It’s safe to say that Lower Haight residents are divided over the SFMTA’s plan to install traffic lights at the intersections of Haight St. with Pierce St. and Scott St.
If you need proof or just need to catch up on the controversy, Hoodline’s post earlier this week about a petition being circulated to stop the traffic lights should get you up to speed—and if you really feel like wading into the morass, don’t miss the dozens of responses from Hoodline commenters.
We reached out to the SFMTA for comment on the petition and to get some clarity on the project, but hadn’t received a response by the time that post went up. Now Hoodline has had a chance to speak with Sean Kennedy, Muni Forward Program Manager for the SFMTA, and he has answered some of the most pressing questions regarding the 71 Haight Noriega Rapid Project, as the traffic light plan is officially known.
First and foremost, Kennedy insists the project is about reducing delays for Muni lines running down Haight Street, not prioritizing buses over pedestrians, cyclists, or cars. “[T]he project isn’t intended to ‘speed up Muni,’ but to reduce the delay Muni suffers due to stopping at STOP signs every block,” Kennedy told Hoodline via email. “By replacing STOP signs with traffic signals, we can time our signals to give Muni the green light, ultimately reducing delay and improving reliability. And packaged with treatments like pedestrian bulbs, ladder-style crosswalks, pedestrian leading intervals and turn restrictions, traffic signals will result in the most significant increase to pedestrian safety as well.”
Will the lights speed up car traffic?
Many Lower Haight residents opposed to the plan cited some combination of these three pieces of speculative evidence for why they think the lights are a bad idea: The lights will actually make traffic more dangerous because cars will speed up to make green lights; the lights will turn Haight into a high-speed corridor like Golden Gate Avenue and Turk Street; cars will draft off of buses, which will have transponders in them that let the traffic signals know they are coming, and after hitting all the green lights the cars will speed around the buses.
So we asked Kennedy exactly how that would work. “[T]he lights will be timed,” Kennedy confirmed. “However, unlike Golden Gate and Turk, the traffic lights on Haight Street would not be timed for rapid car movement, but instead, timed for Muni buses, or 15-20 miles per hour. The signals will also have Transit Signal Priority (TSP) which will hold the green light if a transit vehicle is approaching.”
That means that even if cars do speed around the buses or speed up to make a green light, they’ll still have to maintain an average speed of 15-20 mph or they’ll just get stuck at the next light. When a bus approaches, the transponders will signal the light to stay green for a 5-8 second window, in order to give the bus time to get through the intersection. "Drafting" off the buses won't be advantageous because the cars will just be stuck behind the bus when it makes its next stop on the other side of the intersection. Also, the 5-8 second window means the transit-priority lights shouldn’t add significantly to cars’ travel time when they're simply trying to cross Haight, either, according to Kennedy.
What about pedestrians?
A major concern among Lower Haight residents was that Muni was prioritizing buses over other forms of transit, including walking. Has the SFMTA taken pedestrians into account?
"Signals are also good for pedestrian safety," Kennedy told Hoodline. "Over the last 5 years alone, 25 people have been hit by vehicles between Central and Stanyan. Our data indicates that traffic related pedestrian collisions significantly decrease at intersections converted from all-way STOP controlled to traffic signal controlled."
The “pedestrian bulbs” are another key feature, according to Kennedy, because they will allow the sidewalk to come all the way out to the bus, which will therefore be able to stay in the traffic lane, further reducing the ability of cars to speed around buses and create dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.
What about bikes?
Speaking of bikes, the intersections of Haight with Scott and Pierce are both part of the Wiggle. Many residents feel like the lights are a waste of money because bikes won’t stop at the lights any more than they do at the stop signs currently there.
Kennedy acknowledges that cyclists running stop signs is a problem and insists the changes will reduce cyclist-on-pedestrian conflicts. “Bikes blow stop signs and really make it unsafe for pedestrians. Lights are known to reduce the number of cyclists that blow through the intersection, because it’s a lot more unsafe to pull that move,” he told Hoodline.
Of course, cyclists’ safety needs to be considered too. Kennedy says there’s a whole separate planning process for the Wiggle that the SFMTA’s Livable Streets department is working on, but things like the green bicycle boxes at intersection and protected left turn signals are certainly in consideration to make sure the huge number of cyclists who use the Wiggle for their daily commute can traverse these intersections safely.
Will it actually speed up the buses?
The SFMTA is in the process of installing so-called "Signal Transit Priority" lights, like the ones proposed for Haight, at all of the high-traffic corridors in the city. "The thing about Signal Transit Priority is having the lights all in a row," Kennedy says. "You don’t get that benefit when you have them at one intersection." That's why the decision was made to install new lights in the Lower Haight, as well as mid-Haight. Kennedy says the SFMTA has seen "great results" elsewhere in the city where Signal Transit Priority lights have been installed, such as the 14 line, where they've seen savings of five minutes, on average.
Kennedy provided these details for how much stop signs slow the buses down:
This proposal is designed to reduce Muni delays related to bus acceleration and deceleration rates. Our model shows that a bus traveling on Haight Street and stopping for a STOP sign would be a minimum of 18 seconds (per stop) as opposed to a bus that maintained a constant speed through the intersection at a green light:
• 5 seconds to slow from 25mph to a complete stop at a stop sign
• 3 seconds stopped at the stop sign (Driver looks left and right for cross traffic and pedestrians)
• 5 seconds (if there is 1 car ahead of the bus at the STOP sign, or pedestrians crossing, or vehicles on the cross street that require the bus to wait before proceeding)
• 5 seconds to accelerate from the stop sign
Outreach and other concerns
Another point of contention raised by Michael Gaines, who started the petition to stop the traffic lights, was that the SFMTA had done a poor job of reaching out to residents and soliciting their input. In response, Kennedy sent Hoodline a long list of items to document the outreach efforts the SFMTA made in preparing its proposal. However, Kennedy did tell Hoodline that they are attempting to slow down the process in order to assuage the concerns of residents.
Specifically, according to Kennedy, the SFMTA is delaying its decision to install a light at Laguna and Haight, which is often completely blocked by cars waiting to turn right onto the Octavia highway on-ramp. Given that the red bus-only lane recently went in on the eastern end of Haight, residents felt there might be a better way to tame that particularly chaotic intersection than a traffic light, and the SFMTA is working with them to find the best solution.
If you have further questions or concerns, Kennedy says you can also go to TellMuni.com, pick the bus line you want to talk about (that would be the 71 in this case), and submit whatever comments you want. And MuniForward.com has all the info you need about the Muni Forward plan as well as public meetings and other opportunities for the community to provide input.