“Closing” Lombard Street: The Language of Taking Cars For Granted

Crooked Lombard Street is being partially closed to cars, and mainly opened to people. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the headlines. Photo: SFMTA

A peculiar thing tends to happen when we talk about streets and transportation: We don’t talk about cars. Seriously — listen to conversations, read news headlines, and you’ll start to notice that even when cars are the main subject, people will, consciously or unconsciously, fail to explicitly mention them.

This phenomenon was particularly apparent to me this week, with media coverage of the SFMTA’s proposed (and subsequently approved) trial to restrict cars on world-famous crooked Lombard Street. The headlines started pouring out hours after I broke the story with this headline: “SFMTA considers restricting cars on crooked Lombard Street.”

Clearly, cars are the key subject of this proposal. It will restrict car access on two blocks, and nothing else. Non-“local” drivers will be banned for some hours on some days over a few weekends, but access for people not in cars — the vast majority of people on the crooked street — will actually be made safer and more enjoyable.

Yet from reading headlines found in other news sources around the country, you’d think the street is simply being closed to everyone. Cars are vaguely mentioned, if at all, while the whole “temporary trials on some afternoons” thing often gets washed over, with Lombard deemed simply and totally “closed.” Here are a few typical examples:

  • Washington Post: “San Francisco to close off iconic Lombard Street to tourists”
  • USA Today: “S.F. to temporarily close ‘world’s crookedest street'”
  • SF Chronicle: “Lombard Street to close on 4 busy weekends this summer”

Put simply, unfettered access by cars is equated with “access.” If one cannot drive there, one cannot go there. And as those important distinctions are blurred, we lose sight of what we deem important uses of our streets.

The verbal gymnastics used to avoid mentioning cars are present not just in headlines, but in everyday conversation. In discussions about behavior on the streets, notice how often the operators of motor vehicles are described as just “people” — for example, “People are always flying down this hill.” Not that drivers aren’t people, but the mode of transport is a key distinction to make. People using other modes usually get explicit labels that posit them as “others” — people on bikes are “cyclists,” and people just walking around are “pedestrians.”

The Lombard Street car restrictions have roundly been deemed a “closure,” a term with negative connotations. The other side of that action, that of opening the area for people, is ignored — as is the fact that auto domination is the status quo on San Francisco’s streets. Any impingement upon that norm that is framed as a loss.

We’ve seen this with Sunday Streets. Especially at first, the event was universally described as a “street closure,” even though the streets are actually open more than ever, at least to the majority of people not inside a car at any given time. As Sunday Streets has become more normal, and people realize the benefits it brings, I’ve noticed that it’s less frequently described as a “closure.”

Another example: What might be most accurately called “car storage” is usually referred to as “parking,” and loosely conflated with general quality of life. At community meetings about street redesigns, I typically hear some argue that “the neighborhood” requires parking — even if they really refer only to that subset of people in the neighborhood who value private automobile storage more than bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

“Traffic” is also typically used interchangeably with “car traffic” (the “car” is omitted). In reality, there is also foot traffic, bicycle traffic, and transit traffic. But when we hear “traffic,” it’s assumed by default to refer to automobiles, while other means of getting around remain tacitly marginalized.

That usage popped up in the SF Examiner‘s headline about Lombard: “SF giving twisty Lombard a vacation from traffic.” What kind of traffic? Pedestrian traffic will continue to flow freely on the street, but we all somehow know that doesn’t count as “traffic.”

When the discussion is framed in ways like these, the role cars play is put behind the curtain. The conversation then takes for granted that most public space will be devoted to the private automobile, and most people will travel by car.

If we can’t explicitly talk about problems and their causes, we can’t talk about fixing them. And if we can’t acknowledge the subtle ways in which our lexicon is inherently centered around cars, we can’t talk about the ways in which we’ve adapted our lives, and cities, to accommodate their costs.

