Imagine this: You live on Sanchez Street in Noe Valley, but your car lives a few blocks away, on the former site of James Lick Middle School, where they’ve repurposed the property as a parking lot. Or it lives somewhere else outside of the core of Noe Valley, which has been declared off-limits to private automobiles. Whatever you’re doing — commuting to and from work, carpooling for school, buying groceries, returning from a vacation — involves walking a few blocks, carrying whatever you’ve brought with you or acquired during your travels. The 10 or so extra minutes required to get to or from your car get baked into whatever vehicle-dependent task on your agenda for the day.
Or maybe your car lives in a garage even further away and using it becomes something reserved for special occasions. The rest of your life depends on your feet, your bicycle or public transit. For many of us, this is a nightmare scenario. For others, it’s a dream come true. For those who live in many European cities, it’s everyday life. Whatever your take, it’ll most probably never be everyday life anywhere in the U.S., not even in that most European of American cities, San Francisco, because it’s too far from how we’ve been taught to live in this country and would require too much money, too much time and too much inconvenience to ever implement. We are on Year 11 of the Central Subway project, after all.
So the good or bad news is that even though San Francisco clearly wants us to stop driving our cars, the goal is not to radically revamp how we get around, but instead to implement small, inexpensive rule changes that make it easier to walk or ride a bike and harder to drive; and thus, The City has decided to make permanent four of its 31 pandemic-inspired “Slow Streets.” Part of Golden Gate Avenue, Shotwell, Lake and the aforementioned Sanchez streets will remain, as they’ve been for the past year, slow.
Whether you cheer for this, curse it or think it doesn’t go far enough (I tend to fall into all three camps, depending on whether I’m walking, driving or sitting around thinking) is immaterial for this column. Instead, we’re interested in how slow streets would impact the values of the residences on those streets.
So far Slow Streets has been very popular. “From what I’m hearing, people who live on (slow streets) love it,” one Realtor told me last week. “I think impact on pricing would be positive, since actually driving on them is not forbidden.”
So the locals love it, but will it actually make their houses sell faster? I’m not as sure. I think there may be a pool of buyers who don’t want to live on a Slow Street, be it for reasons cited by call-in respondents during a recent Board of Supervisors meeting — increased noise, increased danger from cyclists (bicycle activity on Slow Streets was up 71 percent in 2020; pedestrians only 17 percent) and drivers who ignore signing because they need to get where they’re going and this is the shortest route, or for reasons of perception — “It seems like a pain in the neck” — be they valid or not.
Here’s more of a concern, though: the impact of Slow Streets on their surrounding neighborhoods. All of those cars have to go somewhere, right? If you can’t drive down Sanchez, you’re going to have to drive down Noe; if you can’t park on Shotwell, you’re going to have to try your luck on Treat or Folsom. As a Slow Street becomes a target for a niche buyer, its next-door-neighbors see increased traffic and decreased parking and you’re never going to find a real estate agent bragging to potential buyers about that.
It’s a tradeoff — the same one we accepted during the Freeway Revolt of the 1950s and 1960s, when we fought for the soul of our city and won. Our prize was that we didn’t turn into Los Angeles. The cost was that it now takes 45 minutes to get from Glen Park to Crissy Field and when you get there you hate the world.
Of course, the other option is the one I outlined above, which removes traffic and parking issues entirely and replaces them with a different kind of everyday inconvenience. Under my scenario, San Francisco becomes a boutique city and living here requires re-training for all residents save for the few that recently moved here from Medieval European cities. I don’t think it would be great for property values, but the cost of sturdy canvas shopping bags and small, wheeled pushcarts would probably skyrocket.