Boulevard Rising from Freeway's Dust

SFBC working to ensure that new Octavia design works for bikes

This April the sun shone on the intersection of Market and Octavia Streets for the first time in 44 years as the Central Freeway came crashing down in a spectacular shower of concrete and rebar. With Mother Nature's tectonic movements having forced the people of San Francisco to reconsider one of the most wrongheaded planning follies of the 20th century-ramming elevated freeways through our neighborhoods-the voter-approved plan to instead build a more sensible and graceful tree-lined Central Freeway  at  Market St.surface boulevard along Octavia will soon be realized. Demolition of the freeway structure (Mission to Fell) will be completed by August, construction of Octavia Boulevard (Market to Fell) completed by early 2005, and construction of the new freeway touchdown (Mission to Market) by early 2006.

This project will transform this area of the city, especially Hayes Valley, offering new opportunities to re-stitch the neighborhood with new mixed-use housing (much of it car-free) along the Boulevard, new open spaces on McCoppin Street and Octavia, and extensive neighborhood traffic calming. The San Francisco Planning Department has released a comprehensive neighborhood plan for the areas surrounding the Boulevard (see Market & Octavia Better Neighborhoods Plan below).

The Boulevard Octavia St. The Octavia project will introduce essentially a new type of street to San Francisco-the multi-tiered urban boulevard. Designed by UC Berkeley urban design professor and former SF Planning Director Allan Jacobs, along with fellow professor Elizabeth Macdonald, Octavia Boulevard will move cross-town traffic efficiently in its center while preserving a high quality of life and slower pace along its edges. Essentially, this is how it works: Through-traffic (generally traffic headed to and from the freeway) will stay in the center lanes. Narrower side roads (or living streets) designed for slow speeds and local traffic are separated from the center traffic zone by wide medians with closely planted street trees, lighting, and other public amenities.

So how do bicycles fit into the picture? That was the question that was asked at the first meeting of the Octavia Bicycle Working Group, an ad hoc committee composed of allied organizations, neighborhood groups, and city agencies that the SFBC convened in order to resolve outstanding issues with the Boulevard design. No dedicated bike paths or marked bike lanes will be included in the design of the Boulevard itself because the side roads, which Jacobs refers to as the "pedestrian realm" will be quiet, calmed, and have low traffic volumes-hopefully an ideal environment for bicycles. While the center "through-traffic zone" will be controlled with traffic lights, the side roads will feature stop signs at the end of every block to discourage non-local auto traffic and keep speeds down.

The Boulevard (based on others found in Barcelona, Paris, and many other world-class cities) has challenged the thinking of the SFBC in terms of traffic treatments. Right turns will be allowed from the center traffic-light-controlled lanes of the Boulevard onto perpendicular cross streets, meaning that through-going cyclists on the stop-sign controlled side roads will have to watch for right-turning cars (and vice versa) before continuing straight. Traffic engineers shudder at the thought of these increased "conflict points." However, research has shown that these sorts of slower speed "negotiated" traffic situations force greater alertness and awareness amongst all parties and are no more unsafe than the standard traffic model where everyone operates mindlessly on cruise control until something catastrophic happens. After considering all the options and the research, and consulting with traffic engineers familiar with this design in other cities (such as Chico), the SFBC is more comfortable with the concept and will be watching closely to see what happens once the Boulevard opens.

Valencia connections McCoppin Street will no longer connect the Market/Octavia intersection with Valencia Street because the freeway will touch down right across it on the south side of Market Street. However, a direct bicycle connection will be created via a short bike path on the east side of the freeway ramp that will connect the stub end of McCoppin to Market Street. Cyclists heading northbound on Valencia wishing to connect to Octavia will make a left turn onto McCoppin (hopefully using a bike-only left turn lane on Valencia) and then use the bike path to get to Market Street. The SFBC is concerned with the right turns that will be permitted from the freeway onto Market Street, and we are working with the Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT) to request that the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which is in charge of the project, provide a dedicated bike-ped traffic signal phase that briefly prohibits right turns onto Market. So that these northbound cyclists don't need to cross the Market Street sidewalk on the north side and aren't forced to merge with exiting freeway traffic, the sidewalk on the northeast corner of Market and Octavia will be pared back to create a very short buffered bike lane allowing smooth transition for cyclists to the northbound Boulevard living street.

