Plan would shut Powell Street to private cars

San Francisco’s Powell Street could soon become safer for both pedestrians and cable car riders as city officials consider a proposal to drastically reduce vehicle traffic on the blocks between Market Street and Union Square.

The Powell Street Safety and Sidewalk Improvement pilot project would prohibit all vehicle traffic except Municipal Railway buses, taxis and commercial vehicles on the two blocks of Powell Street between Ellis and Geary streets.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is considering an 18-month pilot project that would test the proposed restrictions for their effect on pedestrian safety, transit delays and wear and tear on the cables that drive the city’s famous cable cars.

The plan initially proposed to prohibit vehicle traffic including taxis, but was modified to allow taxis and hotel shuttles in response to concerns from hotels with drop-off and pickup zones on Powell Street, according to SFMTA spokesman Robert Lyles.

Vehicles driving for companies such as Uber and Lyft will not be permitted since they are considered private vehicles, and hotel guests who arrive in their own private vehicles will have to park elsewhere and walk, Lyles said.

He said the SFMTA has worked to incorporate the concerns of area businesses and hotels into the plan and most are on board, although one hotel appears to have raised some new concerns as recently as last week.

“It has had a considerable amount of support,” Lyles said of the plan.

Kevin Carroll, executive director for the Hotel Council of San Francisco, said the hotel group has been working closely with the SFMTA on the issue.

“We definitely do support creating a pedestrian-friendly environment, we just want to make sure hotel guests who choose to arrive by vehicle will be able to do so,” Carroll said.

The pilot project would also allow for commercial trucks to make deliveries on the affected blocks.

The stretch of Powell Street where the restrictions are being considered is one of the busiest areas in the city, with more than 4,000 people walking on it every hour during peak times, according to the SFMTA.

It is also home to the historic Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable car lines, a major tourist draw.

Those cable car lines have seen increased damage and safety issues in recent years, however, due to heavy vehicle traffic on the street. The vehicles force the cable cars to stop and start frequently, putting extra wear and tear on the heavy cables, SFMTA officials said.

The damage has caused cable life to decrease by around 25 percent over the past five years, meaning cables must be replaced every 30 days on average now, down from around 50 days in 2000, according to the SFMTA.

Officials hope the pilot project will reduce delays, lower the cost of operating the cable cars and reduce the risk of a serious accident if a cable breaks. It should also reduce the overall risk of pedestrian injuries, given the large number of people walking in the area.

The SFMTA board is expected to vote on the Powell Street pilot project on Nov. 3, and it should take effect almost “immediately” if it is approved, according to Lyles.