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

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

“Powell deserves to be the best possible street that San Francisco can make it,” said Andres Power, who managed the Powell Promenade project at the Planning Department and is now an aide for Supervisor Scott Wiener. “It’s in many ways an entry point to the city. Pretty much every single person who visits San Francisco walks along those blocks at some point.”

Power said the promenade project was “seen as an initial first step to start a longer conversation about what Powell Street should be,” and that ideas like extending the pedestrianized zone and adding car restrictions have long been discussed. The promenade project itself required extensive coordination with merchants and property owners, notably to move deliveries from Powell to side streets.

Karin Flood, president of the Union Square Business Improvement District, said the organization doesn’t have a position yet on further car restrictions. She said the organization is open to studying the idea, although maintaining car access to hotels and parking garages is a concern. “There still are people that prefer to drive, and need to drive, for whatever reason,” she said. “A lot of our luxury retailers are really wedded to their clients that do come in by car.”

The 38-Geary, Muni’s busiest bus line, regularly struggles to make it through cars blocking intersections on Powell. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Powell, through the Union Square area, is packed with upwards of 100,000 pedestrians on an average weekend. A study conducted by the transportation design firm Fehr and Peers showed that 85 percent of all trips that pass through the intersection of Powell and Ellis are on foot.

Peter Tannen, a retired SFMTA traffic engineer who oversaw the Valencia Street road diet, said the idea of restricting cars on Powell “looks good to me, just based upon the times I’ve been on Powell Street.”

Photo: Aaron Bialick

SFMTA officials said they currently aren’t looking seriously at car restrictions on Powell, but that they could in the future, once the Central Subway is completed.

The SFMTA is currently planning car restrictions on and around Market Street to divert private autos off of that thoroughfare, starting early next year. Tim Papandreou, the SFMTA’s director for strategic planning and policy, said the agency will look at diversions on “natural spurs off of Market Street,” but couldn’t name any specific plans yet.

But the SFMTA has stalled on trying out short-term ideas like traffic diversions or a pedestrian plaza on Ellis, between Powell and Market, citing traffic complications created by subway construction through the area.

“The Central Subway is moving things around every couple weeks,” said Jerry Robbins, the SFMTA’s interim director of the Sustainable Streets Division until Tom Maguire takes over on October 14. Maguire will come from New York City’s Department of Transportation, which pedestrianized much of Times Square.

Robbins said he thinks “it’s a little premature to propose any particular solutions at this point,” but that they “should be looked at” once subway construction detours have ended.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

Stockton, south of Geary, is closed to motor traffic until 2016, and has been since 2012. Robbins confirmed that many of the drivers heading southbound on Powell may just be lost, as many who exit the Stockton Tunnel “just seem to ignore” signs detouring them onto Sutter or Post Streets. Instead, many drivers continue straight until they’re forced to turn right on to Geary, and many then turn left on Powell. Because of this pattern, Robbins said Powell has been especially congested with cars in the last couple of years. To mitigate the problem, he said the SFMTA installed protected turn signal phases to let more cars through the crowds of pedestrians crossing at Powell and Ellis, near the cable car turnaround.

On an average day on Powell, cable car operators can be seen haplessly stuck behind aimless drivers trying to edge through crosswalks, a stop-and-go pattern that wears significantly on the cables. If Powell undergoes a major redesign, it’s expected to happen in conjunction with a cable overhaul that was originally expected this year.

Flood, of the Union Square BID, said she sees how the concept could work. “I just returned from Europe, and they have walking streets everywhere,” she said. “I know that other cities have large pedestrian-only areas, so I know that works well.”

New traffic signal phases were installed to move cars through Powell more quickly. Photo: Aaron Bialick
  • Those are some scary shots of ped-car conflicts!

  • 94110

    “SFMTA officials said they currently aren’t looking seriously at car restrictions on Powell, but that they could in the future, once the Central Subway is completed.”

    It’s amazing how many problems can be blamed on the Central Subway. The sooner it finishes, the sooner it can show disappointing ridership numbers, have it’s headways cut, it’s LRVs put into service somewhere useful, and the entire tunnel mothballed.

    Or maybe it’ll find the funding to go to Pier 39 quickly and actually do some good.

  • Even before this construction, all the sidewalks around Union Square were too narrow for the crowds in the area. Just walking from one store to another is uncomfortable.

