Taken with Transportation

Paint, Paper, Metal and Machines

March 21, 2024 Episode 13
Paint, Paper, Metal and Machines
Taken with Transportation
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Taken with Transportation
Paint, Paper, Metal and Machines
Mar 21, 2024 Episode 13

There are things on our streets that we probably take for granted but most definitely help us move around cities safely and efficiently. We’re talking about street signs, street markings and parking meters. 

In San Francisco, the SFMTA Street Operations shops handle the signs, street painting and meters we depend on, whether we are getting around by walking, driving, cycling or scooting. In this episode of Taken with Transportation, we pay a visit to those shops and speak with Traffic Paint Shop Supervisor Brian McBride, Meter Shop Manager Tony Massetti, Temporary Sign Program Manager Gretchen Rude and Traffic Sign Shop Manager Noel Laffey. We also get a chance to talk to Thermoplastic Crew Six lead Jarrett Laws and Traffic Sign Installer Patrick Rose as they are on the job.

Show Notes Transcript

There are things on our streets that we probably take for granted but most definitely help us move around cities safely and efficiently. We’re talking about street signs, street markings and parking meters. 

In San Francisco, the SFMTA Street Operations shops handle the signs, street painting and meters we depend on, whether we are getting around by walking, driving, cycling or scooting. In this episode of Taken with Transportation, we pay a visit to those shops and speak with Traffic Paint Shop Supervisor Brian McBride, Meter Shop Manager Tony Massetti, Temporary Sign Program Manager Gretchen Rude and Traffic Sign Shop Manager Noel Laffey. We also get a chance to talk to Thermoplastic Crew Six lead Jarrett Laws and Traffic Sign Installer Patrick Rose as they are on the job.

MELISSA CULROSS, HOST: There’s a lot of paint, metal, machinery and even paper on and around San Francisco streets, and it’s all essential to helping us navigate the city.

BRIAN MCBRIDE: Drivers need to know where they need to be, you know, to make it safe.

MELISSA: Welcome to TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s official podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Culross, and in this episode, we’re visiting the SFMTA Street operations shops and meeting the people responsible for street signs, parking meters and street painting. The work that comes out of these shops helps everyone in the city, whether we walk, drive, bike or scoot from place to place.

We begin, appropriately enough, outside…at the intersection of Lake Merced Boulevard and Brotherhood Way. That’s where we meet Jarrett Laws, the lead for the agency’s Thermoplastic Crew Six. He explains what he and his team are working on here.

JARRETT LAWS: It’s a three-phase project, which is installing new bike lanes with a, uh, traffic median to protect them, and basically going from two lanes of traffic down to one to create that new bike lane for the bicyclists. 

MELISSA: So, what does creating this bike lane entail?

JARRETT: We have to do is we have to first come out, we’re going to re-mark to what the new lanes and bike lanes are going to be and all those intricacies. And what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna mark all that in black paint so it doesn’t confuse, uh, the motorists and, and everybody else driving along. And then what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna remove what’s existing. While we do that, we have to out that back to make it safe for the drivers and people. Uh, we put all that stuff back in temporary tape, and then once we’re done removing everything, erasing everything, we start over, and we re-stripe.

MELISSA: As the name of the crew would suggest, Laws and his team are not using paint to re-stripe.

JARRETT: We use thermoplastic, which is a melted plastic. We heat that up to about 425 degrees. I liken it to, maybe, roofing but on the ground. Everything is very hot. We use a lot of protective equipment to protect ourselves: eyewear, welding gloves to protect our hands and stuff like that from any splashes or any things like that. But in keeping with using that type of product, it lasts a long time. It takes the abuse of buses and big trucks and different things going on. So yeah, melted plastic, 425 degrees, and we put that right on the ground. What happens is because it’s so hot, it actually fuses to the asphalt. And that’s what helps it bond. 

MELISSA: It may come as a surprise to learn that traffic markings aren’t created with paint…your host was a bit surprised, at least. So, we ask Laws if thermoplastic is used on curbs, as well as the street.

JARRETT: All the curb painting is done with latex paint. It dries quickly, it’s very easy to touch up and things like that. It’d be hard to do thermoplastic on a curb. Just because of the application process. Everything just goes right into the ground, so it would be a messy deal if we tried to, tried to do curbs with that stuff. It’d be, probably last forever, but I mean, a lot of times curbs do change over the years. 

