Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Curious Case of the Divisadero Islands: Risky Pedestrian Crossings in New Design?

At Turk Street: The "refuge" juts out into walking space on the inside

At Fell Street: pedestrians have to negotiate around vehicles or, sometimes, step into oncoming traffic lane to use the crosswalk

At Page Street: In what pedestrian design scheme does this make sense?

They were meant to increase safety for pedestrians using the crosswalks on Divisadero, but the pedestrian islands or refuges that are part of the recent makeover of the Divisadero corridor make little sense with few exceptions. Nor do they conform to the city's code.* Instead the islands sometimes jut past the inside line of the crosswalk or float in the middle of the crosswalk blocking easier passage. It's no news that motorists often stop in the crosswalks for signal changes, thus blocking pedestrian passage. With the current island or "thumbnail" refuges, walkers are often forced to negotiate around the intruding vehicles and proceed outside the crosswalk just to cross the street.

BIKE NOPA reader Jeff Gibson first wrote about the odd array of crosswalk islands as a guest contributor on May 4th. He compiled the several anomalies and sent them to the Department of Public Works with a request for an explanation. Kris Opbroek, DPW's Great Streets manager for the Divisadero project, explained that the configuration at Fell Street was a safety measure to protect pedestrians from motorists turning left from Fell. But Opbroek was unable at the time to explain the great variation of traffic island placements along the busy corridor. Gibson is still waiting for a reply about those.

San Franciscans live with oddities in the physical environment all the time, but the obstruction of pedestrian passage -- in crosswalks, no less -- is more than a quirk to endure. Unless there are solid traffic and safety design justifications for each of the variations, those that pose an unnecessary risk need to be changed.

What happened here? Unless there are some good reasons for the peculiarities of these island placements that have yet to be explained, the other possibilities are disturbing:
  • City staff provided the contractor with unclear directions and designs for the crosswalks
  • The contractor, Synergy Construction, cut corners with the designs or misread them in its desire to complete the project on time or ahead of schedule
  • The city conducted inadequate supervision of the work
  • City inspectors -- or their supervisors -- noticed the problem but decided to let it pass
Perhaps we're missing something that explains the curious case of the Divisadero islands. Jeff Gibson and quite a few pedestrians crossing the neighborhood's primary business corridor would like to know.

* Better Streets, San Francisco, Chapter 5.0, Guide: Street Design, pages 122 - 124.
  • Raised thumbnails should be provided on the intersection side of refuge islands. Ideally, thumbnails should be located outside of the crosswalk.
  • To accommodate turning radii for large vehicles, the thumbnail may need to be within the crosswalk or have a mountable outside edge. Mountable thumbnails should be built so that pedestrians are discouraged from standing on the thumbnail itself (for example, by using cobbles or other uneven paving materials.


  1. as a community, we need to take another look at medians. i've been railing against them for as long as i knew they could take away space from bikers to give it to trees. i _thought_ this would be obvious to everyone, especially bikers, but i continue to be proven wrong.

    the problem here is _not_ some stupid 'jutting' - the problem is the damn median itself. it doesn't belong on any street that we want to be friendly to pedestrians and bikers -- for myriad and obvious reasons.

    what are just a few reasons, off the top of my head?
    1. increases the speed of motorized traffic
    2. takes road space away from bikes
    3. increases the noise of motorized traffic
    4. prevents pedestrians and bikers from crossing the street where they want to
    5. visually obstructs drivers from seeing people trying to cross the street
    6. greatly increases maintenance costs.

    we need to stop going so far out of our way to make driving in san francisco easier.

  2. I have to agree with Peter above. Medians are features of highways, not walkable streets (**cough**Cesar Chavez**cough**).

    The rationale that they provide 'pedestrian refuges' is weak. Who finds 'refuge' while stranded in the middle of the street? Far better to get to the other side and move on. Where a street is too wide to walk across, that street should be narrowed and calmed until pedestrians are safe crossing it.

  3. How does a median that narrows lane width increase the speed of traffic? seems like a traffic calming measure to me.

  4. I agree with the first two posters: this is a huge missed opportunity for bicycle lanes on Divisadero, through a road diet. The median should go away, and the street reconfigured with middle LT lanes, 1 lane in each direction, and bike lanes. Bus priority signals and improved bus stops and queue-jump lanes for buses should mitigate any congestion impacts on Muni.

    I was disappointed that Divisadero Street was not included in the bicycle network as part of the current bicycle plan (one of the more important of many omissions in the bicycle network plan that was approved without a single public hearing on the complete draft).

    Consequently, it will be a long time before there are bike lanes on Divisadero Street (and adjacent streets are too steep, too out-of-the-way, and too narrow to ever get bike lanes).

    Practice your vehicular cycling, grandma!

  5. Dave, what other projects were ommited? This is never talked about much.

  6. Anthony, there are several gaps that are simply not addressed. When I pointed this out to them toward the end of the public input process, they added many of them in by drawing big circles on the map and calling them "study areas." But, outside of those areas, some big gaps remain besides Divisadero:

    Stockton St. SB -> Market St.
    Sansome St. NB Market St. -> Embarcadero
    Division Street form 11th to Valencia
    Noe Street from Market to Waller
    Jennings in the Bayview as an alternative to Third
    Mission St. betw Silver and St. Mary's, and St. Mary's
    some streets in the Excelsior as necessary to comply with the plan's goal of a bike network street every half mile
    Diamond Heights, which has no bike network street

    There are others, but these are the most important. Anybody can look at the approved map and think to themselves, "hmmm, if I'm going from here to there, how would I go and should the bike network connect these points?" and conclude our current network has some terrible gaps.

    The SFBC has just announced an effort to throughly build three crosstown routes, which is great, but nobody, to my knowledge, is working on a comprehensive bicycle network that connects every reasonable destination to each other with a high degree of safety. I wish the SFBC would.

  7. And, oh my gosh, in looking at the google map of the bike network just now I made an amazing discovery. Their map actually includes some of the gaps not in the official bike network! Streets that people actually use even though they're not on the official map make it on google's map. What an amazing company!