Monday, April 12, 2010

Welcoming Division Back to San Francisco

Welcome to San Francisco

If I said it was the ugliest place in San Francisco, you'd be hard-pressed to prove me wrong. It's the aquamarine elephant in the room that's left standing whenever we celebrate the demolition of the Central Freeway. In fact, that stub of a freeway was only partially torn down, only as far as Market Street. And, today, the place where the freeway starts is where the urban renaissance of Hayes Valley ends.

Believe it or not there's a street under there, a street with more problems than just the shadows and noise of the elevated structure. Duboce Avenue, 13th and Division Streets have been combined into a six-lane expressway with narrow, incomplete sidewalks, cyclone fences and driveways, and piles of illegally dumped garbage. If this place is ever going to be a healthy thread in San Francisco's urban fabric, this corridor will need to become a walkable, livable street.

Contemplating change that drastic is daunting, so in thinking about how to make this transformation I came up with a list of simple, general rules for pedestrian-friendly streets and did my best to apply them to this corridor. This by no means an exhaustive list, but it applies to streets everywhere:
  • Sidewalks should be wide
  • The road should be narrow
  • Crosswalks should be short
  • No merge turns!
  • There should be many options for direct travel by foot
  • It's not important for car traffic to have an obvious direct path
I also think cities, and streets as their largest individually observable elements, benefit from the fine grain that appears on its own when development rules favor building in between the better and best existing features (buildings, streets, parks) rather than busting out the bulldozer and starting from scratch. So I took the list above and applied it to the street we have today, without needing to tear down any buildings. Some privately-owned asphalt would need to be taken by eminent domain in order to realize everything below, but much of the underused land lining this street is already publicly-owned.

Oh yeah, and let's use the reclaimed road space to build a light rail connection from Market Street to Caltrain (an MMX extension - MMXX?). That way riders on the N-Judah heading to Caltrain and Mission Bay won't have to travel through the already overcrowded Market Street Tunnel.

There are already some good proposals out there that incorporate many of these elements. Here is what I came up with. It's not meant to be completely to scale, more of a detailed sketch:

Top: Satellite map
Upper Middle: The street level today
Lower Middle: What the street level could be
Bottom: Lane configuration diagram

1. The intersection of Division, Potrero, Brannan and 10th
This intersection is a nightmare right now! It's so wide that some cars end up stranded in is middle when the lights change. Cars approach people in crosswalks from so far away that anyone who isn't familiar with the traffic patterns is at risk of being hit. The problem is that Division St here is well North of the point where 10th, Brannan and Potrero would intersect. The solution is to shift Division South at this point so that all streets converge on a point, minimizing crossing distances.

(There are a few mature Eucalyptus trees in the median of Division just to the west of this intersection. If the street is moved entirely South of this median, those trees could be preserved, contributing greatly to the beauty of the new space.)

2. 9th and 10th Street off-ramps
These induce traffic on 9th, 10th and Bryant Streets, all of which are one-way here. The physical structure of the off-ramps blocks sightlines on Dore Alley, which creates a sketchy environment. Removing the ramps liberates the alley for higher and better uses and tames the surrounding traffic sewers. Without these ramps, pedestrans would have complete sidewalks around this block, and Muni (27-Bryant, 47-Van Ness) would speed up. The Northwest corner (by screwy convention; the Western corner by real-life geography) should be kept as One Tree Park.

3. The intersection of Division, 9th and San Bruno
Another over-wide intersection. Straighten Division out, shortening crosswalks, and use the available space for a Showplace Square stop for the N-Judah on its way to Caltrain. One block to the West, Utah Street should continue through to Division. This increases the connectivity of the grid and adds street frontage for retail, studio space, or housing.

4. Division Street circle
The road here is too wide. Expanding the curb will slow traffic around the circle and give some breathing room to pedestrians in this historic design district.

5. Connect Alemeda Street
Alameda Street runs parallel to and just North of 15th Street (and is one of the few from the Potrero Hill grid that still bears its original pe-1895 name). But it's interrupted between Alabama and Bryant Streets by private property. Opening it up for its whole length will create an alternate route for local traffic, keeping it off of Division. Keeping one small section of Alameda near a new plaza where Division meets Florida closed to cars but open to pedestrians and bikes will help keep this route a calm, bike-friendly alternative to Division.

6. Continue 14th Street
Increase the connectivity of the grid by continuing 14th St through what is now the Best Buy parking lot. The big box store would then front the street and new mixed use buildings could be built in the rest of the parking lot.

This long block along Division Street could also be improved by preserving a pedestrian path along the parking lot's East side (increasing pedestrian connectivity, just as with Utah Street above). This area even today feels serenely separate from the commotion a block away. A new plaza just to the north of Alameda could become the central square of a very cozy, urbane residential and mixed use area at this crossroads.

