Richmond Review

Safe Streets Program Getting Mixed Reviews

By Thomas K. Pendergast

John Miller and his family strolled along Lake Street late on a Saturday afternoon, joined by the Canapary and Barsotti families. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

A month after the City banned motor vehicle through traffic on Lake Street between Second and 28th avenues, some locals are fine with the measures, while a lack of social-distancing etiquette among pedestrians and bicyclists makes others nervous. 

The Slow Streets Program is designed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to limit through traffic on certain residential streets throughout the City, allowing them to be used mostly as a shared space for foot and bicycle traffic. Residents of Lake Street can access their driveways and on-street parking, while delivery trucks may still drop off and pick up cargo.

The SFMTA said these streets were chosen because they are lower-traffic residential streets that connect neighbors to essential services in the absence of Muni bus service during the COVID-19 pandemic. The identified streets are in neighborhoods especially affected by Muni service reductions. Plus, they have designated bicycle lanes.

“Our Slow Streets staff is often out visiting and assessing the various Slow Streets sites as a field check. There is no change to parking or resident access with these street restrictions,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said. “Due to other public safety staffing commitments, these streets are designed to be self-enforcing.

“At the start of the program, we released a survey and have received over 1,300 Slow Streets suggestions from San Franciscans. We heard broad support of the program from many residents and businesses. The streets that get this treatment are screened for conflicts with Muni service, primary public safety routes, and commercial loading zones.”

In a statement, District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer stated: 

“Slow Streets are one element of the city’s efforts to provide physical distancing as people make essential trips. They create more space for those traveling on foot or by bicycle while still making sure people who live on the streets and emergency vehicles have full access.

“During this time, social distancing is required on all streets and sidewalks, including Slow Streets. In the implementation of this, my office has been in close communication with SFMTA and SFPD and wants to ensure neighbors we are continuing to monitor for social distancing and the use of the Slow Streets Program,” she said. “We heard the request from many for 23rd Avenue (between Lake and Cabrillo streets) to temporarily become part of the Slow Streets network. We recognize this has long been part of the City’s bike network and may be a crucial connector for folks as part of their essential trip across the neighborhood. This is currently being planned and reviewed by SFMTA as we are continuing to evaluate Lake Street.”

Late on a Saturday afternoon John Miller walked with his family and some friends up Lake Street as the sun hovered just above the horizon. 

“I think the Slow Street (Program) on Lake Street is fantastic,” the 30-year San Francisco resident said. “I hope it stays that way for months and months. People are out on the streets anyway. Kids are biking; people have to get out of their house and you need a safe place to go do that, and Lake Street is the perfect place for that, nice and wide with big bike lanes on it. A lot of residents along the way want to get out of their house.

“It’s a sense of community, a sense of ‘we’re all in this together,’” Miller said.

According to the SFMTA, this is not supposed to be a place for block parties, whether social distancing is practiced or not. Instead, the program is intended to provide priority pedestrian and bicycle corridors for essential travel. While outdoor exercise is permitted under the shelter-in-place ordinance, these are not locations for public gatherings.

But after accusations that there was at least one block party, complete with a live band and apparently not much social distancing, some are nervous that the “self-enforcing” aspect of the program is not working very well.

Richmond District resident Jewli Judd said when she first went to Lake Street after the program started, it seemed OK, until it started to get crowded.

Then a child on a bicycle cut her off as she was trying to make a turn and almost made her crash. She yelled at the kid to stay to the left and then someone told her not to come on their street if she didn’t like it, she said. 

“There were some people that were behaving badly, and nobody was wearing a mask. Not one person was wearing a mask because they’re out exercising and they don’t think they have to wear a mask,” Judd said. 

Now she doesn’t go there on the weekends. 

“It is a zoo out there. I think they need somebody to monitor it better. I haven’t been out there since that incident. On a weekday it’s great, nobody’s out there. But on the weekends….”

Michael Kellar used to use Lake Street for jogging, and, like Judd, he was enjoying the street without cars, until it started getting too crowded and a bit too loose with the social distancing regulation.

“It’s much more difficult to social distance than it was before,” Kellar said. “It feels like if I’m going to go on Lake Street, I may not be able to social distance the proper way the entire time. And I did not feel that way when Slow Streets started on Lake.”

The last time he walked along Lake Street was a Friday afternoon when he was going to do some grocery shopping up at Laurel Village, but he decided on the way back that he would avoid it.

“It did not feel like it was a safe environment on the way there … too many people not attempting to social distance,” he said. “The majority of people were trying to social distance but often the sidewalks were fairly blocked because you would see people having a party outside of their garage, but with other people too.

“That, in general, was pushing people more onto the roadway. Then you have this congregation of people in the roadways. People walk at different speeds in different directions. There’s bicyclists; there’s joggers and no organization for it. Lake Street is just sort of a free-for-all. So what you’ll see happen, is maybe a bunch of people on the road and then you’ll get a bicyclist who wants to cut through. Even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to do it by keeping six feet of distance.” 

If the stated purpose is to encourage social distancing, that is not happening, he said.

“It kind of feels like the City is talking out both sides of its mouth on this one.”

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