  • jd_x

    This is the kind of policy and attitude that that absolutely must change in our cities: that bicycles are cars and should be treated the same, follow the same rules, and be punished the same as motorists for breaking the same rules. That is utter nonsense given that bicycles weigh two orders of magnitude less than cars, have no external power source so can’t suddenly accelerate into people, and whose “drivers” do not have their senses dulled because they aren’t cocooned in steel.

    In case you haven’t noticed, people are waking up to this fact that it is a tragedy of our urban design in the last century that we ever thought cyclists should be treated like cars. Polk St is an example of this awakening.

  • jd_x

    Reference?

  • Another example: in some cities, when you’re walking on the sidewalk along a one-way street in the opposite direction of traffic, there’s no sign to identify the cross street when you approach an intersection. Since no one (in a car) would approach from that direction, the city saved money and only put the street name on a sign facing the opposite way! Message: if you’re not in a car, you don’t count.

  • 94103er

    Same goes for light installation when a roadway changes from two- to one-way. For example. walking east on 15th at Guerrero. You either get a flashing yellow or a red, no walk signal, and no clue how much time you have to cross. Ridiculously lame oversight by traffic planning.

  • Pedestrian non grata.

  • Gezellig

    Good point! As if only drivers would need to know the name of the street.

    Actually, signs geared towards non-driving modes are often lacking. There is often poor visibility to BART and Muni riders about which stop they’re at and checks on the system such as audio announcements don’t always work due to them being muffled/unclear–not to mention this does nothing for the hearing-impaired.

    Imagine if signs of this size/visbility were placed prominently on every station platform!

    http://www.shiftinvestments.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/rockridge-oakland-bart-e1351808004960.jpg

    (Yes, I know that Rockridge sign isn’t on the BART platform but outside the station…I’m just saying what if that style of lettering *were* on the platforms).

  • Gezellig

    On a related note regarding perceptions of
    biking (and perhaps also as somewhat of an amateur sign geek) I’m also really interested in the way official road stencils/signs portray bikes, the people
    who use them and resultantly the subtle ways this all affects people’s perceptions of biking.

    Which of these two activities looks like a safe, comfortable one you’d enjoy doing?

    http://greentickle.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/bike-lane-biker-stencil.jpg

    vs.

    http://bikenewportbeach.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/SharrowSymbol.jpg

    1) The first one depicts biking as:

    –> helmeted (-> biking is dangerous, only for the brave)

    –> hunched-over/”attack mode” posture (-> biking is for racers/road-warriors)

    –> probably male, almost certainly adult, and very able.

    Conclusion: biking is a dangerous, combative activity only for the bravest, best reflex-having, racer/road-warrior-est adult males.

    2) The second depicts biking as:

    –> upright (-> seat is below handlebars for a more relaxed posture)

    –> for all (-> no human figure is depicted so you fill in the blanks)

    –> unhelmeted

    –> forward arrows depict movement

    Conclusion: biking is a safe, serene activity for all that will still move you along and get you where you need to go.

    This all might sound like really granular pickiness but imagery and framing absolutely matter as to how people perceive an activity such as biking.

    http://youtu.be/07o-TASvIxY
    Mikael Colville-Andersen on the problem with helmets

  • jd_x

    In Mountain View/Palo Alto (the intersection is right at the border so I’m not sure which city is responsible), there is a great example of this if-you’re-not-a-car-you-don’t-count design at the San Antonio Caltrain station where pedestrians and cyclists have to cross the traffic sewer that is Central Expressway. Here is the aerial view with a pin at the intersection and the San Antonio Calrain station at the lower right:
    https://maps.google.com/maps?daddr=37.4088751,-122.1088411&ll=37.408195,-122.108177&spn=0.002784,0.00327&t=h&dirflg=b&z=19

