiting for an open spot in the ARCO lot. He proposes keeping the bicycle lane and sidewalk clear of vehicles by using a sidewalk extensions and four-foot high, flexible lane dividers. His plan involves four elements:
  • constructing a bulbout sidewalk extension immediately adjacent to the ARCO station entrance and installing a bike rack
  • removing one parking space closest to the ARCO station and replacing it with a bulbout with room enough for a tree and a bench
  • placing flexible posts for a distance of about 10 feet on Fell to separate the bike lane from the traffic lane in the area where motorists are most prone to block the bike lane
  • installing a sign curbside at the new "bike rack bulbout" to warn drivers not to block either the bike lane or the sidewalk
"This approach would force cars to stay in the traffic lane as they approach the current entrance to the ARCO station rather than "squeezing" over to block the bike lane," Smithwick explained. He expects the "no squeezing" situation will encourage motorists to continue on their way when the wait for gas is backed up rather than endure the discomfort of blocking the lane of traffic.

Smithwick has more up-close experience with the day-to-day realities of Fell Street than most traffic engineers and livability advocates in the city. He's lived on Scott Street near Fell for twenty years and has served as Transportation Committee Chair for the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association (ASNA) the last ten years. He remembers when Fell had four lanes of speeding rush-hour traffic with residents' cars parked on the sidewalk since curbside parking was prohibited. "This was a nightmare for pedestrians, who often had to step out into speeding traffic just to get by," Smithwick recalled. "Finally by partnering with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the neighbors convinced the MTA to replace the fourth traffic lane on Fell with a buffer of parked cars and a bike lane." The predicted Armageddon somehow never happened, he added, and traffic calmed a bit, bicyclists didn't have to ride on the sidewalks and pedestrians could. When Oak Street residents noticed the positive effects on Fell, they pressured the MTA to implement the same trade of a traffic lane for a parking lane on their street.

Smithwick's proposal challenges the notion that pedestrian and bicyclist safety should remain threatened by a traffic design that offers little direction to motorists who simply want to purchase gas. Critics of his plan might counter that a bike rack is hardly needed where bicyclists have no reason to congregate and that only the truly weary -- or perhaps MTA's bike counters -- would settle on a bench along the noise and pollution along Fell Street. But those are minor points within a larger vision that seeks safe passage for all.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has a different solution in mind. Program Manager Marc Caswell said the SFBC is thinking about bike travel on both Fell and Oak Streets in the short-term and long-term. "We're open to looking at several options, including a bi-directional bike path on Fell between Scott and Broderick that is segregated from vehicle traffic, andwe expect to push on this idea soon," Caswell stated. This proposal becomes even more attractive if the bidirectional path was extended westward along Fell to Baker Street and on to Stanyan. Such an extension would reduce the risks of cyclist and pedestrian congestion on the Panhandle path and allow cyclists to avoid the dangerous Baker to Scott segment of Oak Street.

"There's no reason MTA couldn't be thinking about this option now," Caswell noted. He volunteered, however, that "full (traffic) segregation is not necessarily better." With better traffic design, he suggested, "points of conflict" where motorists might turn across a bike lane can work well without undue risks. Caswell added that the MTA should consider options for a short-term fix without installing impediments to longer-term, more ambitious changes.
The ARCO station is the large lot on the lower left with driveways and
parking spaces being considered in the MTA plan to the right.

James Shaharimi, Bicycle Program Assistant Engineer for MTA, triggered this most recent discussion of the long-time traffic problems on Fell at the ARCO station last month. His proposal was presented in a post here. It involves the removal of three, too-small-to-be-legal parking spaces leading up to the ARCO driveway so that motorists can queue up along the curb and wait for an available gas pump without blocking the bike lane or sidewalk. The MTA would also erect signs to advise motorists to not proceed until there is a space open and to not block the sidewalk.

At first reading it seems that the MTA plan would open space for only three vehicles to wait in line while forcing the fourth, fifth or more motorists to block both the traffic lane and the bike lane mid-block while awaiting their turn. But the three 12 foot parking spaces are interspersed with four driveways, totaling 95 feet of potential open space. The removal of three parking spaces might permit five or six or more vehicles, and it might clear both the traffic and the bike lane of gas-seeking drivers.

Which of these options might Fell Street residents closest to the ARCO station endorse? Depending on final configurations of the plans, each might make it somewhat difficult for them to use their own driveways. But that's not much different from what they encounter already. Valerie Hartwell, another long-time ASNA member and Fell Street resident, explained that she sometimes waits twenty or thirty minutes to drive into or out of her garage due to the ARCO line-up.

