Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Man for Masonic: James Shahamiri, New Project Manager for Troubled Corridor

Photo: James Shahamiri

Image: SF Planning Department

James Shahamiri, a civil engineer, thought he’d be designing buildings or bridges by now. Instead, he found his “true passion” lies with transportation. He credits a remarkable internship with the City of Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program for the discovery a few years ago. Shahamiri has been a transportation engineer with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) for three years where he has worked on several projects, including his favorite, the re-design of 7th Avenue and Laguna Honda Blvd.

I remember riding that route every weekend back in my youth. Coming back and improving those streets for bikes was pretty cool, and definitely something I never would have thought I’d have a hand in when I was younger.
Bicyclists and motorists who use the western end of Fell street ride through one of Shahamiri’s other projects, the partial re-design of traffic and bike lanes between Scott and Divisadero and along the ARCO station. In the midst of much contention over parking removal, global oil politics, and the right to safe travel, he helped SFMTA install what no one, including himself, considers perfect, but most have come to agree is a decided improvement. Shahamiri is completing work now on the new bicycle lanes on Phelan Avenue by City College. Although he’s been enjoying his new bicycle, Shahamiri is not a bike-only guy. He relies mostly on Muni to get around the city and sometimes skips the bus to walk instead.

Earlier this month Shahamiri became manager for the Masonic Streetscape Project following the retirement of Javad Mirabdal who led the community design process for Masonic through a successful public hearing. The following excerpts are from his first interview since taking the new position.

You’ve been involved with the re-design of Masonic for some time, including work with the grassroots group Fix Masonic.
My role during the initial Fix Masonic meetings, going back to 2008, was to provide input and support for the community at the early planning stages for a larger project that eventually became the Masonic Streetscape project.

Last year you helped develop different options for a re-design of Masonic. How did the Boulevard plan with removal of all on-street parking become one of the alternatives?
The Boulevard option became one of the four possibilities based on community feedback we received during the first Masonic Streetscape meetings. People really wanted a new look and feel for Masonic, something to transform it from the urban freeway it is today into not only a safer place to walk, bike, or drive, but also a more pleasant place to be.

Were you surprised that there was little organized opposition to the Boulevard proposal leading up to the public hearing in May?
To be honest, yes, it was a bit of a surprise. In a city like San Francisco, parking is a difficult thing to remove. The Boulevard option was a bold proposal, but the community has been asking for dramatic improvements to Masonic for many years now. Through the community process, I think everyone understood that in terms of priorities, parking was toward the bottom of the list.

The Masonic study was a collaborative effort among city departments that historically have not worked together closely. Is a new norm developing for how to tackle large re-design projects?
Interdepartmental collaboration is becoming the norm. Having a design team composed of members of various city agencies really helps the city deliver the best possible project. Each agency brings their experience and expertise to the table. This enables the design team to consider ideas and solutions that might not have been apparent if each agency worked in isolation.

After the public hearing last month, project staff said 4-6 months would likely pass before the SFMTA Board of Directors would consider the Masonic plan. Why such a long time to get this legislated?
Because this is a full streetscape project and not simply a restriping of the roadway, environmental review needs to consider many items. Aside from the traffic analysis, things like air quality, noise and construction impacts also need review.

But the bicycle and traffic design changes were covered in the environmental review that preceded the lifting of the bicycle injunction. Why additional review now and who is conducting it?
The options for Masonic that were analyzed and cleared in the Bicycle Plan review are not identical to what the Boulevard option proposes. Because there are differences, further analysis is needed. … The environmental review is being conducted by the Planning Department.

What has to happen before design changes appear on the street?
After the project is environmentally cleared, it will go to the SFMTA board for the legislative approval necessary for the parking and traffic changes needed for the project. Once this approval is received, detailed designs and construction can begin.

Are you and the SFMTA staff seeking funding now before the project has been approved?
Yes, SFMTA is seeking funding for both detailed design and construction through several sources right now.

Others interested in the Masonic project suggest that an initial phase could involve the landscaped median, removal of parking, and bike lanes striped but without a cycle track treatment or the bus bulb-outs and sidewalk landscaping.
We’re assessing our implementation strategy. It really depends on how the funding works out. The complete build-out of the Boulevard proposal will cost about $18 million, which could be challenging to secure all at once. That said, we’re trying to get the project built as quickly as possible.

Waiting two years or more for actual changes on the street frustrates everyone who feels the street remains unsafe. What more will be done by the SFMTA to improve safety in the meantime?
I think we’ve done a good job implementing measures on Masonic to increase compliance with existing traffic laws and regulations. We’ve heard many great ideas from the community, and we’ve implemented most of them. We’ve lowered the speed limit to 25 MPH, installed radar speed signs, re-striped the lane lines and added “25 MPH” markings, and re-timed the traffic signals for 25 MPH progression. In the near term, we’ll also be upgrading several traffic lights to add pedestrian signals and improved signal visibility for motorists.

