Plans For Two New Haight Street Traffic Lights Spark Controversy

Plans For Two New Haight Street Traffic Lights Spark Controversy
Mike Gaworecki / Hoodline
By Mike Gaworecki - Published on January 26, 2015.

If you’ve stopped by any of the cafes, stores, or other businesses in the Lower Haight lately—especially those at or near the intersections of Haight Street at Pierce and Scott—you might have noticed a petition imploring you to “Stop Traffic Lights on Haight St. @ Scott & Pierce.”

The petition was created by Lower Haight resident and Lower Haight Merchants and Neighbors Association member Michael Gaines. In crafting the 71-Haight Noriega Rapid Project as part of its broader Muni Forward plan—the program under which the new traffic lights will be installed on Haight Street—Gaines says the SFMTA has unfairly prioritized the public buses under its purview while failing to consider the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and cars traversing Haight Street.

“We don’t have solid data that other stakeholders are being taken into consideration,” Gaines told us.

That lack of information is precisely the point for Gaines, who says the SFMTA did a poor job of reaching out to local residents and getting them involved in the decision-making process. In fact, Gaines first became aware of the changes planned for his neighborhood when he read a Hoodline article—not because of any outreach efforts by the SFMTA.

Gaines has already collected as many as 250 signatures in opposition to the SFMTA’s plans and sent them along to the agency—not in the hopes of killing the traffic lights altogether, but more as an attempt to slow the process down so that local residents can provide input on the changes.

“We’re in favor of speeding up Muni, and traffic bulb-outs, and other things like the red lane down on Haight Street at Laguna,” Gaines said. “We know SFMTA has to run the buses, and it costs a lot of money.” Gaines says he and the 250 homeowners and business owners who have signed the petition so far want to make sure the SFMTA is spending money on things that actually keep the neighborhood safe. “Give us data to show us it slows traffic down,” he said.

Gaines and others have tried to get that data, but say that SFMTA has been unresponsive. Gaines shared what little information he has received  from the SFMTA’s Muni Forward Program Manager Sean Kennedy and various experts with Walk SF, a pedestrian advocacy organization.

In an email, Kennedy said that 13 intersections were studied by SFMTA, but only five were comparable to Haight Street, according to Michael Smith, the founder of Walk SF—the other eight were too different from a pedestrian safety standpoint to be useful comparisons to make, usually because they had more than two traffic lanes.

We've reached out to Sean Kennedy at the SFMTA for further comment, but so far haven't heard back with more information about the SFMTA's methodology. 

So how are the businesses adjacent to the two proposed stop lights reacting to the news?

Suheil Alaraj, who owns The Grind (783 Haight St.), agrees with Gaines that the traffic lights are not only unnecessary but could possibly create a worse problem than the one the SFMTA is seeking to solve. “They’re going to alleviate tension on the buses, but make it worse for cars. And there are a lot more cars on that street,” he said. “I just think it’s going to be a big mess. It’s going to be gridlock at the corner when it’s actually flowing pretty smooth.”

The Grind has the petition front and center on its counter, but you won’t find one next door at the New Santa Clara Market (799 Haight St. at Scott St.). Shuman Mussa, who has worked at the store since 2004, says he supports the decision to put a traffic light at the intersection of Haight and Scott because he sits in his store all day and watches accident after accident that he feels a light would prevent.

“We want it,” Mussa told Hoodline. “You have to see the accidents. It will be more safe.” He then rattles off at least three stories involving car-on-pedestrian, bike-on-pedestrian and car-on-bike accidents—all from within the past week.

Middle Eastern restaurant Palmyra (700 Haight St.) has the petition on its counter, even though owner Mohammed Eltawin actually supports the installation of traffic lights. “The bikes make a problem,” Eltawin said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you take the discussion out of the realm of city policy, traffic flows, and collision data, the thing people bring up the most is bikes. Both intersections—Haight at Scott and Haight at Pierce—are part of the Wiggle, a cyclist-heavy route through the city, and a common complaint has to do with bike breezing through stops signs and, potentially, red lights. 

But that being said, most local merchants Hoodline spoke to, even many who have the petition in their establishment, are more or less indifferent about the traffic lights.

Josh Bea at Groove Merchant Records (687 Haight St.) doesn’t have strong feelings one way or the other, but says he also doesn’t see the point of installing the lights because bicyclists won’t stop anyway.

“Bicycles not gonna stop,” one shopper, who was only willing to be identified as a 40-year resident of the Lower Haight, told Hoodline inside the Sunrise Market (688 Haight St.).

“I don’t think they’ll stop,” Tsegai Berahe agreed from behind the counter. Berahe has no idea if it’s a good or bad idea to install the lights, but does say, “I see no problem here.” With that in mind, Berahe opposes the lights as what he calls a waste of money.

If you'd like to join Gaines' community pushback, visit The Grind (783 Haight St.) to sign the petition.