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City looks to make dangerous stretch of Masonic safer for cyclists

Jim Welte
The Public Press
 — Mar 20 2009 - 1:26am


Every day during rush hours, Miranda Blankenship – almost like clockwork – hears screeching tires and honking horns outside her front door on Masonic Avenue.

Commuters and bicyclists share the busy, four-lane street that serves as one of the major north-south veins through the city, funneling

traffic to and from Highway 101. More than 35,000 cars traverse Masonic on a given day, and the result is chaotic and dangerous enough that Blankenship avoids it entirely on her daily bike commute from Masonic and McAllister Street to the Mission District. 

"It's pretty hectic on Masonic," Blankenship said, noting that most cars are going far faster than the 25-mph limit. "I just stick to side streets."

For Blankenship, her neighbors, bikers, pedestrians and drivers, relief might be on the way for the nearly one-mile stretch of Masonic between Geary Boulevard and Fell Street. A lengthy campaign by neighborhood and transit-advocacy groups took a big step forward late last month when the Municipal Transportation Authority, which controls the city’s transit funds, allocated $120,000 to study potential improvements along Masonic.

Next month, the Masonic Avenue Traffic Calming Plan will begin counting bikes, pedestrians and ridership on the 43-Masonic bus line. The report will consider eliminating auto lanes to accommodate new bike lanes and building medians at certain intersections to improve pedestrian safety. The MTA hopes to finish the planning and approval process by summer 2010.

Creating a ‘win-win’ plan

The Masonic study dovetails with the city's bike plan, a 56-piece project that calls for bike-related improvements throughout San Francisco. The bike plan has been on hold for more than two years because of a lawsuit-induced injunction in 2006 that forced the city to further study the environmental impact. A draft review was released in November 2008, and the city is expected to seek court approval within three months.

The bike plan's proposed changes to Masonic vary at different intersections, but generally call for removing at least one lane of traffic and adding bike lanes on both sides. Most intersections would get new dedicated left-turn lanes, a change Blankenship supports — anything to stop the nightly horn honking from near-collisions outside her home.

"I hope they can make that happen," she said.

Neighborhood resident Travis Hamlin echoes her scary rush-hour stories.

"It gets crazy at this intersection," he said while waiting at Masonic and Fulton for the 5-Fulton bus. "People come flying down that hill."

MTA spokeswoman Kristen Holland said the goal of the plan is to improve the use of Masonic for all, not just bicyclists.

"This project has many considerations that include, but go beyond, bicycles," Holland said.

The MTA has identified at least three causes for concern along Masonic, based on 2003-2007 data:

  • The intersection at Turk, where Masonic crests blindly in both directions, is the city's fifth worst for red-light running.
  • The stretch between Geary and Fell is the 10th-worst for accidents involving bicycles.
  • Several schools border the corridor, including San Francisco Day School, Wallenberg High School, Simpatico, New Traditions and the University of San Francisco, with almost 9,000 students.

The momentum is a big win for Fix Masonic, a neighborhood coalition that has worked with WalkSF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to lobby for changes. Fix Masonic founder Mark Christiansen said that although the MTA's work is just beginning, he is optimistic that the city is on the right track.

"The city has risen to the challenge," Christiansen said. "There's almost a sense of relief that there could be an answer to what has been an intractable problem."

MTA data show why more study is needed. Though Masonic is busy, it does not rank high on the list of the city's busiest streets. During the past 13 years, it has not experienced significant or sustained increases in traffic or accidents.

Look at the numbers:  In periodic traffic counts taken by the MTA at various intersections, between 16,000 and 20,000 cars a day travel in each direction. In December 1996, northbound traffic at Fulton Street registered 16,088 vehicles; in July 2007, 16,494 vehicles. MTA tallies in both directions recorded 35,061 vehicles in 1996 and 35,956 in 2007.

