Car Parking or Bike Lanes? The Polk Streetscape Controversy

On March 3rd, 2015, the SFMTA board voted to approve the redesign of a 1.3-mile stretch of Polk Street between Union and McAllister Street in San Francisco that proposes the addition of bike lanes as well as other streetscape improvements such as trees, raised crosswalks, bulb-outs, and pedestrian-scale street lights.

Polk Street is an important commercial street that runs through several mixed-use neighborhoods and also serves as a major north-south bike route as it is relatively flat. Polk Street is also one of the streets in San Francisco that accounts for a high number of collisions involving bicyclists and pedestrians and thus became a focus for redesign in support of the city’s Vision Zero, which aims at eliminating all traffic fatalities by 2024.

Proposed part-time bike lane and Class II bike lane

Naturally, any change of this scale requires in-depth public discussion and it is expected that viewpoints differ depending on individual circumstances, needs, and use patterns. This plan process, however, included no fewer than fifty meetings over the course of two years resulting in a plan that attempts to find common ground through compromise, yet is perceived as unsatisfactory by residents, merchants, and cyclists. The main controversy revolves around the necessary removal of parking spaces to accommodate protected bike lanes, which left merchants worried about access for customers coming to the area by car, while bike advocates argued that only protected bike lanes will significantly reduce bike collisions in accordance with the goals of Vision Zero.

The approved plan now includes a variety of measures such as a protected bike lane ("raised cycle track") along the eighteen blocks northbound starting at McAllister, designated bike lanes (Class II, painted green) along the entire southbound direction, shared lane markings ("sharrows") between Broadway and Union Street in northbound direction, and “part-time” bike lanes along six blocks between California Street and Broadway in northbound direction that are used for car parking outside of morning commute hours.

Proposed raised cycle track and Class II bike lane

This concept, a well-intentioned compromise, undoubtedly presents a major improvement compared to existing conditions but results in a consistent but unprotected bike lane in southbound direction and in inconsistent bike facilities in northbound direction. It remains to be seen how much this approach can reduce the number of accidents and if better is good enough to reach Vision Zero. Eventually, bike facilities should also get extended all the way to Bay Street to complete one of the few north-south bike connections.

Interestingly, Polk Street is also the first street in San Francisco that features fully protected bike lanes along two blocks between Market and Grove Street, with one side being a "contra-flow" bike lane that runs against a one-way traffic and that includes bike-specific traffic signals. The section along City Hall has back-in parallel parking that increases visibility of cyclists for drivers pulling out of a parking spot. This was a very promising start. It now seems that Polk Street will become a case study for the effectiveness of all the different bike lane configurations that are currently in use.

Contra-flow bike lane at Polk Street

Drawings courtesy of