    At the very least SFMTA should look at taking out more street side parking spots.

  • Mario Tanev

    It’s topics like these that make me question the sincerity of the SFMTA.

    If you asked me what projects are so obvious San Francisco should have done them yesterday, the following three come to mind. They would be projects a world class city would do in a heartbeat that don’t require a lot of funding. They are not only justified, but necessitated by the sheer volume of pedestrians and transit use that is unparalleled elsewhere in the city, and there is really no legitimate argument against them:
    1. Pedestrianizing Powell St. Allow bikes, cable cars, and taxis but nothing else (no Uber, only specially marked vehicles). Pedestrians vastly outnumber clueless drivers who hog the streets. Cable cars are the most expensive to operate and are always full because of lower frequency, and instead we slow them that for this? Do more runs, make more tourists happy, instead of making them suffer behind exhaust.
    2. Closing Stockton to cars. Only Muni and deliveries should be allowed. It’s the only street in San Francisco where buses are back to back and take 30 minutes to clear a few blocks.
    3. Making Grant pedestrian (bikes yield to pedestrians) only. It’s such a tiny street with so little available parking, with pedestrians squeezed on the narrow sidewalks, that it makes no sense to have any traffic. Have early morning delivery hours. Over time Grant can be repaved to cobblestone, or brick, or some nice elevated pavement that merges with the sidewalk, and perhaps with some planters.

    The fact that Central Subway is used as an excuse not to pursue this project is the main reason I hate the Central Subway. I don’t mind the subway, I mind the crutch that it has become that doesn’t allow us to do anything in the next 10 years that will reduce the need for the subway.

  • Mario Tanev

    I don’t worry about Central Subway ridership. Our population will grow, development patterns will adapt. It will be successful.

    I worry about it resulting in cuts to the existing bus lines, increasing the budget hole the Muni is in, and especially being this crutch that somehow prevents any vision in the city for something truly transformational.

  • Love Mario’s three proposed projects below. (They’ve been on my “this is obvious” list, too.) Time to put them all in as pilots. Trials. Low cost, low risk, see how we all like it. If they’re awful and the world comes to an end, rip them out, put them back the way they were until pedestrian density increases even further.

    Come on, SFMTA, if New York could do this kind of stuff, we can, too.

  • Lego

    Those are some common scenes of ped-car conflicts. On Powell within those three blocks, such interactions happen once a minute, by my estimation. I work very near here and see it constantly. It reminds me of scenes from my visits to ‘developing’ nations, except cars honk less here. But there is the same action to push on (and intimidate) pedestrian traffic to gain yards down the road.

  • Lego

    3. Which blocks of Grant?
    Chinatown Grant is almost 100% (one-side) lined with disabled placard parking (to my amazement). Union Square Grant has few parking spots (ez to remove?) but may have loading zone issues and North Beach Grant is a parking lot that happens to have some shops along it (credit: Mike Sonn), is congested, unsafe and ugly but it does seem to serve many (well, a small percent) residents’ addiction to subsidized parking – so it may be a tough nut to crack.

  • Mario Tanev

    I meant mostly the Chinatown Grant and perhaps North Beach grant. Union Square Grant has different characteristics.

  • Lego

    2. Closing Stockton to cars
    In Chinatown if that would have happened, I believe many think that Central Subway could have been averted and those massive funds could have been applied to other, more worthy, projects

  • Time to get serious about “don’t block the box” in San Francisco. This crawling between bumpers is stressful!

  • Mario Tanev

    Yeah, that’s why I think someone made the political decision to not improve Stockton in any way for the next decade, in order to make the subway clearly seem better.

  • Rick Laubscher

    The congestion on lower Powell costs SFMTA a LOT of money, both by delaying the cable cars and from forcing the cable car gripmen to crawl uphill to Geary through the gridlock. Operating slow uphill is very difficult to do, and the gripmen deserve a ton of credit for their skill. Even with skill, though, it wears out both the dies that grip the cable and the cable itself much faster than normal. It’s an unpublicized problem, but a real one. There’s really no reason automobiles forced off Stockton by the Central Subway construction couldn’t be diverted to either Mason or Jones. Start with better detour signage and add some “no turn” signs to keep cars off Powell.

  • 94103er

    “There still are people that prefer to drive, and need to drive, for whatever reason,” [Karin Flood, president of the Union Square Business Improvement District,] said. “A lot of our luxury retailers are really wedded to their clients that do come in by car.”

