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Posts from the "Car-Free Streets" Category

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Should SF Streets Go Car-Free to Make Room for Nightlife?

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Vancouver’s Granville Street, seen here in 2013, is regularly closed to cars on weekend nights. Should SF do the same with its nightlife streets? Photo: Aaron Bialick

Polk, Valencia, Castro, Broadway — when bar patrons crowd these streets at night, should they go car-free?

While the idea may be novel to San Francisco, many other cities have done it. Up the coast in Vancouver, British Columbia, downtown Granville Street is often closed to cars on bustling weekend nights for people to roam the roadway, extending the street’s permanent pedestrian mall, which is several blocks long.

In a new report [PDF], city agencies recommend taking a look at nighttime car-free hours to improve streets for patrons and workers.

“Streets are the living room of our cities, where people meet, interact, and socialize,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who requested the report. “We should consider opportunities to foster these urban connections for the sake of supporting nighttime activity and advancing pedestrian safety.”

“So many of the events that really define San Francisco, both for locals and visitors, are events that happen when the streets are shut down and the people are in them,” said Tom Temprano, owner of Virgil’s Sea Room bar on Mission near Cesar Chavez Street, and a member of the city’s Late Night Transportation Working Group, which developed the report. “From Sunday Streets, to Pride, to Folsom Street Fair, to Bay to Breakers, these are all really events that are core to San Francisco’s identity and happen when we take cars off the road and let people have a good time.”

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Hearst Corp Backs Off Bid to Tear Out Annie Alley Street Plaza

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The Hearst Corporation has withdrawn its appeal against the Annie Alley street plaza [PDF] after talks with city planners and the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District.

The bid to get the plaza torn out was surprising, since Hearst had been involved in creating the plaza, leading to speculation that closing the alley to cars had irked executives at the company.

“We withdrew the appeal based on the positive discussions we have been having with YBCBD and other stakeholders to assess the situation and make improvements,” said Marty Cepkauskas, director of real estate for Hearst Western Properties.

The plaza is safe at least until its permit renewal comes up in August, according to Robin Abad Ocubillo, project manager for the Planning Department’s Pavement to Parks program. Ocubillo said Hearst agreed to support the project “as long as there is follow-up traffic monitoring,” though that “was always part of the plan.” Hearst and YBCBD will also assess whether they need someone to direct traffic during rush hour at Jessie and New Montgomery Streets, one of the exits still available to drivers leaving the Hearst Building parking garage.

“We’re pleased that the appeal was withdrawn and we look forward to continuing our conversations with Hearst,” said Andrew Robinson, YBCBD’s director of neighborhood partnerships. ”Because this project is a pilot program, neighborhood feedback is important to its long-term success.”

Robinson said YBCBD can now focus on “testing Annie Street Plaza as a great place for art, performance, music and other programming to create a vibrant place for the neighborhood as it was envisioned by the community.”

The YBCBD is calling for artists and musicians who want to perform on the plaza to reach out through the organization’s website.

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Stockton Street “Winter Walk” Plaza to Return Next Holiday Season

The incredibly popular (but temporary) “Winter Walk” plaza will return to Stockton Street in Union Square for another holiday season in December, the local business improvement district announced.

The news isn’t a huge surprise, given the boost to business brought by the plaza and the fact that the one-block section of Stockton is already filled with machinery for the construction of Central Subway, as it has been since 2012 and will be until at least 2016. But it’s a promising sign that when construction is over the street may not be surrendered to cars.

Katy Lim of the Union Square BID said a visitor poll found that 96 percent of respondents would return to Winter Walk plaza if it were brought back, and that 88 percent would like to see it made permanent. Twenty-six percent of respondents were SF residents, 40 percent were from the Bay Area, and the rest from elsewhere.

No word on just how much foot traffic the plaza saw, but Philz Coffee reportedly sold over 6,000 cups from its stand during the month it was open.

So San Franciscans and visitors have clearly embraced the idea of devoting at least one block in SF’s bustling downtown shopping district to people, though it’s also clear from the detours for Muni’s 30 and 45 lines that surface transit needs greater priority.

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Union Square’s “Winter Walk” Plaza on Stockton a Hit – Why Bring Cars Back?

Stockton Street, between Ellis and Geary Streets, has temporarily been transformed into well-loved “Winter Walk” plaza. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Families are loving “Winter Walk SF,” the temporary holiday plaza filling two blocks of Stockton Street in Union Square. As CBS reporter John Ramos put it, the on-street downtown play space “represents the San Francisco everyone wants it to be.”

“I didn’t expect to see this,” one smiling girl told Ramos, standing on the green astroturf. “I thought it would be cars.”

Even former Mayor Willie Brown — not exactly known as a livable streets visionary — called it “spectacular” in his latest SF Chronicle column. “While you’re walking, think about what it would be like if the change were made permanent when the subway construction is complete.”

Brown was referring to the fact that the plaza will only be in place during a holiday construction hiatus for the Central Subway. After the new year, Stockton between Geary and Ellis Streets will once again fill with machinery, its use from 2012 until at least 2016.