    If you’re coming from the Caltrain station as a cyclist, there is no traffic signal facing that direction. Since cars don’t come that way, apparently nobody else matters or deserves a traffic signal. Pedestrians have to cross to the far side to hit a button to cross Central Expressway (and it takes *forever* … one of the longest lights I’ve ever seen … it’s clear the almighty freeway-like traffic on Central takes priority over everything else). Cyclists are completely left out of the design: they either have to pretend to be a pedestrian and cross on the far side then cross back over on the other side of Central, or they have to just go when they see cross-traffic get the red (since they can’t actually see the green) and still have to dodge the traffic turning onto Central that isn’t ever looking for pedestrians or cyclists on that side. It’s so frustrating on how clearly the city prioritizes the car and doesn’t give a damn about pedestrians and cyclists, even though they slammed the sewer that is Central right through the middle of residential neighborhoods decades ago. With Caltrain right there and it being one of the only places you can cross the tracks for a good 1/2-mile in either direction, the city (PA or MV) really needs to redo this intersection to make it more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly, including putting lights in all directions and allowing crossing on both sides with associated pavement markings.

  • Gezellig

    I’ve also often marveled at the lack of basic infrastructure for
    anything but cars around Caltrain stations. It’s sadly par for the course in Peninsula/South Bay communities to have 150% Car-First Everything but I mean…it’s a *train* station!

    Also, this reminds me…has there ever been a proposal for an integrated bike route along the Caltrain corridor? There’s totally space (currently unused by anything else) for it in a lot of places, and even where the space is currently used for cars it could be retrofitted. For example, I’ve noticed in places like this:

    http://goo.gl/maps/eYVuo

    (Link Opens to Street View)

    That road paralleling Caltrain is the perfect width for bikes! And the fact that even this block has a totally dedicated road for cars despite the fact that:

    1) nothing fronts it
    2) its design makes it highly undesirable as a through-route for cars

    shows how totally skewed the Car First infrastructure is. Design everything for cars everywhere even if it doesn’t make sense for a driver to go there in the first place. But just in the severe off-chance!

    That block could be totally closed to cars as no business or home fronts it.

    On blocks where buildings front only that narrow side street it could be made into a Bike Street (two-way green supersharrows and signs indicating bikes have priority with Cars Allowed As Guests signs, etc.).

    And on other stretches of the corridor there’s space for bike paths not currently being used by anything.

    But this would all require a shift in mentality first.

  • Don’t get me started on “smart” traffic lights that only give a green on demand. By a car. On a bicycle, you can’t get through without a car escort! (“Stupid lights” 😉

  • I went down it with them one time. Thought I was gonna die.

  • EastBayer

    This affects drivers as well, but there are many suburbs where the main streets aren’t even signed from the cross streets. If you’re on Massive Boulevard, you get a sign saying that you’re crossing Shady Susan Lane or something, but if you’re on Shady Susan Lane, you aren’t necessarily reminded that you’ve arrived at Massive Boulevard. You’re just assumed to know…

  • Sanfordia113

    “Another example: What might be most accurately called “car storage” is usually referred to as “parking,” and loosely conflated with general quality of life. At community meetings about street redesigns, I typically hear some argue that “the neighborhood” requires parking — even if they really refer only to that subset of people in the neighborhood who value private automobile storage more than bike lanes and wider sidewalks.”

    WRONG! I adamantly believe there should be no free parking and that street parking should be eliminated with a 20-year phase-out. However, I also believe that underground parking should be promoted and charged market-rate rents to those interested in paying for it. I for one would be an eager buyer if it were only available in my Market Street condo building (or even a communal underground block lot) :/

  • Sanfordia113

    undergrounding Caltrain and selling the land for development with required bike lane as infrastructure could accomplish this. But most Streetsbolg commenters hate the idea of undergrounding trains (or cars), for some reason.

  • Skem

    It’s a start, always has been. Language affects perception.

  • skem

    Most people visiting Lombard are able-bodied enough and perfectly capable of walking it. To accommodate those who can’t, there will greater access for vans and taxis.

  • skem

    Twisted man on a twisted block.

  • Coco

    Yeah, totally! Cyclists shouldn’t have to stop at lights or stop signs like they’re cars or something! Bikes should act like pedestrians when it’s to their benefit, and cars when its to their benefit, because they are superior to both.

