Whether they got there by car, bike, bus, or on foot, locals filled the basement hall of the Old First Presbyterian Church on March 18 to discuss plans to remove parking spaces to make room for expanded bicycle lanes on Polk Street. By the time they were done, the head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) said his organization is “committed to going back to the drawing board to achieve the goals of the project.”
The proposal, part of an effort by the SFMTA to use Prop. B money to improve streets and safety, set off a heated debate in and around Polk when it became widely known several months ago. The agency is also committed to reducing auto usage in the City and making it easier and safer for people to walk, bike, or use mass transit. But local merchants expressed worry that their customers would go elsewhere if street parking was reduced on Polk, and some residents complained that residential parking is already difficult enough to find without increasing overflow parking from Polk.
SFMTA’s general goals — particularly the improvement of bike safety — were embraced by a variety of speakers at the meeting, but there was deep division about the best way to achieve them.
Daniel Kowalski, owner of Flipp on Green and Polk and a leader of the Save Polk Street coalition, told the crowd that when he and his fellow Polk merchants heard about the plans for the street, they were alarmed. When they saw the actual proposals, “our alarm went to panic.”
Save Polk Street estimates that the audience was nearly 400 strong, and opponents of the plan appeared to predominate. Supporters of the Polk plan were initially given a negative reception by the crowd, and SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin himself was met with boos and derisive laughter when he responded to a request for information by saying he did not have available data on which of the possible plans would have the least loss of parking spaces.
Supervisor David Chiu said that Polk Street has a higher-than-average number of accidents involving bikers and pedestrians, but he said he hasn’t yet “taken a perspective” on the Polk Street shakeup. He said that the Board of Supervisors does not have much role in the matter anyway; that decision-making power was removed by voters from the board and given to the SFMTA in 1999.
Following the meeting, Kowalski said his group would be fleshing out its proposals for alternative revamps of Polk Street, but he said they would rely on simple and less-expensive bike safety changes, such as making more obvious demarcation between bike and auto lanes, including painting bike lanes a different color to make them stand out, and improving signage to better alert drivers to the bicyclists and their rights. “Why can’t you do these low-common-denominator things?” he asked.
In addition to biker safety concerns, support for SFMTA’s Polk plan has also come from people concerned about traffic congestion, pollution, and climate change. Resident Madeleine Savit, an architect, told the meeting that this plan would some day seem uncontroversial, arguing that a century ago, the street had no cars, and 15 years ago auto traffic was limited to two lanes, but “businesses thrived.”
Other residents expressed a mixture of worries, including how much parking space on side streets would be taken up with drivers forced off Polk, and how to find the best way to protect bicyclists. Several people urged the construction of more parking garages to help compensate for the loss of street parking, while others noted that plans for the street needed to take into account older or handicapped users of Polk who couldn’t bike or carry purchases for long distances.
At the conclusion of the neighborhood meeting, SFMTA’s Reiskin said it was back to the drawing board and that his organization would be working with neighborhood groups, Supervisor Chiu, and other stakeholders as they try to square the circle: increase safety for bicyclists and not injure local businesses or residential parking. But with Chiu keeping himself at arm’s length from the controversy, neither he nor Reiskin appeared to earn any appreciation from the main players.
Savit characterized Reiskin’s response as a “retreat,” and Kowalski is unconvinced SFMTA will really change its proposals. “We’re not sure if it’s lip service,” he told the Marina Times.
Both sides of the debate agree that the matter is far from closed. While the SFMTA digests the feedback it received at the meeting, Savit is making a concerted effort to expand her outreach to merchants and residents to try to convince them of the need for the Polk plan. She plans to go back to talk with Polk shopkeepers who appeared “to be on the fence or are open-minded.”
And Kowalski says the Save Polk Street group will continue its own outreach, building on new connections with other neighborhood groups across the City that are having similar disputes with the SFMTA. If his coalitions can’t block the plan, then he hopes to be able to slow it down enough to give himself time to build pressure. “The next thing we can do is require [SFMTA] to do an environmental impact report,” which he said would require the agency to take into consideration not just Polk Street but nearby projects such as the Bus Rapid Transit plan for Van Ness and the new California Pacific Medical Center building on Geary and Van Ness.
“If that doesn’t slow them down, then the next option we have is to acquire 16,000 valid signatures so we can have it put on the ballot,” Kowalski said. “Those are things we are going to work toward.”