Quick Build Initiative Transforming the Streets of San Francisco

Street improvements to benefit cyclists and pedestrians have been moving rapidly in San Francisco since the June approval of the Vision Zero quick-build initiative, a two-year plan to expedite safety project on high-injury corridors.

3 minute read

September 26, 2019, 1:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Polk Street Bikes

Dennis Yang / Flickr

"A street design revolution is under way in San Francisco’s downtown and waterfront neighborhoods, the bustling heart of the city and the site of many deadly car crashes," writes Rachel Swan, who covers transportation for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The frenzy of quick-build projects represents a culture change at San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency [SFMTA], long known for its sluggish bureaucracy and inability to overcome political opposition.

"Quick-build projects are reversible, adjustable traffic safety improvements that can be installed relatively quickly," states the SFMTA description of the initiative at the heart of the street design revolution. See slide presentation [pdf].

Unlike major capital projects that may take years to plan, design, bid and construct, quick-build projects are buildable within weeks and months and are intended to be evaluated and reviewed within the initial 24 months of construction.

"In past years, infrastructure as simple as a raised crosswalk or a paint-and-post bike lane would run through a gantlet of community meetings, where residents and merchants would rail about lost parking or the narrowing of a road," adds Swan. 

Sometimes neighbors would kill a project all together. Often they would slow it down or significantly alter the plans.

Conversion of conventional to protected bike lane

"And this week [Sept. 17] the board of directors for the SFMTA unanimously approved another protected bike lane along Fifth Street, stretching from Caltrain to Market Street," adds Swan.

On average one person gets injured each week in traffic collisions on Fifth Street, a disturbing trend that the SFMTA hopes to reverse, said agency planner Thalia Leng. 

Crews will begin re-striping the street within six weeks, finish concrete work next winter and upgrade intersections in 2021.

The 5th Street Improvement Project fits in well with the Vision Zero Quick-Build initiative in the sense that rather than adding a new, protected bike lane, which would make it more of a long term capital improvement project, SFMTA will upgrade the existing conventional bike lane to a protected lane.

“As it currently exists, 5th Street is simply not designed to keep pedestrians and bicyclists safe," said Mayor London Breed in a news release on Sept. 18.

"This project will protect pedestrians and bicyclists, and our new quick-build policy will allow us to make immediate safety improvements while long-term changes are being made.”

A good example of the MTA turnaround in approaching deadly corridors is the Townsend Corridor Improvement Project by the San Francisco Caltrain Depot, which was shelved last year and is now undergoing construction.

The 7th Street Safety Project was completed last month and is operational, but a critical commentary by Streetsblog SF editor Roger Rudick highlights the differences between the quick-build approach to protected bike lanes and those done as long term capital improvements.

Related in Planetizen:

Thursday, September 19, 2019 in San Francisco Chronicle

Rendering of electric scooters, electric cars, light rail train, and apartments in background.

Arizona’s ‘Car-Free’ Community Takes Shape

Culdesac Tempe has been welcoming residents since last year.

February 14, 2024 - The Cool Down

Aerial view of suburban sprawl with large single-family homes near Dallas, Texas.

The Changing Shape of American Suburbs

Housing costs and availability are pushing more American households, including young families, to suburbs and exurbs — and they’re demanding changes.

February 13, 2024 - Business Insider

Aerial view of New York City architecture with augmented reality visualization, blue digital holograms over buildings and skyscrapers

4 Ways to Use AI in Urban Planning and City Design

With the ability to predict trends, engage citizens, enhance resource allocation, and guide decision-making, artificial intelligence has the potential to serve as planners’ very own multi-tool.

February 20, 2024 - ArchDaily

Google street view of wide grassy median in Beverly Hills, California.

Beverly Hills Installs First ‘Green Street’

A three-block median featuring native plants and bioswales is part of the city’s broader effort to reduce water consumption and pollution.

February 22 - Beverly Press

Habitat for Humanity volunteers in construction helmets buildign a wood-frame house.

Habitat for Humanity and Missoula Land Trust Team up on Affordable Housing

The partnership will ensure the new homes will remain affordable for future buyers.

February 22 - KPAX

Orange California poppies in bloom over gently rolling hills in Southern California's Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve.

Experiencing California's Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

Located in the western Mojave Desert, this stunning state natural reserve is renowned for its breathtaking displays of California poppies and has even been referred to as California's most beautiful place.

February 22 - California.com

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

The Walkable City

Harvard GSD Executive Education

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.