7. The intersection of Bryant, 11th, and 13th
Like #1, this intersection is too wide for pedestrians to navigate safely. Ideally, we'd move 13th Street farther South here too, but a building on the Southwestern corner is in the way. If we made any exception from the no-demolition premise, tearing down this structure would allow us to tighten the intersection further. At the very least, though, we can remove the merge turn at the Northwestern corner, which only encourages drivers leaving the Costco parking lot to illegally cut over to 13th.

8. The intersection of 13th and Harrison
Remove the merge turns and median islands to shorten the crossing distance.

9. Folsom-13th-Harrison
One of the widest points of the existing right of way happens to be nearest to the residential centers of the North Mission and Western SoMa. Right now the space is wasted on weird parking lots but it could be better used for a new N-Judah station, opening up access to Caltrain and Mission Bay for nearby residents.

10. Reconnect Erie Street
A looping on-ramp currently blocks this alley. Re-extending it the whole length between Mission and South Van Ness, as well as adding a perpendicular residential alley to the north would make room for new ped-friendly housing in this transit-rich area.

11. The intersection of South Van Ness and Howard
Howard street used to bend and continue South of 13th Street, and the street configuration still shows that. But current rules have traffic continuing North-South along what is now South Van Ness Avenue and up to regular Van Ness. The whole intersection could use a diet, with Howard now bending to hit South Van Ness as close to perpendicular as possible. That shortens crossing distances for pedestrians, and creates an opportunity for traffic to slow itself as cars turn here.

12. The Intersection of Mission, Otis and 13th

This is an important intersection. Right now, Mission Street traffic splits to become a couplet with Otis. The entire length of Mission Street, from Daly City to the Embarcadero, is four lanes of traffic. But for this block in the heart of the city, it has eight. That's partially to accommodate an off-ramp that touches down just to the East. That off-ramp can come down, and Mission street traffic can continue down Mission Street.

Here, also, I have a connection for traffic coming from Octavia Blvd. Those four lanes of freeway-bound traffic can continue across Market, where they'll turn onto McCoppin. The North leg of Otis can be closed to cars, and its South leg can take the cars to 13th, where it can continue to Potrero and eventually god-knows-where.

13. Sunshine in a new park
Removing the elevated freeway structure will open up an already-planned skate park to sunshine and fresh air (excluding, for the moment, the possibility of being downwind of Zeitgeist).

I haven't explicitly addressed the Bayshore Freeway, which would probably still tower over Showplace Square and SoMa over the new N-Judah stop there. I'm not sure I have a strong opinion of what the best way to address it is (other that to tear it down as well). We could just remove the access to it altogether, leaving drivers in the Mission and Potrero Hill to head to Bryant St in SoMa or South to Cesar Chavez to get on the freeway. Personally, I'm fine with that. But if other folks think we need to let cars on the freeway here, we can touch down two narrow ramps South of Division on San Bruno Ave. 9th Street should be two-way anyhow, and traffic from Octavia (via 13th and Division), North of Market (via 9th) and South Beach/Rincon Hill (via Brannan and 9th) could get on and off the freeway here.


Michael Helquist said...

Thanks for this very thorough analysis of how the dreaded Division could be transformed. Really appreciate the close look at the individual streets and intersections.

Unknown said...

I kind of like the elevated freeway. Keeps me dry when bicycling to the caltrain. And this city has a lot of rain.

Tom said...

I travel that route every day and would love to see some improvement in the area. You've provided a very thoughtful and thorough look at possible solutions.

The part of the post that interested me the most was in the first paragraph: "the urban renaissance of Hayes Valley". I've also been cycling down Page street across Octavia daily since 1997 and have seen the area change dramatically, obviously.

What I haven't seen yet though is anything I would consider advantageous to pedestrians or cyclists as a result of those changes. Perhaps I'm slow, but the only people I see who have benefited from these changes would be the property owners along Octavia who now may have slightly improved views. As for everyone else, now we have a virtual freeway to cross at street level.

Judging by that statement in the post, I assume you feel dramatically differently and I would love a post, as thoughtful and thorough as this one, explaining the benefits as you see them now.

Pedestrianist said...


I feel exactly the same way, actually. That lesson from Octavia really guided my thoughts of what to do with 13th/Division.

It's a point of disagreement for me with the Vision Boulevard concept of Livable City, which would extend Octavia to Bryant. We don't need a 20th-century-traffic-model boulevard to replace a freeway. In fact, creating friction for motorists on what would otherwise be the obvious crosstown driving route can improve traffic flow by distributing some of it around the street grid.

I think we can remove the road capacity for cars and thereby reduce traffic demand for the street. My ideas above still give cars that have been channelized down Octavia a relatively simple route across town to the Freeway District, but unlike Octavia that route isn't designed to move them quickly through at the expense other uses for the space.

