High Tech Thermo Plastic Safety Upgrade Hits 17th St.

August 5, 2016 — John Entwistle reporting from 17th Street in San Francisco, CA.

The past two weeks have seen an unprecedented concentration of safety upgrades along the super dangerous 17th Street Castro Corridor, a three block stretch running from Church Street to Castro Street. This crucial passage serves pedestrians, bikes, cars and streetcars all in a narrow 44 foot constricted space. Right now it is unacceptably hazardous to bike riders with high profile accidents happening continuously.

While the solution to our problem will require structural reassignment of street space to allow for safe passage of bicycles, traffic calming and control through a variety of means has long been needed. So when SFMTA showed up in force a couple of weeks ago and began to systematically work from one end of the street to the other, we watched in disbelief, like wanderers in the desert wondering if the oasis is yet another mirage.


These people were like street corner engineers or something. Super skillful at working in dangerous conditions with 325 degree molten plastic. They were fast, driving up in the mid morning with a fleet of heavy trucks and trailers. They set up cones and surgically knocked out each step then pulling up shop and disappearing into the city streets from whence they came. Catching them to take these pictures was kinda of tricky actually because they were so fast and precise. I’d come running up and they were already done, movin’ on.vlcsnap-2016-08-05-19h21m38s165vlcsnap-2016-08-05-19h20m47s231

But I caught a lot and was personally amazed at the work these people do. I tweeted some before and after shots to say thank you to the powers that be (so the gods at City Hall wouldn’t think we were ingrates!) but I wanted to take a little extra space to celebrate the job and the workers and the equipment that upgraded all the pedestrian crossings and other pavement markings on 17th Street from Church to Castro Streets. And once more to say Thank You to the men and women who did this work: SFMTA, George Reynolds and crew, Supervisor Scott Wiener & Mayor Ed Lee and especially Sandra Zuniga & her FixItSF Team.

Source: SF Planning Department, Better Streets Plan.

Our tour starts at the Castro end of 17th Street, actually the area between Castro St. & Hartford Street. This isn’t technically Jane Warner Plaza but it is where the F-Market line historic streetcar passengers disembark. It is a tiny stub of a street passable for cars only if they are using the gas station but according to the folks who live there cars whip through at random times creating a general feeling of tension and fear.

The manager of one of the buildings at that corner has been calling for better street markings for years to try to calm down some of these crazed drivers. She was very pleased to see this job finally being done and seeing it done so well. This is what it looked like before our hero’s arrived on scene.

17th & Hartford St.Looking East.
17th & Hartford St. Looking N.E. at both intersections before SFMTA.
17th & Hartford Street Looking N.E. — “Abbey Road” Crosswalks — New!
17th St tracks in 1983, June 23
Back in June, 1983 those stripes on the ground were visible.
But by 2016 they were but a memory, not totally gone, just faded too dark to see.
Using string and spray paint SFMTA workers establish their lines.
Getting your initial line up and flow just right…
They make it look easy but that plastic is 325 degrees.
One with the plastic, laser focus, balance.


Give that handle a quick twist and throw your body over the line. Done!
Now for the stripes over the rails.
They use a road sign to protect the tracks
Move the sign, jump the tracks…
Then that last one foot stub, the hardest part.
That swish in the air, that’s sand being thrown onto the still wet plastic for texture.
We get our basic outline in place.
Voila, a complete passenger safety zone.
One last shot.

Next we will be moving East on 17th to the corner of Noe Street. Once again, this corner carries a lot of traffic and the crosswalks were not getting any respect. Let’s see what we had and what we upgraded this intersection to.

We used to call this the cross hairs style pedestrian crossing. (Like target.)
This intersection had a giant series of ruts right in the bike path.
One last look at the bad old days at 17th & Noe.

First the folks from DPW rolled through and outlined and subsequently filled the big gaps running next to the track right in the bike lane. We thanked them for this in a tweet.

Noe Crack-Before-After

Next the hot plastic crew from SFMTA took over and did a wonderful job of installing the serious pedestrian crosswalks that will serve us for years to come. And we sent out a grateful  tweet… To which we received an unexpected response…


And on East we march to Sanchez and 17th Street. Same story. Big trucks full of exotic building materials and road marking stuff came rolling up and when they left, everything was like new.

