SFFD and the SFMTA Compromise on Bike Safety

A long-delayed yet vital project on upper Market Street has now been altered, aggravating advocacy groups and cyclists.

The wind raced up Market Street on Monday night, blowing trash along sidewalk gutters and buffeting cyclists who pedaled west, uphill. But once the daily bike commuters hit the red light at Octavia Boulevard, heads down as they fought the breeze, they could see a bright yellow glow awaiting them ahead.

“There’s a people-protected bike lane right up ahead for you, because you deserve to be safe in this city,” said organizer and safe streets activist Maureen Persico, dressed in a yellow T-shirt with a green glow stick around her neck, raising her voice against the wind. “Can you come join us, for even for 10 minutes?”

“Us” was a group of 70 people, who stood with their backs to the wind in the middle of one of the most dangerous stretches of road in San Francisco. They were there to show support for protected bike lanes, and for a previously approved plan to shift parking from the curb to the middle of the street, creating a protective buffer between cyclists and vehicular traffic.

It’s terrifying,” Sacha Ielmorini said as she stood inches from speeding cars. But the response from passing motorists has not been all bad. “There was an Uber waving in support and beeping his horn. It looked like he was supporting us. I’ve only seen two or three road ragers slamming on the gas and getting in the other lane, but for the most part everyone’s been really nice.”  

This guerrilla form of human street infrastructure has been remarkably effective in the past. After two of the events were held on Valencia Street, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority approved $145,000 for the Valencia Street Bikeway Implementation Plan, a study that will examine the best methods for installing protected bike lanes on Valencia.

Upper Market Street, however, is far beyond that initial study stage. In May, the SFMTA board unanimously approved the Upper Market Street Safety Project, which included protected bike lanes on three busy commuter blocks on Market Street, between Octavia Boulevard and Duboce Avenue.

In July, notorious City Hall gadfly David Pilpel appealed the decision, stating that it needed to undergo environmental review. The issue landed on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda, and they voted to uphold the project without further review.

The money was budgeted, the plan approved. So why, five months later, has construction yet to break ground?

The issue is one that we all thought was resolved: The Fire Department has a problem with the plan. From the get-go, it has argued that the reconfiguration of Market Street to create protected bike lanes would interfere with ladder trucks in an emergency.

“The design materially compromises the safety of firefighters and local residents,” Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White wrote in a letter to the SFMTA earlier this year.

The main issue centers around the distance ladder trucks will be from buildings, if parking-protected bike lanes are installed. The width of the street, combined with Muni’s overhead wires, will make it trickier for firefighters to rescue people, and adds in the threat of electrical shocks, SFFD claims.

Matt Brezina, one of the organizers of the People Protected Bike Lanes, lives on upper Market Street, and has found some data to contradict Hayes-White’s statement. Between 2011 and 2016, 53 percent of the Fire Department’s dispatches to Upper Market were in response to traffic collisions, and only 2 percent for fires. In theory, protected bike lanes would make streets safer, lessening the number of calls SFFD will have to respond to.

“This is all part of a much larger trend where fire incidents have decreased dramatically,” Brezina says, referencing a New York Times article that claimed — despite being one of the busiest fire departments in the nation — only 1.5 percent of all runs made by San Francisco firefighters in 2014 involved actual fires. Instead, the article states, the majority of runs are made in response to traffic collisions and issues of homelessness.

But the fear of fire still runs deep in San Francisco, and the Fire Department has a hefty amount of sway. In the five months since the Board of Supervisors rejected the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) appeal, a behind-the-scenes battle has been underway between the SFFD and the SFMTA, spurring a redesign of a plan that took years of public comment and several departments to approve. Early renderings, said to be sketched in pen, show a bike lane that remains curbside, but which is protected not by parked cars, but soft-hit bollards. All parking along the three blocks will be removed, and a loading zone will be placed in between moving car traffic and the bike lane.

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin attempted to justify the changes to the SFMTA Board on Tuesday, claiming that he was simply doing what they had recommended — work with the Fire Department on the design. The new plan, he claims, “will largely keep the integrity of project intact.”

But the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is not happy.

“With incomplete drawings of the design and insufficient time to review, we have remaining questions about the design and the lack of physical protection,” said Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier. “Given what we know, we would not consider this new design a protected bike lane.”

A spokesperson from the SFMTA told SF Weekly the project breaks ground in January, but that timeline suddenly seems optimistic. With the removal of parking spaces on Market, the SFMTA has opened the plan up to the possibility of environmental review, and the ire of local merchants and residents — all of which could delay this safety project even further.

For those who stood outside in the freezing wind on Monday night, however, this is not a situation that deserves a compromise, or any further delays.

“I ride my bike in the city every day, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die being hit by an Uber, in a place just like this,” Joel Kraut, a volunteer at the People Protected Bike Lane, told SF Weekly. “I’m trying to do what I can. I think protected bike lanes are a solution. They’re the most viable solution in the city right now.”

And looking ahead, the battle between safe streets and the Fire Department doesn’t appear to be closer to a resolution. When asked if this redesign will be applied to other areas where issues of parking-protected bike lanes and overhead wires are bringing the two departments in conflict, Reiskin said there is no sweeping plan to remedy the issue.

“It will be very much case-by-case,” he said. “The geometry of each street is different.”

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