Eyes on the Street: Powell Street Parking Lane Becomes Trial Sidewalk

powell-1_1.jpgPowell Street parking lane closed to cars for increased pedestrian space. Photos: Matthew Roth

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office this weekend experimented with the temporary removal of a handful of parking spaces on Powell Street between Ellis and Geary Streets to give  holiday shoppers in and around Union Square more space to navigate the crowded sidewalks.

The trial closure is part of the Better Market Street Project and was implemented to coincide with the busy shopping season. It lasted from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.

Great Streets Project Director Kit Hodge, who was an active partner in the trial, said pedestrian crowding on Powell Street had long been an concern and that the test gave the city good data for measuring the impacts on traffic and public space.

"It is one of the most crowded pedestrian areas in the city," said Hodge. "It needs to be a great place where the experience of socializing on the
streets is comfortable, not something where you feel like you’re packed
in like cattle."

The reaction from business groups has been positive, though not all merchants along the street have had the opportunity to weigh in. "The execution went very well. The City did a great job of putting things out and making it look festive," said Donna Ficarrotta, Managing Director of the Union Square Association, the city’s sole Business Improvement District. Ficarrotta said her merchant members had shown support for the concept, but she indicated she couldn’t speak for all her members until they had convened a follow-up meeting, which she hoped to have in late January.

Ficarrotta indicated that she had been to the site on Sunday during the rain and that she hadn’t seen many people using the space. "I think people didn’t know quite what to make of it. Between the
weather and people being in a hurry, I don’t think people really
understood what it was for."

A longer-term trial could happen in the spring, said Ficarrotta, up to four weeks, but the details of that depended on feedback from the city and her membership. She was hopeful a longer trial would also attract more use.

"I think if people understood it, obviously they would use it."


Updated 12:34 pm

  • zsolt

    I saw this and almost didn’t use it, because I didn’t get that the space is there for walking. Note the hedges in the first picture. Huh? I only understood the intent, when I read the text on the sign announcing it.

    Obviously, this is how it should always be, at the minimum. The curb should be extended all the way out where now the barriers are.

  • Sam

    This is awesome. I’m sorry that the rain may have dampened its visibility and effect. I hate walking in this area because it is often too crowded to be comfortable– this will greatly improve the area! I mean, really– parking spaces for ~15 cars/~30 shoppers vs. comfort for 400+ shoppers? It’s a no-brainer.

  • Agreed, I almost walked right by it then I saw the sign and took my space in the street. I always enjoy being in a place that cars are no longer allowed.

  • The more I look at this and read at SF Citizen and Curbed SF about how it was underused and not properly understood, the more I think this is just a flat out design flaw. Look at the ends – they are jersey barriers and big red wood boxes put at right angles to the curb. Maybe they should have angled them slightly as to be more inviting. I get that they were trying to keep cars out, but in the mean time, they made it look like NO ONE belonged.

    Yes, if it was marketed better, people probably would have got it. But I think the city needs to rethink how they mark off the ends (which should really be more like entrances).

  • The red bows are nice, but a few signs saying “holiday pedestrian zone” or some such sentiment would help people clue in to the purpose of the space.

    Reducing on-street parking in crowded areas during the holidays is an excellent idea. Maybe the whole Union square area could be closed off to cars except access to and from the underground garage?

    I wonder if the city has stats on how many people drive to Powell/Union Square/Westfield Mall area versus take public transit? I know lately my family has been shopping in this area rather than Stonestown because it is more accessible by MUNI. (If we were going to drive, we would avoid downtown like the plague.)

  • I probably wouldn’t have understood what they’re for either. The barriers at the end make it look like a “do not enter” construction site.

    All it would take is a big banner on the barriers reading “EXPANDED SIDEWALK!” And also footprints stenciled on the asphalt, leading pedestrians into the new walkway.

  • Oops,just saw the photo with the “explanation” sign. Too much verbiage/looks too much like a “we’re going to change your bus stop” sign. I can see why people didn’t notice it. The red bows are eye catching–that’s where a cute sign inviting pedestrian use should go.

  • They should totally do this on Stockton in Chinatown.

  • Overhead, I was going to write the same thing. They have bumped out the curb in several areas by really busy store fronts (well, they are all really busy), but it should be done all the way down the street. But I say shoot for the moon with Stockton and shut that thing down to autos completely, get rid of parking on both sides, and only allow deliveries between 5am – 7am.

  • Ficarrotta indicated … “I think people didn’t know quite what to make of it. Between the weather and people being in a hurry, I don’t think people really understood what it was for.”

    I agree with the statement above and mikesonn’s comment about bad design. When I walked past I saw the end barriers then, open space and then the crowd control gates and a few things went through my mind like: parade! but which one? oh, keeping tourists from jumping on the cable car here, but it was just for a block or so, then I realized I could just walk in that area and avoid the crowds of tentative tourists and suburban shoppers.

    I never saw the sign but put it together after recalling a lot of the other tests the city is doing on the streets. Nice test, not so great design but it’s how you learn and improve.

  • I visited it, and no one was using it but me. The sense that I got was that the lack of a continuous direct path was the main flaw, since when you get to the end the barriers push you back in. Were they to stop maintaining right-turn lanes and include the crosswalks in the widening, it seems like people would be more likely to use it. What’s the point of stepping farther out when you can clearly see you’ll be pushed right back in at the end? It doesn’t cater to people’s natural (and rational) need to move as directly as possible.

    Also, stepping down onto the pavement isn’t as pleasant as having a wider sidewalk… so I’m not sure how accurate the trial is.

  • One thing the trial effectively showed is that you can take away parking spaces without a negative impact to the businesses. Note that none of the businesses complained about those parking spaces being gone. Somehow they actually realized that a few dozen parking spaces is nothing compared to the thousands of shoppers who walk up and down Powell every hour.

    So the city should keep on trying to improve the design now that we know there isn’t a significant negative impact. This is a great first step.

  • Brian

    If you want to make real money from shoppeing, it’s best to go carfree over the entire area during shopping season. London gets it. http://carfreeusa.blogspot.com/2009/12/carfree-zone-increases-shopping-in.html

  • ZA

    Great! Now if they could only sell something I’d want to buy…

  • ed

    they could have put a platform at the same elevation as the sidewalk so there wasn’t this grade separation and would be more usable. Cafes and restaurants in Italy do this all the time for their outdoor eating areas, so users are at the same level as the sidewalk above the street.

  • zsolt

    @ed, exactly my thoughts. Elevation would have been the way to go.


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