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The mean sidewalks of San Francisco

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Sidewalk etiquette is an acknowledgment that we share our urban space with others and that we have to consider and accommodate their needs along with our own. (Courtesy photo)


I’ve been doing a lot of walking lately and I’ve been surprised at how much rudeness and incivility I see. But then again, sidewalks are really just a microcosm of society in general. If we can’t share the concrete, how can we expect to share space, ideas and resources among all the different people in our cities?

Most sidewalks in the residential area where I live are wide enough for two people walking in different directions to pass each other comfortably. When I’m walking alone, I tend to walk in the middle of the sidewalk. I think most people do the same. But when I see someone coming toward me, I shift to the right side of the concrete to give him or her room to pass.

It constantly surprises me how many people stay in the middle of the sidewalk. I know they’ve seen me, but they don’t make any move to the side. I’m forced to the extreme right-hand side of the concrete or even onto the grass alongside as we pass.

Sidewalk etiquette may seem trivial, given the serious problems we face every day. But it is an acknowledgment that we share our urban space with others and that we have to consider and accommodate their needs along with our own.

That sense of common courtesy is largely lacking these days. We see the lack in instances of road rage, when one car accidentally cuts off another. Or when presidential candidates belittle each other. Or when people shout down those with whom they disagree. The general social discourse is not particularly pleasant right now. And that harshness has spilled over onto our sidewalks.

I was walking up a slight hill not long ago. A young boy on a scooter headed downhill toward me. He must have just learned how to ride because he was swerving from side to side as he picked up speed. His mother and teenage sister were about 15 yards behind him. I had to retreat into a driveway and wait for him to pass, since I didn’t trust he wouldn’t run into me if I had stayed on the sidewalk. Throughout his approach, his mother never said anything to him — never told him to slow down, or to stop, or to watch out for other people.

A minute later, I came up to his mother and sister, walking side by side. Once again, I had to step into a driveway as they passed, since neither yielded one inch of sidewalk for me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the boy didn’t have any sidewalk etiquette. Clearly, his mom couldn’t teach him something she herself didn’t know.

If everyone paid more attention to the people walking near them, actively trying to share the sidewalk equally, maybe we would get a little more in the habit of thinking about the needs of others, not just ourselves. Think of it as stretching and strengthening your civility muscles at the same time you stretch and strengthen your legs.

When faced with all the anger, hate and prejudice that permeate so much of society, it’s easy to just throw up your hands and give up. It seems too much for any one person to change. But the idea of showing more courtesy to others as you walk down the sidewalk is something anyone and everyone can do. It’s an easy way to teach our children to be more considerate of others. And it just might help make San Francisco a kinder, more civil place to live.

After all, the rest of society starts just outside your front door … on the sidewalk.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park, and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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  • Customer Support

    Sally, the problem you keep encountering on those mean streets in San Francisco might be exaggerated by the fact that San Franciscans stopped walking on the right side of the sidewalk a long time ago. We all walk on the left side now! Try sliding on over to the left, you might find the roll of your stroll much smoother..

  • TARDIShire

    I’ve done this since I was a wee lad. Not sure how it started. Perhaps it was my parents, perhaps something I saw in a film, or just something that seemed like common sense. I’m 49 now and still attempt to make room for others on the pavement, but I really can’t believe it when a large group walk side by side, taking up the entire path. Sometimes it feels like being a salmon. Oh, but it is hilarious when I’ve been walking on one side of a pavement, someone else is walking toward me but in the other ‘Lane’, and they veer into my path for no apparent reason.

    Sometimes now, after I’ve made an effort but see no sign of one being made by the on-comer, I’ll stop in my tracks, put on a slight friendly smile, and wait for that person to acknowledge that they need to detour a tad, themselves.

    Courtesy, consideration, thoughtfulness. .. They all take time away from being transfixed by one’s smartphone.

  • Kurt

    I live in Ingleside. Some jerk in a group of what looked like CCSF students did exactly that. And I shoulder-checked him and called him an asshole.

  • Kurt

    I’m not jumping into any driveways. I extend the courtesy and when I don’t get it in return, I take it.

  • Crowded city sidewalks are like a big dance floor for me. We’re all dancing with each other as we move between each other and things like cars and trees. When it goes well, it can be like ballet. Most people join the dance but I’ve always noticed that a significant minority refuses to dance or admit they share the dance floor with others.

  • Tom

    what street was that?