I won’t say there’s nothing else we can do, but there aren’t many more low-cost improvements to be made. The next step is really the re-design of the roadway itself, to make it self-enforcing in terms of user behavior. That’s the track we’re on now.

In your experience as a traffic engineer, how much enforcement – and how frequently scheduled – is needed to stop the speeding on Masonic?
I really can’t speak for SFPD. I know they have stepped up their enforcement of Masonic Avenue in the past year.

I’m a big fan of the “three E’s”: Engineering, Education, and Enforcement. Without all three, it’s difficult to change people’s behavior. Streets need to be designed for the expected behaviors, users need to be educated on how to use the street, and lastly, the expected behavior needs to be enforced. If one or more of these steps is missing, it’s tough to get to the goal of safe, inviting streets for all.

Masonic area neighbors and livability advocates want to help push the project forward. How do you see them helping?
I’ll start by saying that the Masonic Streetscape project is a direct result of the efforts by community members and livability advocates. Without all their hard work and pressure, Masonic would not be the priority it is today.

There is still a lot of work to be done before the project goes on the ground. The community and advocates need to keep doing what they’ve been doing: maintaining a collaborative, unified vision of how they want Masonic to look and feel. It’s this community-driven vision that’s ultimately moving this project forward.

For other stories in the A Better Masonic series, check here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Families For A More Livable City: Pedal Power Projects & Bike DIY

Reptilian projects await...and pedal-powered ice cream too
Photo: The Ecology Center of San Francisco

One more family outing in the city this weekend: The Ecology Center of San Francisco (ECOSF) hosts a free monthly event called Bakers Alley at its School Farm site to learn and trade ideas about sustainable living skills and urban farming.

Kids -- and parents too -- gather for a community potluck and bake pizzas in an earthen oven this Saturday while they talk about bikes and bicycling in the Bay Area. Group leaders will demonstrate DIY bike repair and encourage folks to consider their bike's potential as a pedal power machine. The larger context is ECOSF's commitment to work with groups and organizations that seek more a livable (bikeable and walkable) urban infrastructure for San Francicsco. Who doesn't want to know how to make smoothies and ice cream while pedaling a bike?

ECO-SF's Bakers Alley: Bike Maintenance & Pedal Power
Saturday, June 25, 11 am to 5pm
@ The School Farm, 555 Portola Dr, San Francisco
Enter campus via O'Shaugnessy Blvd & Portola
"And more location details from ECO-SF:
Next to the athletic field at the School of the Arts and the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Close to 36, 44, 48, and 52 Muni lines. From the parking area on O'Shaughnessy, walk down the hill to the right towards the athletic field. Limited parking is available further down driveway at loading dock, just keep driveway clear and please do not park on the grass. We'll be on the farm the behind the bleachers across the field."

Info: Davin, (415) 846-8164

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sweet Sailing Through The City

Mission Bicycle Company from 4SP Films on Vimeo.

I meant to post this film from Mission Bicycle Company months ago. When I ran into Jefferson McCarley, Mission Bike store manager, last week at The Summit in the Mission, I remembered how much the film expresses the sheer joy of bicycling. Jefferson tells his own bicycling story so well that his enthusiasm and appreciation make Connecting the City a no-brainer. I first met Jefferson at a SF Bicycle Coalition event a few years ago when I was a new member, and I thought this is a very cool organization to have someone like him as a really active member.

This short documentary about "self-expression and freedom on two wheels" is partly about a great bike shop in the Mission, not in NOPA, that I like to visit. But it also tells the story of two cyclists and what being on two wheels means to them. There are clips of biking in the Panhandle and NOPA so there's the neighborhood connection (if you're wondering). These are beautiful bikes, some hand-crafted with take-notice colors. Check out the one cyclist Jake Swartz built at Mission Bike.

"As long as I'm riding my bike and at least I have that one moment by myself...there's just me sailing through the city." I'm there.

Photo: Mission Bicycle Company

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

NOPA Streets: Baker Bike Lanes Re-striped, SFMTA Beats Its Own Schedule

Every other block re-striped following recent re-paving

Baker to the south, ready to complete the lane striping

Less than a week ago the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) said crews could not re-stripe the traffic and bike lanes on Baker between Fell and Turk for several weeks, sometime in July. But today three blocks of traffic lanes have their bright white stripes and the bike icons and markings have a fresh coat of thermoplasty -- although a few areas of the bike lanes await their turn. Thanks to Damon Curtis of SFMTA for coordinating the bike lane striping and the paint crews. They always seem to love being out on the street striping bike lanes. Be sure to say hello where ever you see them.

The smooth and striped blocks are primed to host thousands of neighbors and visitors on foot and wheels when Sunday Streets returns to NOPA on September 11th.

