Columbus Avenue to see street safety changes

Tourists and residents visiting San Francisco’s famous tourist spot “Little Italy” share limited sidewalk space with parking meters, planters, and outside restaurant seating on North Beach’s Columbus Avenue.

“There’s always a ton of tourists and people walking through the area,” Talisa Flores resident of Ingleside and visiting North Beach said. “I have to weave in and out of people in order to get anywhere on this street.”

Because of the high traffic of pedestrians, North Beach’s Columbus Avenue is listed on Mayor Edwin M. Lee’s top streets in need of pedestrian safety improvements.

Photo by Katrina Andaya
Sidewalks of North Beach are deemed too narrow by the City’s Better Streets Plan.

The Columbus Neighborhood Transportation Plan, a study that identified changes to transportation infrastructure and policies on Columbus Avenue to enhance livability and economic viability of the corridor, benefit residents, merchants and visitors, found that the 10-foot wide sidewalks of Columbus are too narrow for the volume of pedestrians using the street.

They are also narrower than San Francisco’s recommended sidewalk width of 12 feet for major streets such as Columbus, as set forth in the City’s Better Streets Plan, a plan adopted in February 2006 by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors that creates a unified set of standards, guidelines, and implementation strategies to govern how San Francisco designs, builds, and maintains its pedestrian environment.

“The sidewalks are too narrow and most of the time it is very crowded around here,” Alex Rodriguez, who works at Original Joes in North Beach said.

Columbus is identified as one of the priority pedestrian streets, based on a number of considerations that includes safety said Principal Transportation Planner at San Francisco County Transportation Authority, Rachel Hiatt, who’s agency led the Columbus Avenue Neighborhood Transportation Plan.

Columbus is also one of the streets in San Francisco identified with the highest concentrations of pedestrian injuries and fatalities according to a street safety report by the city’s transportation department, “Safety Streets.”

A repaving of Columbus is scheduled for the summer of 2014 and planning and outreach is currently being done this fall in order to reduce crossing distances, improve pedestrian visibility, reduce sidewalk crowding at corners, improve muni operation stops, and implement bicycle lane improvements.

“I think repaving of Columbus is a good idea,” Jacob Blevins, 35, who works at Caffé Delucchi in North Beach, said. “There are a lot of tourists in the area, and tour buses that drive by every few seconds.”

City planners have proposed three design alternatives for the repaving. Two of the designs proposed calls for a two-lane street with the widening of sidewalks and the use of a “flex lane” and the other calls for a four-lane street with a “flex lane” and does not widen the sidewalk.

A “flex lane” is a term for a sort of shared space arrangement, meaning vehicles and pedestrians share the same space. The idea of the “flex lane” has not yet been incorporated in San Francisco, and though it’s an innovative concept, it comes with several design challenges.

“There are existing alleyways throughout San Francisco that are shared spaces,” Hiatt said. “There are a number of design challenges associated with that, especially around providing detectable warnings for people with disabilities.”

A local resident Mike Sonn has set up a petition to rally support for the design that calls for sidewalk widening, whether it comes via a lost travel lane or parking lane.

Sonn says he started the petition because he wants to improve pedestrian safety, but also feels that it is a case of comfort.

“North Beach is a dense, walkable community and its main thoroughfare isn’t a suitable walking experience at all,” Sonn said. “The sidewalks are narrow and cluttered. It is nearly impossible to walk unabated for any extended period of time.”

Caffé Roma, which is located on Columbus, has already incorporated the idea of a parklet with extra seating for its customers.

Photo by Katrina Andaya
Caffé Roma incorporated the idea of a parklet to provide more seating for customers.

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“The parklet has brought us more business,” Anthony Azzollini, owner of Caffé Roma, said. “Extending sidewalks would allow us to fill more area to seat and serve customers.”

The only contention Sonn is facing is that the cost per block for sidewalk widening is $1.5 million.

The funding for the project comes from Proposition B, the general obligation streets bond passed in November of 2011. The project is receiving $800,000 from this bond for streetscape and paving and city planners hope to receive, but is not yet approved, $500,000 in agency funds.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Project Manager for the repaving of Columbus, James Shahamiri, says that because of the budget, the repaving of Columbus will most likely not include the widening of sidewalks. Though, what we can expect is bulbouts, or curb extension, at intersections such as Columbus and Greene in order to create more walking space for pedestrians.

Photo by Katrina Andaya
City planners plan to implement bulbouts at the intersection of Columbus and Green.

“Our perspective on sidewalk widening is it’s great. It supports the businesses and it supports the neighborhood,” Shahamiri said. “But it doesn’t really correlate directly with safety improvement, where as the bulbouts we’re proposing at intersections do.”

Because Columbus is a high injury pedestrian network, the priority in terms of prioritizing funding is to remove collision factors such as shortening pedestrian crossing distances and making pedestrians more visible to cars when crossing.

Another high priority of the proposal is to make improvements on biking. Columbus is part of the city’s bike route network and is the flattest route through the area.

Columbus currently has two lanes and parking on both sides and what they hope to do is take out a lane and put bike lanes in, while also keeping the parking.

“We look at this as a huge improvement for bicycle conductivity and safety, but it’s also a great pedestrian safety improvement,” Shahamiri said. “Now you have 50 percent less exposure to motor vehicle traffic when crossing the streets. Even though there are traffic signals, regardless you still have two lanes less traffic to cross.”

Shahamiri says they have been checking in with the community to touch base on the planning process and have met with community groups such as Renew SF, North Beach Business Association, Telegraph Hill Dwellers, North Beach Chinatown Beacon Center and North Beach Neighbors.

He says that the biggest struggle they are facing is trying to find consensus within the neighborhood.

“Columbus is kind of unique in regard that it’s a neighborhood street,” Shahamiri said. “It’s a hustle and bustle commercial corridor, has a lot of tourism and is also used by a lot of commuters. So you have all these different interests who are kind of buying for a piece of the pie.”

The next steps for the project include continuing more community outreach and ultimately deciding where the curbs are going to be placed, before the actual repaving occurs.

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