Chronicle Op-Ed: Make Polk Street More Like Paris, Less Like Detroit

Spotted in today's Chronicle. Photo courtesy of Bryan Goebel

We’ve gotta spotlight this op-ed that appeared in today’s edition of the SF Chronicle calling upon the SFMTA and city leaders to make Polk Street more like “a Paris street, where people saunter and stay for hours, not just one errand.”

“For that to happen, it has to be engineered away from the Detroit model — maximum vehicle parking, maximum travel lanes — to a human model – maximum pedestrian and bike safety,” wrote Kurt Wallace Martin, author of the Bay Bikers blog on

The article actually appeared on Bay Bikers last week, but the Chronicle editorial staff apparently saw fit to give it space in its print edition. The paper deserves recognition for publishing such a progressive vision for Polk Street — a political battleground in the movement to change the cars-first status quo on San Francisco streets.

Martin continues:

Having lived in both Paris and Detroit, I’d say Polk is more a Detroit-style street, designed and built for motorized convenience. People not protected by their vehicles are scared on Polk. They wait at intersections, looking both ways more than once before hurrying across. (The dangers are real: Polk averages one pedestrian and one bicycle accident per month.) Polk is perfectly placed on the map to be an engaging landing spot between Market Street and San Francisco Bay. It’s a street not crazed with traffic like Van Ness, and not hilly like Larkin – a street that should tie the neighborhood together. But Polk feels more like Van Ness than it should…

The real problem for Polk is the lack of vision and execution that help a city transform from the Detroit plan to the Paris one. The San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Agency has a strategic plan and bicycle strategy. MTA officials say that they plan to create “a safe, interconnected bicycle circulation network that supports bicycling as an attractive alternative to driving.” But where is the drive to make better, connected streets not just an idea but the standard?

The agency’s “preferred alternative” for Polk makes some concessions to pedestrians and cyclists. But it won’t change the nature of the street. It won’t make Polk a destination.

Minor changes to Polk Street leave it on the Detroit side of the ledger – OK for brave bike riders and pedestrians who move fast. But not a cornerstone for a vibrant, livable city. Would that kind of standard look like the current agency designs? Somewhat. But given its location in San Francisco, how wonderful would Polk be if only pedestrians, bikes and delivery vehicles could use it from Union to Broadway? It would instantly be one of the nicest streets in the city.

Here, here! With pieces like this surfacing in San Francisco’s mainstream media, it’s only becoming more evident that the merchants on Polk vocally fighting changes that would make their own street a memorable destination — all to save a little bit of car parkingdon’t speak for all San Franciscans.

  • Josh Handel

    Do your part livable streets heroes: Call the mayor’s office at 415-554-6141 right now and tell the desk you support making our streets more like Paris, less like Detroit. Make certain that Ed Lee reads that article!

  • Good article!

    98,000 people live within a ten minute walk of Polk Street. 50,000 of them have no vehicle in their household. Polk Street could indeed be a wonderful San Francisco street and shopping district serving six different neighborhoods. If it were actually pleasant to bike on, it could pull both tourists and locals on their way to the Marina, Crissy Field, and Fort Mason. How many of those 98,000 people who could easily stroll right now to Polk Street don’t because Polk is just too stressful and unpleasant? In order to preserve access for the thousand or so people who want to drive to Polk (and also to keep parking for themselves), merchants are sacrificing tens of thousands of potential customers. In order to placate small numbers of short-sighted merchants, hardcore car drivers and residents who fight change of any kind just on principle, the city is sacrificing the very core of its city to decay, pollution and blight.

    Prediction: any business on Polk that right now depends primarily on car-driving customers will be out of business within three years regardless of how Polk Street is redesigned. This is because they are catering to an aging demographic that is dying off. Successful businesses reinvent themselves as times change around them. Even if dirty sidewalks, car fumes and danger-filled streets were worth preserving, fighting the city’s adaptation to higher energy prices, the need for carbon emissions reduction, and the growing American disdain for suburbs is ultimately futile. Keeping Polk Street car dominant a few more years just means the rest of San Francisco will transform while Polk has boarded-up store fronts.

