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City leaders rush to capitalize on a tragic crash and make major traffic changes

Slow down on West Portal traffic overhaul still ignores residents’ concerns as San Francisco leaders push for fewer cars

A policeman observes a severely damaged white SUV that crashed into a pole.
Courtesy Alan Burradell

By Jim Wollak

After rushing to propose new traffic changes in the West Portal neighborhood following a tragic crash that killed a family of four on March 16, San Francisco officials have backtracked and say they’ll allow more community input. That sounds inviting, but city officials are still rushing to make sweeping changes to the intersection of West Portal Avenue and Ulloa Street. I’m concerned these proposed changes will be inflicted on the neighborhood without considering the consequences.

Not all information concerning the crash, including the driver’s toxicology reports or any security camera footage, has been shared with the public. The incident started somewhere along Ulloa when the driver lost control and crashed into the bus stop, so why does the intersection need to be redesigned? The driver has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, reckless driving, driving on the wrong side of the road and driving at an unsafe speed. If she is genuinely at fault, then the tragedy is a result of personal decisions or circumstances, not the design of the intersection. Does that mean everyone must be impacted because of it?

With so little information on which to base a decision, lawmakers should hold their fire. Major traffic changes shouldn’t be hurried, despite the enthusiasm of some street-safety activists only days after the crash. The truth is, the proposed work to the West Portal intersection likely wouldn’t have done anything to prevent the fatal crash.

It seems the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s answer to all traffic issues is to restrict, block or even ban cars—all while the city is about to begin a huge crackdown on parking. Other similar changes to our streets have been controversial, such as the lengthy battles over traffic on John F. Kennedy Drive and the Great Highway. Merchants along both the Market and Valencia Street corridors have complained that changes there hurt their businesses by blocking parking. It certainly won’t be any different for the merchants along West Portal.

SFMTA and politicians shouldn’t impose potential burdens upon merchants, residents and visitors to West Portal. Restricting cars will force traffic onto side streets, increase congestion and affect parking for residents and visitors, not just for businesses. Community feedback shouldn’t be discounted or ignored simply because it doesn’t support the agendas of the powerful. Holding performative hearings is also no guarantee that residents’ input will be heeded.

In West Portal, the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened in 1918, and the neighborhood grew up around it. The T-shaped configuration of this vital intersection is lined with structures, so redesigning the area as a plaza will diminish the already limited space. 

Instead of reducing traffic to only transit and commercial vehicles, SFMTA should consider installing signals, adding brief stop lights so vehicle traffic doesn’t back up along Ulloa in either direction, allowing a few cars through at a time, and then trains to enter or leave the station, similar to how signals at St. Francis Circle work. Additional signs should be posted prominently throughout the intersections to direct different kinds of traffic. Barriers, perhaps a narrow line of posts, could be placed along the 900 block of Ulloa so there’s a designated lane for cars and one for transit vehicles in each direction. 

Increased policing by SFPD and the SFMTA is sorely needed to prevent drivers from speeding, making illegal turns or double-parking at will. Lenox Way should remain a two-way street so that traffic flows instead of clogging.

‘Careful, deliberate, unemotional’ decisions needed

Some have called this tragedy an inflection point or moment of reckoning. Maybe it is, but any changes should be made with careful, deliberate, unemotional input from everyone, not just a couple of groups motivated to limit driving citywide. 

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin’s vision for a grand plaza sounds attractive, but not if it disregards effects on merchants, older adults and others with mobility issues. Bicycle riders, walkers and other pedestrians may benefit, but not the merchants and residents of District 7, especially along West Portal and Ulloa. Supervisor Myrna Melgar may wish all cars were banned from the intersection, but she’s not the only person who lives, works, shops or walks in the area, and she shouldn’t resort to insulting concerned neighbors.

The goal should be to make all traffic flow as efficiently and safely as possible, not to impose a one-size-fits-all approach that makes navigating the area difficult. Call me a Luddite if you want, but I’m a third-generation San Franciscan whose family has lived a block and a half from the station for 65 years. We shouldn’t have to suffer because city officials are in a hurry to use a tragedy to make sweeping changes to a major intersection and make the city less car-friendly, They must think of the consequences on those who live or pass through the neighborhood every day.

Jim Wollak is a retired financial data analyst who lives in West Portal.

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