Early in San Francisco’s COVID lockdown, the Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) initiated a “Slow Streets” program to provide safe space for pedestrians, runners and bicyclists. This lofty idea has morphed into senseless ideology.
At least two of my three daily walks take me across or along Lake, one of almost thirty streets technically limiting traffic to people who live on a particular block. Commercial and service vehicles remain exempt.
Initially, tree-lined Lake—steps from Presidio National Park—proved popular. But as I reported in “Slalom Walking” (4-3-20), packs of cyclists found a new place to ride but seemed uninterested in going slow. Walking became hazardous. Carolyn and I once detoured off Lake, fearing being run over.
Recently, SFMTA designated Lake as one of four “permanent” slow streets. Many San Franciscans have expressed their love of the concept. Then again, a certain sector of city residents condemns the use of automobiles. But continuing to implement what seems a desirable concept when it proves unnecessary makes no sense.
Do I have an ax to grind? Living on 15th Avenue, I prefer driving Lake Street to go east on various errands and outings. Now, I’m forced to make a frightening left onto California Street. The intersection lacks a four-way stop and has a long history of accidents.
More reality: People again are working, in or out of the house. Kids are in school. Only a handful of people stroll, jog or bike on Lake at any one time. They are accommodated by generous sidewalks and bike lanes. Social distancing is a no-brainer.
Do people occasionally occupy the middle of the street? Yes. Not out of need but because they can. Lately, however, I’ve noticed people only rarely walking in the street. The novelty may have worn off.
Also, more vehicles now drive multiple blocks along Lake. SFMTA says that a slow street isn’t a closed street. How many blocks might one drive? No one knows. A neighbor informed me that the police want nothing to do with enforcement. What’s to enforce? No slow-street laws exist.
Last Sunday, Carl Nolte in his San Francisco Chronicle column “Native Son” wrote about walking another of the city’s permanent slow streets, Sanchez, in the heart of Noe Valley. “I thought it was a great San Francisco walk.” He noted all the wonderful shops and cafes between 23rd and 30th Streets. I love Carl Nolte’s columns, but wonder: Can’t San Franciscans stroll Sanchez and other slow streets on the sidewalks?
Maybe Sanchez is always overcrowded. I’m not there often. But are all the city’s streets the same? “Slow” Lake runs from 2nd Avenue to 28th. It contains exactly one commercial establishment—an art gallery.
Developing new ideas about urban living is good. Implementing a slow street when the need no longer exists brings other, sound urban-planning initiatives into question. Observation by SFMTA employees would determine that while many people advocate Lake as a slow street, few take advantage of it—and none have a need to walk or jog in the street. Diverting traffic decreases safety and noise abatement on neighboring—and somewhat less affluent—streets.
It’s difficult to give up on an idea that seems promising. But clinging to a concept that fails to serve a real need leads to dead-end thinking. That serves no one.
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