  • Anonymous

    I think you’re basically right — Polk will stay an often unpleasant place until the current demographic mix of storekeepers and customers ages out or founders from lack of business. In the meantime, pedestrians will gravitate to better streets, and bicyclists who can’t find a better, flatter, or slower-traffic street, will choose to bike through rather than stop and shop much on Polk. Children and less experienced bicyclists won’t ride safely there at all.

  • Anonymous

    Hear, hear!

  • Walk Eagle Rock

    “This isn’t Paris!” 😉

  • Guest

    And not Detroit either

  • Greg

    More bikes on Polk is making it less pleasant for peds on Polk.

  • Guest

    It’s unfortunate that the Agency is ready, but the public, namely the merchants are not ready for change. Given the opportunity I think MTA would come through, but the track record for the city has been appease all, nomatter what, and thus we dont get the results we need. Plus every time an agency tries to push a plan forward without community agreement, the City gets sued, the project gets delayed, and everyone is unhappy.

  • I had several pleasant interactions with pedestrians while I was riding my bike the length of Polk in both directions yesterday.

  • Greg

    Most peds are pretty mellow nice pleasant people. Not sure why so many bikers are so angry and hostile. Does the activity make you angry or does it attract angry people?

  • JD

    Why stop at Broadway? It should go all the way to Market!

  • Anonymous

    Greg – I dispute your assertion that bikers are angry and hostile.

  • F. Michael

    Nice logic there, Greg. Have I seen you at Tea Party rallies? If not, you should really think about joining, I bet your critical thinking skills would fit right in.

  • F. Michael

    Can you footnote 98,000 people living within a 10-min walk of Polk, & 50,000 having no vehicle in-household? (Not challenging this – would like to quote it)

  • From San Francisco Neighborhood Socioeconomic profiles. Based on American Community Survey data 2005-2009, so actually probably underestimates the population, but it’s the latest data I can find broken down by neighborhood.‎

    From that, I looked at six neighborhoods–the Marina, Pacific Heights, Russian Hill, Western Addition, Nob Hill and Civic Center (as defined in the report) and determined the percentage of each neighborhood within half a mile of Polk Street. The report lists the number of households in each neighborhood and the number of households without vehicles in each neighborhood. My numbers are derived from these. Again, because many housing units have been built since 2009, and because the overall percentage of households in SF without vehicles has increased since 2009, my numbers likely underestimate both the population within walking distance and the households without cars.

  • M.

    Folks for Polk and the SFMTA Polk design & planning team want to meet you! Have your say about the street initiative decision-making process in SF
    We’re at the Community Leadership Alliance tonight, Mon. Aug 12:

    SF Main Public Library, Stong Conference Room, Level 1
    4pm start but 4:30-ish arrival OK.

    There is NO Folks for Polk without YOU folks!

  • This is San Francisco. Of course them French foreigners are so clever, except with immigrants burning a number of neighborhoods in their cities. Maybe they need more bikes, traffic “calming,” and community meetings.

  • mikesonn

    Isn’t this process done? How many more faux meetings are going to be held before we just give up all improvements and Polk doesn’t change at all?

  • mikesonn

    San Francisco was built for cars!!!

  • M.

    This is not about the specifics of the Polk design. We were invited to talk about grassroots efforts in SF and we asked the SFMTA to give their perspective.
    We aim to clarify how real a threat lawsuits and/or loss of earmarked funds are and how they change the design process.

    Our complaints are empty unless we’ve got that straight and work to change the underlying problems, including CEQA.

