It’s rare that any project in San Francisco lives up to its rendering. Facades of buildings printed on glossy posters for neighborhood meetings can appear lackluster and cheap in person. The rainbow crosswalks in the Castro are grimy and faded, and the rain gardens on Fell Street and along the Wiggle are filled with trash. But take a trip down the newly-renovated Masonic Avenue, and the renderings drawn years ago appear to have come alive. The freshly-paved road is a rich black, its bike lanes fluorescent green, the median landscaped beautifully with leafy trees and healthy succulents. Two new water and sewer mains were installed under the streets’ surface, and a wide plaza with benches and healthy-looking palm trees sits on the southwest edge of Masonic and Geary.
At a large celebration Tuesday morning, complete with a live band and hot coffee to take the chill off the foggy morning, a slew of politicians and city officials grinned widely as they cut a blue ribbon, officially announcing the project — which has taken around nine years to design, fundraise, and build — complete.
Well, sort of. There’s the pesky little problem of the bike lanes, which, if you don’t remember, were subject to a lengthy and fierce debate for years among Masonic Avenue neighbors, city officials, and people who bike. The plan that was eventually settled on did include bike lanes in place of parking, but aside from the occasional inclined rise, they’re not protected whatsoever from two lanes of vehicles traveling 25 miles per hour.
This obviously remains a sore spot for cyclists. In the 20 minutes it took SF Weekly to walk along Masonic from Fell to Geary, we only spotted two bikers traveling on the avenue — both of which were on their way to the ribbon-cutting event. It mimics a pattern that’s ingrained in our city’s bike culture; for years the avenue was so dangerous that cyclists mostly avoided it altogether. The death of Nils Yannick Linke, 22, who was killed on his bike after being struck by a drunk driver on Masonic in 2010 didn’t help ease the fears.
“We were having close to 20 crashes a year just on Masonic alone,” says SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. Post-renovation, he said that “we have taken what used to be essentially a mini-freeway that was dividing a neighborhood in our city and have replaced it with a beautiful, safe, inviting street that knits together the community, and will make it much much less likely that anyone will be severely hurt let alone killed on this street.”
But even Reiskin acknowledged that “this project is not perfect, and we will continue as we do with every project to evaluate its performance and identify ways to make it even better.”
Chief among cyclists’ concerns is the southbound intersection of Masonic Avenue and Fell Street, where the bike lane becomes staggered to allow cars heading downhill to merge into a right turn lane. On Twitter, many have called it a “suicide lane” — which reeks a little too strongly of victim-blaming, so we’ll go with “collision course” — evidenced in part by this vehicle crash we witnessed a few weeks ago.
“We know that for people biking that are not very confident it can be a stressful spot, so let’s get to work quickly to fix that,” says Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Supervisor Vallie Brown, who has been working with the community to fix Masonic since 2005, almost didn’t attend the ribbon-cutting Tuesday as she does not view the renovation as complete.
“At first I was a little wary that we were going to be celebrating a boulevard that we’re still working on,” she says, before she changed her mind and biked up Masonic to the press event.
“The people who ride Masonic every day during commute times are saying it’s frightful,” Brown tells SF Weekly. “We definitely have more work to do.”
There isn’t a clear timeline or strategy that has been made public to improve Masonic’s bike lanes — yet. But rumors abounded at Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting event that new infrastructure could create a miniature wiggle for southbound cyclists, leading them off Masonic with a right on Hayes, then left on Ashbury to the Panhandle multi-use path.
Regardless of whether this specific tactic is pursued, S.F. has a hefty amount of data from other bike lanes it’s tested across the city, a fact that didn’t go ignored.
“When these designs were first planned in 2007/2008 and in 2010 they were considered revolutionary,” Wiedenmeier says. “It’s now 2018 and we’ve got some other ideas about what makes a great street to walk and bike on.”
But for the sake of everyone who uses Masonic, he stresses, time is of the essence that improvements are made soon.
“As we celebrate a decade of work that brought us here today., we need to remember Yannick and others like him who have died on San Francisco’s streets,” Wiedenmeier says. “If we’re going to achieve Vision Zero, if we’re going to make this city and its avenues a place for people, we don’t have another decade to wait. Let’s finish fixing Masonic and let’s get to work on the rest of the city.”