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

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.

  • The Plaza is wonderful. Since we’ve got a couple more years of subway construction disrupting Stockton Street, we should use that time to look at the whole circulation system around Union Square, taking into account the forthcoming banning of private automobiles from Market Street. Powell really needs to be free of motor vehicles from Ellis to Geary, except possibly very limited hotel drop offs and restricted-hour deliveries. As it is now, private automobiles are badly slowing the cable car system, causing expensive wear on the cable as cable car crews try to inch up the street behind autos. It’s something cable cars were never designed to do. If we can pedestrianize both Powell and Stockton and improve transit, great. A compromise might be to make the Stockton plaza seasonal for the holidays so it’s special, using it most of the year as a true transit first street. During the holidays, the 30, 45, and 8x could use Mason as they do now. Just leave the “temporary” trolley wires in place. But trying to mix buses and “frolicking children” on a quasi-plaza is pretty dangerous.

  • hp2ena

    Like I’ve said before, I support a plaza so long as they keep the 8x, 30, and 45 running through. The current detour is too time-consuming; it would actually be faster for me to take the 27 to the 30/45 to Caltrain than to walk to Chinatown for the 30/45 AND take it to Market. One option would be to narrow the effective roadway width to accommodate only buses while maintaining a plaza. I’m thinking something like 1st/2nd Street in San Jose without the transit speed restrictions and travel lanes.

    As for bike lanes on Stockton, I’m mixed. Could bus-bike lanes work with frequent transit service and attract 8-80 riders? My gut says no as buses are heavier – therefore deadlier – than cars, and that I would rather prioritize transit. Then again, I’d like to maximize the amount of space for people who want to utilize the plaza. But 6′ of bike lane never hurt anyone.

  • Contra-flow bike lane from market to the stockton street tunnel, please.

  • Bruce

    One southbound bus lane, a two-way protected bikeway, and the rest for peds.

  • I’m scratching my head to recall exactly where, but doesn’t San Jose have a VTA light rail “pedestrian mall” as well?

  • Mario Tanev

    They should build a tunnel under the plaza for the buses to pass through.

  • twinpeaks_sf

    Max bus speed should be 15 mph. Even at that low speed, the straight-shot would be much faster than the current detour. One 12 ft lane, (half) curbed, the rest should be pedestrian space.

    More space could be divvied up for a cycle track while still providing generous sidewalk space. Granted, you’d loose the open plaza feel.

  • hp2ena

    That would work if the Central and Market Street Subways weren’t built.

  • hp2ena

    Yes, on 1st and 2nd between St. James and San Carlos. Light rail operates at 10mph through the mall and is considered a systemwide bottleneck by VTA.

  • Yes that’s exactly it, thanks! (I haven’t spent much time in San Jose in the past decade.)

    That light rail design also requires the trains to have built-in megaphones so the operators can shout “Hey, get outta the way!” at pedestrians, which never seemed like a particularly effective transit solution.

  • rfkolbe

    I’d draw a big circle and exclude private autos from about 2/3 of the City. The biggest danger of my day is the hotshot local or the lost tourist with a 4 wheeled weapon.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    “Protected” from what, exactly?


  • Bruce

    The bus lane and peds.

  • Please, it’s just astroturf and a few benches that light up. It works just fine during the holiday season as more people mill around the area, but as for a 24/7 ped mall, forget it. Go one block west to Powell. Dark, dingy and full of panhandlers and homeless.
    Most pedestrian malls have been failures. See attached article.

  • Wanderer

    It’s not exactly a pedestrian mall in that cars can drive through. But the streets have wide sidewalks, a light rail lane and a bus lane, leaving only one lane for cars. It’s worth looking at as an example of how Stockton might be reconfigured for transit but not cars.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Yeah, if there’s one thing them there 8 to 80 bicyclists need as a top priority, it’s to be protected from “peds”. Peds and rogue 10mph trolley buses.

    Close your eyes before contemplating this horrific lack of protection: https://www.google.com/search?q=bahnhofstrasse+zürich&tbm=isch

  • Richard Mlynarik
  • Bruce

    Jeez, why so aggressive? I’m all for removing private vehicular traffic, same as you. And I would favor separating bike and pedestrian traffic because it slows bike traffic to have them intermingle. See, e.g., the Embarcadero.

  • Madeline Barker Mai

    I visited this last week and it was lovely. Hope they keep it up after the holidays.

  • M.

    Great plan and far-sighted even. Especially like the part about closing lower Powell to vehicles. Apparently, the USBID likes the idea as long as hotels get some access, as you mentioned. Couldn’t happen soon enough.

  • M.