  • Anonymous

    The same San Francisco that ripped out Geary streetcars and is now building BRT on the same corridor. Trying to figure out why “they” are so revered

  • Anonymous

    One of the challenges faced by the effort to realign traffic patterns on Polk Street is that — as currently configured — Polk Street is a bicycle thoroughfare for north/south traffic from Civic Center to Russian Hill and the Marina. As a thoroughfare, much like The Wiggle, there’s plenty of “law breaking” by cyclists who are just trying to get from Point A to Point B, and who aren’t traveling to destinations on Polk Street. This is where you get the blown-through stop signs and general disregard for the traffic signals on Polk, and it’s adding to the ammunition being used by the “Save Polk Street” lunatics. Polk has less grade change than Larkin, Hyde or Leavenworth, and less vehicular traffic than Van Ness, Franklin and Gough, and as a result is the preferred viaduct between Market Street and the Northside. Highlighting the likely changes in cyclist behavior as a result of Polk Street improvements needs to be a part of this discussion if there’s any hope of disarming its opponents.

  • Ryan Brady

    Do you have a basis (in data) for commute cyclists being more likely to break laws? I ask because I used to take Polk on the last leg of my commute and I stopped at every light.

  • Ryan Brady

    What do immigrants have to do with this topic at all?

    “Oh those engineers are sooooo clever, too bad they can’t paint with watercolors!”

  • Ryan Brady

    Getting buzzed by cars makes me pretty hostile.

  • Anonymous

    Does being an anti-bike extremist turn people into internet trolls, or does being an internet troll turn people into anti-bike extremists?

  • I wouldn’t know the answer, Greg. I’m sorry that my act of smiling at, and receiving smiles from, pedestrians on Polk on Friday made it less pleasant for them.

  • Anonymous

    Did you stop at every stop sign?

  • mikesonn

    Oh, you are so *neutral*!!

  • Ryan Brady

    Yeah, I generally do. Although I really don’t see the problem with cyclists slowing to ~5 mph at stop signs if they yield right of way appropriately.

  • Anonymous

    People on the ground always object to change. Think of Polk as an ecosystem. Natural selection results in those well served by that ecosystem thriving there. That doesn’t mean the area can’t thrive with change, but that change oftentimes won’t benefit all of those who are there now. The duty of leadership is to consider not just those served by status quo, but the good of the city as a whole. I am reminded of Potrero Hill where every attempt at dense development is met with resistance. Yet the city needs housing, and those who will live in that housing don’t even realize it yet so can’t go to the community meetings to defend their position.

  • Elizabeth

    Yes, I absolutely do stop at every single stop sign every time and I am a commute cyclist.

  • Anonymous

    Your riding behavior is the exception to the rule on Polk Street between Broadway and Bay Streets. As a driver and a pedestrian, I’m grateful for your riding practices.

  • Ryan Brady


  • Elizabeth

    It’s true that Polk Street is not Paris. Perhaps that explains why after 20 years in the Bay Area, I’ve been to Paris more often than Polk Street. Two weeks ago, I decided to walk up to Polk Street in Russian Hill to see what all the fuss was about. I half expected people to be mean as I was carrying my bicycle helmet. Everyone was nice including merchants, a bicyclist, and a homeless man.

    The bicyclist asked “Where’s your bike?” and I said “I left it at the bottom of the hill.” The homeless man said, “Be careful on that bike. Be precious cargo on that bike. Be you.” You gotta love a street poet.

    The shopkeeper asked me if I rode my bike everywhere, and I said that more or less yes, but that I had rode from Embarcadero Bart to North Beach but had heard Polk was dangerous. She seemed concerned said, “Oh no, North Beach is much more dangerous than here! I’ve only seen one accident in all the time I’ve been here but have heard that Broadway was dangerous.” I explained that I did not ride on Columbus but had taken Pacific Ave, then walked my bike to park it, and had walked up. She seemed relieved. Then she told me that her boyfriend rides his bike everywhere, and said that she used to ride her bike often but did not anymore. I wondered why she stopped but did not ask. She was nice and I bought a sweater.

    Other than the people, here was my (in some cases first) impression of the street itself. I walked towards the Marina until about Lombard and then back the other way towards Bush street.