Note: Yes, blatant and intentional product placement in the photos.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

NOPA Streets: Baker Lanes to be Re-striped in July

A few Baker blocks were re-striped following re- paving in April

SFMTA crews will re-stripe three blocks of Baker street sometime in July once two large bike plan projects elsewhere in the city have been completed. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition confirmed via Twitter yesterday that the city will complete the Baker job after the Phelan Avenue and Illinois Street bike lane projects have been striped. NOPA residents and commuters have asked about the delay between paving and striping on Baker since several weeks have passed since the new asphalt was applied.

The three blocks left to re-stripe are Fell to Hayes, Grove to McAllister, and Golden Gate to Turk. Also, Grove between Baker and Lyon will get similar treatment following the recent much-needed repair and re-paving completed there.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“Urban Acupuncture” Prescribed for Fell & Oak; SFMTA Anticipates New Bikeway Trial by Summer 2012

This block between Scott and Divisadero would be one of three on Fell to get a separated bikeway

City traffic engineers expect to implement new, separated bike lanes along three blocks of Fell and Oak streets as a trial that could begin as early as spring 2012. Although the final aspects of the proposal await community input and public review, financing with Prop K funds for the planning and design phase is expected to be approved by July. The street re-design will likely involve removal of on-street parking or removal of a travel lane for the three blocks of Fell and Oak between Scott and Baker. City planners believe an upgraded treatment along the stretch is necessary as an essential link between the Wiggle bike route on the east end to the Panhandle path starting at Baker. The discussion occurred this morning during a meeting of the Policy and Governance Committee of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board of Directors.

Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the Board of Directors, introduced the new bikeways discussion with an answer to what she sometimes hears from residents, “Why Fell and Oak?" “If you’re a cyclist, you know exactly why Fell and Oak,” Brinkman said. “It’s the flattest, most direct connection. It’s vital for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers.”

The SFMTA Board has already made it clear that Fell and Oak should be a priority and has directed staff to develop a plan and a design to implement the change. Bond Yee, SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director, told the committee (chair Jerry Lee, Bruce Oka and Brinkman) that he expected a decision in late June or early July to move forward. He expects a final design in “a little over a year.”

Mike Sallaberry, SFMTA Sustainable Streets Division Planner, explained that the agency expects to propose a trial design once extensive community outreach has been concluded. “Substantial buy-in from the public is critical,” he said. Brinkman added that the trial phase will be an opportunity to assess any public fallout over the plan. Sallaberry said that to date it is not clear whether the public prefers removing a parking lane or a travel lane. But he said he was encouraged by the public response so far. “There’s a proactive feeling about this project. No one has said ‘no way.’” During the trial phase, staff would complete an environmental review of the project.

Following the committee meeting, Mike Sallaberry spoke with BIKE NOPA in more detail about the project. He suggested opening this segment of the Fell/Oak couplet to more street users was like “urban acupuncture” that would improve the flow of traffic in this part of the city. He also touched on other aspects of the design options:

  • If the project stays on schedule, the permanent installation of the separated bikeways could begin in November of 2012
  • The bike route would likely remain on the south side of Fell street, but placement on Oak remains uncertain with benefits and obstacles on both the north and south side
  • A two-way bi-directional lane is a possibility for just one of the two streets
  • SFMTA will wait to secure funding for the implementation before beginning its outreach to the affected communities
  • Although several neighbors have expressed interest in a bikeway all the way from Scott to Stanyan, the SFMTA believes the better strategy is to implement the shorter segment first. “If we did the whole length now, it would delay the whole project,” Sallaberry explained. “We want to expedite the gap now.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

NOPA Streets: Bike Sharrows for McAllister

Sharing the road westbound on McAllister before the hill

Sharrows in the westbound lane to Baker

McAllister is the most recent street to get bike sharrows, the shared lane markings that remind motorists to accommodate cyclists who are also using the street. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) stenciled the sharrows last week on much of the westbound lane from Market to Baker streets. Presumably the markings will be extended the full length of the McAllister bike lane to Masonic, including the eastbound lane.* The street additions are part of the extensive bicycle safety efforts by SFMTA that has included miles of sharrows and striping of new bike lanes across the city.

McAllister is the preferred route for many cyclists traveling to the Civic Center and Market street from NOPA. (Others slalom down Golden Gate from Broderick, an efficient thrill ride now more risky with the uneven pavement west of Divisadero). Although Muni management has fretted about bicyclists slowing buses on McAllister, cyclists are often the ones trying to get around slow-going buses. In 2009 McAllister was one of the proposed routes for a new striped bike lane, but the project was put on hold awaiting a better design and strategy for creating bike space. For now the new sharrows provide visual cues to drivers and encourage cyclists to take the lane when necessary to avoid the door zone.

* UPDATE: Or not. Seems McAllister is a bike route only in the westbound direction due perhaps to its one-way orientation from Market to the Civic Center. Whether this makes much sense, especially with "inner McAllister" soon to switch to two-way traffic, is another question.