    (This is sarcasm, in case that was not obvious. I frequently see cyclists blow right through lights/stop signs which is dangerous to themselves, cars, and pedestrians. Follow the rules of the road, you idiots. If you’re not fast enough to keep up with car traffic, then get out of the way. “Share the road” goes both ways.)

  • Coco

    Pedestrians/bicyclists aren’t paying the taxes that pay for stuff like street signs. Volunteer some of your money for signs, if it’s too hard for you to turn your head to look behind you when you pass a street sign. Put up or shut up.

  • Coco

    It would be great to have some kind of bike tax to pay for stuff like that. Otherwise, it’s probably never going to happen.

  • Gezellig
  • Coco

    Wow, this is delusional. 1. How could you possibly be upset about the recommendation to wear a helmet while biking? Bicycle safety should be a primary concern for people like you who are advocating the acceptance of bicyclists. Depicting a person without a helmet would be stupid and also insane (just like people who bike in cities without one). Advocating against helmet use has to be the most counterproductive argument I’ve ever seen. Lets get rid of seatbelts in cars, too!

    2. The cyclist in the first sign is not hunched over – his back is completely straight. Do you not know what you look like when you bike? Have you never watched pro cyclists? Hint: you are not sitting straight up unless you are not holding onto the handle bars.

    Anyway, your basic point seems to be that bicycles are only safe when they have no rider, and that seems a little silly.

  • Gezellig

    The TED Talk above addresses these points.

  • Jacob Lynn
  • jd_x

    Wow, Coco, you’re just going on a rampage here on old stories. You should read this blog (and ones like it) a little more rather than just mindlessly spouting the same old points which have been repeatedly addressed. It’s not even worth the time to try and rehash points when you clearly don’t care and are just trolling.

  • murphstahoe

    Coco – was that you driving your car onto the sidewalk in Sausalito yesterday? You know, pinning that pedestrian against a wall, such that a bunch of cyclists had to lift the car off the sidewalk to free the pedestrian?

  • Coco

    Who says I don’t care just because I commented on a 3 month old article? It’s not like it’s outdated at this point. It’s not rehashing if I haven’t first hashed it.

  • Coco

    Yeah, complete unnecessary risk-taking idiots. These people far less than those who drive on the busy streets of San Francisco and “share” the steep roads with fast-moving cars rather than in clear pedestrian areas like the one in your photos.

  • Coco

    I mean it says it right there that a lot of the money comes from gas taxes. Just because a lot of cyclists also drive cars doesn’t make a bit of difference if we’re talking about bike-only issues. Anyway, you sent me a report from not only an entirely different city, but also a totally different state, and one that has a VERY different tax structure, if you’ll take a second to learn about it.

  • Gezellig

    A candid video of the delusional/criminally insane:

    http://youtu.be/Cui-7WSoXHQ

    And when the mayor poses for a photo-op, he doesn’t even bother to wear a helmet!

    https://www.gemeentewestland.nl/typo3temp/pics/39eaa30262.png

    (translation of sign: “Traffic Safe”)

    http://www.halloweenforum.com/attachments/general-halloween/177844d1381429886-halloween-decorations-scare-up-controversy-mustang-oklahoma-tumblr_l9fyefwtuw1qzoa9f.jpg

  • Coco

    Um, no. Nonsequitur, but I’ll bite. I don’t even really like driving, I’m not against cycling and walking is my favorite form of transportation. I’m just saying, jerk cyclists who act like they own the roads are just as much of a problem, if not more of one, than the cars. You’re not above the law because your bike doesn’t have a motor, and you can’t just cherry pick whatever rules benefit you the most. Follow the laws and we’ll be just fine.

  • Gezellig

    Those principles apply in California, too.

    http://cycling.blogs.pressdemocrat.com/10129/you-dont-pay-road-taxes-so/

    “Briefly, here is a summary of the facts: studies estimate that motor vehicle users pay an average of 2.3 cents per mile in user charges such as gas taxes, registration fees, and tolls. However, they impose 6.5 cents per mile in road service costs. In contrast, cyclist impose road service costs averaging a miniscule 2/10ths of 1 cent per mile.”