    Most of Polk on Russian Hill did not seem all that dangerous to me, but I was walking and may have had a different perception on a bicycle. However, I did see a couple pedestrians nearly hit by a tourist with a manual on the way up to the crooked street which slid back down the hill into the crosswalk. The pedestrians jumped out of the way. Russian Hill was charming in an old fashioned way with lots of little shops. The residential area towards the Marina had a nice bike lane. The slope up was hilly, but not too bad. The bike lane near the Russian Hill shops had completely faded and that did not seem good.

    I walked down to Bush as I took classes at Alliance Francaise years ago. From Broadway on south, Polk was not a pleasant place to walk at all. The street itself was nondescript but the worse part was the cross traffic. Cars came roaring past across Polk Street. I did not stop in any shops.

    I don’t much remember lower Polk south of Bush Street, at least not enough to make an impression at all a decade later. I did try taking the bus a few times to Alliance Francaise but it was late a few times and I ended up taking a taxi to get to class. Then I tried walking up Larkin to Bush, but there were a lot of of questionable people. As I’m from Venice Beach, that’s saying something coming from me. To be fair, no one was threatening, but it wasn’t pleasant. Then I tried walking up Bush from Powell Street Bart. Then, I tried driving and parking in the garage at Bush and Polk. Eventually, I decided it was too much of a pain to get to Alliance Francaise and stopped taking classes at all.

    As far as Paris goes, I think it’s funny that it’s portrayed as a car free paradise. Many streets are quiet even if they do have poles on the sidewalk to keep cars from driving on the side walks. My method for crossing busy streets there is to wait until the cars are completely grid locked, then I cross. But except for Champs Elysee which I hate, none of the cars are going anywhere very fast.

  • Elizabeth
  • Anonymous

    Local motorists do this very thing so often there’s literally a phrase for it–the “California Stop.” Not that neutral corner would ever ask any motorist if they practice it…bias, bias, bias.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of bias, what makes you presume that I wouldn’t hold the driver of a car to the same standard. — and can you honestly sit there and tell me that there’s an automotive equivalent on Polk Street to the frequency with which bicyclists completely disregard their responsibility to come to a stop at a stop sign? And I’m not talking about a “Hollywood Stop;” I’m talking about bicyclists blowing through stop signs at full velocity between California and Bay Streets.

    Today — two days after I first posted this suggestion, (which, by the way, is very much in support of the realignment of Polk Street in favor of cyclists) I watched three consecutive riders blow through the stop sign at Polk and Vallejo at full speed at around 9:30 a.m.. All three were headed northbound; two, in fact, were headed to Crunch Fitness, so that torpedoes my theory about people heading to Polk Street destinations being any more accountable for their riding habits than others are. Clearly, those riders are assholes as well, much like the two who quite accidentally but quite literally murdered two pedestrians over the past two years, and just like the several dozen automobile drivers who’ve killed pedestrians on San Francisco streets by failing to yield the right of way.

    Whenever I see someone use as justification for their own irresponsible behavior the fact that others are taking the law into their own hands, I know I’m dealing with a child’s mentality. Please be quiet; the grown-ups are trying to solve problems over here.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, you are so prickly.

  • Anonymous

    Nice anecdote. I saw an SUV driver destroy a parklet, almost killing a homeless man in the process, then knock over a fire hydrant and turn Valencia Street into a river.

    I win.

  • Anonymous

    neutral corner, or whatever ID you’re using today, do you ask random motorists whether or not they pull the “California Stop” at stop signs? No, you don’t. Bias, bias, bias.

    As for your anecdote about cyclists going “full velocity” past a stop sign, my anecdote is cyclists are rolling through at the same speed as “California Stop” motorists. Of course, cars weigh so much more, so it’s no surprise the statistics show cars are infinitely more dangerous to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

  • Jesse

    Why don’t you find a Delorean, go 88 mph down Masonic and go back to a time you were relevant.


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