Lightning Fast, Dirt Cheap: Five Tips From SF’s Protected Bike Lane Projects

Before/after cross-sections of 7th Street, San Francisco. Photos: Jeremy Menzies, SFMTA.
Before/after cross-sections of 7th Street, San Francisco. Photos: Jeremy Menzies, SFMTA.

PlacesForBikes is a PeopleForBikes program to help U.S. communities build better biking, faster. You can follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for their weekly news digest about building all-ages biking networks.

If you’d like to cut the project time of a new protected bike lane by 90 percent and the cost by 75 percent, Mike Sallaberry has some advice.

A senior transportation engineer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Sallaberry has a short piece in the new issue of ITE Journal sharing useful details on three projects in 2016 and 2017 that used the “quick-build” method. Instead of spending two years getting every detail right and then pouring permanent curbs, SFMTA built first — using paint, plastic and removable concrete islands — and asked questions both before and after.

The result, as Sallaberry explains, is a potentially more inclusive public process and a project that’s far more efficient.

“Common practice in San Francisco has been to identify the ideal result then wait for design, funding, contracting and construction to deliver the design,” says Sallaberry. “While this makes sense for many situations, a new approach was used recently where intermediate designs were implemented in the near term to act as ‘stepping stones’ to a longer term design.”

Maybe most important, the inherent flexibility of the quick-build approach makes it institutionally easier for a public agency to innovate. Without so much “fear of installing something that does not work,” Sallaberry explains, city staff feel free “to try new ideas to solve challenging issues.”

The agile process recalls modern software engineering, so it’s fitting that San Francisco is among the first cities embracing it. Here are five lessons we saw in Sallaberry’s piece for other cities interested in becoming fast followers.

1) Get the whole team to sign a prenup.

Members of SF’s quick-build project team. Photo: Jeremy Menzies, SFMTA

Not a literal premarital agreement, of course, but the day-job equivalent of one. Sallaberry refers to the document his team used as “a project charter with roles and responsibilities, along with other key project details, clearly spelled out and signed off on by all pertinent staff.”

The point of the “project charter,” in Sallaberry’s description, isn’t so much to tie people’s hands as to make it easier for people to improvise effectively during a fast-moving process.

“Just as one would not put five players on a basketball court without assigning positions, identifying their responsibilities, or having any plays in mind and expect much success, all players on the project team should know their roles and responsibilities from the start so that no tasks fall through the cracks or are replicated by more than one person,” he writes.

2) If possible, make sure your city has policies that will help resolve difficult tradeoffs.

Division and 13th. Photo: Jeremy Menzies, SFMTA

Sometimes you simply have to choose: should a project prioritize walking safety or automotive speed? Project timeline or stakeholder consensus? Sallaberry attributes some of his team’s success to a city that had preemptively agreed on some of its key values.

He mentions San Francisco’s “long-standing ‘Transit First’ policy that prioritizes transit, pedestrian and bicycle elements over the accommodation of single occupant vehicles”; “a Vision Zero policy signed off on by key city agencies to work toward a goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2024”; and “an executive directive by the mayor spelling out near term deliverables and timelines for agencies like the SFMTA to complete street safety improvements.”

3) The question to ask stakeholders isn’t “Should we do this or not?” — it’s “How should we do this?”

Photo: Mike Sallaberry, SFMTA

Like a parent asking if a child prefers peas or broccoli, it’s sometimes best for a city to pose its outreach questions in a way that prods them to think beyond the status quo.

Sallaberry: “The narrative for the public outreach was (basically) ‘These projects will be delivered, here are details about the projects and their schedule, here are aspects of the project that are undetermined where we could use your feedback, and here is how we will evaluate and adjust the projects as needed.'”

4) Keep preliminary public input quick.

This isn’t because you want to short-change public input. It’s because you want to respect the vast majority of the public who don’t have time or interest in every detail.

“To have an open-ended outreach process that can stretch to a year or more and potentially involve a large number of public meetings and hearings without a clear roadmap is confusing and frustrating to the public and can easily waste their time,” Sallaberry writes. “To expect the average person to attend multiple meetings, each lasting two or more hours, is disrespectful of their time and can easily alienate people who are interested in the project outcome but have busy schedules. A short but pithy outreach period is more efficient for everyone involved.”

5) Don’t underestimate your colleagues in the field.

