Road diets used as tool for reclaiming neighborhoods in San Francisco 

click to enlarge Changes: Valencia Street went on its “road diet” in 1999, and has since shed traffic lanes and added bike and pedestrian perks. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Changes: Valencia Street went on its “road diet” in 1999, and has since shed traffic lanes and added bike and pedestrian perks.

Like anyone who has overindulged, San Francisco’s streets sometimes benefit from a diet. But instead of eschewing fatty foods, roads can become healthier by reducing traffic lanes, widening sidewalks, adding bike paths and greening medians.

Since the late 1970s, more than 40 streets — mostly in commercial corridors — have undergone such “road diets,” shifting the emphasis from cars to pedestrians and bicyclists. These projects can be multimillion-dollar undertakings involving major infrastructure work, or cheap and quick efforts that entail little more than lane-striping.

City transportation officials say San Francisco has put more roads on a diet than anywhere else in North America.

The latest project is currently underway on Cesar Chavez Street, where crews are widening sidewalks and medians, installing bike lanes and adding more greenery to the busy artery.

Formerly unenticing areas such as the Divisadero Street corridor and San Jose Avenue in the Outer Mission district have benefited from road diets, which slowed vehicle travel and appear to have attracted more local merchants.

Until the last decade, San Jose Avenue was mostly a fast-moving on-ramp to Interstate 280. Thanks to the advocacy of area resident Gillian Gillette — now a transportation adviser for Mayor Ed Lee — the neighborhood has taken out two traffic lanes and added signal lights, a bike lane and medians filled with lush green spaces.

“Before, we used to hear a car crash about once a week — now they are very rare,” said area resident Jeff Goldberg.

“We used to have empty storefronts, now all the stores are filled. There is no doubt that it used to feel dangerous crossing the street. That feeling is gone.”

While San Jose Avenue has benefited from an array of improvements, Eddy and Ellis streets have become  safer simply by being shifted from one-way to two-way traffic, neighbor Abe Bingham said.

“Cars aren’t racing through intersections now to catch red lights,”  Bingham said. “It feels more like a street and less like a freeway.

Valencia Street is often cited as a paragon of the road diet’s redemptive abilities. Since 1999, traffic lanes have been reduced, bike lanes added, sidewalks widened and commercial loading zones installed. The street has received national plaudits for its design.

“If you design a street so that cars travel at safe speeds, its amazing what it can do for a neighborhood,” said Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group. “When there is an investment to make an area better for walking, it’s better for everyone.”

But while pedestrian, bike and transit advocates sing the praises of these programs, business groups remain unconvinced.

“Businesses in these neighborhood corridors are usually small shops where people don’t pick up a lot of things, so cars aren’t absolutely necessary,” said Henry Karnilowicz of the San Francisco Council of District Merchant Associations. “But I still think merchants would rather have room for cars to drive to their shops. I just don’t think there is confidence yet that people will do all their shopping on bicycles.”

Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, believes streets that accommodate bikes and pedestrians generate more window-shoppers.

“When you’re in a car, you’re moving quickly through a neighborhood and might not be able to see everything,” Shahum said. “But if you’re taking a walk, you can notice all the new shops and cafes. Businesses can reach a whole new set of customers.”

Sean Quigley of Paxton’s Gate, a Valencia Street curio shop, said foot traffic on his block has increased. Yet he wasn’t sure the renovation effort deserves sole credit, noting that fewer vacant storefronts, more merchant groups and better news coverage may have played a role. But he said the project definitely added value to the neighborhood.

“I like the wide sidewalks, of course, and also think the bike lanes are great both as a rider and a merchant,” Quigley said. “Additionally, the lights being metered for bicycles seems to have transformed the corridor into more of a leisurely drive than a thoroughfare.  Cars zooming through to other neighborhoods isn’t necessarily great for business or safety.”

A 2003 San Francisco State University study found that 66 percent of the merchants on Valencia Street said the transformation was good for business, with just 6 percent unhappy. But that could be related to Valencia Street’s location.

“Valencia Street is special because it’s located right next to two major BART stations in the Mission District,” said San Francisco State mobility specialist Jason Henderson. “It’s extremely convenient for people in Berkeley and Oakland to hop on BART and get to the neighborhood. Other streets don’t have that same benefit, so it could be difficult to duplicate the success of Valencia Street.”

Owner Justin Fraser of Folsom Street’s Mission Web Works, which recently added a bike path and reduced its car lanes from four to two, said such changes could be carried out anywhere with heavy vehicle traffic.

“Trying to cross four lanes is just a horrible thing for pedestrians,” said Fraser, whose business has been located at 17th and Folsom streets since 1999. “We’ve really seen a resurgence in the neighborhood.”

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Will Reisman

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