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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
Stockton Street, between Ellis and Geary Streets, is currently a 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:

The argument against shutting down Stockton is that it would create a traffic nightmare and disrupt the route of the perpetually packed 30-Stockton. Well, traffic seems to be moving just fine. As for the bus, people can just hop onto the new Central Subway.

After all, that was the idea, wasn’t it?

Well, riders on Muni's 30 and 45 lines would probably disagree that they're "moving just fine" despite several extra turns through the car traffic around Union Square. And the prospect of transferring from a bus to a subway is not exactly enticing for those whose trip extends beyond the Chinatown subway stop.

So while it's clear that Stockton -- and neighboring Powell Street -- can easily be imagined without cars dominating the public space, surface transit also needs greater priority through Union Square. One solution might be to make Stockton a transit and pedestrian mall, which could provide space for both frolicking kids and more-reliable transit. Such a street wouldn't be totally pedestrianized, but with many fewer vehicles, the roadway would be safer to cross most of the time.

Such transit malls have had mixed success in the U.S., succeeding in Denver and Minneapolis [PDF] but not in ChicagoThe successful examples are on streets that already had healthy foot traffic, which Union Square certainly boasts. Both malls also saw a substantial improvement to their pedestrian environment when clean-fuel buses were introduced, something that Muni's already taken care of by running emissions-free trolleys on the 30 and 45.

What's your vision for the future of Stockton Street? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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