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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  1. Ellen Newman on December 9, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    David, this column hits me in the place where I can easily get irrationally angry. And I know how much you value civil discourse, so I’ll try.

    The two “slow” streets I pass fairly often in the Sunset are Kirkham Street and Ortega. Except in the very beginning of the pandemic when they were a novelty, I’ve never seen anyone walking on the allegedly slow streets. Bikes, occasionally, but at no greater density than previously. As you spoke about a potentially dangerous left turn in your neighborhood, the blocking of Ortega means potentially dangerous left turns on Noriega for me. Not to mention the U-turn to find a parking place in front of the dentist.

    The SFMTA’s idea is that San Francisco is a “transit first” city. Doesn’t that mean that we need transit first–ie more buses and public transit–before we start blocking off streets? There’s much more to say. My question is, Who is listening?

    • David Perlstein on December 9, 2021 at 9:18 pm

      I feel your pain, Ellen. From an ideologue’s point of view, people would swamp Muni (I ride the 1 California and 38R Geary, and they work well for me) even when delays occur with frequency and trips are overly long. From a rational point of view, the better the service, the more riders. SFMTA also has to realize that some trips are simply more practical with a car, particularly, but not exclusively, for older folks. Who’s listening? No one. Why would city officials listen when theory is disproven by reality and someone has to admit, “We tried. We were wrong.” And oh, the political consequences of ignoring the bicycle coalition and others who hate automobiles.

      And yes, you provided civil discourse with your response.

  2. Sandy Lipkowitz on December 11, 2021 at 1:57 pm

    I totally agree with you and feel the same about the streets, bike lanes (that are almost always void of bikes), parklets and other auto unfriendly ideas. Our public transportation is terrible. We live in a hilly city, it is not contusive to bikes. Slow walking is a privilege for a few and a burden for the many who pay taxes to use streets. That includes the blocking of the street between the Asian Art Museum and the Library. That street and that parking that I used a lot when going to the theater, the Asian etc. is now a homeless campground. I’m sure there are vacant lots that the city owns tht could be turned into homeless campgrounds. Taking city streets, that citizens pay taxes to use, out of use, is unconscionable. The City that I loved and chose as my home, has become not the place I left my heart. I’m no longer proud to say I’m from San Francisco.

    • David Perlstein on December 11, 2021 at 9:47 pm

      Practicality, Sandy, is not a hallmark of the city’s thinking. San Francisco’s problems are complex; we won’t make a dent in them with simplistic thinking, i.e. extract more funds from taxpayers for programs that turn out not to work. Helping others is an obligation. So is making sense about the ways in which we do that. And I agree that we could find a better place for the homeless to live in greater security—and off the street—than UN Plaza.

  3. Leslie Boin Podell on December 17, 2021 at 9:29 am

    Want Lake street open? Please sign the new SFMTA poll. Show up at the next three SFMTA slow street zooms, email your supervisors all this is listed , including the new poll on our web site . we are furious at these illegal land grabs and the SFMTA’s ideologue first way.

    • David Perlstein on December 17, 2021 at 10:04 am

      Thanks, Leslie. Will do. And I have taken the survey.

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