Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Transportation & Infrastructure
Published on January 19, 2016
2 Months In, SFMTA Modifies Powell Street Safety PilotPhotos: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline

Just over two months after implementing a pilot project that closed two blocks of Powell Street to most vehicles, the SFMTA's board of directors today approved a modification opening up the area to a little more traffic. The agenda item was approved without discussion at the regular board meeting.

When and where is this taking effect? The Powell Street Safety and Sidewalk Improvement Pilot was approved on Nov. 3rd, 2015, implemented on Nov. 13th and scheduled to run through June 4th, 2017. It affects the 100 and 200 blocks of Powell Street from O'Farrell to Ellis streets. This project flyer explains more details. This particular change affects the northbound lanes of the 200 block of Powell.

Why did SFMTA decide to close these two blocks to most private traffic? It was done for cable car efficiency and safety, and for pedestrian safety and a better walking environment. Read our earlier report for full details.

What did the pilot do? The lanes were painted red to denote “transit only” lanes, with access restricted to Muni vehicles, Paratransit and color-schemed taxicabs and vehicles with commercial license plates. No private vehicles were allowed (including Uber and Lyft), except for passenger loading and unloading on the southbound 200 block of Powell (between Geary and O’Farrell). That revision was made after input at public meetings. 

What does the new change do? The modification affects part of one block—northbound Powell between O’Farrell and Geary—to also allow private passenger loading and unloading. So now, left turns will be allowed from O'Farrell onto Powell. In effect, it opens the entire 200 block of Powell to private vehicles for loading and unloading, not just southbound lanes. "It does not affect any other part of the pilot, so all of the other restrictions will stay in place," wrote SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose in an email to Hoodline.

Why change it now? Rose writes, "At the November 3, 2015, SFMTA Board meeting, several Powell Street property owners came forward and asked that we also include the northbound side of the street as a condition of their support for the project legislation. Staff agreed to this change, and the Board directed staff to return in January with the requested modification, as long as staff was confident that the 'less restriction' regulation would still achieve the pilot goals."

He continued, "If everyone follows the rules, the vehicle volumes should be low enough to pursue a shared street type design that would permit low speed vehicles to access the street to pick up and drop off passengers while giving most of the street to a pedestrian thoroughfare. The goal is to find the minimum level of restriction that reduces traffic volumes to those recommended in the Better Streets Plan for shared streets."

The Powell Street changes were based on the idea of a pedestrian promenade. 

Karin Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District, sent an email to us that included this statement: "In the case of Powell Street we had to balance the need to accommodate the large number of pedestrians walking up Powell with the loading and unloading needs of the individual hotels/merchants."

Rose clarified in his email, "Making this change doesn’t mean that these types of restrictions will be included in the final design for Powell. It does mean that we can put them in place to study them and collect data that will help us make a recommendation on whether they would positively impact a shared street. It is ultimately a small modification to the pilot that gives us another opportunity to study street conditions and builds support for the future permanent Powell project."