  • Not A Native

    I’ve noticed the same thing and it annoys me too. I can come up with a lot of explanations for why people walking don’t make an accommodation for others. But I sum it up by recalling that humans are both cooperative and competitive. Competitive behavior in public places is now considered more normal than it was. IMO, increasing population density is the biggest factor. The other factor is disrespect for the authority of “manners” because of the many scandals that revealed the moral leaders of manners were corrupt and hypocritical.

  • John O’Grady

    Honestly; I’ve been here off and on since 1989 and I’ve never encountered this. If you could elaborate I would greatly appreciate it. Why people from S.F.?

  • John O’Grady

    The trick, when it’s one-on-one, is to start from as far back as possible.

    The moment you see the other person coming your way then veer, very decisively, over to the right, even if the other person is almost a block away. Much of our communication is non-verbal, and this is one of those occasions.

    Generally speaking; the other person is a good person too. Signalling to them that you are taking (your) right side gives them the chance to do likewise. This allows them to do two things: Comply by doing as you do and save face while doing so.

    You then complete the saving of face part by, once you get close enough, looking down as you pass by each other. As though you never saw them in the first place. As though it could have been THEIR idea to begin with.

    This shows humility on your part. As compared to staring into his face as you pass by with a look on your face that says, “Chump! made you move over!”

    If it’s a group coming your way a lot of times the person on your edge has the dilemma of separating from their group, but to be fair, they need to do so.

    So what I do is hold to my right, and then, once it gets close enough, I veer, ever so slightly, into the center line. The edge person will peel off just enough so you can get by.

    It’s ridiculous, but people get killed everyday over this stuff.

    I’m a male. I think a part of it is you are a female that people size up as easy to dominate, so they do. It’s unfortunate but our species is a pecking order species, and maybe you look like you are easy to get on top of, as it were. Maybe walk a little taller.

  • William M Popper

    Excellent point and perspective…well written…Than You!

  • Eva

    I was born and raised in San Francisco. When neighborhoods were communities with families and children and not a “Disneyland” for the spoiled over entitled newbies that have come it was a much kinder place. So sad to see this happen. I taught my children to yield to the right, but now I see pushed all over the sidewalk while others march down the street without any intention of sharing the sidewalk. So now I teach them to stand their ground and make them go around too!

  • BFlatlander

    I stick to the right. If they bump into me there is a nasty confrontation. If they are drunk I take their wallet.

  • Eva

    Morality begins at home. I was taught to do the right thing regardless of what someone else is doing. Can’t blame anyone for poor home upbringing — but the parents!

  • Phil

    Washington, DC is much the same. Recently three young joggers came my way on a fairly narrow sidewalk, dressed in new-looking spandex and running straight-abreast. I stepped to the far right edge of the sidewalk so close to the stone front-yard garden walls that I had to be careful not to abrade my right arm (which I did anyway, just a little). The three did not break formation, and instead came storming by, the woman on their left leaning in to hiss, “shithead!” at me.

    This is standard conduct here, for a lot of people.

    I have developed an unpleasant word of my own for the practice people have of walking three, four, and five abreast and not giving place to single individuals who, for their part, politely give them all the room there is. The pride in these waddling groups is astonishing! There even seems to be a pecking order to it; it’s the women who often seem to be stuck holding up the left edges of their formations. The alternative to stopping in place or walking with commensurate rudeness right into them is to step into muddy, dog-poo-strewn roadside tree beds, or out into traffic.

    Bicycles on the sidewalk, or when one is in a crosswalk (the bike often approaching at high speed in the wrong direction on the opposite side of the street from the available bike lane), will simply hit you.

    The one that hit me a month or so back, with a briefcase in his carrying rack, merely looked back and gestured at me. In the unlit darkness I couldn’t tell if it was a palm up or a middle digit, extended.

    If I were to list the ill, seemingly demented behavior here in detail, it would look like the list of fighting ships in the Iliad.

    The strange practice of walking on the left side of the sidewalk, as noted by another commenter, also prevails here, among many.

  • doc

    It’s funny, I just threw a shoulder into two mellennials who came charging down a steep hill coming from Buena Vista Park as I was walking uphill toward them. One fell while his maucho buddy started yelling at me. I gave a half-hearted “sorry” followed by telling them next time give some space away or I would knock them all the way back to their parents basement; it’s probably where they will end up in another year anyway.

    So to read this article today brought a smile to my face.