    Last week the SFMTA Board and Ed Reiskin supported making it permanent after the construction is complete. You can tell them and the Union Square Business Improvement District what you’d like here: USBID http://bit.ly/1ygqv7m; SFMTA http://bit.ly/12vGwco

  • That is not entirely true. Two board members, Cheryl Brinkman and Gwyneth Borden, did praise the Winter Walk and said the street seems well-used, that drivers seem used to the detour, and asked Ed Reiskin what the possibilities were for keeping it that way. Reiskin said there are no plans for the street and that the SFMTA would evaluate its use and collect feedback from merchants and customers.

  • Why bring them back? Because America that’s why!

  • voltairesmistress

    Because that is how Mr. Mlynarik conducts himself on Internet forums. Don’t take it personally, Bruce. He denounces nearly everyone and everything. Kind of amusing, if you don’t have to live or work with him.

  • Gezellig


  • M.

    Yes, I stand corrected.
    The discussion came after a Director’s Report update that included the Central Subway Project. The presenter ended with the Winter Walk project and the words, ‘…it was a wonderful hit, it was amazing, people just flooding the street laying down…’ This was met with light laughter and applause from the audience. The general demeanor was one of smiling approval, unusual at these meetings.
    Dir. Reiskin said ‘[the SFMTA] will certainly be watching and evaluating and working with the [USBID] and others to capture feedback to initiate a planning process for going forward on that.’ So public input will be registered.

  • mx

    At this point, how many millions of minutes of passengers delays have 30 Stockton riders endured during the construction detours? How many lifetimes will it take to pay those delays back by the Central Subway, which barely beat the time estimates for the BRT plan transit advocates pushed for in the first place?

    Not to mention the utter lies told by Central Subway proponents. Remember how they promised us the tunnel would be dug deep underground to minimize disruption? Well it is being dug deep underground to increase costs, but the disruption remains. Back in 2012, we heard things like: “There’s no vibration, no surface disruption,…you could be walking on top of it and not even feel it.” Now we have Stockton shut down for three+ years, businesses blocked off, a massive flood of water ruining merchandise, and popular Muni lines detouring through packed streets for years. It’s clear that they were lying through their teeth to sell this project.

  • mx

    Shut down Powell, Stockton, and Market to private autos? A brilliant plan! Let’s take it further and ban cars from Grant, Kearney, Montgomery, and Sansome too! I hope nobody ever wants to go to a hotel, receive a package, or otherwise receive any of the services we rely on having streets for? Oh, but you’ll exempt buses, cable cars, trucks, hotel dropoffs, taxis (because they’ll do whatever they hell they want anyway, but forget about allowing Uber or Lyft), lost tourists following their GPS devices, city workers, and people who can’t quickly read a 1,000 word sign explaining the restrictions? If all those people are still on the street, what have you accomplished exactly?

    If you really want a street closed to traffic, then actually close it, disconnect it from the grid, and turn it into a pedestrian mall while figuring out actual alternatives to provide services to the buildings on that street. Painting the street all red and green and putting up a confusing mess of signs does absolutely nothing besides raise every type of road users’ blood pressures.

    I took my grandfather out to dinner in Union Square for his 90th birthday a few weeks ago. This would have been impossible if we took three bus lines like you seem to think everyone should be doing. I suppose I should have left him to eat slop in the nursing home instead. At least the streets would be nice and empty for you that way.

  • Gezellig

    So dark! So dingy!


    And look how commerce is just wilting in such an oppressive environment!



    And it all has to do with the lack of public morals-enhancing automobile traffic on that one block. What a hellhole! That’s why thousands of tourists and shoppers and locals alike refuse to go by there every day. They’re probably taking a picture of how hellish the whole scene is on a block without cars:


    Restore Balance–bring back the cars!

  • Justin

    I would agree that it should be permanent. I really don’t see how if it were to stay permanent that it can accommodate the a bus lane because doing so would take up too much space and ruin the beauty and experience of the pedestrian plaza. Would there be room for a bike lane? Maybe. However, in my perspectives I say keep it the way it is, while the theme will change and evolve, the space and the amount of it and experience in most cases stays the same. No bike lane, and absolutely no transit lane.

  • SF Sunset Guy

    go start your own car-free commune somewhere else. I hear Guyana is lovely this time of year.

  • SF Sunset Guy

    You know what else? SF has been “transit-first” for 40 + years, a time during which the ostensibly “public” transportation system is no longer operated for the citizens of this city and county – who in fact own the system, but for those employed by it.

    In that time, the service is barely adequate, more expensive, and less extensive.

    I myself would draw a big circle and exclude carpet-bagging faugressives (there goes the BoS!) and others with such a self-righteous pedantic and demeaning attitude to those they come here to live with.

  • rfkolbe

    Transit first is fine, I argue for pedestrian first. Some places should be walkers only. Union Square sounds good. The business owners would like it too. The “where’s that parking” folks don’t live here or are too lazy to get on the bus. Cars could be parked outside of our central business districts as they are a real pain in the ass.


Creating temporary and permanent public spaces should get easier with the "Public Places for People" ordinance. Photo: SFMTA

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