In Search of a Better Pedestrian Realm for Broadway in Chinatown

IMG_0882_1.jpgOn Broadway near the corner of Stockton, pedestrians jostle for space on a lively but overcrowded sidewalk. Photo: Michael Rhodes

The stretch of Broadway between Columbus Avenue and the Robert C. Levy tunnel is an unheralded segment of San Francisco’s Chinatown: storefront after storefront of neighborhood shops and restaurants, with far fewer tourists than Grant Avenue or Stockton Street. But its streetscape, though lively with pedestrians during the day, maintains much the same look it had when the Embarcadero Freeway still touched down several blocks to the east, funneling cars through the neighborhood via Broadway’s four lanes of traffic, as pedestrians squeeze onto 12-foot-wide sidewalks.

Now, with the freeway long since torn down, the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) is hoping to remake the street as a great place for pedestrians and lift the fortunes of struggling businesses in the process, an effort dubbed the Broadway Streetscape Improvement Project (BSIP).

Demand for improvements is clear and overwhelming. In October, CCDC conducted 122 intercept surveys on Broadway to gauge the needs of the street’s users. Not surprisingly, the results show that people value the convenience of shopping there, but strongly dislike the streetscape. Reflecting this, the top complaints about the street, in order, were crowded sidewalks, speeding cars, a dirty and unpleasant environment, and the heavy traffic volume. Ninety eight percent of respondents said pedestrian safety improvements are “very important.”

The surveys also found that three-quarters of the street’s users come by foot or transit, and the same proportion are there to shop. When they do arrive, they find packed sidewalks, inadequate lighting, and dangerous conflicts between pedestrians and traffic that zooms downhill from the tunnel.

IMG_0918.jpgMuch of the pedestrian infrastructure on Broadway in Chinatown is heavily worn and faded. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Deland Chan, a senior planner for CCDC, said the BSIP is an attempt to revitalize the corridor through both streetscape and economic development efforts. “Essentially, we hear a strong demand to tie in streetscape improvements with economic development strategies,” said Chan.

“Community members often say that Broadway feels empty and unsafe in the evening hours because of the lack of family-friendly activities. As one resident said to me, ‘What is the point of a beautiful street if there is no one on the street to appreciate it?'”

The project is the third phase of streetscape improvements to Broadway. When the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the neighborhoods around Broadway began a visioning process to revitalize the street as a pedestrian-friendly destination. The first two phases were completed in 2005 and 2008, with grants from the MTC, SFCTA, and DPW, and covered the blocks to the east of Columbus Avenue.

DPW crews widened portions of the sidewalks, and installed curb ramps, benches, streetlights, trees, and new traffic and pedestrian signals. The second phase also included a permanent public art installation by Brian Goggin, called Language of the Birds, as part of a new plaza at Broadway and Columbus designed to link Chinatown and North Beach.

Still, the third phase may require even bolder action: many businesses report that they’re struggling to hang on in a section of Chinatown that is not a major destination for visitors from out of the neighborhood. Efforts to attract more people to the area, like merchant displays that spill onto the sidewalk and draw crowds, can prove problematic because of the limited and cluttered sidewalk space.

“The Broadway and Stockton intersection is especially problematic,” said Chan. “Due to the volume of pedestrians and shoppers who tend to gather around the sidewalk merchandise display, the curb space is inadequate for pedestrians waiting to cross Broadway. We have heard and seen incidents where pedestrians have been forced to step off the curb, putting them in danger of perpendicular traffic traveling on Stockton.”

“In one particularly terrible scenario, an elderly man stepped off the curb and tripped. He actually fell to the ground face down due to the uneven sloping of the corner.”

Broadway1004_1.jpgDuring the day, Broadway sometimes has more street life than it has room for: here, an impromptu game of sidewalk checkers breaks out near a merchant’s sidewalk display. Photo: Ben Ng

The sidewalks are so skinny and congested today, many of the CCDC survey respondents said they preferred no new benches or trees if the sidewalk stayed the same width.

On the other hand, people on the street were very enthusiastic about adding public art, Chan said, and wished to make Broadway more of a destination, especially during the evening hours, when the packed sidewalk morphs into a dark and foreboding space. With the economic development component of the Broadway plan, CCDC hopes to find ways that community-based programming can reinforce streetscape improvements.

For now, CCDC is conducting stakeholder interviews and continuing to study the street, and plans to present a report on this phase of the improvement project early next year. Asian Neighborhood Design will supply additional design support and DPW, which designed the first two phases, will continue to provide input. Once the plan is complete, CCDC will seek funding for the project, and hopes to collaborate with DPW to get it built.

Given the financial and political challenges of improving any streetscape in the city, that could still be a ways off. Broadway’s residents and business owners will have plenty of time to review best practice streetscape improvements on Valencia and Divisadero Streets, as well as Oakland’s Chinatown, all of which demonstrate the potential for coordinating good design with the needs of a neighborhood commercial street.