    Sometimes I’m amazed this city can even function at all. People like Karin Flood get to keep us stuck in the 1950s and our politicians just lap up this nonsense like it’s gravy.

  • Lego

    I always believed (anecdotal basis) that it was the Chinatown merchants who opposed the removal of cars/parking. I’m confident the details of this: true or false, are well known, just not by me. In a similar way Chinatown merchants actively protested (Fact-googleable) the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 for fear of losing business/relevance. They were clearly on the wrong (the paranoic) side of history. And what incredible benefit to the city that demolition has been for almost a null detriment!

  • Lego

    I see her trying to find (or at least communicate) a balance. But those clients are not on those three blocks, there are no luxury stores there anyway. And these clients would enjoy the civilizing effect of a promenade/parkway there. They can still drive Geary/Post, park under Union Square (or Stockton/Sutter, etc. etc. etc.) and saunter to Tiffany, Neimans, Gumps or their favorite jeweler/spa on Maiden Lane, etc. etc. Maybe I’m missing something, but i don’t see any effect to the carriage trade in those three blocks. Perhaps hotel access could be compromised, but the status quo doesn’t make those hotels very accessible. The valets/porters could guide guests from Geary and O’Farrell white curb loading zones. These guests would also enjoy the civilizing effect of a promenade/parkway rather than the rapids (as in a tumultuous river) of bottlenecked pedestrians there now. It would actually be a free business-extension (similar to parklet) to those hotels.

  • surfsup

    If Buenos Aires can take control of their downtown traffic, almost overnight, so can San Francisco. It’s whether they have the will and desire to make it happen.

  • RoyTT

    Lego, you remember correctly, but also incompletely.

    ChinaTown did oppose tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, and that opposition may well be seen retrospectively as being on the wrong and paranoid side of history.

    But that tear-down has been widely attributed as causing Art Agnos to narrowly lose his fight to be re-elected as mayor in 1992. Chinatown turned out massively to support Frank Jordan, who campaigned aggressively in ChinaTown on how they had been disrespected and ignored by Agnos.

    SF Progressives have never won back Room 200 since that day 22 years ago. And, as much as they hold Agnos in a historically favorable light, they also remember how that one act probably cost them the highest office in the city, never to be re-taken.

    Winning a battle doesn’t always win you the war.

  • Get rid of the cars, and I guarantee that all of those blocks will be home to nothing _but_ luxury retailers. Ever been on Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich?

  • p_chazz

    Art Agnos was a failure as a mayor in several respects. “Camp Agnos” in front of City Hall came to symbolize his unwillingness or inability to deal with the homeless. He lost the support of the neighborhood groups who helped elect him in 1987 with the largest majority in the 20th Century up to that point. It’s a measure of Agnos’ ineptitude that he was swept out after one term, and it’s a tribute to the wisdom of the average SF voter that no progressive mayor has been elected since–once bitten, twice shy.

  • Lego

    Grant Ave. (by Shreve) is the closest we have and, sadly, it’s choked with cars (car storage and/or car gridlocked). I’m not confident about the future of lower Powell becoming a luxury corridor, but I don’t want to air/debate my future theories here as it seems moot.

    What these two lower blocks of Powell when converted to walking streets won’t become is dangerous; as in loiterers, gangs, scofflaws, because of the incredible mass and flow (up to 100,000 daily) of middle-class local and tourist pedestrians using the corridor. I can, however, foresee it upscaling a notch or two.

    It’s certainly not blighted now, but it IS hostile to people (and commerce), aesthetically/functionally way below-potental and an insult (and injury: see Rick Laubscher’s comment) to our iconic cable cars.

    Cable cars stuck in automotive gridlock: Yeah, that’s really showcasing how cool they are 🙁

    Europe?! Really?

    “I just returned from Europe, and they have walking streets everywhere,” [Flood] said. “I know that other cities have large pedestrian-only areas,
    so I know that works well.”

    Someone actually travels abroad and sees something that works well “everywhere” and believes that it could improve the (already ‘perfect/awesome’) SF/USA?! Give this woman a gold star! And a green light!!

    As ~40-120 (triple-fare-paying-Muni-supportin’) people wait.. wait.. wait.. in queue, a dozen lost motorists are clogging up and inching down an almost useless path.

