Taking the scenic route through a pandemic

Streets of San Francisco are pleasantly free of traffic


Last Thursday, the wife and I loaded up the child and drove into The City to check out “Entwined,” a light installation by Bay Area industrial artist Charles Gadeken at Peacock Meadow in Golden Gate Park.

We left West Oakland a little before sunset. The bridge was wide open. Smooth sailing the whole way. Until the usual backup at the 80-101 interchange. As I exited the freeway at Fifth Street, the sun continued to resist the horizon’s appetite.

“Might as well take the scenic route,” I suggested.

When there’s little to no traffic on the streets of San Francisco, almost every thoroughfare is a scenic route.

Even though it has been a year since the first COVID restrictions began, the deserted streets downtown still shock me. After logging countless hours behind the wheel of a taxi, most of which were spent trapped in horrendous traffic jams on these very same streets, it’s mind-boggling that you can cruise through South of Market at 6 p.m. on a weekday nowadays and only slow down at red lights.

On Ninth, I crossed over Market to Larkin and pointed out the landmarks around City Hall to the child.

In Hayes Valley, the parklets in front of restaurants and outdoor eating areas in Patricia’s Green were packed with festive diners. A few locals walked their dogs past shuttered boutiques.

On the hill at Alamo Square, people gathered on the grass to watch the sunset.

Avoiding the early dinner rush on Divisadero, I continued on to Baker before crossing over to Fell and taking MLK into the park.

As Oakland residents, we instinctively keep the inside of our car spotless.

Throughout the pandemic, smash and grabs have become more frequent and increasingly audacious. And not just in the usual neighborhoods frequented by tourists or clueless townies.

Just a few days prior, a daytime smash and grab in the park made the news when someone filmed the victims as they confronted the thieves and managed to retrieve their bags.

Still, even without anything tempting on display, all you can really do is hope nobody breaks your window.

Peacock Meadow wasn’t that crowded. Several families and groups of friends stood next to the illuminated art pieces and took selfies in the glow. After exploring the LED forest of pulsating colors for a while, we walked over to the Conservatory of Flowers, where images of exotic flora were projected against the central dome and arch-shaped wings of the Victorian greenhouse, accompanied by a soundtrack of classic psychedelic tunes.

On the way home, we stopped for burritos from El Metate. Before heading east, I checked the traffic. Habit, mostly … but also, to marvel at the solid blue line on the map all the way from the Mission to the East Bay.

Despite my ever-increasing pandemic fatigue, there are some benefits to the COVID restrictions. Like empty streets.

It’s hard to believe this is the same city that had some of the worst traffic in the country. Epic, mind-numbing congestion that made you want to bash your skull against the steering wheel or succumb to apocalyptic fits of rage.

Every single day it was horrible. Heading west, if you didn’t get across the bridge before 5 a.m., you’d spend the next hour inching towards the toll plaza and another hour idling above the Bay. And in the evenings, it took just as long to go east.

Even though we’re just a few miles from the toll plaza, and only 10 miles from downtown San Francisco, during rush hour, when traffic is backed up from the MacArthur Maze to the hospital curve, we might as well be coming in from Sacramento.

Surface streets weren’t much better. Any road that led to a freeway was gridlocked for most of the day and night. Pre-COVID, I never went anywhere in the Bay Area without checking Google Maps first. It was just too risky. But during the first few months of lockdown, there were times I’d get on the bridge without even thinking about traffic. Sometimes, though, a momentary pang of anxiety would hit me and I’d think about that time a group of protestors got on the western span and held up traffic for several hours…

Oh, the horror…

Now that I’ve experienced driving in San Francisco without the congestion, going back to the old days of constant gridlock seems even more depressing than being stuck at home all the time.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions.

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