Hairball’s New ‘Do

New bike lanes for the Hairball get fast-track approval, despite an appeal from a group historically opposed to bike transit improvements.

People move through a homeless encampment lining the sides of the Cesar Chavez Bike Bridge, often referred to as the “Hairball,” June 30, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

San Francisco bike routes often have cute nicknames like “the Wiggle,” “Rabbit Hole,” or “Butterlap.” But one bike route lives up to its derogatory nickname: The “Hairball” is a nightmarish entanglement of I-280 and U.S. 101 freeway ramps, pedestrian bridges, and bicycle paths that is notorious for attracting homeless encampments and shopping carts. This bleak concrete jungle at Cesar Chavez Street and Bayshore Boulevard may be the most joyless place in San Francisco.  

“The Hairball drives me crazy. It literally drives me crazy, this part of my district,” said Sup. Hillary Ronen, whose District 9 shares the Hairball with Sup. Malia Cohen’s District 10. “It is incredibly poorly designed. It reflects an era when freeway construction sliced through urban neighborhoods, creating isolated spaces and confusing routes. It’s a mess. It’s dangerous.”

But the Hairball is about to become a little less dangerous — for bicyclists, at least. At a Nov. 28 meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted to speed up the addition of new bike lanes and crosswalks, which should make the area a little less terrifying for pedestrians and bicyclists.

And unlike the rest of the city, where such infrastructure can take years from start to finish, the new bike lanes and crosswalks will come fairly quickly thanks to a unanimous board vote to exempt the Hairball improvements from an environmental review. “These are very minor changes that are consistent with a categorical exemption,” Ronen said before the vote, emphasizing that this project would only involve painted-lane modifications and soft, safe-hit posts.

But in San Francisco, no one puts down paint or traffic markers without a political fight. The board faced an appeal from an advocacy group called the Coalition for Adequate Review, who argued that the Hairball improvements are being split up into pieces to sneak some of its components through without public disclosure or due process.

That coalition did not show up at the board meeting to defend their appeal. But SF Weekly has obtained a copy, which blames the city’s Municipal Transit Agency (MTA) and bike activists for the Hairball’s sorry state.

“The dangerous mess on Cesar Chavez was created by and for the MTA and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a private lobbying organization,” the coalition’s attorney, Mary Miles, says in the appeal. “MTA now regurgitates that mess as the ‘Hairball Intersection Improvement Project,’ illegally segmenting that Project and its environmental review into at least 15 pieces to avoid describing the whole Hairball Project.”

The appellants are obviously not big fans of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Back in 2006, the Coalition for Adequate Review filed a lawsuit that held up the installation of 34 miles worth of bike lanes in the city. The dueling coalitions often blasted one another publicly in the media during that delay.

The appeal filing also stokes conflict between the bike community and the homeless population, who have been at odds over tents and carts blocking the Hairball’s bike paths.

The new bike lanes “will also cause indirect impacts by displacing marginal residents who live in parked vehicles and in homeless camps on the streets, so that a small number of bicyclists can claim exclusive use of those streets,” the appeal argues.

But the board overruled the appeal, and the new bike lanes are on their way to Jerrold, Barneveld, and Bayshore avenues. Barring any other issues, construction is expected to begin in early 2018.

And Ronen has spoken of grander plans to redo the Hairball — even putting parts of I-280 and U.S. 101 underground. She’s proposed a 25-year redesign that she says would “reconnect the three neighborhoods of my district that are divided by this tangled surface and overhead freeways.”

It’s questionable whether billion-dollar project of that magnitude could clear City Hall and get built even within our lifetimes. But with some new lanes and safety upgrades, the lifetimes of bikers and pedestrians who use the dangerous Hairball intersection could last a little longer.

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