    We all pay for the roads whether we drive or not because driving and road infrastructure is massively subsidized by general taxes that comparatively meager gas tax/DMV registration fees/etc. don’t come close to paying for.

    The more you drive, actually, the more you’re getting massive subsidies per mile in your favor, especially considering the wear-and-tear per mile cars wreak on roads.

    The more you get around by not-car (ie foot, bike, transit, etc.) the more it’s kind of a bum deal the way our current system is set up.

  • murphstahoe

    “I’m just saying, jerk cyclists who act like they own the roads are just as much of a problem, if not more of one, than the cars.”

    Cyclists are definitely more of a problem than the cars – because cars are inanimate objects. However, I assert that cyclists are less of a problem than motorists.

    My example, where a motorist drove onto the sidewalk and injured three people, is a pretty big problem, not replicated by any cyclist.

    Presuming you meant motorists, can you give me statistics that back that up? Say for example, fatalities/injuries caused by cyclists and similar statistics for motorists? If you don’t consider “fatalities/injuries” to be an appropriate problem to consider, feel free to cite statistics for any other problem that cyclists contribute more to than motorists.

  • Jacob Lynn

    Two minutes of research demonstrates that the location in question is actually a street shared with cars: https://www.google.com/maps/@52.37222,4.900556,3a,59.9y,192.53h,81.93t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sOythpJ599jkQkESdaFPSQA!2e0

    But you inadvertently hit the nail on the head when you identify that the problem is that cyclists are forced to ride in heavily trafficked car thoroughfares for lack of safe, separated routes.

  • Gezellig

    Yup. So then the logical conclusion is the need to build more and more separated lanes, which incidentally really help motorists. Why?

    –> Gets bikes out of the way, especially on bigger thoroughfares. People on bikes happy. People in cars happy. Bike compliance goes up. Car compliances goes up. Hardly anyone *wants* to do scofflaw things like ride on sidewalks but those are coping strategies in the face of utter lack of infrastructure.

    –> “Converts” some car trips to bike trips = less car traffic. A car’s worst-enemy competition for parking and driving space is other cars, not bikes.

    That being said, the TED talk in the thread above addresses the problematic issues involved with an obsession about helmets.

    The biggest way to increase bike safety is to simply have more and more people doing it. Unfortunately you don’t get there by slapping sharrows on a 45mph expressway, asking drivers to be nice and having the helmeted mayor do a photo op where he asks drivers to please be nicer (and yelling at people on bike when they have the audacity to “not keep up” and act like a car at every point in the road whose laws and features are designed almost entirely exclusively for….not bikes).

    That’s not serious policy.

    Btw, though both biking and walking are overwhelmingly safe activities it’s statistically less safe to walk than to bike–fatalities per mile are much higher per person on foot than on bike, but since walking is something most people do (while biking isn’t) there’s somewhat of a:

    1) herd protection effect
    2) ubiquity = must be safe conflation (similar to the way many people who drive–even poorly–feel very safe in their cars while they’re freaked out about flying which is practically safer than most anything else, including taking a nap on the couch in your living room).

    Yet no one proposes helmets for pedestrians and drivers. These kinds of requirements (whether mandated by law or cultural expectation) are not rooted in reality.

  • @Coco – It is considered polite to have some familiarity with the topics under discussion, a courtesy that goes back to the early days of the Internet, when F.A.Q.s were created so that newcomers didn’t just ask the same questions over and over again. Except in your case you aren’t even asking questions, you’re making an assertion that has been thoroughly addressed and debunked already here.

  • You might be right actually.

  • Coco

    There are plenty of routes with dedicated bike paths you can take instead.

  • Coco

    People driving cars on sidewalks is not a common occurrence by any account. You know this. Cyclists blocking traffic, ignoring traffic lights and stop signs, and generally any other law that they feel like doesn’t apply to them (make up your minds, do you belong on the sideWALK or the street?), however, are all common occurrences.

    But I guess it’s easier to just ignore all that and criticize my use of referring to “people driving cars” as simply “cars.” I guess I shouldn’t have assumed I was having a conversation with someone intelligent enough to understand that.

