Hugo and Kezar: A San Francisco Gem of Walkable, Bikeable Streets

Hugo Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Finding great examples of bike-friendly streets doesn’t always mean looking across borders to international cities. Here in San Francisco, gems of physically separated bikeways and traffic-calmed neighborhood streets can be found on an oft-overlooked bicycle route along Hugo Street and Kezar Drive that connects the Inner Sunset to areas east.

Nearly all of my bicycle trips from my Inner Sunset home launch off with Hugo Street. It’s a refreshingly calm stretch of neighborhood-oriented space where a low level of cars travel through at human speeds. A plethora of tree cover and pedestrian space, ruptured by relatively few driveways, creates a seven-block oasis that may leave those strolling and riding through disappointed only by its brevity.

“It’s a little piece of utopia in San Francisco, and it really is a living example of livable streets – I hope the city planners are studying it, because it works,” said Joe Rogers, a radio news editor and Inner Sunset resident who uses the route on his bicycle commute. “A lot of people are surprised. The volume of cars is low, and I think that just lends itself to a lot of people walking around there. It’s just perfect for bike riding. It’s not designed to be made easy for cars to go through.”

“A good number of families with kids on their bikes” visit the street’s Wooly Pig Cafe, said owner Lieng Souryavong. Rush hour on the street means mainly bike traffic passing through, and with a relatively narrow roadway, speeding drivers aren’t a concern, he noted.

“It draws the traffic that I want,” he said.

From Hugo, the designated bicycle route flows travelers onto a physically separated walking and cycling path on Kezar Drive. Despite a somewhat high level of motor traffic using the road, non-motorized users can keep a sense of safety as separation is provided by a curb, planted hedges, parked cars, and even logs. By the end of the road, travelers are connected directly to the Panhandle.

Kezar Drive. Photo: Aaron Bialick

“Usually on half of my commute, I’m not even in the streets. It’s really cool,” said Rogers.

The dose of car-free travel and human-oriented streets is enough to excite me, and I’m sure many others, about getting on my bike, whether it’s to get to work or just the grocery store.

As I ride, a thought consistently runs through my head: If everyone had this kind of invitation and the ability to get on their bike, then why wouldn’t they?

This block of 6th Avenue links Hugo to the calm but lively Irving Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Kezar Drive has a physically separated, mixed-use path. Photo: Aaron Bialick
The transition onto Kezar does bring a minor moment of caution. Photo: Aaron Bialick
Photo: Aaron Bialick

  • Caleb

    I’ve long thought that Hugo Street would be a perfect candidate project site for San Francisco’s first real ‘woonerf’:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woonerf

    Put in removable bollards to block auto traffic from entering/exiting Hugo Street from 6th and 4th avenues, but allowing bike and pedestrian traffic to flow through. The only cars driving on the street would then be people who live on that block, making the street calm and safe enough for kids to play in it. Eventually, the pavement could even be replaced with brick or something more decorative.

  • Mark D.

    I’m so happy someone wrote a story about this segment. I use Hugo almost everyday to get me to and from the eastern neighborhoods and home west of Twin Peaks. Honestly, Hugo is almost perfect as is – a defacto bicycle boulevard. Maybe install a diverter or two, but otherwise this is one of my favorite streets to ride. Add on the multi-use paths on Kezar and the Panhandle and a huge part of my commute is 8-to-80 safe.

  • Nick

    This story is a little bittersweet for those of us who have lived or biked out here for decades. I dare say that the success of this route was largely “unintentional” on the part of the MTA. They could have fast-tracked it as one complete project, but chose the piecemeal approach instead. It’s a cautionary tale for other neighborhoods.

    About 10 years ago: there were no sharrows, no 4-Way Stop signs, and the ride down Irving was even worse. The eventual entrance at Kezar was a welcome change over the former design.

    Each Stop sign that went in had to be individually recommended. This process took YEARS. The SFBC I assume was the group pushing for this.

    Also note that Irving (from 9th to 19th Avenue) went through the same long process of Stop sign approval. Today it rides like a calm neighborhood street. To claim that this is a “model street” is a little misleading in the respect that one assumes the MTA actually had a plan to build it this way.

  • Erin

    Thanks Aaron for such a thoughtful article. I’d love to see more of these about other gem routes. It’s important for us to constantly be pushing for improvement, but it’s also great to appreciate what we already have!

  • Jason

    I’ve been living half a block from what some call the “inner Inner Sunset” for nine years and as a walker and driver I’ve appreciated its slow pace, proportionally narrow asphalt, well-grown trees, and gradually improving street-side gardens. Especially as a driver I’ve valued the addition of four-way stops here; before the stop sign installation at Hugo and 4th Avenue, for example, the inconsistency and poor sight lines made driving unsafe.
    It took me years to realize that Hugo fits the alphabetical scheme of Sunset streets, falling as it does just before the I of Irving…which brings me to a tangent inspired by Hugo: the excessive length of avenue blocks. How much more walkable would the Richmond and Sunset be if easements for walkers could be developed mid-block! Hugo’s the most-expansive version, but it would only take four neighbors, a legal template, SF City support, and some construction on each block to create a walkway that halves the length of the stretch between Judah and Kirkham, or any of the standard-length avenue blocks that run from Wawona to Lake. (The street blocks are delightfully short.) Even the parking lot running between 8th and 9th Avenue right behind the Irving Street-fronting buildings gives breathing room for walkers (and space for our farmer’s market, to boot), and it’s only one building’s length into the avenue block.
    Permeability of the city is crucial to its and our health. This is also why the privatization/securing of alleys downtown is so dismaying.