  • oodles

    bravo on this article…..the self centered types are embedded in our socail-media-it’s all about me attitude people, these walking issues….happens in larger open spaces; malls, etc…people are so intuned to themselves……pathetic self absored pantie wastes …

  • oodles

    If a group is walking side by side coming at one…walk right down the middle wearing a pleasant smile……they will become aware and usually the breach occurs…no violence…just plain COMMON SENSE, …LOL!!! Haters…LOL!!!

  • sfsoma

    It’s the age of complete narcissism in SF. Many people seem to believe that they or their posse are the only ones using sidewalks or other public conveniences these days.

  • Steep Ravine

    What’s missing in this equation? All the vehicles that park on our sidewalks! I am so sick of being forced to walk into the street, into traffic, because rude people think no one walks. Well we do. And it’s the responsibility of residents to leave the small portion of the public thoroughfare clear. It is set aside for pedestrians, parents with kiddie carts, folks in wheelchairs…. anything but vehicles.

    So please talk with your neighbors. When asked, you’d be amazed how many people will respond positively to the simple request that they keep the sidewalk safe for others.

  • HowdyNSA

    Nobody mentions the effect different cultures have had on San Franciscans and I imagine Americans in general.

    Chinese people are about dominance. They push each other to see who gives way first. You can call them bad people or judge them in whatever other way you want to, but that is their cultural norm.

    When the Chinese first moved into my neighborhood the men would routinely pull up to a stop sign and go right through it. Not because they did not know the rules of the road, but because they were testing to see which of us was stronger. And in their minds they were stronger and I was a weakling because I stopped at the stop sign to avoid an accident.

    I figured out what was going after awhile by noticing the difference in behavior between Chinese men and women. Chinese women would roll up to a stop sign and just sit there waiting for me to go, even when legally it was their right of way. The Chinese woman were waiting because in Chinese culture they are supposed to wait for the men. To test my theory I just sat at a stop signs when there was a Chinese woman going the other way. They would literally sit there for minutes until I finally went across because they were trained to always let the man go first.

    It is my belief that Chinese culture and maybe other cultural influences, Black and Hispanic people seem to behave in a similar way, have changed Americans unconsciously. Americans have picked up on the idea that deference and courtesy are only engaged in by weak people, while the strong shove people out of the way and do what they want.

    Which means every individual has to make a choice. Do they want to be courteous and deferential and polite because they believe those are the qualities good and upstanding people engage in, even though other people will take advantage of them and look at them as if they are weaklings and cowards?

    Or do they want to be treated with respect, which in the cultural attitude of “strength and domination is superior”, means pushing other people as far as you can before they fight back?

    I hate acting in a way I consider being rude, but then I don’t want to be pushed out in the street while I am walking down the sidewalk, and I don’t want smirking superior law breaking people laughing at me as they run a stop sign in front of me because I obeyed the law and waited at the stop sign.

    So I give other pedestrians a look saying “I will knock you down before I
    step out in the street to avoid you”, and I drive right out into an
    intersection if it is my turn to go even if it means getting in an
    accident with someone who has to slam on their brakes in the intersection because they thought if they ran the stop sign I would be weak and let them go ahead of me.

  • Charles Peterson

    It’s the people of California, period. The offspring of the offspring of hippies. Those people didn’t know squat about civility either. Now, generations later, we still have these vile creatures contaminating our environment. Not ALL Californians are this way might I point out.

  • Randy F.

    I like the 4 or more groups of visitors [ usually ] who walk abreast , straight across the sidewalk , like a FOD walkdown on a flight deck , when air ops is secured .. Step off of the curb and they stare at you funny , as if …..

  • roscoe cowboy

    They do it on purpose to take advantage of your civility. They think it’s cool.

  • John O’Grady

    Unfortunately; yes, this is what you need to do.

    One of my greatest mistakes in this life was to believe that I could somehow become some kind of person that could live a conflict-free existence.

    I was SO wrong. Conflict with other people is built in to our lives.

    Two things are required.

    1. Accept the fact that you will ALWAYS be in some kind of conflict with someone, one way or another. It is unavoidable. Of the two things; this is the hardest part, because it requires you to face up to the fact that you are going to have to disagree with other people, to their faces.

    2. How do you handle it? On the one hand, respect them as human beings, and if possible, love them. Know very clearly your position, and what you expect.

    3. If you can compromise, do so.

    There are so many ways that this can go wrong that I apologize in advance. Just get the first part right. Don’t be like me, thinking that there will ever be any perfect world, because that’s the worst mistake of all.

