Powell Street goes carless under SFMTA pilot

A two-block stretch of Powell Street will soon be closed for private vehicles to keep pedestrians safe and help San Francisco’s iconic cable cars running more smoothly.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors approved an 18-month pilot to close off traffic on Powell Street between Geary and O’Farrell streets with the exception of Muni buses, taxis, paratransit, emergency and commercial vehicles from Dec. 4 through June 4, 2017.

The pilot would restrict private vehicles from making turns onto Powell Street from Ellis to O’Farrell streets, said Dan Howard, project manager of the Powell Street Safety and Sidewalk Improvement Pilot.

Drivers will have access to passenger loading zones on Southbound Powell Street between Geary and O’Farrell streets for those staying at two hotels in the area — The Villa Florence and Hotel Stratford.

Vehicles who want to access the passenger loading zone will be able to make a left turn from westbound Geary Street onto southbound Powell Street during the pilot of the project.

Northbound Powell Street between Geary and O’Farrell streets has a commercial loading zone and will restrict private vehicles, but will lift some restrictions for passenger loading after the holidays, said Howard.

Commercial vehicles will have 24-hour access to three loading zones on Powell Street between Geary and Ellis streets. New loading zones were also created on Geary, Ellis and O’Farrell streets.

Howard said the primary focus of the pilot is to address the pedestrian safety concerns, which includes the thousands of tourists that visit Union Square every year:

“During the past five years, there have been 25 reported collisions, including 18 injury collisions.”

The other goal of pilot is to prevent the wear and tear of the cable car system, said Howard:

“They were not designed to operate in stop and go traffic.”

He said that the cable that runs underneath tracks worked best when the cable is gripped either fully or let go:

“Just like a manual transmission car, the cable grip must slip the cable while its moving forward from a stop or traveling slower than the 8 miles per hour that the cable travels. This slipping every time it occurs, causes damage to the cable.”

Howard added:

“As traffic congestion on Powell increases, the amount of times the grip man must slip the cable goes up, which causes more damage to the cable.”

The SFMTA also measures the life of the cables. The transit agency said it used to replace the cables every once every 52 days, but now replace them on average once every 25 days.

Howard said the transit agency will collect data during the pilot on the wear and tear of the cables as well as transit travel times, pedestrian collisions and traffic counts and speeds.

The project has support from the Hotel Council of San Francisco and the Union Square Business Improvement District.

Karen Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District, which represents the dozens of stores in Union Square, gave her conditional support of the project, but said she would like to see a long-term investment in the area:

“It’s really critical we don’t just put red paint down and some signs and call it day. It needs to have a long-term plan.”