On a warm September evening, a masked classical trio is set up on the sidewalk in front of a stoop on Page Street, playing familiar classical tunes. Passersby stop to take in the music, sitting down on the curb or leaning against a tree. Cyclists, skateboarders and parents with strollers trickle by slowly, taking care not to disturb the few groups sitting in the middle of the street or make too much noise.
If you’ve strolled down any of San Francisco’s Slow Streets during the past six months, you may have encountered a scene like this. Residential streets turned into car-free promenades have become a bright spot among an otherwise tough 2020, and for those who want them to stay that way, they’ll be disappointed to learn they could disappear soon after the city’s emergency declaration is terminated.
Designed as an emergency response program to allow for more socially distanced essential travel when there were fewer transportation options, 12 blocked streets debuted in April. Many more streets have been added since then, typically ones that are already Muni-free, including a few just last week. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which manages the residential Slow Streets program, has surveyed more than 6,200 residents (who live on the street) and visitors (who use the street) on three of the slow streets (Lake, Page and Shotwell streets) and the results found that 86% of residents support the program and 92% of visitors report a positive experience along a slow street.
The survey also found that 86% want the Slow Street program to become permanent. “Because we’ve heard overwhelming support from the communities, we want to see if some elements of the program should extend beyond the emergency,” said Shannon Hake, the Slow Streets program manager. “Right now, we're just operating on a temporary basis.”
While the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, she said more surveys need to be completed, especially in additional ZIP codes to gain a more equitable understanding of how these streets affect all kinds of people.
Plus, the agency is still adding new streets to the program, and surveys and assessments are still slim, so it’s unclear what the future of the streets will be, especially with no end to the pandemic in sight.
If SFMTA is considering a certain corridor to be a permanent slow street, they may call on the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) to look into the long-term effects of diverting traffic from the chosen street based on data the agency collects. Car-free Market Street, which debuted in January, is a useful example, SFCTA Director of Communications Eric Young said, as the different agencies used the data to weigh the trade-offs.
While residential slow streets are managed and determined by SFMTA, certain popular slow streets like John F. Kennedy Drive and the Great Highway would need a whole host of agencies to get on board to make them permanently car-free.
Great Highway, which already has a robust petition and initiative advocating for more amenities in addition to the traffic closure, would need buy-in from SFMTA, Recreation & Parks, the Department of Public Works, the County Transportation Authority, the San Francisco Zoo, the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, among others.
While the Great Highway is undoubtedly a more complicated prospect, taking into account an already planned Lower Great Highway Improvement Project to improve pedestrian safety, maintaining residential slow streets could be a more viable option upon further study.
“We’re not talking about huge changes to infrastructure. These are signs and posts and much more nimble changes to the street,” said Brian Weidenmeier, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition. “One of the benefits is the city can change as we go and learn. Now we have months of experience and data to learn from. ... I’m hopeful that the city has learned they can be nimble and responsive even when there are big problems.”
Marta Lindsey, communications director of nonprofit Walk SF, said that not only have these streets been great places to feel part of the community amid the pandemic, they could help reduce traffic speeds and make the streets safer overall for pedestrians and cyclists. “We need to find ways to make our streets safer and more inviting, and this is a tool with a lot of potential,” Lindsey said. “So many people have called this a silver lining, and I think many more people are seeing what’s possible for San Francisco’s future.”
She said if you’re a resident who enjoys a certain slow street, contact your supervisor to let them know that is important to their longevity.
“It’s both eye opening and inspiring,” Lindsay said. “Walking along JFK in Golden Gate Park makes me emotional. The way you get to experience nature and relax, and during COVID, people are getting out and walking more, and realizing how much that matters here and how much we need those spaces.”