  • Guerrero resident

    If a vehicle is blocking a sidewalk such that you, or someone in a wheelchair or with a stroller is forced to walk into traffic, call Parking and Traffic and get the vehicle ticketed. 415-553-1200 press 1, then press 5.

  • roscoe cowboy

    They’re playing with you then and youre naive.That’s the objective, to get you to stop and acknowledge them or they will walk into you and the pretend it was an accident.

  • Or the only 2 people in the store aisle who park side by side blocking the entire aisle and don’t move as you approach?

  • sfwalker

    I’ve pondering this issue for many, many hours. Maybe days. I’ve tested many strategies. Here’s the best I’ve come up with:

    First of all, if you’re looking at a phone or anything electronic, you automatically lose all sidewalk rights and therefore respect. Don’t expect anything if you’re texting or on the phone.

    When oncoming traffic, stay to the right, but comfortably. I refuse to step into the street (safety) or into planter boxes/dirt patches (dog owners know why). Don’t give the passer so much space they don’t need to move to their right as well. 95% of the time, this strategy works for me. On the off chance an oncoming collision would still occur, say with a group walking 4 abreast, hold your bearing but stop in your tracks. Once people realize you’re not going anywhere, they will avoid you. Of course this is still annoying, but at least you don’t put yourself into an unsafe or undesirable position.

    Another thing that helps, particularly at night, is to have a facial expression that you’re about to murder someone. Then you can walk straight down the center and no one will ever bother you :).

  • 1976boy

    A lot of the sidewalks are just too narrow for the amount of people using them. There seems to be no shortage of space if a car needs it for a lane or parking, but peds are supposed to fight over limited space. This rarely happens on sidewalks that are wide enough.

  • Chas Linebarger

    Noticed the same thing. If I’m in my lane I will turn my head right and stare that way as if I’m looking for something and people usually make way. Sometimes I clap my hands if some on a phone is making a bee line for me. Sometimes when a line covering the sidewalk is headed in my direction I just keep walking and look non=plussed as I walk through the center of the group. If someone playing with a phone is headed in my direction it can be funny to act preoccupied and walk almost head on into them as if by accident. I think it’s a product of a more diverse community. Some people have chips on their shoulders, some were recently raised in very different cultures and when people who should know better keep getting treated badly on the sidewalk they mimic what happened to them not realizing that we used to have more manners in more situations back when our society was less diverse and everyone was on the same page.

  • Anne Steiner

    My pet peeve is when groups walk together side by side and take up the entire sidewalk.

  • Not A Native

    Your reaction to inconsiderate behavior is wrongheaded and dangerous. Becoming aggressive as you are doing will only lead to actual injury rather than bringing more courtesy to society.

    The better solution is to stand your ground in a safe way and in that way model better behavior. That’s the “soft” way to domination and I believe its a principle of Chinese(and Western) culture as much as aggression is. Remember, you have to live with the results of your behavior and general aggression can only increase if you participate in it. Is that really the kind of society you want to be building?

  • Not A Native

    I agree with you. But I also believe that ideals and goals are important to have, even as you understand they aren’t literally attainable. Otherwise, you risk going down the ‘slippery slope’ of continuously settling for less than is possible. It takes difficult effort and persistence over a long time to make a better world. Having ideals is a way to maintain the resolve that’s necessary to overcome adversity.

    FWIW, mathematics is an ideal abstraction too. But we don’t give up scientifically describing the world using mathematical ideals simply because we know the math we have isn’t perfectly accurate.

  • HowdyNSA

    You are living in a dream world if you think my actions are going to have any effect on the cultural norms of a people who claim to have been civilized for thousands of years.

  • Juggernaut

    Thank you for the article. I guess most of people in San Francisco have noticed how much our street culture lowered and many of us would like to bring it back to normal.
    People walking by 4.5 in a row forcing everybody behind them slow down or step into the traffic to pass them.
    Bus drivers that leave their terminals 3-4 minutes late
    Homeowners blocking pavements with their cars and what is super frustrating, leaving their garbage containers on the sidewalk. Just yesterday, walking along the avenues through a battalion of garbage cans, I was wondering if there is any low that would fine the owners for such a disrespect of their fellow citizens,
    because living among people and filling the common space with garbage or blocking the way with it is disrespectful and should be penalized.
    Maybe it’s time for us to create a group that would address these issues to proper authorities, create street placards that remain pedestrians about civilized manners and so on.
    We can talk infinitely about it …let’s act. Examiner take an initiative and im sure many of us will follow

  • Natasha Yuzbasheff

    Thank you for the article. I guess most of people in San Francisco have noticed how much our street culture lowered and many of us would like to bring it back to normal.