    And these small number of cars are also managing to gridlock cross-traffic on vital automotive and Muni arteries: see pic 2,3,4 above, causing delays for 6.5 miles (x2) of Muni riders along the 38 Geary – the busiest Muni line. (Source: Wikipedia)

    And to what degree is the car-exit for those few lost southbound motorists at Ellis (by the Apple store) hindering/complicating the progress of Central Subway construction?

    Not to mention causing a hazard and delay to a thousand (many there to spend!) pedestrians an hour at that intersection. And then this motorist has to endure another pedestrian laden crosswalk, (the eighth since Geary/Powell) on the SOMA side of Market by Old Navy, racking up some (my estimate) dozens of pedestrian/car interactions similar to the pictures above.

    Lost because there are much better alternatives to get to their destination, they just took this one because it is open to automobiles, they don’t know better and as a result, they effectively lose time, fuel and some sanity. Can we do them a favor too?

    To continue to keep this pair of rich multipurpose city blocks open to motor vehicles sustains an absurd squandering of precious urban resources used by thousands each hour for a questionable ‘benefit’ (2mph to nowhere) for a relatively few trapped motorists.

  • Justin

    I would say it should be done ASAP whenever possible. I occasionally visit the area at times and have never seen any sense of allowing motor vehicles to travel on that part of Powell St given to how crowded that place is and how narrow it is. It only creates more unneeded congestion there and slows down cable car service in that area as well as creating a hazard to pedestrians when these cars block intersections that cross Powell St. I think this should and must be done, and chances are that the adverse impact to the surrounding businesses will be little to none

  • Lego

    Thank you! Very important (and arcane) insight. Who would’ve known this?! Good people here 🙂

  • street_equity

    Agreed! This feels to me like the biggest safety issue on SF streets at the moment. Even worse the the immediate danger is that it sets a horrible precedent for the way that motorists interact with pedestrians.

    And, it seems pretty easy to solve, since:
    1) The most problematic intersections are fairly predictable
    2) Enforcement is inexpensive
    3) Fines are revenue generators

    How can we get our elected officials moving on this?
    I was thinking about a campaign where we post photos of the most egregious examples and post them on twitter, cc’ing the relevant elected officials. Maybe with a hash tag like #DontBlockTheBox or #VisionZero or #SafeStreetsStartWithSafeCrosswalks.

    Think it could work?

  • murphstahoe

    “never to be re-taken” – modulo that they gave it to Ed Lee for 9 years for no apparent good reason.

  • murphstahoe

    I’ve been to Tiffany’s three times. Each time – MUNI.

  • Mario Tanev

    Agnos is a big car lover, and a Prop L supporter. He was just right on the issue of the Embarcadero freeway.

  • Diane Feinstein

    Nut case screed. Vested interested, much?

    Actually Powell as pedestrians only during certain hours isn’t a bad idea as long as businesses there have access to the street for deliveries.

    Just understand nobody is going to be much interested in doing things for the cyclists until they begin obeying traffic laws. How hard is that?

    Did I mention the rude cyclists with death wishes unable to come to a stop for red lights or stop signs or give pedestrians the right of way?

    Best wishes!

  • murphstahoe


    If nobody is going to be interested in going things for cyclists until they obey traffic laws, but we ARE getting a lot of new bike lanes/etc….

    Does not compute.

  • M.

    Flood might be interested to know that in probably all of the European cities she visited, the initial proposals for no-vehicle zones were met with varying degrees of resistance that were listened to thence over-ridden. Now, those zones are thriving more than ever; loading gets done sans issues; tourism booms (hello, SF?); high-end retailers, cheek-by-jowl with more modest establishments, still ‘manage’ to turn robust profits; and guess what? People love the promenades, have forgotten any reservations they may have had, and all is forgiven. Done and dusted.

  • M.
  • Duane

    For the most part I hate your blog….this however is a great idea. Powell is such a mess might as well go all the way with it and get rid of the cars. However….where you get a major F in your platform is you propose ideas but fail to suggest improvements for auto traffic flow. You live with this fixation on improved bus and bike flow and totally ignore the fact that there are still cars. SF needs a few more expressways….we have them….Fell, Oak, Pine, Bush to name a few….but you guys want it all. You want mess with the auto express ways and slow them down too. PS…..for all you who rejoice over the destruction of the elevated freeways…..did it ever once occur to you just how much auto traffic those freeways (which also connected to the expressways) held? For example…..look at the huge mess that happens every day in Hays Gulch. In the days pre-earthquake, that daily jam never happened and Hays Gulch had far far far fewer cars than it does now.

