Crowded neighborhoods left out of Slow Streets

Tenderloin, SoMa seen as bad fit for car-free program

A total of 34 lane miles across San Francisco have been transformed into a car-free haven for pedestrians and cyclists as part of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Slow Streets program. But conspicuously missing from the network are corridors in the Tenderloin, SoMa and Chinatown neighborhoods, among others.

These are some of The City’s most densely populated neighborhoods, and many households lack ready access to green space. It appears they’d stand to benefit greatly from the initiative that closes streets to through-traffic and increases opportunities to walk, bike and recreate while maintaining the recommended six feet of social distance.

Courtney McDonald, a staffer in the office of Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, says there are some residents in that neighborhood who haven’t left their houses in months because they are afraid of the risks.

“It’s heartbreaking and frustrating that there’s been almost no progress on addressing that for our residents,” she said.

Leadership in other neighborhoods still without Slow Streets, like District 3 which boasts some of the highest Muni ridership and pedestrian commuter numbers, has focused on balancing the mobility needs of groups with competing interests, according to a joint statement from SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin and District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

“We’ve been focused on restoring critical Muni service for essential workers and transit-dependent communities. We’ve also been focused on creating more outdoor room for small businesses to safely re-open,” the statement said, though the two leaders added they believe there’s opportunity for Slow Streets across the district, and they welcome community input on how to serve residents, especially youth and seniors.

According to the SFMTA, some neighborhoods are a bad match for the criteria the SFMTA uses to determine whether a given roadway will make for a safe and well-used Slow Street: mostly flat; stop-controlled intersections, ideally four-way; a residential road that preferably spans six to eight blocks with two lanes or fewer; and free of Muni, commercial loading or emergency route conflicts.

Neighborhoods like the Tenderloin are among The City’s hilliest and most crowded. Many streets in the Tenderloin and SoMa are wide, multi-lane one-ways that cars fly through en route to the Financial District or the highway. Traffic is controlled largely by stop lights as opposed to stop signs, and a number of major transit lines converge before heading downtown.

The Tenderloin, which now has the second-highest rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases in any neighborhood, has long been one of the most dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists because its narrow sidewalks and outdated intersections are dangerous companions to the speedways that run through it.

“The Tenderloin has never, in our work, been viewed as a residential neighborhood […] it’s been accepted that it’s a thru-way and sometimes even a freeway for the rest of The City, and that’s been a constant fight for residents,” McDonald said.

Making space

Possible danger to human life is only exacerbated now that residents there and in other neighborhoods can’t readily maintain social distance, travel safety by alternative modes of transportation or reap the benefits that come from accessible open space.

“I commend The City for doing Slow Streets so quickly and for providing so much public space. I think we do need to come up with unique solutions for those neighborhoods that don’t necessarily fit the criteria and put added city resources and work within the community to identify where the space could be and how it fits the community’s needs,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF.

The blocks in front of two organizations in the Tenderloin — St. Anthony’s and Glide — have been closed to cars during certain times of the day, but Medeiros advocates for more drastic action from local officials.

“Community partners like St. Anthony’s and Glide are making some safe spaces happen as best they can, and they should be commended. But this needs to be seriously scaled up, and that’s where The City must dig in,” she said.

Local organizers have rallied around sidewalk expansions and partial closures that would create one pedestrian-friendly north-south corridor and another east-west as an alternative to a full shut-down under the Slow Streets framework. McDonald says this solution would allow residents to safely connect to main services, bus stops and Market Street, for example.

A proposal for sidewalk expansion on Jones Street between Golden Gate Avenue and O’Farrell Street is currently under review by The City. Jones is a three-lane, one-way street with parking lanes on both sides. If approved, the project would close the parking lane on the east side of the road to serve as increased sidewalk space and install modular concrete barriers to protect pedestrians. The adjacent travel lane would be used as a de facto emergency lane for response vehicles or for cars to pull over to create room.

It must receive sign-off from multiple city agencies including SFMTA and the San Francisco Fire Department. The SFFD has had the proposal for two weeks, McDonald said, and operates without a deadline, but SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato confirmed the agency received feedback from the fire department Monday and would be incorporating the feedback into a revised proposal.

SFFD confirmed it was reviewing the proposal, along with all the other agencies, to “ensure the safety of all who will be impacted” by the changes to Jone Street.

“I think there’s a lot of pent up frustration at how things are moving so slowly if The City really does say that this is a priority area,” Medeiros said of the historic tension between what the government says versus what Tenderloin residents see.

Slow Streets was first rolled out in April with a focus on “lower-traffic residential streets that connect neighbors to essential services in the absence of Muni service,” according to the SFMTA website.

The City’s West side — specifically the greater Sunset neighborhood and areas close to Golden Gate Park — was the first area to see major streets, including Page Street and Ocean Avenue/The Great Highway, go car-free.

Ellis Street between Polk and Leavenworth streets was included as a Slow Street in SFMTA’s original communiqué, but it was never implemented and later fell off the map as plans around a second wave of streets crystallized.

Slow progress

Since April, SFMTA has overseen the implementation of 17 total corridors as part of two separate planning phases, but four of The City’s 11 districts still remain devoid of any Slow Streets to call their own.

Advocates from Districts 3 and 6 have described the problem as dire, in part due to the areas being more pavement — and population-dense. But District 2 — which includes the Marina, Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow and Russian Hill — is also without any people-first roadways, though its close proximity to the Crissy Field Promenade has likely kept some pressure from residents at bay.

The far-flung Southwestern portion of the City in District 7 — which includes Ingleside, St. Francis Wood, Park Merced and Parkside — has also been left out of the program to date.

As of July 8, SFMTA’s Slow Streets map highlighted Jefferson Street near Fort Mason and a portion of Grant Avenue as corridors with “design in process,” meaning additional development and review is needed, but the process is still underway.

During his report at the SFMTA Board Meeting on June 30, Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin told board members the agency was diligently evaluating the performance of various streets against community needs and learning about what’s necessary for success.

For example, he said, they removed blockades on Stockton Street on the northern slope of Telegraph Hill because its steep incline made it too difficult for residents to actually use.

Other streets in the same area are reportedly under consideration to replace the void left by Stockton’s closure, Sauter said.

Tumlin also cited community support and use by children as two additional elements that improve the likelihood of a “Slow Street” being well-maintained and properly used by its neighbors.

Some have said San Francisco’s program has moved slower than it should in both implementing already-approved streets and expanding its reach when compared to nearby Oakland, which announced plans to turn 74-miles — 10% of its street network — car-free in early April and later added a spin-off initiative that provides traffic safety improvements near essential places such as grocery stores and COVID-19 testing sites to make them more accessible for residents.

SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said any delays can be attributed to the shortage in available materials to construct the barricades and the extreme limits on staff time and resources.

“Staff time is very limited, but everyone is working as quickly and efficiently as they can around the agency in the time of a pandemic,” she said.

According to SFMTA, residents are invited to provide feedback on how various Slow Streets are working in their neighborhoods. It also recommends the continued suggestion of candidates, which will then undergo internal screening and external review with other city agencies, including the Board of Supervisors, before possibly moving forward.

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