For many San Franciscans, the slow streets program was one of the few silver linings to arise from the pandemic. Stretches of asphalt, previously only accessible to cars and serious cyclists, suddenly became populated by walkers and kids on training wheels. Last week, city officials made that program permanent. But just a few days later, they ceded the city’s longest car-free stretch, the Great Highway, back to cars, at least on weekdays.
At a meeting of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors last Tuesday, the board unanimously voted to make four of those streets permanent, with more likely to follow in the near future. The first four streets — out of a total of 31 slow streets created at the beginning of the pandemic — are Sanchez in Noe Valley, Lake in the Richmond, Golden Gate in the Western Addition, and Shotwell in the Mission.
These streets were selected because of the high degree of support they’ve received in surveys, as well as SFMTA’s findings that they wouldn’t increase traffic on parallel streets. All of these slow streets had at least 64 percent support from residents on the street, and at least 82 percent support from the broader community. On Sanchez, community members were so enthusiastic about the slow street that they commissioned a large-scale street mural by Amos Goldbaum on the block between 24th and Elizabeth.
Slow streets use signs and barriers to limit car access to through-traffic only. However, as bike and pedestrian activists frequently point out, these barriers are sometimes limited in their effectiveness. In July, SFMTA removed some of the home-made barriers on the Page Street slow street, citing concern about access to fire hydrants.
In response, the permanent slow streets will include more comprehensive infrastructure to limit car access. Streets perpendicular to Shotwell, for instance, will get new vehicle turn restrictions. Sanchez is slated to get new crosswalks. Infrastructure design for Golden Gate and Lake is still ongoing.
While SFMTA received mostly favorable comments about making these four slow streets permanent, the discussion foreshadows more controversial debates about the future of car-free streets in San Francisco.
Last Thursday, Mayor London Breed abruptly announced that the Great Highway between Lincoln and Sloat will be reopened to cars on weekdays, starting August 16. In their statements, Mayor Breed and Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose district encompasses the Great Highway, emphasized that the reopening of the roadway to cars is the beginning of a larger discussion of its long-term fate. “It’ll take new and robust investments in westside transit and transportation to truly address the traffic impacts, and it’s unreasonable to continue a 24/7 closure without them,” Mar said.
The move drew sharp criticism from bike and pedestrian advocates. “I’m ashamed for our city today,” Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, told the Examiner.
In addition to the continued debate around the long-term future of the Great Highway, the city will also have to decide the fate of its other major car-free thoroughfare, JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, as well as the 27 remaining slow streets. All of these streets will revert back to normal operations 120 days after the public health emergency is lifted, unless the city takes action to make them permanent.