  • Duane

    You people have your head in the clouds. Most of you are probably too young to remember just how functional those elevated freeways were. Be destroying them all that traffic is now on the streets. Also those elevated freeways connected to traffic arteries…Oak, Fell, Gough, Broadway. SF still has those arteries but they don’t connect to anything so you have gridlock especially along Market. And you guys are doing the best you can to destroy the few remaining arteries by stuffing more bike lanes onto streets that were designed as expressways. In the end your good intentions are kind of making a mess of everything.

  • Duane

    The above photos show the honest if unintentional results of “TRAFFIC CALMING”. With the current progressive head in the cloud dreamers who are running this city it will only get worse. Just remember all you so-called GREEN FOLKS….a car at idle releases the greatest amount of pollution. This TRAFFIC CALMING is creating an ECO-DISASTER.

  • NoeValleyJim

    You do know that car drivers break the law more than cyclists, right? I am not interested in your demands for more infrastructure until you car drivers stop speeding and running stop signs.

    How hard is that?

  • NoeValleyJim

    I remember that horrible elevated freeway, with buses parked underneath it, that cut off San Francisco from the waterfront. You can’t seriously think that what we have now is anything but an improvement. No one I know who has been around long enough to remember the Embarcadero Freeway does not think that the waterfront is better now.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Do you know of any transportation infrastructure project in California that suffers from a lack of ridership?

  • @RoyTT – Jordan’s campaign was dishonest, of course, because 1) though Agnos supported tearing down the freeway, only the Supervisors had that power, and 2) he was the one offered Chinatown merchants the subway to compensate for the hurt business (which never materialized). One disastrous Mayoral term later, Willie Brown called this rejected offer a “promise” to Chinatown, and here we are.

  • @p_chazz – Uh-huh. And the inept Jordan being swept out after one term also has some sort of deep meaning that supports somebody’s political predispositions.

  • @Lego – That would be the “balance” in the 1) Fox News motto, 2) Prop L’s website URL? San Francisco has one of the highest concentrations of cars per square mile on the planet, there’s your imbalance right there.

  • @Diane – Similarly, nobody’s buildling highways until motorists stop speeding so much, right?

  • @Duane – There is no traffic-calming going on in those photos. The phrase has a defined meaning; you should learn what that is before attempting to use it in a sentence.

  • Lego

    Agreed. And on those two blocks, one of the highest concentration of pedestrians. Cars don’t benefit by being down there for several reasons (that even I can see and have expressed in other comments). I’m suspecting Ms. Flood knows that.

  • p_chazz

    Your logical fallacy is tu quoque. You avoided having to engage with criticism by turning it back on the accuser. You answered a criticism with a criticism

  • RoyTT

    Jym, there is a difference. The one-term Jordan was a pro-business mayor who was replaced with another pro-business mayor. It didn’t represent a change in direction; just a change in execution.

    Agnos losing after one term was much more significant, electorally and historically, because SF has never since had a progressive/liberal mayor. Agnos failure heralded 22 years of pro-business continuity in room 200.

    In other words, The Jordan failure was a footnote but the Agnos failure has set back the progressive movement for a generation, because many voters still remember what a disaster it was the last time we had a progressive mayor.

  • jd_x

    This doesn’t even warrant a response. You should read up on Streetsblog (or any other transit blog) to understand how cars not driven at *all* actually release much less emissions than those moving or stuck in traffic.

  • 94103er

    No, what’s ‘kind of making a mess of everything’ is that we are currently at 10,000 cars per square mile. TEN. THOUSAND. Someone with more knowledge than you is looking at that and realizing we need to stop allowing so much easy access to car-only infrastructure and let people get around safely by other means.

  • 94103er

    Rage caps, unsubstantiated bogus claims, total misunderstanding of traffic-planning jargon, multiple postings…yep, you’ve got it all. Congrats: You’re the latest annoying troll!

  • 94103er

    LOL, long-time SFer here talking about ‘Hays Gulch’…hmm. Did it ever occur to you that there wasn’t much traffic there before *because* the Central Freeway created a dead neighborhood underneath? Same goes for the Embarcadero. But thanks for stopping by.


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