MELISSA: Lake Merced Boulevard is open while all of this is going on, so the crew uses trucks and cones to block off the lane they’re working in. Meanwhile, Traffic Paint Shop Supervisor Brian McBride, who is also here, tells us this crew is part of the agency’s paint shop, and that the paint shop is made up of different teams.

BRIAN MCBRIDE: There are essentially three shops. Our traffic paint shop, there’s the curbs, uh, paint shop or division and Muni. Curbs paints the red curbs, yellow curbs, handicapped zones, things like that that you’ll see on the curbs. Muni paints, like, the flag stops, the yellow bus stop notifications, all the train, uh, markings. The stops for the trains, like the double-X you’ll see on the rails. 

MELISSA: McBride explains that the traffic paint shop handles all street painting…using thermoplastic or two-part epoxy.

BRIAN: We have maintenance requests for service to replace fading or unclear, uh, traffic striping. There could be bike lanes, uh, new implementations like this project. Lake Merced’s a whole new configuration, so we have to remove everything that’s existing and reconfigure it to the new designs by the engineers. We do the whole gamut. We put down red bus lanes, you know, bus-taxi only lanes, green bike lanes, just about anything you see painted on the streets, we’re responsible for.

MELISSA: This work is invaluable. We’re so accustomed to seeing these markings on the roads that we may not think about just how important they are.

BRIAN: Drivers need to know where they need to be, you know, to make it safe. If there are two lanes, if dividers for the lane aren’t visible, then cars might drift, there might be accidents. There could be, you know, all sorts of mayhem. The streets need to be clear enough so that people know where they need to be in order to make a turn or just to drive safely. You have to have some, you know, feedback where they’re supposed to be.

MELISSA: At this point, we head over to the Street Operations shops building on Bancroft Street, and we catch up with Meter Shop Manager Tony Massetti when we arrive. He begins by showing us the new, latest model parking meters that are being installed throughout the city.

TONY MASSETTI: These meters are not what you would call typical, as far as what most people have been used to seeing on the streets. They’re very, uh, cylindrical in shape, and they’ve got a nice big solar panel on top, which really improves battery life for those who care. You know, it makes the meter more available, keeps it online longer. The meter itself is a lot larger. We’re excited about that because it actually gives us a little bit more opportunity to put more decals and things like that on the back side of the meter. You know, it gives you the ability to add your license plate into the system, pull up to a meter and really don’t even have to go anywhere near the meter to pay it. So, really, really cool stuff. Lots of new designs, too, that we’re trying to figure out what we can do best to kinda inform the public of, of different ways to use the meter or other things that are happening, you know, in that area. Like if there’s parking available at a garage, the new bigger meters give us the ability to kind of put more information on the meter. Some other really cool features about the new meter, though, is you now have the ability to tap and pay. So, if you use, like, Google Pay, Apple Pay, any kind of mobile payment with a phone, you’re able to do that payment without needing a credit card or, or coins or anything.

MELISSA: We see some staffers testing meter batteries, something Massetti says happens pretty much continuously in the shop. And then he takes us to what’s known as the “build area.”

TONY: These giant rolling tables can each, support up to 26 parking meters. Each parking meter weighs, you know, roughly anywhere between 50 and 70 pounds. But essentially all we’re doing here is we’re taking the big steel housings, the grey part of the meter that everybody remembers, that’s been in use here for at least 40 or 50 years, um, and we’re basically changing out the entire top half of it. Uh, so now instead of getting a, a fully grey box, you know, with a little dome on top with blinking lights, now you’re getting half of that, and then you’re getting these bright colored sleeves, whether they be green, yellow, red, um, or charcoal colored. So yeah, these new meters…we’re able to build anywhere between 50 and 100 a day, and we can get anywhere between 50 and 70 meters installed in a day. That involves also removing the old meters that are currently sittin’ out there. Part of the, the meter installation that we’re working on, as well, includes brand new paint for everything. Believe it or not, a lot of the housings, which are the big steel vault parts of the meters, they come back off the street super rusty. They need a lot of work. Uh, we’ve partnered up with a powder coat company, and we have these cages that are kind of sittin’ around. And we put 100 in a cage. We send it off. They burn it, they blast it with sand. They do everything, and then they paint it with a fresh coat of grey paint. So, every meter that we’re installing will be brand new, top to bottom. Should last us about 10 to 15 years, probably, before, uh, we need to start thinking about replacing them again.

MELISSA: There are thousands of parking meters in San Francisco. Most live outside on sidewalks, of course, but a select few have a permanent home here in the meter shop.