Pouring a bus boarding island. Photo: Alan Uy, SFMTA

In skipping its usual external bid process to save time and money, San Francisco was asking its in-house maintenance staff to do tasks they weren’t familiar with. Sallaberry says some office workers thought the new process would meet resistance from the garage and street crew.

Just the opposite.

“Initially some office staff assumed that new or unusual designs were a burden to our field crews, but talking with various city crews responsible for installing and constructing projects, we have found that they enjoy new projects and see them as challenges that keep their work interesting,” Sallaberry writes. “The same can be said for planning and engineering staff. Even the public outreach aspect of the work becomes more interesting and engaging to all involved.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: U.S. cities are entering a new golden age of civil engineering. Now that the work to be done has advanced from the vast to the precise, creativity reigns. If you’d like to learn more about the exciting new style of project delivery Sallaberry describes, we interviewed some of its pioneers around the country to write a whole report about it.

PlacesForBikes is a PeopleForBikes program to help U.S. communities build better biking, faster. You can follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for their weekly news digest about building all-ages biking networks.

  • Anthony R

    Please remind readers that without the death of Kate Slattery in 2016 it’s likely SFMTA would have never summoned the will to fast track the 7th Street bikelane. Likewise Amelie LaMoulac killed on Folsom St. in 2013 spurred that project. The backstory is these women had to die before an indifferent city addressed the deadly status quo on our dangerous streets. Credit is also due to the SF Bicycle Coalition and it’s dedicated staff, membership and countless volunteers.

  • Mike

    As the author of the article published in the ITE Journal, I appreciate you mentioning Kate and Amelie. Heather Miller was also killed the same day as Kate, which led to the Mayor issuing the Executive Directive.

    While the article was intended primarily as a “how-to” or “lessons learned” piece for other cities and traffic planners/engineers, it is deaths like theirs that led to the establishment of the Vision Zero policy in San Francisco in 2014. Indeed, what drives me and other people I know working to improve traffic safety in San Francisco and other cities is the desire to reduce fatalities and injuries, and to spare family and friends from ever having to deal with a loss due to a fatality. I bet all of us have been directly affected by a loved one (or our self) involved in a serious collision. We want streets that are safe and comfortable for everyone to use, including those who walk or use a bike. It should not require bravery to use a bicycle, as a colleague of mine once said. Thank you to everyone, such as the SFBC and Walk SF, who have contributed to making our streets safer and more livable. For cities interested in more information about SF’s Vision Zero policy and strategy: http://visionzerosf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/VZSF_What-You-Need-To-Know.pdf

  • Asher Of LA

    Thank you for this article, Michael.

    “Now that the work to be done has advanced from the vast to the precise, creativity reigns.”

    Great point! As craftsmen, the workers appreciate an opportunity for creative, novel work.

  • Earl D.

    I was an initial septic of these improvements because they were light on fixed infrastructure barriers (preferring improvements to lane marking and reconfiguring parking) and mostly neglected the most dangerous aspects of biking, aggressive, unsafe automotive behavior at intersections (I really wanted to see fully protected intersections).

    It’s pretty clear that skepticism was wrong. Even though the improvements are still quite recent, I think the reduction in accidents, particularly injuries and deaths, are substantial enough to be significant and attributable to these upgrades. This team saved real lives. That’s important to emphasize: though no one will ever know who they are, there people walking around today, going about their daily lives, who would be dead and whose families would still be morning their loss if these improvements weren’t made. In my book that makes this team heroes.

    One point that I’d add is that Ed Lee has a share of the credit by emphasizing the urgency of make SOMA streets safer without the kind of bureaucratic meddling and grandstanding that SF politicians are famous for that encourages CYAism rather than leadership and innovation. Lee was a terrible (and much hounded by the activist class) public speaker, but he was a master administrator and very hard working public servant. Under appreciated when he was alive, but SF owes him a debt of gratitude.

  • Vision Zero is just a slogan, not a realistic traffic policy. Long before the Vision Zero slogan/policy was announced, traffic fatalities were on the decline in San Francisco, but they will never be zero due to our pesky human nature that sometimes makes us do unsafe, foolish things on city streets:
    https://district5diary.blogspot.com/2018/01/traffic-deaths-down-vision-zero-success.html

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    But some of us are more pesky and more foolish than others.

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