Should SF Streets Go Car-Free to Make Room for Nightlife?

Vancouver’s Granville Street, seen here in 2013, is regularly closed to cars on weekend nights. Should SF do the same with its nightlife streets? Photo: Aaron Bialick

Polk, Valencia, Castro, Broadway — when bar patrons crowd these streets at night, should they go car-free?

While the idea may be novel to San Francisco, many other cities have done it. Up the coast in Vancouver, British Columbia, downtown Granville Street is often closed to cars on bustling weekend nights for people to roam the roadway, extending the street’s permanent pedestrian mall, which is several blocks long.

In a new report [PDF], city agencies recommend taking a look at nighttime car-free hours to improve streets for patrons and workers.

“Streets are the living room of our cities, where people meet, interact, and socialize,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who requested the report. “We should consider opportunities to foster these urban connections for the sake of supporting nighttime activity and advancing pedestrian safety.”

“So many of the events that really define San Francisco, both for locals and visitors, are events that happen when the streets are shut down and the people are in them,” said Tom Temprano, owner of Virgil’s Sea Room bar on Mission near Cesar Chavez Street, and a member of the city’s Late Night Transportation Working Group, which developed the report. “From Sunday Streets, to Pride, to Folsom Street Fair, to Bay to Breakers, these are all really events that are core to San Francisco’s identity and happen when we take cars off the road and let people have a good time.”

Sunday Streets, a daytime event, has proved especially popular on Valencia Street in the Mission, which also bustles with bar-goers on weekend nights. Why not provide a safe environment for nighttime crowds bursting off the sidewalks, rather than let the street be clogged with cars?

The report, which was developed by the SF County Transportation Authority and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, states:

In commercial corridors with vibrant nightlife, pedestrian safety and comfort may be a challenge at closing time, when large numbers of patrons — many of whom will have, no doubt, been drinking — simultaneously exit multiple venues, crowding onto often narrow sidewalks. Cities such as Austin, Texas, and Vancouver, British Columbia, have used temporary late night street closures as a strategy to improve pedestrian safety in particularly active corridors.

One complication of closing streets to vehicles is that it would require a detour for Muni lines, including electric trolley buses such as the 24-Divisadero on Castro Street. But Vancouver’s Granville has electric trolley bus lines on it, and the city seems to manage.

Temprano said re-routing transit “could be tough” on some streets, but that it could be worth it.

“With the risk that all of these cars on the road pose to the increased pedestrians and street activity that we have at these times, I think it’s worth moving the buses a block over,” he said, noting that there seems to be a particular danger from the many bar patrons who drive in from out of the city and are unfamiliar with the streets. “We’re seeing an increase in vehicle-to-vehicle collisions that happen at night in our city.”

“Anything that gets San Francisco closer to Vision Zero is a step in the right direction,” said Temprano.

At this point, the idea of pedestrianizing streets at night is only a recommendation, and doesn’t have any timeline or funding set for it.

Nicole Schneider, executive director of Walk SF, pointed out that “if paired with access to reliable late night transit, as described in the plan,” pedestrianized streets would be “a great example of discouraging drunk driving, and promoting a safer San Francisco for everyone.”

  • Cities such as Austin, Texas, and Vancouver, British Columbia, have used
    temporary late night street closures as a strategy to improve
    pedestrian safety in particularly active corridors.

    Not to mention pretty much any major city you can think of in Europe.

  • Gezellig

    “Should SF Streets Go Car-Free to Make Room for Nightlife?”

    Yes. 🙂

  • 94110

    But where would all the bar patrons park?!

    Valencia has the night life to do this on weekday evenings too. If this idea is still too avant garde for San Francisco may I humbly suggest we at least run the parking meters during the evening? If people are going to drive to their favorite watering hole, they should at least pay for the privilege of endangering people’s safety.

    Yes, I’m for this. Yes, I’m throwing in the towel before the fight even starts.

  • gb52

    why just for nightlife?? why not for day life as well?! Not every street needs to be a street dominated by cars.

  • Bruce

    I weep for the drivers who will have to spend 30 extra seconds detouring around the closed blocks. –Bob Gunderson

  • Gezellig

    Bobby G will definitely bemoan the impact this has on his Saturday night clubbing routine.

    How will he get to DNA Lounge?!

  • I went to a St patricks day thing once where a block was closed. Cant remember which block it was.

  • Alicia

    “Nightlife” means people are drinking, and drunk driving is a major form of dangerous driving. In addition, visibility is lower at night, which is another factor in car-related injuries and fatalities. So there are incentives to closing the street at night that are not as significant during the day.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I think Portland, Oregon does it too.

