Powell Street Safety and Sidewalk Improvement Pilot

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Project Introduction

The stretch of Powell Street from Union Square to Market Street is one of San Francisco’s most iconic streets. Hosting the historic Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable car lines, this street is a worldwide attraction and holds a special place in the City. Owing to its attractiveness, it is also one of the busiest streets in the city, with over 28,000 people visiting each day. With so many visitors and high traffic volumes through the area, sidewalks are often crowded and traffic is congested, causing safety problems for people walking, driving, and those riding the iconic cable cars. The Powell Street Safety and Sidewalk Improvement Pilot evaluated the effectiveness of vehicle restrictions on two blocks of Powell Street in freeing the cable cars from traffic congestion and improving safety for people crossing the street.

For the 18 months, the project tested the effectiveness of vehicle restrictions on transit delay, traffic volumes, loading patterns, and cable wear and tear. The project reserved Powell Street between Geary and Ellis streets for cable cars, taxis and commercial vehicles; non-commercial vehicles are permitted to access the street to pick up or drop-off passengers in the designated loading zones. In July 2017, these vehicle restrictions were permanently legislated by the SFMTA Board of Directors following encouraging results from the pilot. Traffic volumes decreased on Powell Street roughly 60%, injury collisions within the project area dropped from 2-3 incidents per year to zero during the pilot, hazardous wear to the cable cars was reduced 23%, and turning movement volumes fell by 70 to 80%. A permanent street design incorporating elements of the successful pilot is currently being planned.

Project Timeline
Jun 2015 - Nov 2015
Dec 2015 - Jun 2017
Project Status
  1. Completed
Project Success
On budget
On schedule
Pedestrian safety zones at intersections
Cable Car
Red transit lanes

Pilot scope and outcome

Data collected from the pilot included traffic volumes, traffic speeds and delay, traffic routing information, transit delay measurements, loading activity, the interval between cable replacements, and collisions. This data resulted in the conclusion that the piloted traffic regulations were effective in improving safety and should be incorporated into a future project on Powell Street.


In the Union Square area, traffic congestion is so heavy that the cable cars often must inch along on these blocks. Cable cars were not designed to operate in stop-and-go traffic, and inching along damages the cable and causes it to fray. As a result of increased congestion in the area, cable life has been reduced about 25% over the past five years. By 2015, the cables had to be replaced every 30 days on average, down from once per 50 days in 2000. These conditions make a severe cable car collision more likely and increase the cost associated with operating the cable cars. Removing vehicles from the cable car right-of-way both reduces wear on the cable and decreases the chance that a runaway cable car will injure people and cause damage. In addition, reducing the number of turns at the three intersections, identified by Vision Zero as having a high or medium number of injury collisions, will improve safety for people walking.

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