IMG_0936.jpgUnlike people, cars enjoy a wide, uncluttered pathway on Broadway. Photo: Michael Rhodes


  • The obvious solution: convert the four traffic lanes to two traffic lanes (one in each direction), one turning lane in the center, and wider sidewalks.

    Two traffic lanes plus a turning lane have almost as much capacity as four traffic lanes. You actually just need turning pockets near intersections in the center, and the rest of the center lane could be used for plantings and trees.

  • patrick

    Also, considering that 3/4 of the people did not drive, it would make sense to convert 1 parking lane to pedestrian space.

  • I always think Grant St is a great candidate to be converted into a pedestrian street. Only a fool will drive the car into Grant St.

  • This is a major problem in Chinatown in general. I like they are pushing the issue with Broadway, but Stockton needs to also be addressed. This study needs to be widely distributed to the businesses and leaders of Chinatown showing them what most of us already know – that people don’t drive to Chinatown. The street layout should be one that makes transit and walking top priority and car travel (usually just thru-traffic) a headache.

    @Charles, I agree, but you have to take into account right turns. I see so many cars line up to take a right turn because of the huge amount of pedestrians walking in the sidewalk. Usually you can only get one or two cars through an intersection per light cycle.

  • It truly is astounding how much public space we dedicate to cars and their storage, and how little we value ourselves anytime we are not in a car.

    As to turning problems, all high density pedestrian areas should have traffic signal progressions with a pedestrian only walk-time (like they do in some intersections in the financial district) and then car only times. (Not sure when bikes get to go in that set up?) Would be safer for the pedestrians and cars would actually be able to move along when there was a green light.

  • taomom, Chinatown has the scramble light system for most of the intersections on Stockton south of Broadway. I believe this is for the very reason of taking left and right turns. When I bike Chinatown, I usually stop at the scramble, look around, and then roll slowly through the intersection – it also helps create space between myself and the cars behind me. However, I am probably breaking the law, hurting the bicycle image, and putting the world at risk.

    But yes, it is pretty odd how we design our cities for cars to live in and then cram ourselves (sans cars) onto little patches of land shoved off into a corner. Thankfully the tide is changing.

  • Nick

    A similiar battle is ramping up on Irving Street over the a lack of street space to accomodate all road users (see the cover story of the Sunset Beacon).

    A Goodwill is opening up at 25th Avenue and business owners are forseeing an automobile traffic jam of Critical Mass proportions.

    Add to this the fact that Irving is the most heavily biked street west of the Panhandle.

  • I live blocks away from the intersection in question, and the cramming corners in obvious. I think that the Broadway tunnel (which was not mentioned) is the culprit. Cars zoom out of the tunnel and try to take the shortcut to the Fi Di through Columbus. The fix is simple, no rights onto Stockton. Take Sansome, its one way and less crowded. I also think that there should be a diagonal crosswalk here like at Pacific. Also, BIKE LANE anyone, since Pacific is one way, Broadway is the flattest and fastest way to the water. There is only chevrons now, but if you follow them you usually get a few honks…

  • ZA

    All these pedestrian improvements for Chinatown should be implemented, but I’d be very surprised if the jostling were to ever really ease up, at least during daytime.

  • Chinatown Rev

    Thanks to Deland Chan, Broadway Streetscape Phase 3 is on the move!
    Learning from phase II and the beautiful language of the birds …
    We need all you design oriented folks to give us your thoughts!
    The more the better!
    I went to elementary school at Jean Parker which is right at the end of the tunnel (Powell/Broadway) where cars zoom! 1 block down (Stockton & Broadway) I saw an old lady crushed to death by a big rig turning right on Stockton to head through the tunnel.
    There’s a clash between traffic & old folks & kids on both Broadway & Stockton… Got any great ideas? The Rev

  • zsolt

    The, ehm… liveliness, of Chinatown is as much a cultural thing as anything else, and while I personally prefer to stay away altogether, if we want to allow for a bustling Chinatown, it would be best to completely close down those streets to traffic. But like ZA, I would not expect it to turn into what I’d consider an enjoyable public realm. The crowding would just continue but at least they would be safe from cars.

  • zsolt, Agreed on closing it down. Living in North Beach, Chinatown is a daily part of my life. I try to avoid it as much as possible because the sidewalks are just too packed and the streets are full of double-parkers forcing me to weave in and out of traffic, but improvements should be made regardless. Maybe not every spot in the city needs to be an “enjoyable public realm” in the traditional sense. The area is a bustling market place and would thrive beyond all expectations if given the chance. It might never be a place to a leisurely stroll, but it can sure be a place of commerce and social interaction in the heart of a vibrant neighborhood.

  • zsolt

    Yes, it’s probably enjoyable to many of the people who are a part of it.

  • Don’t get me wrong zsolt, I’m with you. I don’t find any enjoyment out of having to interact with Stockton street – walking, biking, or on MUNI.

  • Sí, probablemente es agradable para muchas de las personas que forman parte de ella.


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