The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency faces no small task in taking on Sixth Street. It’s a major north-south corridor that terminates in a freeway, with two lanes of traffic in each direction. With the largest collection of single-room-occupancy hotels in the city, it’s also home to hundreds of seniors and disabled residents. The sidewalks are always packed with people, and cars drive too fast — a catastrophic combination. On the two blocks of Sixth Street between Market and Howard, a driver collides with a cyclist or pedestrian every 16 days. Of those, 40 percent result in serious injuries or fatalities.
But when the SFMTA began brainstorming ways to improve safety along the busy street, they went straight to the experts: the residents themselves.
It’s not a small task. The needs are varied, and the population is vulnerable in a number of ways. Forty percent of Sixth Street residents live below the poverty line, and one in three are seniors, mobility-impaired, or both. Half of the street’s residents are people of color, and half don’t speak English as a first language.
“The people being hit by cars in the Tenderloin and SoMa are disproportionately seniors, low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities,” Director of Sustainable Streets Tom McGuire said last year. “Our outreach has specifically been aiming to bring these voices — people who have not typically been involved in the way streets are created in this city — into the space where we make decisions about what our streets look like.”
The result is a comprehensive — although not uncontroversial — redesign of Sixth Street that is drastically different from prior iterations. Last October, it cleared a major hurdle and won approval by the SFMTA Board.
Chief among the expected changes is the removal of one of the two southbound lanes between Market and Howard. So-called road diets are proven to reduce vehicle collisions by as much as 29 percent, as people tend to drive faster on wider roads, and slower on narrow ones.
People who drive up and down Sixth Street regularly may be surprised by this approach. Vehicle traffic on the corridor can already be heavy, though McGuire predicted that the flow would calm down once Central Subway construction wraps up on Fourth Street, just as it recently did on Stockton Street.
Street planners believe the loss of a traffic lane will be worth the benefits of wider sidewalks. Transportation Planner Shayda Haghgoo, who said she went door-to-door talking to residents and businesses more than five times in 2017 and 2018, claimed at October’s SFMTA Board meeting that sidewalks were a major livability issue for residents.
“Sidewalks serve as a respite from the limited living space available at SROs, where hundreds of Sixth Street residents live,” she explained. “While some of the people you see along Sixth Street are experiencing homelessness, they are still a part of the Sixth Street and San Francisco communities. Widening the sidewalk will continue to provide sidewalk access to these residents and will also allow a clear path of travel for pedestrians.”
Wider sidewalks will also accommodate improved pedestrian lighting, which was another major request.
“SRO tenant leaders told me it is clear their community comes second to cars when lampposts on sidewalks are directed away from pedestrians and toward the street,” Haghgoo said.
Additional improvements, which will be incorporated into the new, wider sidewalks, will include curb ramps, corner bulb-outs to reduce crossing times, new traffic lights, and walk-signal timing upgrades to better serve differently abled people who may need more time to get from one side of the street to the other.
The most notable omission in this plan, however, is a bike lane. When SF Weekly last wrote about the project in 2017, it was with cautious optimism that a bike lane would be included in each direction. That was a surprise — to everyone.
“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,” a San Francisco Bicycle Coalition spokesperson told us at the time.
Apparently, the SFMTA thought so, too. The bike lanes have been scratched — but they weren’t protected, anyway.
In all, 25 safety improvements have taken place on Sixth Street since 2007, including the installation of traffic signals at Minna, painted buffer zones at Howard, and speed-limit signs both posted and painted on the sidewalk to slow people down. While they’re valiant short-term efforts, the thoroughfare remains a black mark on the city’s goal of getting to zero traffic-related fatalities by 2024.
But even more than that, the Sixth Street Pedestrian Safety Project is perhaps the biggest gift in recent history the city will have given the corridor — which, due to its unfortunate reputation as a dangerous street filled with drug dealers, has been left behind. Funding for safe streets, beautification efforts, and plazas often get allocated to wealthier neighborhoods.
And while business owners didn’t unanimously support the changes, the SFMTA chose in this instance to prioritize those who are most at risk.
“The decisions were difficult, but the tradeoff is that this proposal prioritizes pedestrian safety, something that needs to drastically improve on Sixth Street,” Haghgoo said.
That said, change won’t come fast: Despite being in the works since 2007, ground isn’t expected to break on the Pedestrian Safety Project until spring of next year.
Find more stories from our March 21 cover story on Sixth Street below:
Sixth Street: S.F.’s Innercity Home The city’s singular thoroughfare is alive at all hours — and much longer and more varied than you might think.
Planning Department Allows a New Building to Shadow This SoMa Park SoMa youth have just a few places — like Victoria Manolo Draves Park on Folsom Street — to run free in as it is.
Bini’s Kitchen: Mo’ Momos, No Problems La Cocina alum Binitha Pradhan is poised to open her largest restaurant yet on Sixth Street, across the street from a Nepalese SRO she didn’t even know existed.
That Lucky Bite, at Falafelland on Sixth Street The determined husband-and-wife team behind six-week-old Yemeni restaurant stake a claim to a difficult corner of San Francisco.