(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco needs parklets more than ever

By Cliff Bargar

As the Bay Area has taken shelter-in-place measures over the last six weeks (followed by the rest of California and then most of the United States) we’ve seen vast changes in how our public space is used. Both car traffic and public transit usage have plummeted yet the sidewalks feel more crowded than ever with social distancing requirements. While we’ve adjusted to this new normal of sheltering in place there have been a number of proposals for how San Francisco and other cities should be opening up street space for people. International illustrations abound (Paris, Milan, Bogota, Mexico City, to name just a few) with Oakland setting an early domestic example by pledging 74 miles of “slow streets.” The SFMTA followed more recently with their own “slow streets” program, in addition to outright closures to automobiles of Twin Peaks Boulevard, JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, and Shelley Drive in McLaren Park.

Beyond opening up street space for people engaging in active transportation or exercise there have been other innovative uses of public space enabling people to safely perform essential activities (such as grocery and food shopping). Some cities, like Menlo Park, have widened sidewalks by eliminating parking spaces to allow safer queueing. Many (including San Francisco and Seattle) have expedited loading zones for restaurant pickup, another repurposing of street parking spaces.

As we transition from this first phase of the pandemic response into a very gradual reopening we’ll need additional solutions to keep people safe and healthy while helping our workers and small businesses regain their footing. Governor Newsom has included some public spaces in his description of the coming second stage of the state’s reopening. Similarly the latest health order from six Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley has allowed some outdoor businesses to resume operating.

This comes as evidence increases that the spread of COVID19 is much more likely to be occurring indoors than out. One early study of 318 outbreaks (consisting of 1,245 cases) found that all but one of the transmissions likely occurred indoors. Meanwhile a single case study illustrated how the air circulation in one restaurant may have led to 9 cases and another article suggesting that running and cycling could be risky was widely debunked.

In response to this evidence cities such as Vilnius, Lithuania are planning on transforming public spaces into open-air cafes. Similar proposals have even been made in San José!. Meanwhile restaurants in San Francisco are struggling and see even more difficulties ahead, including the prospects of trying to make ends meet while dramatically lowering their seating capacity. Fortunately San Francisco is already a leader on a similar program: parklets.

We’re still weeks away (or perhaps further) from being able to dine out again in San Francisco but we need to prepare for a gradual return to liveliness while we live with prolonged social distancing. San Francisco’s urgency and thrift in granting new temporary loading zones must be replicated in sprouting parklets, which have in the past cost restaurants tens of thousands of dollars and taken years to design, approve, and construct. This is time and money that restaurants in San Francisco don’t have to waste today.

These parklets don’t need to be beautifully designed or landscaped – following existing “tactical” approaches used for other infrastructure may be sufficient on some streets, with jersey barrier sufficing on others. Like the loading zones now being granted to restaurants by SFMTA, these parklets should be granted to businesses with minimal fees and few questions asked.

SFMTA must also expedite temporary sidewalk widenings to allow adequate social distancing, as has been done elsewhere. There are still regularly lines to enter supermarkets and other stores who are properly metering their customers to allow for social distancing; this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

It’s possible that SFMTA is already planning for some of these possibilities – Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin has already indicated that he plans to make bold changes to our streets as we recover. Many of these will be crucial to getting San Franciscans safely from point A to point B – buses that spend less time waiting in traffic can run more frequently, allowing for better social distancing on board, while bike lanes will enable more people to safely travel outdoors. But these must also be paired with ambitious proposals for how to use the rest of our public space in a way that best facilitates both the City’s economic recovery and the health and safety of its residents, workers, and other visitors.

Cliff Bargar is a lead with Urban Environmentalists and SF YIMBY, is a member of the Caltrain Bicycle Advisory Committee and SF Eastern Neighborhoods Citizens Advisory Committee, and works as a robotics engineer.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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