    I don’t think the two things you’re discussing are even comparable. There are more car accidents because there are more cars. Cyclists refusing to follow laws causes plenty of problems. Just because car accidents happen does not detract from that fact. Follow the laws for driving on a street (including the one that says if you’re holding up traffic and have a line of cars stuck behind you, get out of their f-ing way, the one that says you have to stop at stop signs, the one where you can’t squeeze into a lane with another vehicle, and the one where you actually have to stop at traffic lights instead of blowing through them) and we’re good.

  • Coco

    I guess we’ve found the unreasonable cyclist who holds up traffic, disobeys traffic laws, and feels superior to not only motorists but also pedestrians. I’m not unfamiliar with the discussion at all. Sorry you don’t like what I have to say, but that doesn’t take away from its validity. It’s never been debunked, just argued about by delusional cyclists with inferiority complexes. So I’m only allowed to ask questions around here? I’m not allowed to state points and make arguments (just like you are doing)? Who made you the moderator here? Oh, I get it. It’s easier just to dismiss my comments than admit that there’s a cyclist problem in the city. I’m sure I’ll see ya at Critical Mass, wreaking havoc on the streets, bud. Keep up the “good” fight.

  • murphstahoe

    “People driving cars on sidewalks is not a common occurrence by any account. You know this. Cyclists blocking traffic, ignoring traffic lights and stop signs, and
    generally any other law that they feel like doesn’t apply to them (make up your minds, do you belong on the sideWALK or the street?), however, are all common occurrences.”

    With this plague of cyclists riding on the sidewalk, and a vanishingly small number of people driving their cars onto the sidewalk, one would expect that we would be reading daily accounts of sidewalk diners being sent to the hospital by cyclists. But that doesn’t happen. Because a bike is a substantially less dangerous object than a car.

    There are more FATAL car accidents not because there are more cars. It is because it is trivial to cause a fatal accident with a car, and quite difficult to do so with a bike.

  • Greg

    “I hope some day we look back and think how crazy it was that only cars were able to go down the crooked street.”

    Lombard is closed to peds?

  • @Coco – Your argument was invalid in the first place, adding ad hominen nonsense isn’t going to improve it any. Bud.

  • The problem is that you don’t know how local streets are paid for. It’s via property and sales taxes, which everyone pays, even cyclists. Have some familiarity with the facts before launching your rants. kthxbai

  • Gezellig

    That can work. But this becomes a problem if your destination (store…post office…your house?) is on or along one of those thoroughfares. Doesn’t help merchants, either, who tend to make more money when people aren’t avoiding commercial corridors.

  • Gezellig

    There’s an infrastructure problem in this city.

    You may be confusing people on this site with Vehicular Cycling advocates (= “bikes should act just like cars”), which is pretty much the opposite of what most feel here. Bikes aren’t cars. Pedestrians aren’t cars. Cars aren’t trains. Trains aren’t planes. Etc. So infrastructure and rules should be catered to each.

    When you have infrastructure specific to the mode, compliance goes up. This is true no matter the mode. As for bikes, when infrastructure looks like this:

    http://img.sfbay.ca/home/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/bike2-750×563.jpg

    Instead of this:

    http://sf.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2012/07/polk.jpg

    You’ll notice pretty much everyone uses the bikeway. Cuz it just makes sense. All of this is really that simple.

    Nah, no real complexes or delusions about it–that sounds kinda projection-y.

  • “…blocking traffic, ignoring traffic lights and stop signs, and generally any other law that they feel like doesn’t apply to them…”

    It’s hilarious that you don’t see how that description applies perfectly to all drivers. They block the box in droves every day in SOMA, they roll through stop signs and red lights (especially on right turns), not to mention speeding, changing lanes without signalling, and texting and driving. (That law doesn’t apply to them 😉

    Every driver breaks multiple traffic laws on every single outing. Is it a problem? Sometimes. Often not. Just like when cyclists roll through deserted stop signs. It works out.

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