Powell Street car ban takes effect

Two blocks of Powell Street are closed to private vehicles for 18 months starting Friday in an effort to make the street safer for pedestrians and to save the cable car system cables from costly tangles.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Friday launched its Powell Street Safety and Sidewalk Improvement Pilot, which prohibits private vehicles from entering Powell Street between Ellis and Geary streets. The pilot was approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors at its Nov. 3 meeting.

SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said the transit agency was working on putting up the restriction signs and painting the two blocks of Powell Street with red paint to warn drivers that they are in a restricted area.

Muni, taxi and paratransit and emergency vehicles are only allowed in the restricted area. Commercial vehicles will have access to the restricted area to use the designated loading zones, the transit agency said.

Southbound between Geary and O’Farrell streets is not painted red, but will restrict private vehicles to only loading and unloading passengers. Vehicles not there for that purpose are subject to a fine. Northbound between the those same streets have received red paint.

Safety was one of the priorities for the transit agency in implementing the pilot, said SFTMA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin:

“People are getting hurt in trying to come and enjoy this great part of our city and that’s really at the core of what were here to address.”

Despite being one of the first places visitors visit in San Francisco, Reiskin said the area has not alway been pedestrian friendly:

“It’s not always been the space for people to walk around. Over the course of the last five years, 24 traffic collisions in the two-block stretch.”

Union Square businesses were in favor of the pilot including those represented by the Union Square Business Improvement District.

Claude Imbault, director of strategic initiatives for the BID, said the business district has been working with the SFMTA for the last six months to come up with a pilot that would work for area:

“We want to ensure that visitors come and they come back to Union Square. We want to make sure that experience for them is safe, is welcoming and there’s a pedestrian experience where they want to come back and say whoa, I’m going to come back to San Francisco. This is quite a special place.”

Reiskin said another part of the reason why the transit agency is implementing the pilot so to save the cable car system cables.

John Haley, SFMTA director of transit, said the more times cable cars stop and go through congested the traffic, the cables, which allows the cable cars to move through the tracks, turns into what the transit agency calls a “bird’s nest.”

Cable cars also use Powell Street to return to the cable car barn. If the cables are a mess, the transit agency has to tow the cable cars back to the barn, which could take up to six hours, said Haley.

The San Francisco Police Department said it will not start issuing citations yet at least for 21 days. Drivers will get warnings. Parking control and SFPD officers were in place on Friday directing traffic away from Powell Street.

During the pilot, the transit agency said it will collect data of the wear and tear of the cables as well as transit travel times, pedestrian collisions and traffic counts.

The SFMTA already has a similar program launched on Market Street, which restricts private vehicles from Third to Eighth streets.