When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency launched Slow Streets in April 2020, it marketed the program as a necessary but temporary emergency response.
Closing streets to thru-traffic would support biking, walking or rolling between destinations, fill gaps left by Muni cuts and protect space for socially distanced outdoor recreation.
Public uptake was quick.
As of October 2020, vehicle use on these roadways had dropped by half, pedestrian usage increased by 17 percent and bicycle numbers jumped by 65 percent and 80 percent on weekends and weekdays, respectively, according to SFMTA data.
Initial surveys of over 6,000 people on Page, Lake and Shotwell streets showed a significant majority supported the program broadly and the possibility of it being made permanent in some form.
As the pandemic’s end creeps into sight, however, and SFMTA moves forward with plans to evaluate the future of the 26 Slow Streets citywide, some are ringing the alarm.
A number of neighbors, supervisors and school principals have expressed concerns about lack of community engagement over the closures, confusion over what the next steps are and a general sense that what started as an admirable effort to support travel across The City has overstepped its mandate.
“The way I’d summarize it is that what started off as an understandable and good response to the pandemic has turned into a monster,” said Jeff, a Sanchez Street resident who asked not to disclose his last name. “The way that this has progressed, though, is those are not problems anymore or they’re quickly not becoming problems.”
What is a Slow Street?
A Slow Street is defined as a low-volume residential roadway that is safe and comfortable for walking and biking for all ages and abilities, according to Shannon Hake, the SFMTA program manager. They’re intended to be part of the citywide transportation network that connect to parks, open space or protected bike facilities, for example.
But what does that really mean?
Janice Li, advocacy director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, has an idea: “At the end of the day, we want to see people-first streets that have designs that slow down speeds and divert or otherwise limit thru-traffic.”
Others say the messaging is murkier.
“I don’t think that MTA has done a good job of being clear with us or with the public about what they consider success in a Slow Street,” said Edward Wright, an aide for District Four Supervisor Gordon Mar.
Advocacy groups point to Slow Streets’ resemblance to an urban park as proof of success. Page and Sanchez streets, for example, have become the site of street murals and sidewalk art and a destination for happy hour strolls.
Most welcome these community-building activities, but not all think they belong on a street.
“Let’s build a park. Let’s improve public spaces and go through the right channels,” said Jeff. .
Celeste, another resident of Sanchez Street who asked her last name not be used, expressed frustration at her home of 12.5-years becoming a “tourist destination, not a throughway.”
She said she wants to work with SFMTA to find a solution such as a protected bike lane.
In fact, she says she’s been in touch with the agency, but continues to feel ignored.
Sanchez Street is one of the three roads that SFMTA hopes to make permanent Slow Streets first. The other two are Shotwell and Page streets.
Multiple residents say they have reached out repeatedly expressing apprehension, but have felt dwarfed by the momentum of the Slow Street movement within the agency and other community groups with more political know-how.
“The honest answer is it feels like they’re not listening and don’t care,” said Jeff. “That’s the part that is most disheartening.”
SFMTA says it conducted extensive outreach along all corridors including mailed notices, high visibility posters and flyers. It also plans to resume outdoor tabling events in the coming weeks and conduct more in-person meetings.
Others across The City share the feeling their input hasn’t been adequately considered.
Twitter exploded in April when Slow Street signage all over the Sunset was removed practically overnight without public notice following a letter from local school principals with the support of Mar to open the roads fully to vehicles in time for the reopening of classrooms.
Barriers were promptly reinstalled after protests and the message reiterated that Slow Streets are open to local traffic including school pick-up and drop-offs, but the communications breakdown laid bare tension between stakeholders in the Sunset.
“Our criticism of Slow Streets is mostly a reflection of the lack of process and a lack of investment to make them successful, and our commitment is to make sure that we have a successful network that meets the needs going forward,” said Wright.
He added that the supervisor’s office had secured funding to support community outreach and barrier upgrades to improve safety, among other things, but that there had been little progress.
“In terms of getting a sense of where or how this program is falling short, it’s really hard for us to say because that work hasn’t happened,” he said. “We do think it’s falling short because they’re just not getting used that much.”
According to a statement from Mar that cited SFMTA data, 44 average daily cyclists use the 41st Avenue Slow Street on weekdays and under 30 daily use the Ortega Street Slow Street on both weekends and weekdays.
Currently, all District Four Slow Streets are listed as “not on the path to permanence” on the SFMTA website, pending results from the ongoing District 4 Mobility Study.
Li agrees that public outreach is critical, but counters that government that simply follows the results of outreach can miss out on chances to innovate or demonstrate the art of the possible.
“As elected leaders or people in leadership, you’re supposed to push the status quo to make our streets safer […],” she said. “I think we start with the goals and make sure that people understand why those are the goals rather than starting from separate goals or misunderstanding what the goals are.”
The idea of limiting vehicle traffic in favor of alternate modes of travel on residential streets is not novel.
SFMTA’s website is littered with project pages designed to achieve this very thing: neighborways, bike networks, greenways, now Slow Streets. Though some certainly do garner fierce public engagement, few have created the same divisiveness as the Slow Streets program.
Supporters and detractors alike largely attribute this fervor to the lack of clarity.
Those in favor candidly say it’s been hard to follow the process and difficult to rely on SFMTA for enforcement and safety. Cars regularly blow through barriers on Page Street and others.
Critics say they feel disenfranchised from the decision-making process and consider themselves victims of a bait-and-switch, who were sold on a temporary program only to see it made permanent.
SFMTA will propose a conceptual network of permanent Slow Streets to the Board of Directors in July. If approved, staff will conduct corridor-specific outreach to identify design treatments and safety measures.