Afterwards, cars, buses, and bikes are scheduled to once more clog Stockton — but even Brown suggests it shouldn’t go back to the way it was:

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Auto-Clogged Powell Street Could Be a Car-Free Haven

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Photo: Aaron Bialick

It’s a wonder that anyone drives a car on Powell Street in Union Square. Yet along the busiest pedestrian thoroughfare this side of the United States, you’ll typically see the perplexing scene of drivers, sitting in a line heading down the hill, all seemingly going nowhere in particular and certainly not very quickly. These private autos block bustling crosswalks, jam up Muni’s world-famous cable cars and its busiest bus line, and make an overall shameful display out of what many see as San Francisco’s gateway.

Allowing cars on the two-block stretch of Powell, between Ellis and Geary Streets, has made even less sense ever since all street parking, except for loading zones, was removed in 2011 for the Powell Street Promenade, a “mega parklet” that extended Powell’s sidewalks using temporary materials.

Powell doesn’t connect drivers to Market Street either, since the southernmost block was turned into a plaza for people and cable cars only in 1973. The vast majority of drivers drive down the street only to turn off of it, squeezing through busy crosswalks and taking up a disproportionate amount of street space along the way.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

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Eyes on the Street: New Car-Free Fourth Street Extension at UCSF Campus

Andy Thornley rides on the new block of Fourth Street at UCSF Mission Bay. Photo: Jessica Kuo

The extension of Fourth Street with a car-free promenade appears mostly complete at the University of California, San Francisco campus in Mission Bay. In 2012 we reported on how this project can connect 16th Street to Mariposa Street and the Dogpatch neighborhood without inviting more car traffic as UCSF builds out its development.

The new block features a public plaza and bikeway running through it, and it’s designed to allow emergency vehicle access. On each end are car drop-offs. It’s one block of walking and biking bliss bookended by the usual car-dominated city streets.

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Dance Performance Celebrates Temporarily Car-Free Lombard Street

Last week, cars once again took over SF’s crooked block of Lombard Street, following the last of a series of weekend trials that banned most cars from the street and opened it up to people instead. The Bay Area Flash Mob celebrated the last car-free day with a choreographed dance all the way down the winding road, set to the tune of Pharrell’s song “Happy.”

Deland Chan, one of the initiators of the dance, said the group wanted to “create a moment of joy” on the street that would become impossible once it’s re-opened to cars.

“Some of the tourists actually jumped in and started dancing. The street is a lot steeper than we thought it would be, so it was an intense workout,” said Chan, who lives four blocks away and is an urban studies lecturer at Stanford University. She recently held a workshop in Chinatown on “public spaces and how different communities play,” and previously worked as a senior planner at the Chinatown Community Development Center.

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Car-Free Lombard Street, Filled With People, is KPIX’s Vision of “Chaos”

KPIX reporter Brian Webb, live at ground zero, with car-free mayhem in the background. Image: CBS-KPIX

Last weekend, San Francisco’s world-famous crooked block of Lombard Street saw most of its car traffic disappear as part of a month-long trial, opening the street up for people. The SFMTA’s goal is to eliminate the gridlock caused by tourist drivers who queue up for blocks to cruise down the street.

To KPIX, SF’s CBS affiliate, however, this scene was nothing but “chaos,” a move that clearly “backfired” by filling the street with people:

Tourists found a way around Lombard Street’s first weekend closure by walking straight through it. Lombard’s been turned into a pedestrian path. Closing the crookedest street in the world to tourists was supposed to give residents a break, and some privacy. Instead, they got chaos.

Thank the heavens we have reporter Brian Webb to expose the atrocity of tourists walking down the middle of Lombard, without fear of cars. To hear it from Webb, these folks are all out-of-control mavericks exploiting a loophole. A really big loophole.

Whether this sort of asinine reporting can be attributed to Webb’s inability to understand the purpose of the project, or a newsroom desperate to concoct a controversial narrative to drive ratings, we may never know.

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“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.

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SFMTA Considers Restricting Cars on Crooked Lombard Street

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The “crookedest street in the world” block of Lombard Street is a world-famous tourist attraction, but the resulting car traffic causes congestion and safety problems and may lead the SFMTA to ban tourists from driving that stretch.

In an attempt to reduce pedestrian injuries and blocks-long car queues, the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday will consider several summer trials to allow only “local” cars on two blocks of Lombard. The restrictions would apply on eastbound Lombard, between Larkin and Leavenworth Streets, on Saturdays and Sundays from June 21 through July 13, and on Friday, July 4. The SFMTA will consider longer-term, even permanent, restrictions after monitoring the impacts.

According to an SFMTA report [PDF], the push for restricting tourists from driving on curvy Lombard came from the residents who live on it, as well as District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell. The effort has support from Russian Hill Neighbors and the Lombard Hill Improvement Association.

“In prior years, this portion of Lombard Street has experienced a number of vehicular collisions, pedestrian injuries, and residential property damage,” the report says, also noting “chronic congestion in the summer months” that reaches three blocks back to Van Ness Avenue, where queued drivers “can delay regional transit and vehicular traffic.” At the entrance to the crooked block, drivers also often block the Hyde Street cable car.

“Residents are also concerned about the mixing of large pedestrian crowds… with vehicular traffic,” the report notes, listing several crashes with railings, pedestrians, and fire hydrants on the block within the last few years. In one incident, a speeding driver reportedly crashed into a retaining wall, rolled the car over and fled on foot.

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