    People walking by 4.5 in a row forcing everybody behind them slow down or step into the traffic to pass them.

    Bus drivers that leave their terminals 3-4 minutes late

    Homeowners blocking pavements with their cars and what is super frustrating, leaving their garbage containers on the sidewalk. Just yesterday, walking along the avenues through a battalion of garbage cans, I was wondering if there is any low that would fine the owners for such a disrespect of their fellow citizens,

    because living among people and filling the common space with garbage or blocking the way with it is disrespectful and should be penalized.

    Maybe it’s time for us to create a group that would address these issues to proper authorities, create street placards that remain pedestrians about civilized manners and so on.

    We can talk infinitely about it …let’s act. Examiner take an initiative and im sure many of us will follow

  • Not A Native

    No, you’re living in a prejudiced world where your culture is “civilized” while others aren’t. Aggressive and domineering behavior is a human trait and no culture could (or should) eliminate it. The real goal of civilized behavior is finding a way to get along with others amiably, not by aggressing and dominating. You may claim to be ‘cultured’ but you’ve shown here you’re not civilized.

  • Sonya

    This is so, so true. Someone I was walking with once asked me why I kept “disappearing” when someone else was walking towards us. I said because you are supposed to walk single file when you meet up with other persons. She looked at with a shocked face and asked where I’d learned that. “My mother and it was reitereated in kindergarten.” She said that was the first time she’d ever heard that and said, “Oh, you’re from San Francisco, though.”

  • Bigfrog

    I wouldnt call the sidewalks “mean”, I believe that “self-absorbed” is more accurate, but I hear you…

  • Natasha Yuzbasheff


  • HowdyNSA

    You’re funny.


  • Mitchell

    Hippie culture was about kindness and love. This “get outta my face” attitude is about the ethic of a Donald Trump, which is the diametrical opposite. We could stand a little more Woodstock in our world these days.

  • Daforce

    I walk to the right. If people are compelled to walk shoulder to shoulder down the street, I just stop walking and stay in their path. I’ve also found that a shoulder pointed in their direction tends to move the majority out of the way as well.

    As for bikes, scooters, and skateboarders on the sidewalk….an outstretched hand (or fist) held at their face level usually gets them to swerve first. You’re not hitting them, you’re just protecting yourself from bodily harm if their face impacts your hand.

  • John O’Grady

    Only baby carriages and wheelchairs should be allowed on the sidewalk. Everyone else should be out in traffic. There oughtta be a law…

  • John O’Grady

    Only wheelchairs and baby carriages should be allowed on the sidewalk. Everyone else belongs out in the street.

  • David Wright

    Eva, of course you’re right, it was kinder in many ways. There is something quite sweet about teaching kids manners – I fully support you in that. However, the good old days had an underbelly. They weren’t kinder to all of us. I remember when asians couldn’t rent or buy in most neighborhoods, black kids knew not to be ‘uppity,’ ‘spanish’ kids knew not to speak it in public, ‘rolling fags’ was a fun pastime for college boys, and ‘girls’ who were out in dark places late at night ‘were asking for it.’

    The thing is, we Americans have been complaining about the deterioration of public behavior since at least the middle of the 19th Century. Yes, Americans are loud and rambunctious, but we’ve always liked it like that – when we’re in the mood for it. Have a nice evening, Eva.

  • Careful Thinker

    Question: Do you think those people are doing it *only* to you? Are *you* being singled out as THE person to block on the sidewalk?

    I’m guessing no, you’re not clinically paranoid.

    It must be a general behavior they’re doing all the time, right?

    So then, how does anybody get anywhere if nobody moves to the side? How are there not brawls erupting on the streets constantly as the North Going Zaxes bump into the South Going Zaxes?

    The vast majority of people are polite and make room. I’m sure they do for you, too. It is just that you don’t notice anything out of place when everything is going well. You don’t remember people that don’t cause you any trouble. People have been complaining about the downfall of civilization since the beginning of civilization. Socrates was executed for corrupting youth if you recall. Times change, specifics of the complaints change, but the volume and quantity of the complaints are constant.