Potrero Avenue Streetscape Improvements May Hinder Emergency Vehicle Access

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An ongoing San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency project on Potrero Avenue, between 21st and 25th streets, was designed to improve safety and speedup San Francisco Municipal Railway schedules.  However, nearby residents are concerned that the effort has resulted in excessive loss of street parking on the 900 block of Potrero Avenue, and created impediments for emergency vehicles accessing Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, among other complaints.

The project is part of the Mission District Streetscape Plan, adopted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2010.  SFMTA’s board approved it in 2014, with input from the San Francisco Public Works and Planning departments, as well as the San Francisco Public Utility Commission. Construction began in 2015, consisting of the addition of planted medians, bus stop improvements, street lighting and paving, widening the sidewalks and bicycle lanes, and installing a dedicated southbound transit lane along Potrero Avenue. The work is funded by $3.2 million from the 2011 Road Repaving and Safety Bond.  It’s anticipated to be completed by the end of next year. 

“It’s really unsafe on so many fronts,” expressed David Jayne, Potrero Avenue resident. “Emergency vehicles are getting stuck at the medians, and it has created safety issues during loading and unloading from vehicles on the residential side of the 900 block.”

Three years ago, when the project was approved, the entrance to General Hospital’s emergency room was on 23rd Street.  It was subsequently moved to 22nd Street, in front of which a median has been installed, reducing access for emergency vehicles and patients on route to the ER.  According to Jayne, several years ago a Public Works spokesperson stated at a community meeting that a median wouldn’t be put in front of the hospital because emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to switch lanes. He’s since been unable to get in touch with the official who made statement.

Jayne recorded footage of a northbound ambulance with emergency flashers on having to wait in traffic for a green light before being able to turn onto 22nd Street. Before the medians were added, ambulances could simply cross the double yellow lines amidst paused traffic to make the turn. Jayne remarked that the issue is even greater for southbound ambulances that have to make a left turn from Potrero Avenue onto 22nd Street to get to the ER.

“Our department does have concerns about access to the hospital,” said Anthony Rivera, assistant deputy chief, San Francisco Fire Department. “There haven’t been any documented cases of ambulances getting stuck in traffic. I’m not saying that it hasn’t happened, just that nothing has been officially documented, as I’ve just been made aware of this. The Emergency Medical Services division chief is also now aware, and asked that all ambulance drivers document anything that impacts their arrival and departure. We’re definitely concerned, and want to make sure that our response times are not affected, and that patients can easily access the ER.”

Despite the lack of official documentation by ambulance drivers, a Fire Department survey indicated that emergency vehicle access has been impaired by the streetscape project. The Department is gathering additional information about the issue, and will hold an internal meeting to discuss potential changes, any of which would then be recommended to SFMTA.

Rivera explained that the Fire Department isn’t always made aware of changes made during planning processes that may impact emergency response times. He also commented that with so much construction and street modifications occurring in the City, the Department has been overwhelmed. “Increased traffic congestion has impacted emergency vehicle access,” Rivera added. “We’ve definitely been impacted by traffic, and continue to be creative and come up with ways to deal with it. Some of our Downtown stations are in areas so congested it can take 30 to 45 minutes to come back from a call.”

Resident concerns about removal of street parking spaces were discussed at an SFMTA boarding meeting in June, during which an official admitted that the agency had erroneously publicized that only 41 spaces would be removed instead of the actual 60 spaces lost. SFMTA is studying the design’s impact on the area in front of the hospital.

The Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods held a meeting last month at the North Police Station to discuss citywide issues pertaining to the impact of streetscape design on emergency vehicle access.