When Ed Ho thinks about his childhood, one of his fondest memories is exploring his South Bay neighborhood on a bicycle.
Years later, as an Outer Sunset resident and father of two, Ho wanted the same thing for his own kids, but he remained frustrated by the need to put them in a car or traverse busy intersections just to get to school, the library or nearby parks.
Last June, Ho approached Supervisor Gordon Mar, who oversees District Four encompassing the majority of the Sunset neighborhood, with the idea of partially closing 41st Avenue, where several family-friendly sites are located.
“If The City could help families and kids do these sort of outings in some way that didn’t involve a car and we could still be safe doing so, […] all of those would be enhanced if we had this safe corridor,” he said.
Ho’s vision was realized once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and The City started partially shutting down roadways to thru-traffic as part of its Slow Streets program.
The 41st Avenue closure was one of the first, largely because Mar’s office had already brought Ho’s idea to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
Across District Four, a grassroots movement to enhance and improve mobility options has taken hold, leading to sizable results in an otherwise trying time.
This year alone, Mar and his staff have partnered with community members to slate 94 intersections for daylighting to improve pedestrian safety, expand the service range of the Bay Wheels bikeshare program into the district, set aside four streets and 6.4 miles for the Slow Streets program and spearhead the transition of the Great Highway into a safe haven for people first.
San Francisco suburb
With its wide streets, colorful two-story homes with backyards and garages and its proximity to Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach, the Sunset neighborhood can feel a world away from downtown San Francisco.
Mar likens it to a suburb of The City itself, a more residential, lower-density area where people often move with a young family as an alternative to busier neighborhoods on the east side.
That metaphorical distance is only enhanced by the physical distance much of the district experiences.
The entire Sunset neighborhood, but especially the Outer Sunset, is notoriously transit-poor. While residents can take Muni buses and the N-Judah and L-Taraval into The City’s eastern or downtown areas without driving, many still continue to rely on cars full of kids for travel to everyday destinations such as the supermarket, restaurants or after-school activities.
Mar says most of his constituents would prefer to get around through public transit, biking and walking, if there were more convenient options available to them.
Since he took office last year, Mar and his staff have made identifying and implementing those options a priority, and they’re following the lead of their constituents in how to address mobility challenges.
Edward Wright, the District Four legislative aide, said concerns about SFMTA were the single highest category of complaint the office received pre-pandemic.
“People want to use transit, they want to use these services, but they can’t if it’s not meeting their needs, and we certainly heard about how it wasn’t meeting their needs,” Wright said. “We also have an environmental responsibility to give people other options that are more sustainable.”
He points to the success of the Bay Wheels program in District Four.
Pre-pandemic, the district was outside Bay Wheels’ service zone, but Mar’s office lobbied for expansion of the free-standing bike service once shelter-in-place began. In the first three months it was available, from April to June, trips within the district clocked in at 8,509 total, or roughly 100 per day.
Now, staff is working closely with Bay Wheels, SFMTA and community members to install actual bike docking stations near neighborhood commercial corridors. Seven sites are currently in their initial proposal phase.
District Four, home to many families as well as seniors, also has its own somber history of fatalities and severe injuries on the streets.
When the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution last year urging more rapid pedestrian safety improvements, Mar said he followed up with SFMTA to accelerate the process of daylighting in his district and began a data-driven and community-led approach to identifying high-priority intersections.
The intersection at 41st Avenue and Ortega Street, the site of numerous collisions, was one of 62 in District Four alone to have recently received red paint as part of the neighborhood’s comprehensive daylighting program.
By year’s end, that number should total 94, an especially rapid pace for an agency not known to be swift.
SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin has commended Mar for his hands-on work alongside the agency.
“I think the art of it is really working with SFMTA to not just ask them to do things or yell at them to do things, but to try and be partners in that work,” Wright said.
The Great Walkway and Slow Streets
Perhaps District Four’s most visible success, though, has been the temporary closure of the two-mile long Great Highway, now dubbed by many the Great Walkway.
While it was occasionally closed to cars in the past for special events or due to windblown sand from the beach, the multi-lane roadway is now a hub of exercisers, beachgoers and even protesters.
Small business owners like Lana Porcello, whose restaurant Outerlands has called the Outer Sunset home since 2009, say the attraction of open space so close to Ocean Beach will bring more people into the neighborhood and likely generate additional business and foot traffic.
“It will allow us to continue to draw people from outside our district and inside our district because they’ll have a readily available activity that they can do while socially distanced, and it’s going to continue to make it more possible to come out here,” she said.
Others say the additional 6.4 miles of Slow Streets — not including Great Highway — and increased bikeshare usage has spurred new visitors to their storefronts, and it’s created opportunities for initiatives such as the Outer Sunset Farmers Market and its vendors to thrive.
Those in favor of a more permanent Slow Street permanent, inclusive of the Great Highway, say it allows an otherwise disparate residential area to create a sense of physical togetherness.
“It allows our community, which tends to be more spread out, to conceive of gathering in a new way,” Porcello said.
Not everyone supports a more permanent closure, however. Some have raised concerns about increased traffic on nearby streets.
District Four officials say they will continue to put residents at the forefront of their efforts. They’ve recently completed the first stage of the District Four Mobility Study, commissioned in partnership with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and have now started to solicit public input through virtual town halls and community meetings to identify how to best expand mobility options.
“I don’t really think we can take credit for any of the ideas we’ve worked on. A lot of that has come from stakeholders and from the community,” Wright said.