17th Street's dangerous rails

  • by John Entwistle Jr.
  • Wednesday July 19, 2017
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I saw a mother riding her bicycle up 17th Street, two girls on back, headed for the Castro. Passing a double-parked car between Church and Sanchez streets the old Muni tracks caught her tire. They crashed, smashing hard onto the pavement.

Those absurdly dangerous tracks have a long history of toppling bikes, mopeds, and motorcycles. Most aren't reported. Even when people are cut up and bruised, if they can get up and walk away, they do. So, the official record lists only the really bad crashes requiring medical intervention, ambulances, emergency rooms, etc.

This has been ongoing for decades on a bike route carrying nearly a thousand riders daily. It's like the Bermuda Triangle for two-wheeled vehicles.

That mom never got up. She couldn't move to stop her own daughters from walking into traffic as they clambered to their feet, dazed. Fortunately, she was accompanied by a gentleman on another bike who swept up the kids as several pedestrians rendered assistance. Fifteen minutes later four emergency vehicles responded. She left in an ambulance.

Armed with home security video of this irrefutably bad thing I asked the supervisors for help. And to our community's credit it was the gay guys at City Hall who called in the top planners at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and pushed them to finally fix this problem.

Conor Johnston (board President London Breed's former aide) got involved and then Scott Wiener (now a state senator) committed his District 8 supervisor's office to helping us. Current District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy is continuing the effort. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and a local activists' group called SF Transformation have also assisted massively.

This past year neighbors and crash victims met several times with traffic engineers, department heads, and railroad representatives. These were very candid productive gatherings at City Hall and on 17th Street itself. A lot of communicating and learning has occurred.

First the good news: protected bike lanes to prevent the mid-block bike crashes on 17th Street between Church and Sanchez streets are planned for construction this fall. The bad news is that at the intersections (Church, Sanchez, and Noe) as well as on 17th Street from Sanchez to Noe Street the bike wrecks will continue.

SFMTA traffic engineers are doing all they can but those old streetcar tracks are like cattle guards for bicycles, especially where they cross intersections. Bike riders cannot use the road safely in the legal manner due to the flangeways (type of railway) catching their tires. They're also an impediment to disabled pedestrians at crosswalks. This is why the tracks will ultimately have to go even if it takes the California Public Utilities Commission to make that happen.

Another thing one might not remember: the original plan was to remove those temporary 17th Street rails back in 1982 when Muni began regular service under Market Street. They were installed for the old streetcar system, maintaining that vital connection between downtown and the Twin Peaks Tunnel while the Church and Castro Street stations, along with Harvey Milk Plaza, were constructed.

It was all funded by BART project money, supervised by a genius highway engineer from Washington state, and totally skipped any planning process or safety concerns that would normally be addressed because the tracks were to exist for only a few short years.

And that's when our local transit agency found itself led into temptation. It saw a benefit to having those tracks. And being railroad folks, they were naturally averse to removing that expensive half grand union junction at Church and 17th streets. So, they never tore them out.

For the next 30 years bicyclists paid in blood for that bad decision.

Seventeenth Street is too narrow for Muni tracks. Normally Muni runs on wider roads with parking plus two lanes of traffic in each direction, like Church Street. They also used the wrong kind of rails. A close look reveals that Muni tracks on SF streets are "grooved rail" with the flangeway set in steel at the correct size. The T-rail on 17th Street from Church to Noe streets is what you see in train yards. Its flangeways are degraded asphalt ruts alongside the rails. That's why no engineer in his or her right mind, including the ones who built them, would have made these particular tracks permanent.

Streetcar tracks are hazardous by definition so the recommendation of the California Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices is to remove them whenever possible. Yet in the House of the SFMTA the Rail Division has veto power over any decision involving tracks. Inquiries were made about each track on 17th Street, as well as each of the spurs onto Church Street. The Rail Division claims to need or "potentially want to use" every rail asset.

These two blocks of non-revenue tracks aren't on any line and carry no regular passengers. So, what does Muni covet them for that's worth injuring people? Private streetcar "party" rides for one. Moving empty streetcars to and from Market Street despite having better, safer routes. And for skipping the four stops on Upper Market Street during rush hours because streetcars slow down automobiles. So much for public safety in the Castro. We're on the wrong side of the tracks.

Imagine those rails removed from Church Street to Noe Street. Visualize smooth fresh pavement, unchanged parking, and a safe marked bike path just like the rest of 17th Street already has running clear to Mission Bay. We can't undo that mother crashing but we can absolutely stop it from happening again.


John Entwistle Jr. is a Castro resident.