Change in plans

CA San Francisco Bus stop on Cesar Chavez credit Aaron Bialick Streetsblog SFA recent redesign of Cesar Chavez Street makes it better for people walking, bicycling, and taking transit and incorporates green infrastructure. Photo: Aaron Bialick, Streetsblog SF

This post is the second in a series of case studies about Complete Streets people, places, and projects. Follow the full series over the next several weeks.

In the late 1930s, the City of San Francisco had grand plans to build a third bridge across the San Francisco Bay. They designed a major arterial to lead to that bridge, but 80 years later their bridge dreams have never been realized—and the arterial was in sore need of an update.

That arterial was Army Street. City planners widened the street from two lanes to six, and connected it to US-101 in anticipation that it would eventually lead to a new, third bridge spanning the southern end of San Francisco to Alameda and the East Bay. All of this was intended to help speed up commutes in and out of the city. Despite proposals in the 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s as well as a design proposal from Frank Lloyd Wright, the bridge has never been built. Community and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club fought the proposals because of concerns about the project cost, increases in air pollution, and reduced revenue for public transit.

Army Street was renamed Cesar Chavez Street in 1995, and despite the bridge plans being essentially defunct, the road was still designed for heavy motor vehicle traffic and carried up to 53,000 vehicles per day. More specifically, it had been optimized for peak traffic during the morning and evening commutes. That is to say, car traffic during two hours each weekday—just 6 percent of all time—determined how the street would look and function for everyone at all times.

The street had all the problems one would expect from a major arterial in a dense urban area: high traffic speeds, many crashes, and the feeling of a divided city. Crossing the road by foot was treacherous, and over the course of just five years there were approximately 150 crashes along the street. People on foot and bicycle accounted for 8 and 15 percent of the crashes, respectively, even though they accounted for a much smaller percentage of the overall traffic.

Community members wanted a street that functioned for all users during the entire day, and in 2008, the City of San Francisco began community meetings to plan improvements. When the City announced plans to upgrade the sewer system and repave the street, community leaders successfully pushed for safety and aesthetic improvements. Fran Taylor, a leader of a neighborhood group quoted in a 2014 San Francisco Chronicle article, explained that Cesar Chavez “functioned for decades as a freeway on the ground, and freeways have no room for people on foot, on a bicycle, or living in a home. That freeway mentality told us we didn’t belong on our own residential street full of children, hospital patients, and other vulnerable users.”

Cesar Chavez Street in 2012. Photo: San Francisco Public Works

After two years of public meetings and workshops, the City and community members reached consensus that the six traffic lanes and two parking lanes would be converted to four or five traffic lanes, with wider parking lanes, bulb-outs, bicycle lanes, and a 12- to 14-foot center median—even though this would mean an “F” grade for Level of Service, an traffic engineering metric to measure delay to motorists.

Once the street plans were finalized by the San Francisco Planning Department and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco’s Department of Public Works (DPW) worked with the City’s Public Utility Commission to coordinate the sewer and street projects. The surface improvements along Cesar Chavez began after new 5- to 8-foot diameter sewer pipe was installed, saving the City and the residents the headache of tearing up the same street twice.

CesarChavez_After_DPWCesar Chavez Street today. Photo: San Francisco Public Works

Cesar Chavez now has many hallmarks of a street designed for all users. The lane reduction has slowed traffic, with some of that width dedicated to landscaped medians. People walking along the street now find plazas, and when they cross, they find refuges and curb extensions to shorten crossing distances. Nearly every intersection received bulb-outs that shorten crossing distances for people on foot. (In one section of the Cesar Chavez, the crossing distance was shortened from 125 to 68 feet!) Signal timing and phasing has been changed to give pedestrians more time to cross and to reduce conflicts between turning cars and people on foot. Left-turns were also restricted in places that had seen a high frequency of crashes.

In addition to the improvements for pedestrians, new bicycle lanes provide separate space for bicyclists and reduce conflicts with cars and trucks. As a result, bicycle counts on Cesar Chavez shot up by over 400 percent after the project was completed. The drivers of cars and freight trucks benefit from left turn lanes and wider parking lanes. Bus congestion was also ameliorated through the addition of transit bulb-outs, which expand the sidewalk to allow for larger bus shelters and tree-covered waiting areas. The addition of bicycle parking at some bus stops help those cycling transfer to their bus.

San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) knew that drivers during peak hours would turn off Cesar Chavez to parallel streets if there was even a hint of traffic delay. They didn’t want to put pedestrians in the path of frustrated drivers or change the character of the neighboring residential streets, so they used volume and speed data to predict the cut-through routes. At the spots that SFMTA identified, they elevated the crosswalk and added bulb-outs to slow down drivers who wanted to detour through neighborhood streets.

The changes to Cesar Chavez didn’t just focus on the much-needed safety improvements. The City also amped up the green and aesthetic benefits of the street with new LED lights and landscaping. Bulb-outs do double duty as natural water filters and groundwater collectors. Up until the redesign, Cesar Chavez had been a sea of concrete with very little landscaping. Now, 302 new trees, including Guadalupe Palms, Catalina Ironwoods, and Red Maple dot the corridor. Sages, purslane, and lilies fill in the medians and line the sidewalks, boosting the attractiveness for both residents and local businesses.

It’s too early to tell what the long-term impacts will be, but the improvements on Cesar Chavez Street already have garnered accolades from both professional and advocacy organizations. The Institute of Transportation Engineers’s San Francisco Bay Area group chose it as the Transportation Project of 2014, and Streetsblog SF readers voted it as the Best Street Transformation. It also was awarded the Best Pedestrian/Bicycle Project of the year by the California Transportation Foundation, ahead of 98 other nominations from around the state.

Most importantly, despite a few naysayers, the communities along the corridor have embraced the changes, fulfilling the project’s promise to create a “safe, gracious, inviting, and ecologically sustainable street.”

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This case study was written by Hanna Kite.

Complete Streets