TONY: This is a portion of kind of what we call our, our museum. You get a real glimpse of the history of the parking meters that have kind of been on the streets in San Francisco. You know, I think the very first parking meter in San Francisco was back in 1947. It was installed at the intersection of Polk and Bush. We’ve held on to a wide variety of meters: both the old pay stations, single space meters, all sorts of styles. And, uh, one of the things that’s pretty cool is, say that, you know, there’s a movie shoot that’s coming up. You know, the folks will reach out, and they’ll contact us, and we can actually go and change an entire block out to, like, meters that were around in the ‘70s. So that way, if they’re shooting a 70s piece, all the parking meters are accurate to the time. We don’t actually have one of the meters that was first installed from ’47. I don’t think they started collecting them until the 60s. So, we don’t have one of those here, actually, but…
 MELISSA: But it would be safe to say that some of these are probably from the 1960s?
 TONY: Um, yeah, I’d be willing be bet, like, some of these meters right now are at least 60 years old.

MELISSA: It’s fascinating to think about the mechanics of older meters.

TONY: When parking meters first showed up in San Francisco, they actually had to pay people to go to every meter and wind the meter every day just to keep the time recording accurately and things like that. You had a meter winder, and that’s kind of where the name “meter maid” came from cause you had to tend to the meter. And so, they hired the meter maids to come out and take care of the meters, make sure they are wound up, let people know politely, like, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be parked here anymore. Your meter’s expired.”

 MELISSA: Oh interesting. So, it wasn’t, it wasn’t like if I had driven up, I didn’t have to wind it when I paid. Somebody else came and kept them wound?

 TONY: Right, there was like a key and everything that you had to stick inside to get it going. And then that way it would recognize and keep, you know, keep the dial rotating, basically. Keep the clock spinning while people could add quarters and what not to the machine. 
 MELISSA: So, that’s what we’re looking at here on this and on that one? 

 TONY: Yeah, some of ‘em are, they’re…even the ones we have up here are kind of more electronic. So, much, much older. Kind of what I was showing you here with, like, the guts of this meter right here. You know, this is very… there used to be a bell on here that would make, like, a loud noise. But, I mean, everything about this is basically mechanical. Somebody would have to wind it up in order to get to work right.

 MELISSA: And we see that it says, us, we’ve got the red portion that says “Expired,” and what does the yellow portion say?

 TONY: Oh, it says “Vio…” I think it says “Violation.” 

MELISSA: We move from the meter shop to the temporary sign shop just a few yards away. Program Manager Gretchen Rude tells us the signs her staff produces may be temporary, but there is a permanent and quite significant need for them in San Francisco.

GRETCHEN RUDE: Temporary signs are required whenever somebody needs to reserve a parking space that would clear cars for an event, for a residential move, for some sort of a loading zone, for street closures. Probably our most common request is for street closures and residential and commercial moves. The whole intent is to clear the space along the curb so somebody is not double parking and then backing up traffic for blocks and blocks.
MELISSA: How many of these requests do you think you get in a typical week or a typical month?
 GRETCHEN: Oh boy, I’d say we do anywhere from 80 to about 180 residential moves a week, probably about 5-10 commercial moves and then, depending on the season, we might have ten or 15 street closures. Each street closure, depending on its location, may require transit relocation. So, we might have to move several bus stops, create a reroute for transit. Depending on the event, it might have an SFPD component to it. If it’s really big, they might have fire or ambulance, as well. So, we are supporting a variety of agencies who might need to be involved with a special event. 

MELISSA: You’ve probably noticed these red and white signs dotting the city’s sidewalks from time to time.

GRETCHEN: So, it’s basically a large paper sign that really can’t be torn. It indicates that there’s no stopping. It indicates how much footage is required, and then address, dates and times. And so, if you go there, and you see a sign at a meter or posted on a delineator or tree, and it’s a different date than the date you’re there, you can certainly park there. It’s only for the enforcement times listed on the sign.

MELISSA: We mentioned that there is significant demand for these signs. Rude elaborates on that.

GRETCHEN: A lot of people need parking for various reasons, and if it is a temporary use, we are the venue for that to happen. And so, we’re very busy, very busy. So, we have our folks inside the office. Um, we have two supervisors that are organizing and scheduling the work. And normally, we would have a survey tech that can go out and survey all the locations for the request and let us know how many signs we need on a block, if there’s a parklet or how many meters. That sort of information. And then we have our sign workers who…right now we have six sign workers, and they’re kind of like the postman. Rain, snow, sleet, whatever, they’re out there posting and removing signs as required. We do our best to get them down within 48 hours. It just depends how many signs are up there, you know. Like in the summer, we definitely have thousands of signs up because there are so many different events, people are moving all over. So, at any given time, we could have 5000 signs out in the street.