What crosswalks? Sanchez & 17th Street.
Yup, That’s Sanchez Elementary School with no crosswalks.
Studying the turf, establishing lines at 17th & Church Streets. The SFMTA Crew!


Then George and the team shows up and starts melting plastic.
Now we’re getting some respect.
A crosswalk you can see from space.

And the Thank You tweet:


NewCrosswalksComplete - 17th & Sanchez

The equipment and vehicles used to do this stuff is interesting. They basically work in yellow or white and have separate sets of equipment for each color. Yellow means its a school zone. The raw plastic material comes in those cardboard boxes on the back of the truck. They hand feed these slabs into the furnace as needed.




Continuing east on 17th Street toward Church Street we note the really bright easy to see high visibility dividing line down the center of the Street. As we stated earlier, the line was renewed along this entire three block corridor all the way to Castro Street. It reminds drivers that this is not the ghetto and believe it or not, this does effect the entire psychology of the motorists as they pass through causing them to slow down a bit and to be slightly more conscious. A good idea in a school zone, right?

Lines Before & After

Fresh new thermoplastic lane dividers on 17th Street.

And finally we find ourselves on the corner of Church St. and 17th Street, one of the most dangerous bike and wheelchair intersections in town. Fixing this, or at least reducing the danger a bit, will require a bunch of steps. The curbs need to be modified for wheelchair access, the tracks need to be reevaluated track by track for removal, more signage and safety markings on the pavement are an imperative, just for starters. We are also thinking about bike boxes and a bike-leading stoplight where bikes get five seconds to go before the cars do. Let’s take a look.


This schematic diagram from the city show the bike path as originally conceived. It got nixed in 2011 because it would have been too close to the tracks.

At this point our merry band of thermoplastic engineers gets a pass. There’s really only a few small improvements they can implement here. They repainted the curbs bright red to remind motorists that the corners are no parking. That is important for the streetcars turning the corner and for the bikes not getting pushed onto the tracks. People pulling up to load and unload is a problem still being considered. So far we have tuned up the relationship between the curbs, the street & the “No Parking” sign as these next few pictures illustrate.


The whole system works to repel cars from the corner so that bikes can line up correctly with the tracks to minimize rail catch of bike tires. In the end it looks like this…3-ChurchGuide-e

And notice the sign in the background across 17th Street. That sign has a new sister installed a week or two ago on the other side of Church Street so as you roll West on 17th Street you are warned of the Church Street tracks up ahead.

A - New sign

As was mentioned above, removal of barriers to people with disabilities is part of the project which means the rails and the curbs are on the table. Let’s look at those details for a second.

The rails hugging the corner create a major trap for wheelchairs trying to get from the crosswalk with the bike guy in it to the curb cut under the word “corner.”

Stepping back you can see the big picture…


The good news is that others are tackling this problem with different tools and expertise.

MikeSallaberry- JaniceLi-AlanUy-2
SFMTA Engineers Mike Sallaberry & Alan Uy, SF Bike Coalition Advocacy Director Janice Li ponder solutions to the Church & 17th Street enigma. Neighbors listen intently.


SFMTA workers measure and evaluate the existing corner for curb cuts at 17th and Church Street on August 1, 2016. It is an interesting challenge to upgrade this corner.

And that’s all that was written. There are only two items left for this page.

First, a big Thank You to the folks at SFMTA, Mayor Ed Lee, & Supervisor Scott Wiener without whom we would not be getting any help from The City. Scott gets major credit for pulling this effort together and putting the power of his Office behind this. And an additional special thanks to George Reynolds & crew and to Sandra Zuniga & her FixItSF  team.Scott on Bike

And the second is a link to the video that started this whole campaign to end these terrible bike wrecks on 17th Street. That would be the video of the Mother and her two small children thrown to the ground on the 17th Street MUNI tracks.

‘Nuff said!

Update Aug 8, 2016 (And our thanks to Sandra Zuniga and her FixIt Team):ZunigaTweet

Update: August 10, 2016: We just received this great letter calling me on my initial choice of pronouns in attributing the above efforts. The corrections have all been made to reflect the contributions of both men and women to the efforts chronicled above. Thanks to the sharp eyed reader in our midst!!


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