Cyclists heading southbound on Octavia will have two options for connecting to Valencia from the southbound Boulevard side road. The simplest maneuver will be to merge through a traffic island into the center realm using a special bicycle cut-through-per SFBC request-cross Market St., proceed down quiet Elgin Park, turn left on Duboce and cruise downhill to turn right on Valencia. Alternatively, a cyclist could do the zig-zag maneuver using the crosswalks of Octavia/Market to connect to the previously mentioned McCoppin bike path. Because this will be a complex and busy intersection, it is a perfect candidate for colored bike lanes, which we are requesting that the DPT install here.

Issues resolved and pending Initial DPT plans included allowing cars to turn right from Market Street onto the new freeway ramp, which would have required cutting back the sidewalk several feet to create a right turn lane. The SFBC and others vociferously opposed this plan, as it would have created a horrendous condition of cars veering across the Market Street bike lane right as a steady stream of cyclists are coming downhill with significant momentum. (Not to mention that this would basically be encouraging Market Street to become a congested freeway on-ramp). In order to prevent motorists from trying to turn right onto the freeway (aside from signage), a small raised median will be created between the eastbound bike lane and the auto lane for a short distance approaching the freeway.

Initial traffic control plans for the Boulevard from DPT also included a forced right turn from the northbound side road onto Oak Street. This obviously would be a big inconvenience for cyclists and would diminish the usefulness of Octavia as a bike route, and after further discussions DPT has agreed to eliminate the forced right. The biggest challenge has been to overcome the standard 1950s engineering mindset of treating the street system like a funnel for auto traffic and get everyone to think about the Boulevard more like a sieve that lets the street grid do what it does best-disperse traffic lightly over the whole network. This is the benefit of the boulevard (over the freeway model), and we are advocating for DPT to go further with the sieve concept and turn Fell and Oak back to two-way streets east of Octavia in addition to other like-minded changes that are more ambitious (see Is Market St. the Best Place for a Freeway Off-Ramp below).

Ultimately, we expect Octavia Boulevard to be a huge success, as was the Embarcadero after the freeway came down. The growing pains of the design process will all be worth it when a beautiful new Boulevard is born.

By Josh Switzky

If you have questions or comments about bikes and the Octavia Boulevard project, please contact Josh Hart with the SFBC at joshua@sfbike.org. The city's official website for the whole project is www.octaviacentral.org.

Is Market St. the Best Place for a Freeway Off-Ramp?
Bringing the Central Freeway down to Market Street is not the best solution. Ideally, almost the entire Central Freeway structure should be demolished back to Bryant Street, and be replaced with an extension of Octavia Boulevard along what is now Division Street. This solution would create a superior bike route and a much more inviting physical environment along this whole corridor, and allow a significant portion of the traffic to disperse along side streets well before it gets to Market Street. This idea is forwarded in the Planning Department's Market & Octavia plan, and, as of press time, there has been discussion of putting a measure on the ballot to make this concept a reality. Why rebuild what has largely been considered a mistake? Write to your supervisors and let them know that you support converting more of the Central Freeway to a boulevard as well.

Market & Octavia Better Neighborhoods Plan
The Planning Department has released a public review draft of a comprehensive neighborhood plan for the areas within a several block radius of Octavia Boulevard, roughly from Van Ness to Church Street. It contains many great recommendations to really improve the area as a transit-, pedestrian-, and bike-oriented mixed-use neighborhood, including a dedicated bus-way along Van Ness and eliminating minimum parking requirements for new residential development in this transit intensive area. These ideas need your support to be adopted. Check out the plan at www.betterneighborhoods.org and send in your comments.

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