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SF's most dangerous intersection paved with good intentions

Bicyclists and motorists at the intersection of Market Street and Octavia Boulevard during rush hour on Tuesday, February 8, 2011
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Bicyclists and motorists at the intersection of Market Street and Octavia Boulevard during rush hour on Tuesday, February 8, 2011
 
Central Freeway's removal revitalizes Hayes Valley but creates corner with highest crash toll

Hayes Valley was best known for the hooker haven beneath the Central Freeway when Greg Foss moved to the San Francisco neighborhood in 1982.

The area was transformed when the city tore down the 1.2-mile double-deck structure and replaced it with Octavia Boulevard, a ground-level thoroughfare with tree-lined medians, a park and quiet side streets. Designed by noted UC Berkeley urban planning professor Allan Jacobs, it opened in 2005 to wide acclaim.

But the leafy boulevard has brought its own problems. Clogged with cars rushing to get on and off Highway 101, the corner of Octavia Boulevard and Market Street has become the city’s most dangerous intersection.

During the past three years, there have been 30 crashes causing injuries at that corner, more than any other San Francisco intersection, according to a recent report by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. With a heavily used bike lane on Market Street, the intersection also has seen the most bike crashes in the city during that time, according to The Bay Citizen Bike Accident Tracker. Last year, nine of the 13 injury crashes involved cyclists. 

On a recent afternoon, Foss, 55, was seated at the Mercury Cafe on Octavia, three blocks up from Market Street. The cafe was filled with the neighborhood’s new residents: young professionals tapping away on MacBooks and smartphones. While the boulevard helped rejuvenate the area, Foss said, it also brought heavy street traffic.

“You have to be very careful crossing the street here,” said Foss, who appeared in “Vegas in Space,” a 1991 film about three spacemen who must become women to carry out a secret mission. “You can’t just cross because you have a white man (on the traffic signal) telling you to cross.”

Octavia Boulevard is one of the major arrival and departure points for long-distance commuters. The most recent traffic count by the SFMTA in 2007 showed 63,000 vehicles heading on and off the freeway there each day. That is fewer than the 90,000 that used the old Central Freeway, but the Hayes Valley neighborhood is jammed with cars much of the day.

Since the boulevard opened in 2005, there have been 56 crashes with injuries at Octavia and Market. Four of the accidents on Octavia have been fatal accidents, according to the California Highway Patrol and news reports.

Now, city and county officials are acknowledging that the once-visionary street plan is in need of improvement to reduce high levels of congestion and the number of collisions.

“We did a great job on the urban design and on the land-use planning, and the neighborhood responded,” said Tilly Chang, deputy director for planning at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. “For the most part, it met the objectives, but it didn’t get all the way. We still have a ways to go on the pedestrian, bike and transit network.”

In a recent study [PDF], the transportation authority found that high levels of traffic still stifle the neighborhood. It also found that crosswalks were either closed or dangerous for pedestrians because of cars getting in the way. The study recommends improving bikeways and crosswalks and reducing car traffic by updating public transit and using congestion pricing, a system of electronic tolls for crowded streets.

 

The reconstruction of Octavia Boulevard was the culmination of a lengthy battle to tear down the segment of the Central Freeway. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the freeway and voters weighed in on several ballot measures, the plan for the boulevard finally was approved.

Jacobs, the renowned designer, told The Bay Citizen that the project was successful in replacing a freeway with a boulevard that moves cars while at the same time creating street life. But he said some design elements that would have slowed traffic were left out in the end because of compromises with the state Department of Transportation and the city.

The challenge at the time was “how to get fast-moving traffic through as best and safely as possible, but at the same time allowing for low-speed traffic and good street life,” Jacobs said. To do that, he designed the four-lane boulevard with two local side streets running parallel for local traffic and cyclists. Trees were planted and a now well-used park was built at the end.

But Jacobs also said the initial design sought to slow traffic more before it came off the freeway by narrowing the lanes and building a slightly uphill approach. He also wanted to use different paving materials and narrow the side streets to signal to drivers that they were entering a neighborhood. None of these features were incorporated into the project, he said.

“Octavia Boulevard itself is a major success as a street,” Jacobs said. “That isn't to say that there weren’t things that could’ve been done better.”

The majority of bike accidents at Octavia and Market over the past three years were caused by drivers making illegal right turns onto the freeway from Market Street. The city has installed new signs and medians to prevent illegal turns from Market onto the freeway, but the problem persists. Bike advocates want a camera installed at the intersection to catch offending motorists, but a question over whether such cameras are legal on state highways has held up the process.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, has been urging Attorney General Kamala Harris to issue an opinion that could pave the way for the camera to be installed. An Ammiano aide told The Bay Citizen this week that a legal opinion has been drafted and edited and is awaiting Harris’ signature.

“It would help,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “We know police officers can’t be there 24/7, and the city has tried a lot of engineering improvements.”

Robin Levitt, a Hayes Valley architect who helped lead the fight to take down the freeway, said the boulevard helped transform the neighborhood but is in need of serious fixes.

“Generally, I think Octavia Boulevard works well, but the interface with other intersections is problematic and was never really thought through when it was done,” Levitt said. “Those are issues that still haven't been resolved.”

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