No one is served well by the current situation on Fell Street, but the complexity of the problem -- accompanied by a lack of political will -- has allowed the hazards to remain. Perhaps no longer.

Program note: James Shaharimi will present MTA's thoughts on the Fell/ARCO traffic problem at the November North of the Panhandle Neighborhood Association (NOPNA) meeting. Neighbors and friends and everyone interested are welcome.

Thursday, November 19th
Poleng Lounge Restaurant, 1751 Fulton, between Central & Masonic
On-street bike parking (the parking meter routine; will there ever be bike racks?)
7pm social; 7:30 meeting

Also on the NOPNA meeting agenda: Cheryl Brinkman of Livable City will discuss bringing Sunday Streets through NOPA in 2010.


  1. Great to see the interest and ideas around this topic. It's a challenging situation but one that can be improved with some creativity and will.

    MTA is regularly portrayed as the stodgy boogeyman, even when it's not the case. To clarify history, after the Parking and Traffic Commission voted down the original designs for Fell in 1998, the street was revisisted, studied with a trial, and in 2002 recommended by MTA/DPT to be redesigned to have a bike lane. This was initiated without any great campaign or prodding at the time, but done because the organization thought it made sense.

    For reference, the report with recommendations by the MTA/DPT can be seen here:

  2. I am not sure making motorist wait in the travel lane would be the best solution since currently when traffic is backed up into the travel lane it creates traffic back-up for up to 2 blocks before the gas station entrance. This is when motorists start honking and getting irate. It creates a dangerous situation as motorists have to switch lanes into fast traffic in the other lanes.

  3. I'd just like to see them properly fill the 2 huge potholes right in the bike lane path at the Fell & Divisadero intersection that were created by the work they are doing on Divisadero.

  4. Thanks, Mike, for the clarification from MTA's experience. The report cited was prepared by Mike and provides interesting insight into the various traffic conditions on Fell Street in 2002. The study he conducted clearly indicated the benefits from installing a bike lane -- and giving cyclists a better option than riding on the sidewalk.The study also confirmed that negative impacts on vehicular traffic flow were not manageable. MTA engineers noted the queue of vehicles at the gas station seven years ago as well. Anyone interested in what to do about the traffic on Fell at the ARCO station should definitely review this report, now a baseline reference.

  5. lyqwyd: construction companies are required to maintain safe passage for cyclists, especially when the work occurs on a bike lane. This is the time to report the problem via 311. By phone tell the operator to refer the problem to the DPW Bureau of Streets & Mapping (BSM). SFBC reps had a very good meeting just yesterday with BSM inspectors and they are very responsive to these kinds of hazards. If you file the report online via sfgov.org and 311, select the "Street & Sidewalk Defects" and then the "Manhole/construction plates" option (try it here:
    http://www.sfmta.com/cms/uploadedfiles/dpt/bike/fell%20street%20report%2011_22_04.pdf ) Keep track of the complaint # that will be provided; you can track the response online. thanks from the rest of us for reporting this one.

  6. The way in which drivers queue up at that Arco station is really bizarre. It's as if they pull into the bike lane to avoid blocking traffic, but the lane isn't wide enough for a car so they just end up blocking both cars and bikes. Given this behavior, I'm highly skeptical that motorists would not also block the travel lane if a queue space were created by removing parking spaces on the southern side. And it's hard for me to imagine whether having cars cross the bike lane to get into the line would be any safer for cyclists than the current situation.

    I really like Michael Smithwick's proposal. Flexible posts alone would be enough, I hope, to stop motorists from blocking that bike lane. A brightly colored lane and/or a slightly raised surface would also be nice deterrents all the way up to the Panhandle.

  7. OK, potholes reported, thanks for the instructions!

  8. Thanks for this post. I'm really glad to hear so many creative solutions are on the table for this problem.
    I lived on Baker St north of the panhandle when the wiggle connector to the panhandle went in, and I don't remember the history in the same way as it's recounted here. At that time (late 90s), both sides of Fell were already parallel parking zones. The proposal I recall from the bike coalition was to take out parking between Scott and Baker on the south side of Fell and replace it with a bike lane. Community opposition to the removal of on-street parking blocked that option, and the current bike lane on Fell St. was the compromise.
    The post also mentions a lane on Oak St which doesn't exist to my knowledge. Are we talking about different eras or different parts of these streets?

  9. I forgot to add the follow up report for the Fell St bike lane...more numbers!