  • murphstahoe

    Safety incentives. Monetarily, I think you make more money during the daytime with an attraction like this

  • Jon-Edmond Abraham

    Of course this’ll work in a few places. I’m for it.

  • calwatch

    Pasadena, CA used to close Colorado Boulevard in Old Town to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. I don’t know why they don’t do that still.

  • I was in Downtown San Diego last Tuesday and they closed off a chunk of street for a Mardi Gras party. I don’t know why more cities don’t do this somewhat regularly. Between ArtWalk and CicLAvia, you would think there would be a larger push for more open streets events in LA.

  • hunterrible

    Several car-oriented cities (Austin, New Orleans, etc.) have nightlife / music-venue corridors that close to car traffic during events and weekend nights. But those streets also see a lot of public drunkenness and petty crime (public urination, people picking fights, etc.), and locals tend to avoid them at all costs aside from bachelor/ette parties. Not sure that’s what SF should encourage in drunk zones like Valencia or Polk. I’d rather see more of the Winter Walk type closures, where a family-oriented street shuts down to hosts temporary food vendors and live music. I’m imagining Mission street or Clement.

  • I would love this.

  • M.

    An as-yet unpublished report done by the MTA demonstrates that people are mostly not driving to night time destinations. Closing Polk St. to vehicles makes imminent sense, especially if you’ve ever witnessed the mayhem that is Santacon or similar. Rerouting the 19 Polk would be very unlikely but it could work to close Polk to other vehicles but allow some crossing through the alleys We (Folks for Polk) is looking into having ride service stands in some alleys to provide added transport without cruising.

  • HuckieCA

    Because every time we try to close off streets at night in SF bar districts, it turns out great! Look at Halloween in the Castro. Or Pink Saturday… Those nights are still going strong each year. No problems at all. Let’s just face it, SF can’t have nice things.

  • mx

    They close a block of Front St. downtown every year (in front of Schroeder’s, Royal Exchange, and Harringtons) for St Patrick’s Day.

  • ranzchic

    Santa Monica Blvd and San Vicente in WeHo in LA would be a great place to start. It’s a dangerous intersection too, a bartender recently got killed because every speed there like it’s a highway even on weekend nights when it is busy.

  • Gary Fisher

    This trend started in Europe15 years ago. It’s a shot in the arm for Business. Most cities and villages shopping streets are closed to Cars and trucks from 10 am till 2 am.

  • rickrise

    The two most thriving streets in Buenos Aires are permanently car-free, and have been so for around a century. And Tokyo, Osaka, and several other cities in Japan have long-established permanent carfree streets. In Osaka they form a pedestrian network. Businesses thrive there. Tokyo’s Ginza is car-free every Sunday. I’ve visited all of these; they are marvelous.

  • Justin

    I would love to see this happen more often here in San Francisco, out of the three streets listed as possible starters, I would say Valencia St would be the easiest to start with. No need to deal with Muni re routing, the width of the street is perfect, the businesses needed are there to support it, and whether people like the corridor or not it is a business corridor that’s changed for the better, it’s a cleaner, safer newer refurbished looking street that has the ability to attract people and the potential for an awesome nightlife for people to have a great time, I hope this city along with the businesses along that corridor gets on board ASAP, and give it a chance because I know it has potential to be great and who knows it can become the norm and spread to other streets with great potential 🙂

  • Justin

    Sorry I meant out of the four streets not three, yikes

  • M.

    Help us get it? Not much to do; a lot of places we talked to are with it we just lack the bandwidth to coordinate them with the City.

  • M.

    Most don’t drive to their entertainment at night. See comment above. But metering fairly is always a good idea.

  • jd_x

    Agreed. Whenever I see SFPD unnecessarily aggressively telling people to get off Valencia street at the end of Sunday Streets, I always think, why are they re-opening it to traffic? Why not just let the event go into the night? It’s the perfect opportunity.

  • jd_x

    If you want to see the real potential of this idea, check out Istiklal Ave
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%B0stiklal_Avenue
    in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, one of the most incredible car-free (actually, car-lite, but the streets are so utterly dominated by people that the cars are essentially negligible) areas in the world:
    http://youtu.be/jWSisd9dP-A?t=13s

    (Ignore the first 10 seconds or so). This kind of scene literally goes on for a mile including all nearby cross streets and lasts until late into the night. This (in fact, most of Istanbul) is one of the most incredible places in the world to experience the full potential of streets when they are given back to people instead of cars.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Unfortunately SMB happens to play an important role in cross-town travel, even at night, so that would be a tougher sell. (Also, it’s way too large to function as an effective pedestrian space, except during events like Halloween and Pride.)

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