Perhaps I could have said it more clearly at the beginning of the post, but my point is that tearing down a freeway will revitalize a neighborhood. Pretty much always. But it won't solve design flaws of the street below that are common to many streets in this city. And making the street ped-friendly and livable at the same time as tearing down the freeway will allow a liveable, walkable, green neighborhood to grow here.

Anonymous said...

The solution is easy...tear down this abomination! You can't "fix" it, we need to start over and build a boulevard.

And sjbrown, there is nothing more gross than riding under the freeway in the does not keep you dry, on the contrary, the water drips down through the cracks in nasty curtains

Pedestrianist said...

Tear it down yes, but no boulevard. As Tom above said, Octavia Boulevard has failed pedestrians. What we need is a street that's a vibrant center of activity and community, not a wall.

Anonymous said...

It's good to see this stretch get some attention! I regularly walk on Duboce and 13th streets and it's one of the most unpleasant (to say the least) walks in the city. Yet it isn't just a traffic sewer, though it definitely IS that. Zeitgeist, Discount Builder's Supply, Sports Authority, Rainbow Grocery, OfficeMax and more are along this stretch - plenty of destinations for we peds and cyclists. I also use it to go to Trader Joe's on 9th and Bryant. Ideally the overhead freeway will ultimately be torn down and the street below opened up and redesigned but until then we will have to struggle with improving what we have. 3 years ago I contacted both Caltrans and the City to request specific improvements, most of which were implemented. One concerned the parking lot you referenced on the NW corner of 13th and S Van Ness. At that time it was just blacktop with no striping, and no concrete to visually delineate sidewalk space. Needless to say, cars were parking willy nilly including right up to the curb. Surprisingly, Caltrans got right on it and striped the lot, preserving clear sidewalk space for pedestrians. The City took a bit longer with my suggestions but mostly came through. There were no or few yield signs for the right turn merge lanes (and no stop signs or signals) and cars often sped through looking only to their left to see if car traffic is coming. Personally I would prefer stop signs here, but the city did install several yield signs after my correspondence with Jack Fleck (Acting Deputy Director and City Traffic Engineer). Oddly, 13th turning south onto Folsom still is lacking a yield sign and the one at S Van Ness turning east onto 13th is placed after the crosswalk. Oh well...

--> I too would like to see sidewalk improvements, including getting Caltrans to either clean them more frequently or install netting on those segments of the freeway directly over sidewalk space. Pigeon poop is everwhere on the sidewalks and I've even been pooped on from above. Not pleasant.
--> Something should be done to slow traffic, and bicycle sharrows should be painted on the right lanes of the entire stretch of Duboce - 13th - Division as there is really no option but to take the lane here. I'd love to see traffic cameras installed at 13th and S Van Ness as drivers frequently run the red lights getting on to the freeway (and often block the crosswalks on the north side).
--> A bulb-out could easily be added on Otis at Duboce (right hand lane) where the parking lane becomes a very short right turn lane. There are 5 lanes of traffic here and 4 would be sufficient, thereby decreasing the significant distance for peds to cross here. One could also be added on the other side of the intersection at Mission / Duboce.

--> And the cross signals should be syncronized at this same intersection. Heading east on the north side of 13th, you can cross to the island while traffic heading south on Otis turns left onto 13th, yet you cannot do the same thing on the south side of the intersection (where traffic northbound on Mission has a red light to allow the Otis traffic to turn onto 13th).

--> Pedestrian space on the north and south sides of 13th between Folsom and S Van Ness needs a complete redesign. It is patchy, pooly delineated and in poor condition.

I would love to do a walking tour with relevant city officials (DPT, Planning Dept., Traffic Engineering etc) and those of us who use this stretch as peds and/or cyclists to generate improvements. Sadly, since we lost the battle to tear the freeway down all the way to Bryant St, we're stuck with the current configuration at least for a while.

Tamagosan said...

Just scanning my ballot for the Planning Commission for "Pedestrianist". D'oh, not on there. Too bad; these ideas are priceless.

Pedestrianist said...

Thank you, everyone, for commenting!

Anonymous #2, you've clearly thought about this at least as much as I have! I wish I knew who you were!

FL said...

I agree that this stretch of roadway needs improvement. I cross the street sometimes and it needs some sprucing up. However, removing the freeway is NOT the answer. It provides a vital stretch of roadway leading and from the western part of the city. This plan does not address this. Instead, one hopes that find their way through the maze of streets. Doubtful. This will only clog up Market Street (transit preferential street) and make it unsafe for everyone.

If you remove the 9th/10th Sts ramps, how will people get to Civic Center? The next entrance is at Chavez or 4th Sts. Of course, others want to remove those ramps too. Basically, you don't want any outside drivers in the City. Ridiculous.