MELISSA: The signs are printed and sorted here in the shop before they’re handed over to the sign workers.

GRETCHEN: Generally, they each have their own van or truck. They get their assignments in the morning, maybe ten to 15 locations for installations, and then of course, all the signs that go up must come down, as well. So, each day they’ll have installations, as well as take downs. And then another part of their job is to go repost because they are paper signs, and a lot of times, people will tear them down. So, after we post them, we have to monitor them to make sure…or we try to monitor them as much as we can to make sure they’re there for their intended purpose. Uh, the signs have to be up, if it’s a metered location, they are required to be up 24 hours prior to enforcement, and if it’s an unmetered location, it would be 72 hours.

MELISSA: Rude also notes that there are limits to temporary sign requests.

GRETCHEN: People might have a party, and they would, would request a loading zone or a valet zone. One thing that we are not permitted to do, it’s against our guidelines, would be for somebody to have a private event and then request parking spaces for their guests. We do not ever remove parking from the general public to provide parking for an attendee of a private event. That does not happen for us. So, when we get a request, we really kind of look at it closely and…to try and suss out what it is they’re really trying to do. And we generally require a minimum of five business days to be able to post the signs. We really need that much time.

MELISSA: And she explains why the agency charges for the signs.

GRETCHEN: We are a cost recovery program. So, it is all to cover the cost of the labor to put them up.

MELISSA: Of course, there also are permanent street signs all over San Francisco. So, the last stop on our Street Operations tour is the traffic sign shop. It’s managed by Noel Laffey, who tells us that about 90-percent of the permanent signs you see in the city are produced by vendors.

NOEL LAFFEY: Street cleaning signs, stop signs, no left turns, there’s hundreds of signs. We keep an inventory downstairs of all types of signs, whether warning, regulatory, parking. But in general, currently we fabricate street names based on the complaints that come in. We are in the process of doing a blanket replacement in, in the Richmond District, of all the street name signs. So, just waiting on the vendor to produce the signs.

MELISSA: Laffey tells us that, aside from the blanket replacement underway, street name signs are created here because we don’t have them in our inventory. His staff also can and will produce any kind of traffic sign if it needs to be replaced and we don’t happen to have it on hand.

NOEL: A lot of our requests for replacement come through 3-1-1 system. So, we get the work order. Our survey tech will go out, survey the location, and then as the supervisor reviews the work order, he will assign it to Pat or Ivan here, and they will create the sign using Flexy software. And then they will, will print the sign on vinyl, and you’ll see a batch of them coming out. And what they will do then, they will apply street name blanks, which is the aluminum underneath the sign, put it on the aluminum. And then they will take the signs outside to the assembly table. When San Francisco does signs, it’s two signs put together on brackets, on a cantilever bracket, rather than one single sign double-faced. It’s two signs put together.

MELISSA: The Pat and Ivan Laffey mentions are sign installers Patrick Rose and Ivan Carrion. Rose is assembling a Polk Street sign and walks us through the process beginning with printing the graphics: the street name and block number.

PATRICK ROSE: So, the stuff comes off the printer, and we have, you know, like, a name. We put a clear of graffiti, graffiti sheeting over this. Then that goes onto the plate, okay. With the various holes. And then the numbers, the same thing. It goes onto this plate. So, this plate gets bolted onto the back like that, and so, like, this is what the finished product looks like.

MELISSA: We walk over to the assembly table where Carrion is working, and Rose then points out a bin in the area and explains the final part of the sign replacement process.

PATRICK: Here are the old signs. We’ve disassembled them. What we do is we send these to the recycler, and very often they’ll just put ‘em through a big planer. They shave off all the graphics. Send the plates back to us, and we redo ‘em with new graphics.

MELISSA: Back at Lake Merced Boulevard and Brotherhood Way, Laws tells us how he feels about the striping work he does, as demanding as it is. 

JARRETT: It’s a job that I love. I’ve been here for seven years, and I, I really wish I had started sooner. Been a painter for a long time, but this came along, and, and I really enjoy it. But it is the hardest job you’ll ever love.

MELISSA: Loving the work is a sentiment we’ve heard during the entire tour. Thank you for joining us on TAKEN WITH TRANSPORTATION. We’re a production of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and you can find the latest episodes at SFMTA.com-slash-Podcast, as well as Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen. I’m Melissa Culross. Be well and travel well.