The true and joyful potential of San Francisco’s streets

The pandemic provides an opportunity to envision a more sustainable future

By Nick Josefowitz and Luke Spray

Special to The Examiner

Streets serve as a city’s arteries and San Francisco’s are currently clogged. Most of The City’s streets are dominated by cars and, as such, are often uncomfortable to walk, unsafe to bike and unending to take transit. Even drivers hate our streets. Yet solutions are at our fingertips.

The pandemic gave us a rare opportunity to reenvision San Francisco’s streets untethered from our car-oriented past and well suited for a more sustainable future. A report from SPUR explores this emerging vision, using San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and Slow Streets programs as starting points for a broader evolution.

These pandemic-driven programs let restaurants, bars and cafes spill out onto the sidewalk and into parking spaces. They let groups of neighborhood businesses take over certain blocks at nights or on weekends. And they handed over select residential streets to locals to stroll, jog or bike — or just to enjoy the new peace and quiet in their neighborhood — by restricting through-traffic.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we must build on what we’ve started — with a focus on making these programs permanent and making them work.

Most importantly, The City must not reinstate bureaucratic barriers that were swept away during the pandemic to allow for programs like Shared Spaces and Slow Streets. For example, if a parklet uses a standard design, the permit should be issued automatically, without need for additional review.

City agencies like the Department of Building Inspection and the Fire Department should ensure their processes are aligned to enable Shared Spaces and Slow Streets to proliferate rather than focusing on their own narrow interests, such as giving small restaurant owners only two weeks to bring their outdoor dining spaces up to code or requiring that all street designs allow full-size fire trucks to easily pass each other at any point on the street.

We must not go back to our bloated, pre-pandemic planning processes in which neighbors argued endlessly over theoretical plans. The City must embrace the prototyping and iterating that was successful during the pandemic.

Our government must also try out new ways to configure streets, see how they’re used and how people feel about the changes — and then quickly improve street use based on that feedback. Slow Streets, for example, initially used barriers that were frequently knocked over in the wind, so the SFMTA began slowly replacing them with more durable plastic bollards. If our streets are to be fluid, our planning process must be, too.

The City must also invest equitably in improving streets in lower-income communities that cannot pay for various improvements themselves. For instance, Slow Streets in all neighborhoods should have the opportunity to evolve into joyful places, like Slow Sanchez, through street-corner concerts, art installations and parklets, as well as through high quality care and maintenance.

The SPUR report also calls for us to broaden our vision of what our street grid can be. Right now, we require each street to work equally well for a parent pushing a stroller, an ambulance rushing to breathe life into a heart attack victim and a delivery driver serving a small business. If we prioritized different streets for different uses — such as streets prioritized for bus service, emergency response vehicles, delivery trucks, bikes, retail uses, crosstown traffic and Slow Streets — we could create a series of overlapping, connected networks and make our street grid work better for everyone, from the daily driver to the car-free household.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we face new crises that are as singular as a pedestrian death and as global as climate change. Our leaders have a template to reenvision our streets for the future. We urge them to embrace a sustainable and joyful post-pandemic future rather than slide back into the inertia of the past.

Nick Josefowitz is chief of policy at SPUR, a Bay Area public policy think tank. Luke Spray is associate director of strategic partnerships at the San Francisco Parks Alliance.

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