Removing road capacity will improve traffic flow? Not here. When Octavia Blvd was being constructed and the Embarcadero Freeway was removed, all the traffic clogged the surface streets instead. This went on for years, and in the Embarcadero Freeway's case, we are still feeling the effects today.

I don't see how Octavia Blvd failed pedestrians. It's 2 narrow lanes in each direction with a median make it easy to cross. The separate frontage roads make walking and biking along the boulevard comfortable. If you can't tolerate these excellent pedestrian and bike amenities, you shouldn't be living in an urban city.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...


Please give details about how moving the central freeway that was once above Octavia down to street level makes anything safer for pedestrians.

I used to be able to very safely and easily move east-west below the freeway. Since it has come down, I've come close to being killed at the intersection of Page/Octavia more times than all other locations in the city combined, and I get around.

Other than the benefit to the property owners mentioned above, the only other thing I can think of is being able to look up into the sky for that extra 45 seconds it would have taken before to walk under the freeway.

Pat said...

Hi Ped'ist -

I love your basic suggestions but I think you miss some real opportunities here.

The real game changer is closing Division in part. Using Townsend +the closed Division + 14th St + Natoma+ Capp Streets as a Bike / Ped Boulevard connecting 16th Mission BART station with Caltrain 4th and King.

Take a look at this google map.

Doing this would pull people away from the traffic sewer under the central freeway. Let the cars stay in the sewer. Rather than try to fix the sewer make the area to the south more connected and livable.

Pat said...


A key point: the 14th Street Bike/Ped expressway from Mission to Caltrain is only 1.5 miles. This is about 10 minutes by bike and 30 min on foot.

This would also connect the Mission District with the Safeway at 4th and King as well.

Pat said...

(yet another addendum)

The 14st Street Bike Blvd idea if properly done could have:

1) an extension all the way to Golden Gate Park.
2) Connections to 22nd St. Caltrain
3) Mission High School (Dolores Park)
4) J-Church line
5) Jackson Park
6) Buena Vista Park

This would connect the Mission to Potrero Hill

Pedestrianist said...

Hey Pat, that's a great man, you've clearly put some thought into this!

I'm not sure I'm a fan of bike/ped boulevards segregated from general traffic. I'm not into segregation in general but, additionally, dividing our streets by mode reduces the number of routes available to each mode. Also, removing vulnerable road users from car traffic makes that car traffic more dangerous, and bikes/peds must inevitably cross that traffic or approach it to access homes and businesses.

@FL, I don't mean to dismiss your comment, but the issue of induced traffic and congestion caused by freeways has already been discussed. When the Central Freeway was torn back to South Van Ness, traffic was not a nightmare. Drivers found alternate routes or switched modes. Further, I disagree very strongly that the needs of West side commuters should trump those of the people who live under and around this freeway. That may be a matter of opinion but I am beyond convincing. San Francisco will be a better place when that thing is torn down, even if it takes a few minutes longer to drive from the fog belt to the (all too many) freeways that will still exist.

Pat said...

@Ped'ist --

Normally I would agree with you - but as other people have commented, being underneath a freeway is sewer-like. Unless Central freeway is completely torn down it will always be sewer-like.

What I see with Division is a case of way, way too much pavement that is used poorly and could be a classic pavement-to-parks project.

Making 14th street safe for bike /peds enables a route safe for women and children to negotiate at a much lower cost than trying to make the 'beneath central' even tolerable.

I have talked to bike die-hards who advocate that all roads most be safe for all users. These same people have insisted that bike lanes and bike paths are 'bad'.

As a parent, I am not willing to have my child be the martyr for that cause. It is scary enough watch my kids deal with a moderately busy suburban street. There is no way I would ever let them ride underneath central - no matter how wide the bike lane.

I imagine most parents feel the same way. On the other hand, the route I have laid out could be a wonderful route via bike to Golden Gate Park for families.

Take a look at the schools that get connected, with my proposal, and the neighborhoods. This would enable reduction of parents driving kids to school.

Lets not let the ideal get in the way of the practical, intermediate stepping stones.

Pedestrianist said...

@Pat, true that. Your map is a lot more extensive than mine. As a bike boulevard network, I like it.

I don't mean to suggest all streets should be equally used by all modes. Streets are different widths and so must accommodate different treatments.

Note that I didn't include a bike lane in my Division Street lane configuration. I think that, rather than reserving that space on Division and creating conflicts with turning cars and LRVs, adjacent streets should be further calmed to become natural bike routes. All streets in the area would be improved, but 14th and Alameda would still be safer and calmer than 13th/Division.

And I apologize if it wasn't clear in the long post, but I stringly feel the freeway should be torn down. The lane configuration I gave is as car-friendly as it is only because I concede it will need to carry some of the cars that currently travel above.