Bikeway on San Francisco’s Embarcadero a Step Closer to Reality

The Embarcadero attracts many bicyclists, as well as cars and pedstrians. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)
The Embarcadero attracts many bicyclists, as well as cars and pedestrians. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

When planners were redesigning the Embarcadero in the 1990s, where a quake-damaged double-deck freeway had been torn down and the surface street later transformed into a boulevard, they opted against building a separated path for bicyclists.

Instead, standard bike lanes were chosen and “cyclists who wanted to stay off the street would be permitted to use the promenade,” according to a 2009 study conducted for SPUR, the San Francisco Urban Planning and Research Association, which was featured in this Streetsblog San Francisco story.

More than two decades later, the Embarcadero, with its breathtaking views and growing number of attractions, has become a big draw for tourists, locals and workers. And conflicts are increasing on the street and on the promenade between drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. The city is also experiencing a population boom.

Now, after a decade of prodding from bike advocates, officials from a number of city agencies agree the time has come to reconfigure the street and build a protected bikeway.

“We’re excited that after many years of discussion, the city is launching an actual planning process that will result in great improvements,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. That public process, expected to last up to a year, begins tonight with an open house at Pier 1 that starts at 6 p.m.

The current green bike lanes on the Embarcadero can be troublesome because they’re positioned between an auto lane and a parking lane. Bicyclists are often forced into car traffic to avoid shuttles, taxis, trucks and other vehicles that frequently block the bike lanes. That’s why some bike riders prefer to stay on the promenade, where they feel safer.

Between 2006 and 2011, two pedestrians were killed and 84 people were injured on the Embarcadero while walking or riding a bicycle, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Four pedestrians and three bicyclists were severely injured.

The most recent count by the SFMTA — taken two weeks ago between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. at Embarcadero and Broadway — found almost as many people walking as driving. People in cars accounted for 36 percent of those on the Embarcadero, while 32 percent were pedestrians, 23 percent were Muni passengers and 9 percent, or 550 people, were on bicycles.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's rendering of a protected bikeway along the Embarcadero.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s rendering of a protected bikeway along the Embarcadero.

Bike advocates say building a continuous and protected two-way bikeway — separated from auto traffic — along the entire 3-mile-long Embarcadero would attract bicyclists of all ages. Studies have shown that protected bike lanes improve safety and attract more riders.

“This will also allow the many people walking on the promenade to do so safe and comfortably without conflict from bike traffic,” Shahum said.

Last year, during the America’s Cup, the SFMTA set up a temporary two-way bikeway along a portion of the Embarcadero that was deemed a success.

The Bicycle Coalition would like to see a permanent bikeway constructed on the east side of the Embarcadero because it “has far fewer conflict areas such as driveways or parking zones that would put people biking and driving in conflict with each other,” said Shahum.

Patrick Golier, who is heading the Embarcadero Enhancement Project for the SFMTA, said Port of San Francisco officials have “emphasized and re-emphasized with us how oversubscribed the promenade [east] side is, and how undersubscribed the west side of the street is.”

Golier said planners may examine how to make the west side more attractive for bicyclists and pedestrians but acknowledged some concerns, such as the number of cross streets and “strange three-legged intersections” that “would need to be addressed through detailed design.”

The diversity and physical constraints of the street, Golier pointed out, seem to change on a block-by-block basis and “pretty much everything’s up in the air.”

Shahum would like to see something akin to the Hudson River Greenway in New York. A recommended design is expected to be presented by the fall of 2015.

“We do intend to deliver a project that addresses safety and comfort concerns for everyone,” said Golier.

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