Inching Toward a Better Sixth Street

Wider sidewalks, improved crosswalks, and a serious "road diet" are in the works for an unloved thoroughfare.

Two years ago this month, early on an August morning, an elderly man stepped off the curb to cross Sixth Street — just as a man driving a Porsche flew around the corner from Market Street.

“He just fell underneath the car,” witness Sarah Graf told the Examiner at the scene. “The guy was like right under his car. His head was almost near the tire.”

The victim suffered critical injuries in the collision, and he was taken to the hospital. The incident was logged with the San Francisco Police Department as more evidence that Sixth Street is a “high-injury corridor” — one of the 12 percent of city streets where 70 percent of severe and fatal traffic collisions occur.

From 2005 to 2010, 355 collisions were recorded on Sixth between Market and Brannan streets — 84 of which involved pedestrians. Five people were killed. Since that data was collected, 12 stories of WeWork coworking offices opened on Sixth and Market, 65 apartments were created at the nearby Wilson, and construction continues on 67 new units of housing at Sixth and Howard streets.

Sixth Street only grows more congested as the building boom continues, but the street itself hasn’t undergone a renovation in decades. Four lanes of auto traffic navigate the faded paint lines, frequently approaching gridlock during rush-hour. East-west alleys are hidden behind parked cars. And the narrow sidewalks are frequently impassable, as residents from the many single-room occupancy hotels that sit along Sixth convene to socialize. Between Market and Folsom there are at least a dozen SROs, ranging in size from the 204-unit Seneca Hotel on the corner of Stevenson Alley, to the smaller 18-unit Knox on Sixth and Tehama streets. With few to no common areas in their buildings, residents often pull chairs and barbecues onto the sidewalks.

As for bicycle infrastructure, there simply isn’t any.

From a safety standpoint, the situation is dire. But the SFMTA has been developing a plan — albeit slowly. In 2013, it softly launched the Sixth Street Pedestrian Safety Project, inviting the community to provide input on what changes need to be made. Four years later, no ground has been broken, but the plans are finally picking up speed.

Central to the plan is a “road diet,” which would cut the four vehicular lanes from Market to Folsom down to two — a plan that would limit how many cars could travel down the street, but doesn’t necessarily take commuters heading to or from the freeway into consideration. Sidewalks on this stretch will be widened to better accommodate foot traffic, and corner bulb-outs constructed to shorten intersections for pedestrians. New traffic signals would be installed to “encourage slow, calm, and predictable movement,” as the SFMTA’s proposal puts it. Down the street, the three blocks that run between Folsom and Brannan will see tow away lanes replaced with full-time parking.

Proposed changes to Sixth Street. (Courtesy of SFMTA)

Design improvements such as landscaping, better lighting, and seating are also being considered. For the pedestrian-advocacy group Walk San Francisco, the plan is off to a good start.

“From what we see of the proposed Sixth Street design so far, we are very happy with the city’s design,” says Executive Director Cathy DeLuca. “They are widening the sidewalk on both sides of the street, putting bulbs on most corners in the core area (which is rare!), reducing vehicle traffic lanes in half, and making sure crossing at alleys across Sixth Street are safe. These are all the types of treatments that have been proven to reduce crashes, so we’re thrilled to see a comprehensive corridor design like this that will truly save lives.”

While the project’s goal is to better serve pedestrians in the area, the redesign also keeps cyclists in mind. Early renderings of the street include two proposals for painted bike lanes running in each direction — one with a painted buffer separating it from moving traffic, and one without.

Chris Cassidy, spokesperson for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, is cautiously optimistic about the renderings.

“It’s fairly unusual to see bike improvements added to a safety project for people walking on a street that’s not on the SFMTA’s official bike network,” he says. “So while these bike lanes won’t match the comfort of the physically protected lanes on Seventh and Eighth streets, this is definitely a welcome improvement for people biking.”

With pedestrian and cyclist-advocacy groups on board, the proposed plans appear to be headed in the right direction. But change will not be coming anytime soon: While the SFMTA hopes to have its directors approve the plan before the end of the year, construction wouldn’t begin until 2019. With significant data to back up how dangerous Sixth Street is, it’s a shame that it will take more than six years from start to finish to get safety improvements off the ground.

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