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Posts from the "Car-Free Streets" Category

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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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SFMTA to Ban Cars on Kezar, Stanyan, Haight Street for 4/20 This Sunday

Upper Haight Street, Stanyan Street, and Kezar Drive will be closed to cars for 4/20. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SFMTA announced that cars will be banned on several major streets for the 4/20 gathering on the east end of Golden Gate Park this Sunday.

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., cars will be banned on Kezar Drive, Stanyan Street between Frederick and Oak Streets, and Haight Street between Masonic Avenue and Stanyan.

Drivers swarming the area for the event — many from out of town and not necessarily in their sharpest state of mind — typically create a traffic mess in and around the eastern park. Illegal parking is rampant, Muni is brought to a halt, and sidewalks fill up. The car closures, the first of their kind for 4/20, could help simplify traffic flow, keep transit moving, and provide ample room for wandering.

Muni buses will be allowed through the pedestrianized streets, the SFMTA said, but “personnel from SFPD and SFMTA will determine to re-route Muni buses as crowds grow. Muni bus re-routes will be expected to begin at approximately 3 p.m.”

Supervisor London Breed and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr also held a press conference Wednesday to tell 4/20 revelers to keep things under control, promising a crackdown on parking violations.

Since 4/20 falls on a Sunday this year, the de facto Sunday Streets network will be complemented by the weekly car closure on John F. Kennedy Drive.

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Market Street: Transit Paint Upgrades Coming, but Car Bans Still Missing

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New intersection markings could help reduce the number of drivers “blocking the box” on Market this spring, but the SFMTA has continued to postpone proposals to get cars off Market altogether. Photo: Bryan Goebel

Despite calls for more measures to get cars off of Market Street, and the benefits brought by the forced turns already put in place, the SFMTA still has yet to propose any new restrictions on private autos.

Market will have its transit-only lanes will be painted red, and cross-hatched markings will be added to discourage drivers from blocking intersections. Photos via SFMTA

Market will have its transit-only lanes will be painted red, and cross-hatched markings will be added to discourage drivers from blocking intersections. Photos via SFMTA

The agency does, however, plan to make some paint upgrades to help keep Muni moving this spring or summer. Existing transit-only lanes will be painted red, and a cross-hatched paint striping telling drivers not to “block the box” will be added at intersections where cars chronically back up and block cross traffic. SFMTA staff told its Board of Directors this week that the agency and the SFPD would also develop a plan to step up nearly non-existent enforcement of transit lanes and box-blocking on Market.

Yet the agency has repeatedly delayed its promises to put forward proposals for new forced turns or potential bans for private autos on Market, to the frustration of car-free Market champions like Malcolm Heinicke, an SFMTA Board member, and Supervisor David Chiu, who introduced his second resolution urging the SFMTA to move the efforts along. The resolution was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors this week.

“I want the people who ride those buses on Market Street to have something close to the experience I have underground of a real right-of-way and real capacity,” Heinicke told SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin at a meeting on the agency’s Strategic Plan and budget Tuesday. “I’m not suggesting any malice or obfuscation here, but my question is, what’s the delay?”

Heinicke had requested that SFMTA staff present a proposal for car restrictions at the previous planning meeting one year ago, and Reiskin said it would come by this winter, but then postponed it to Tuesday’s meeting. Now, Reiskin says the proposals will be ready to be considered as part of the SFMTA’s two-year budget, which is scheduled to be finalized by March.

Reiskin chalked up the delays to the complications caused by ongoing projects like the construction of the Central Subway. “While we have identified some preliminary proposals along with costs and impacts, there’s more work that needs to be done to figure out the interaction with all the various projects that are currently happening on Market Street.”

“I share the frustration, and take responsibility for the fact, that we don’t have something by now,” he said.

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We Used to Expect Streets to Be as Safe as We Do Holly Park

Rarely does the death of someone struck by a motorist garner as much public outrage as the incident in Holly Park last week. Media around the world has covered the death of Christine Svanemyr, who was lying in the grass with her infant daughter and dog when she was run over by Thomas Burnoski, a Recreation and Parks Department employee.

A vigil held for Christine Svanemyr at Holly Park. Image: NBC

There are a number of reasons this incident has attracted so much attention from the media and elected officials like Mayor Ed Lee, who expressed shock and “demanded a thorough investigation,” according to ABC 7. Supervisor David Campos has also called for a hearing to review policies around the use of city vehicles in parks.

For one, Burnoski fled the scene, only to be arrested by police soon after (he now faces vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run charges). Burnoski was also a city employee who seems to have violated department policies in driving on the grass.

But what has outraged San Franciscans the most is that the death represents a violation of our deeply-held expectation of safety in a park — one of the last public refuges from the dangers of the automobile.

Unlike parks, city streets have been ceded to the automobile as places where people outside cars are expected to be vigilant of reckless motorists. Of the nine or more pedestrians who have been killed by drivers on San Francisco’s streets this year, only the drivers who were drunk or fled the scene have been charged, and the victims have received little attention compared to the Svanemyr case.

In one case, Sunnyside Elementary custodian Becky Lee was run over and killed in a crosswalk in April at Judson Avenue and Edna Street. Police deemed the death nothing more than an accident, even though the driver apparently violated Lee’s right-of-way. There was no public outrage or calls for the review of policies governing the use of private automobiles on city streets.

It wasn’t always this way. As Peter Norton chronicled in his book Fighting Traffic, streets in American cities were considered the realm of people, not automobiles, and each pedestrian death sparked outrage — even violence. In an April article, 99% Invisible explains:

On the streets of early 20th Century America, nothing moved faster than 10 miles per hour. Responsible parents would tell their children, “Go outside, and play in the streets. All day.”

And then the automobile happened. And then automobiles began killing thousands of children, every year.

Pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars. Mothers of children killed in the streets were given a special white star to honor their loss.

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