  • Nick

    Jason, fantastic observation!

    Check out Wyton lane out by SFSU. It is truely a pedestrian paradise and I think warrants a Streetsblog article similiar to the one on Hugo…. as well as an examination of how to get more of these installed throughout the city.

  • Alai

    There is a major difference between Hugo and most other streets and avenues all over SF: Hugo is a two-way 30-foot wide street with wide sidewalks, while almost all the other streets in the Richmond and Sunset are 40 feet wide or more. I’m convinced that this alone makes all the difference.

    As for what to do about it– well, one way of effectively narrowing streets is to allow diagonal or perpendicular parking on one side. See Willard St. to the east of Hugo. Perhaps a compromise could be worked out: perpendicular parking to increase the number of spaces; in return, some bike lanes where needed, like Oak St., other street improvements, and lowering or removing the minimum parking requirements for new construction.

  • Sprague

    Thanks for reporting about existing SF streets that seem to work for all users.

  • Jason

    Yes, the expanses of asphalt in the Avenues (yowza, 40ft wide!) begs for solutions, like planted medians, altered parking patterns…folks help me out with ideas here.
    DPW has recently installed planted islands on Kirkham, Lawton & Judah in the Inner Sunset, with oaks, olives, and ornamentals. It’s really good start.

  • Tara

    Great thoughts Jason. I used to live on Frederick Street and would use Hugo as my walking route to the Inner Sunset. Now I live in the Inner Richmond and I would kill, KILL to have diagonal parking or planted islands on my block of 9th Avenue (between Fulton & Cabrillo) which is a very wide street, but with some fast drivers looking to avoid the lights on 8th and 10th.

  • As Sprague points out, Hugo works now for everyone, which won’t prevent some meddlers from trying to “improve” it. Sometimes doing nothing is best. Leave Hugo alone.

  • Nick

    Actually this little route can still be improved:

    -Repaint the bike lane on 6th Avenue at Hugo.
    -Install a Stop sign at 8th and Irving.
    -Install a Stop sign at 16th and Irving.
    -Install a left-turn bike box at 7th and Irving.
    -Enforce the 25mph speed limit on 7th Avenue and laguna honda.
    -Provide off-street bike parking at 9th and Irving.
    -Install a parklett outside of Arizmendi.

  • Or we could just leave it alone, which is the No-Project alternative always available to everyone except “activists,” who of course know best. The No Project assumption is an important part of my Leave the Neighborhoods Alone Plan, which has the advantage of not costing the city anything: No Project, no expenses.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Nick –

    Although 8th and Irving definitely needs safety improvements, I think a stop sign would just delay the N.

  • Alai

    Who’s arguing for changing Hugo? None of Nick’s ideas actually affect Hugo (even the first one is just repainting the lines that have been worn away on 6th, I think).

    But I think it’s a fallacy to say that the no-project alternative will always cost the city nothing. First, the city has to do maintenance either way. Some projects will increase maintenance costs, but others will reduce it: for example, replacing concrete and asphalt with soil for plants will reduce the strain on the water treatment facilities. It’s also easier to repair (you don’t have to repair buckled pavement slabs if there’s no pavement, and you don’t have to resurface the road if there’s no road, or if there’s less traffic damaging the road). Also, there are differences in who pays– for example, the city may save money by not maintaining potholes, but more is paid by people who damage cars and get into bike accidents as a result (I’ve popped a tire on a pothole, and it could have been much worse).

    Similarly, maintaining the streetcar tracks costs a bundle, I’m sure, but heavy vehicles disproportionately damage the road surface– how much additional road damage would buses, or many more private cars, cause? The transit system in general costs a lot– but not having it would also cost a lot: the costs of traffic delays to individuals, the costs of having to build many more garages at a hundred million a pop, the costs of having business and living space displaced by the parking now required and leaving the city, because let’s face it: that 400 square foot barber shop won’t be profitable if it’s required to provide 2000 square feet of parking, as it would have to in most other cities.

  • Sprague

    Alai,

    You make a very good point. Not only do projects that promote and enable alternatives to auto traffic save some public funds by facilitating less wear and tear on our street infrastructure, they also enable us as individuals and households to travel in a less costly manner (bicycling and transit passes are usually cheaper than car ownership).

  • Mike

    I love this little stretch of roads too. I grew up in the Sunset and commuted downtown from there. I always thought Hugo was the perfect width residential street. I also enjoyed hugging my girlfriend at the time as we rode past the Hugo St sign where the O was whited out. It’s a nice, chill shared bit of road.

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