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Townsend Street Being Modified as Traffic-Related Deaths Rise in San Francisco

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Townsend Street from Third to Eighth streets – an area encompassing the Fourth Street Caltrain depot – is being significantly renovated to improve safety and transit speed, with the installation of Muni bus loading zones, protected bikeways, and an 1,000-foot-long raised sidewalk where no safe footpath had previously existed. 

The Townsend Street Corridor Improvement Project began last winter after being approved by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board in 2018. Permanent transit embarkation relocations and parking changes have already been implemented in some places; temporary commuter pickup zone alterations necessary during the year-plus long project will remain in effect until the scheme is completed, anticipated for early 2020. 

In addition to being a regional transportation hub, Townsend Street is a Vision ZeroSF high-injury corridor; a significant number of incidences resulting in severe wounds, particularly among pedestrians and bicyclists, have occurred there. The area is dense with office and living spaces, with relatively few retail businesses requiring street parking.

Arriving and departing trains generate substantial foot traffic crossing Fourth and Townsend during weekday morning and afternoon commutes. A SFMTA multimodal count summary published in 2017 reported that 3,100-plus pedestrians traversed the intersection during the morning peak, with afternoon peaks of more than 3,600 people. By comparison, vehicles and bicycles combined were half that amount during weekday peak travel periods. 

“The change in the street is pretty dramatic,” said Jonathan Streeter, a SFMTA public relations officer who’s been monitoring traffic interactions for the project this fall. He remembered easily finding parking near Caltrain 20 years ago.

“The transformation of this neighborhood into a transit-oriented hub has altered the ability to navigate it in a private car. That stretch of Townsend is seeing an incredible demand for multi-capacity vehicles; the 10 Townsend, other Muni lines. There’s an enormous number of people walking or biking. Real heavy use of that corridor is by people not using private vehicles. It’s not an area designed for private vehicle use anymore.” 

Eight Muni bus lines traverse Townsend in the area of Caltrain: the 10 Townsend; 30 Stockton; 45 Union/Stockton; 47 Van Ness; 81X Caltrain Express; 82X Levi Plaza Express; 83X Mid-Market Express; and the 91 3rd Street/19th Avenue Owl. Private shuttle and tour buses unregulated by SFMTA use the corridor for boarding. The N Judah and T Third streetcars serve commuters and locals on King Street. The Central Subway will reroute T-line service into South-of-Market and Chinatown when it starts sometime in 2021. Beyond that, the planned Downtown Rail Extension (DTX) would extend Caltrain rail service to the Transbay Transit Center from Fourth and Townsend. 

A permanent route change already in effect for the inbound 47 to Fisherman’s Wharf has relocated the route’s loading zone from the north side of Townsend between Fourth and Fifth streets to the south side, where an extended raised sidewalk was installed last fall. The rerouted 47 now takes Third Street to Harrison Street. The inbound 10, 30, 45, 83X, and 91 Owl buses also load there. 

Before upgrading to an 11-foot-wide, continuous raised path, the sidewalk disappeared on the south side of Townsend between Fourth and Fifth streets. The stretch of curb where Fifth and Sixth streets end at the 19-acre Caltrain railyard was frequently inhabited by individuals without permanent homes. Back-in angled parking previously allowed from Fifth to Seventh Street has been rescinded. A pedestrian “pretty much had to fend for yourself,” Streeter said. Another cement platform is planned from Seventh to Eighth streets, where there’ll be bus loading near the traffic circle.

For the middle segment between the raised boarding islands ending at Fifth Street and beginning at Seventh Street, a pedestrian walkway delineated by white pavement stripes has been added. Amblers stride between the eastbound bikeway, which hugs the curb along the Caltrain property, and a parallel parking lane situated between the eastbound travel lane and foot path, which replaced the back-in angled parking along the curb. 

In all, 105 general metered parking spaces will be removed throughout the project area. Tour buses are using an unofficial loading zone on the south side of Townsend, west of Fifth Street. “It’s appropriate for those buses to load there,” Streeter noted. 

Passengers wait to board on the pedestrian walkway. Docking at the new pedestrian island will improve transit efficiency by eliminating the need for buses to pull in and out of lanes. Placement of the 10-foot wide eastbound bikeway between the raised cement platform and the curb help with vehicle traffic protection. Bicyclists need to navigate a point near the Caltrain station where pedestrians briefly cross the bikeway.

Fourth to Fifth streets on the north side of Townsend will have no parking or loading to prevent conflicts with bicyclists travelling west. Parking is permitted west of Fifth Street, in a parking lane situated between the westbound travel lane and bikeway. The bike path will be located against the curb with barriers from parked cars consisting of flexible soft hit posts. 

These upgrades will “make it visually clear to drivers and people on bicycles where they’re supposed to be at all times,” Streeter said. 

Taxi loading, temporarily moved to Fourth Street in front of Caltrain, will resume along the island on Townsend extending from 30 to 150 feet west of Fourth Street once the project is complete. “It’s important for us to accommodate the taxis, for people with accessibility issues,” Streeter said.

Transportation Network Company (TNC) vehicles, also called ride-hail services, and other private use vehicles have been assigned an interim loading zone beginning at Lusk Street, midway between Third and Fourth, on the north side of Townsend. Lyft has designed a geo-fence that doesn’t allow passenger pickups outside this zone during construction. After project completion, private vehicle pickup and drop off will be allowed in designated spaces along the raised island west of Fourth Street.  

TNCs pose a challenge to orderly vehicle movement in Caltrain’s vicinity. These vehicles are often seen “executing illegal maneuvers, turning by crossing double orange lines, picking up and dropping off in the wrong places,” Streeter said, adding that ride-hail drivers “are subject to the demands of their passengers.” The volume of bicycle and pedestrian traffic in front of Caltrain makes these driver behaviors especially dangerous. 

“We struggle with ride-hail vehicles as an agency. We only have persuasive authority,” Streeter said of SFTMA’s lack of regulatory power over TNCs. 

The outbound 10, to Potrero Hill, and the 81X and 82X will load on the northeast corner of Townsend and Fourth. SFTMA will re-configure parking and loading from Third to Fourth streets once the project is complete. 

Vision ZeroSF, the City’s plan to eliminate traffic-related deaths by 2024, has regressed after reaching a low of 20 fatalities in 2017, when 14 people were killed while walking on San Francisco’s streets. Numbers climbed to 23 victims in 2018; 15 were pedestrians.  

Last month, Jesus Ocampo, 77, succumbed to injuries he incurred when he attempted to cross 16th Street at De Haro. Days later, an unidentified woman was killed in a hit and run involving an sports utility vehicle on the 5000 block of Mission Street, bringing total 2019 road mortalities to 27, 17 of which involved pedestrians. The losses included six people killed while driving, two motor vehicle passengers, and one each who were slain while on a motorcycle or bicycle. 

Also in November, another pedestrian, struck on the 4000 block of Mission Street, and a bicyclist, hit at Fulton and Webster streets, sustained life-threatening injuries. 

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