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San Francisco votes to protect bike lanes despite SFFD alarm

Deputy chief worries parked cars may block access to burning buildings

A fire engine pulling out of a garage near the Bay Bridge. Photo by Mike Peel

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority voted 6-0 on Tuesday to shield cyclists from traffic on Market Street, even though the city’s fire department worries it will make it harder for them to respond to calls along the main artery.

The city’s Upper Market Street Safety Project hopes to cut down on traffic accidents between Castro and Octavia Street, particularly for bike riders. Of perils on that stretch of Market SFMTA says:

From July 2011 to June 2016 there were 174 traffic collisions on Market from Octavia to Castro. Out of this total, 22 collisions involved a pedestrian, 51 involved a bicyclist, and 71 percent resulted in an injury.

Most of the safety proposals are relatively non-controversial, including extending crosswalk signal time for pedestrians, green bike lanes, and other small but potentially crucial improvements.

But the city also plans to install “parking-protected bike lanes”:

San Francisco also has a few parking-protected bike lanes in Golden Gate Park and on sections of 13th Street, Bay Street in the Marina and the southern end of Polk Street near Market. With this design, the bike lane runs curbside, and the parking lane is placed between the bike lane and the traffic lane.

The “parking-protected” part refers to the cars that park at the berm of the bike lane instead of the curb, thus forming a barrier of vehicles between cyclists and traffic.

The San Francisco Fire Department objects to the design, saying that it would make it harder for trucks and crews to get close to certain buildings.

“We’re not opposed to parking protected bike lanes” per se, the department’s Deputy Chief of Operations Mark Gonzales told the board at Tuesday’s meeting, adding that he’s a cyclist himself.

Photo via Shutterstock/public domain

But then Gonzales showed board members a photo of a burning building on Fillmore and Fell, where firefighters had to carefully place their truck at least ten feet away from the crisscross of wires overhead, many of them belonging to Muni’s electric buses.

“The protected bike lanes will shift cars so that they’ll be parked in the exact position where that truck needed to be,” said Gonzales.

Staff responded that overhead wires pose an obstacle at only about 20 percent of building faces on the corridor and promised to work with the fire department refining the lane designs.

In the end, the board unanimously approved the safety improvements package despite the deputy chief’s concerns. “I ride this corridor frequently, and it really is terrifying,” board member Joel Ramos said before casting his vote.