Photo: Michael Strickland

As for accidents, no Masonic intersections were among the worst in MTA's 2007 Collision Report. The 43-Masonic bus was involved in 15 injury collisions between 2005 and 2007, ranking 11th among all MUNI lines.

Christiansen said he’s excited that the city is not waiting for the bike plan lawsuit to be resolved.

"This project is complicated enough that we don’t want MTA to wait to get started," he said. "We're looking for a complete street. It is a bicycle corridor so it cannot be complete without a bicycle facility of some sort, but it's bigger than that."

Marc Caswell, program manager at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, is also pleased that the city is moving forward.

"The key to this has been the strength of the Fix Masonic group," Caswell said.

Rob Anderson, an anti-bicycling blogger, one-time supervisorial candidate and founder of the Coalition for Adequate Review, filed the lawsuit in 2005 that stopped the bike plan. After the injunction was issued in June 2006, Anderson told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, "I think cycling in the city is dangerous and foolish. It's irresponsible for the city to encourage an inherently dangerous activity." Anderson did not return requests for comment to The Public Press.

Everyone agrees that the key sticking point to any change will be impact on traffic flow along this major artery. The draft environmental impact report on the bike plan acknowledges that the "level of service" — traffic flow — could be reduced at certain intersections along Masonic, specifically at Turk, Fulton and Fell streets, if proposed changes are implemented. The 43-Masonic bus line also would experience delays, the draft concluded.

Christiansen expects the bulk of the opposition to come from car commuters outside the neighborhood who use Masonic every day. Stephanie Bradford of Daly City uses Masonic to reach her office off Geary and agrees that Masonic definitely needs improvements and bike lanes. She said she hopes she won't have to find alternative routes to reach I-280.

"I'll admit it's unsafe at times. The intersection at Fulton is a mess," Bradford said. "But I already have to use a number of side streets to get to 280, and this could make it even more complicated. We'll see."

Photo: Michael Strickland

Safety for all

For bicyclists, change cannot come soon enough. In just the first two months of 2009, police report 15 bike-car accidents between Turk and Fell, with six at Masonic and Fell alone. A left-turn signal for cyclists and pedestrians that was installed in September was supposed to make the notorious intersection safer, but it has had mixed results. Cyclists report some motorists are either confused by the turn arrow or ignore it.

Cindy Asrir and her 11-year-old daughter, Naomi, learned in January how dangerous crossing Masonic and Fell on  a bike can be.

Heading west on the Panhandle path, they crossed Masonic with the green light for pedestrians and cyclists only. Suddenly, Asrir was hit in the crosswalk and knocked onto the hood of a southbound vehicle that had sped through the red light. She suffered bumps and bruises. Fortunately, her daughter, trailing behind her, was unhurt.

Though the new bike signal was not at issue, Asrir said it highlights the danger at the intersection.

The signal "should make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but as soon as that happened I'm totally on edge again," she said. "It's a very complicated intersection."

Asrir, who lives in the neighborhood, said she wants to teach her daughter the importance of getting around by bicycle.

"But how am I going to teach my daughter to bike to the park if it's not safe to get there?"











You think cars are bad in SF?  Bike riders are just as dangerous.  Already my 3 year old daughter has come close to being run over on two different occations by bikes riden on sidewalks.  And these were adult riders decked out in their desinger lycra outfits riding at a speed that would be considered fast even on the street.

The sidewalks on Masonic are already really wide. I think it would be easiest to just divide the sidewalk into a walking lane and a biking lane.

I'd like to see some documentation on the claims about accidents on Masonic, since previous city collision reports didn't even put Masonic on its list of dangerous streets, except for the Masonic/Fell intersection. And what exactly is wrong with the EIR's discussion of Masonic Ave? Could it be that that document tells us what we suspected all along, that taking away a traffic lane to make bike lanes is going to screw up traffic and slow the #43 line? The city is spending $120,000 for still another study of Masonic to reach a conclusion that will enable them to do what they want to do---screw up traffic on Masonic on behalf of a tiny minority of PC fanatics.