SFMTA pushes for revised Polk Street renovation

A major component of most of the SFMTA’s plans for Polk Street is to separate auto and bike traffic (photo: earl adkins)

Following an at-times contentious round of back-and-forth with community groups regarding a planned remake of Polk Street’s traffic and parking design, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has issued revised proposals for the redo of the busy street and is looking forward to an early fall demonstration project.

“The thing we had to work hardest on Polk Street was to meet [the] need for everyone to be heard and to be valued,” said Seleta Reynolds, who leads the SFMTA’s policy analysis and innovation team, whose work includes the Polk Street project. “I feel that is what we missed at the beginning of the work.”

In late April, SFMTA presented updated plans at two well-attended open houses. SFMTA’s plans included a number of options for upper/middle Polk Street and (separately) for lower Polk. The plans for upper Polk span a pretty wide spectrum, starting with a “shared roadway” approach for upper and middle Polk that lacks designated space for bicyclists — an unlikely contender for final approval, considering the agency’s focus on improving safety for bikers and encouraging people to travel by methods other than automobile. Other options include one or two bike lanes, with the loss of parking for 5 percent and 18 percent respectively of all spaces within one block on either side of the entire length of that stretch of the street. For lower Polk, options range from making it mostly one-way (with the loss of 6 percent of parking within one block of that stretch of the street), creating buffered bike lanes (with the loss of 8 percent of parking), to focusing on safety improvements (with the loss of only 3 percent of parking). All of the plans also include a range of features, such as corner “bulb-outs” to protect pedestrian crossing and highlighted bike lanes.

An exact number of parking spaces lost won’t be known until SFMTA does its final detailed designs for the street, said Reynolds; that will be when they know where loading zones or all of the green zones for bikes will go. But she does estimate that, for example, the loss of 5 percent of spaces within a block on either side of Polk represents “about 65 spaces between Geary and Union, but that’s a pretty conservative rough estimate; the real number is probably less than that.”

Reynolds noted that a lane had already been removed on Polk about a decade ago to make room for a bike lane. “We can’t take any more travel lanes in order to get that dedicated space for biking and walking,” she said. “I can see how it might seem like social engineering, but the truth is that’s not how we approach the design. We try to imagine the right of way is fixed and we try to fit in everything we can. We look at the trade-offs and we make the ones that will work.”

Joan Mapou, a 14-year resident of Polk Street, told the Marina Times that she’s concerned that the loss of parking will not be adequately made up by “permitted parking on a few alleys. … I own a small business in which I must have a car,” she said. “I do not have the luxury of being able to afford to rent parking space in the neighborhood and must rely on street parking. And parking, if you time it right, might be just a 15-minute job. But when my schedule doesn’t afford me the ability to park at a time easy to find a spot for the night, I might look for 30 or more minutes to find a spot which is both legal and doesn’t have me getting up and out by 6 a.m. before I get an expensive ticket for street sweeping.”

The project is still in the process of surveying public opinion. There will be further neighborhood consultation before SFMTA makes a recommendation. “We will not end up with a single design for the entire length of the project,” said Reynolds. “It’s a very long project, 20 blocks or so, which is very long for us, and it changes pretty dramatically from McAllister and Civic Center and Union Street and Russian Hill, and it changes widths, getting narrower as you go north.”

After her group digests the results of the survey in June, it will wrap up some feasibility and technical analysis, and then move to make a recommendation. That will require four to six months to get environmental clearance before it goes to SFMTA’s board, which could take place by late fall. At that time, people will have a final chance to weigh in with their opinions at the public meeting before the board. If approved, the plan will go into full design work by the engineers.

Before that, however, Reynolds hopes to conduct a demonstration of the project on a short portion of Polk in September or October 2013. For information on the project and to give input on the demonstration, Reynolds invited Polk residents to give their thoughts to the agency’s Darcie Lim at

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