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Third Street South-of-Market to Get a Makeover

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This spring, work will begin on the Third Street Transit and Safety Project, a Muni Forward initiative to improve bus service from Townsend to Mission streets. The goal is to speed up five of Muni’s busiest bus lines: the 30 Stockton, 45 Union-Stockton, and 8 Bayshore, 8AX and 8BX Bayshore Express. These routes serve 70,000 riders daily, with 10,000 traversing the portion of Third Street where changes will be made. Muni Forward aims to make transit more reliable and perambulation safer. 

Traffic congestion through South-of-Market during weekday mornings and afternoon peak travel times has become a chaotic nightmare. Delays worsen whenever there’s a game at Oracle Park during the seven months of baseball season. The Central SoMa Plan, adopted last year after almost a decade of negotiations, will further increase the area’s density, adding new residential, hotel, and office towers. 

Third Street, which is one-way from King to Market streets and has up to six traffic lanes, is the primary north-running corridor from the Fourth and Townsend Caltrain station to the Financial District, and a main thoroughfare for vehicles heading to the Bay Bridge after exiting north onto King Street from Interstate 280; vehicles turn right off Third onto Bryant or Folsom toward the Bridge. Right-turning vehicles slow public transit along Third; buses are frequently delayed behind double-parked cars. 

In the past five years, 50 collisions with walkers or bikers, including two deaths, have occurred on Third Street. It’s been designated a Vision Zero High-Injury Corridor, where San Francisco’s highest rates of severe and fatal crashes happen.

Interim improvements include relocating the transit path and creating a pair of dedicated right turn lanes at Folsom and Bryant. Boarding islands will be built at evenly-placed bus stops on Townsend, Bryant, Folsom, Mission and Market, with the number of stops reduced from six. Current stops at Harrison and Howard streets will be eliminated; the Bryant stop is being added. Painted safety zones, upgraded wheelchair ramps, and crosswalk and signal enhancements will be made. 

Interim improvements are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, with the bulk of construction planned for the summer or fall. Final enhancements are expected to begin in 2023 and wrap up the following year, and include widened sidewalks, known as transit bulbs, at transit stops, and additional pedestrian safety advancements. 

“We’re excited to see this hitting the streets this year, and while the concrete isn’t going to be poured (to widen sidewalks) for several years, we’re going to see the biggest gains from the transit-only lanes going in this year, as well as temporary boarding islands,” Rachel Hyden, executive director of San Francisco Transit Riders United, told the View

Hayden said 2024 seemed a distant date to finish the project, given public outcry over recent traffic fatalities. “That does seem like a really long time and that was one of our comments to staff, that we’d like to see that sped up,” she said. “There’s so much construction across the City. The reality is they’ve got to prioritize what gets done first.” 

Erica Kato, a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority spokesperson, explained that the project is split into two phases because, “It is much more expensive to reconstruct a sidewalk than to build a boarding island. It requires the use of contractors and a bidding process, rather than having the work done “in-house” by Public Works. Our goal from the beginning of this project has been to have significant improvements in place by the end of 2019.” 

Transit bulbs enable buses to remain in their lane. “The bus will cruise along and not have to pull out of traffic, then pull back into traffic. That slows the bus down. The bus can pull up to the curb, and after riders finish loading, pull away and keep going,” Hyden explained. 

A dedicated red-carpet transit lane located two lanes from the curb is designed to keep buses from getting stuck behind vehicles that’re turning or delayed behind delivery trucks and Transportation Network Companies stopping for passengers.

“When you have a transit lane along the curb, oftentimes buses are going to be delayed by right turning or double-parked vehicles,” Hyden said. Locating a transit lane away from the curb should “avoid this type of conflict.”

Transit bulbs, which create more space for walking and amenities like bus shelters, will be part of the project’s final phase, as will adding new crosswalks at Folsom and Bryant. Kato explained that this strategy is more complicated than simply painting the pavement, because corner sidewalk extensions, another kind of bulb, have to be built first to shorten the signal phase, since bulbs cut street crossing distances for pedestrians.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors unanimously approved the Third Street Transit and Safety Project at its February meeting. Members of the public and advocacy groups, including Transit Riders United and Walk San Francisco, generally support the project. Three bicyclists who live in the area criticized the double right turn lanes at Bryant and Folsom as being “car-centric” and likely to increase risks to bikers. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition didn’t take a position on the scheme. 

One speaker, concerned that Third Street improvements will result in unintended increased risks for people walking through intersections east of Third Street, cautioned that street design alone won’t solve all problems. “We need intersection management. This project just stacks cars neatly” to turn right before drivers make their final rush to the Bridge, said Alice Rogers, a South Park resident and South Beach Rincon Mission Bay Neighborhood Association president. “We’ve been advocating for years for live Traffic Control Officers to direct traffic in the intersections near the Bay Bridge.”

Intersections and crosswalks between Third Street and the Bridge become gridlocked when vehicles encroach on them right up until the traffic signal changes, even when it’s obvious that circulation has stalled. Second and Bryant is often problematic for vehicles to move through when they have a green light; it’s especially dangerous for pedestrians. 

At 6:43 a.m. on March 27, a woman walking in the Second Street crosswalk was struck by a truck turning left from Bryant to Second Street. Both had green lights, according to media reports. The collision sent the woman to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. 

The approach from Bryant is uphill, which decreases drivers’ ability to see people in the crosswalks. Second Street is one block from a Bay Bridge onramp; many drivers accelerate as they approach the traffic signal on the hill’s crest.

The year began with a fatality on New Year’s Day on Haight and Stanyan streets. Six pedestrians city-wide have died from traffic violence as of April 2, surpassing just two dead from vehicle collisions in the same period in 2018, according to Vision Zero Traffic Fatalities: 2018 End of Year Report. Another 2019 fatality involved a 30-year-old bicyclist, crushed by a truck when she swerved to avoid a car door that opened in her path on a portion of Howard near Fifth Street that’s not protected for bicyclists. 

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