By Thomas K. Pendergast
As shelter-in-place restrictions begin to relax this month, one thing that is likely to continue for a while longer is the Safe Streets Program, the practice of closing certain streets to through car traffic.
In the Sunset District, Kirkham Street between Seventh and 18th avenues and 41st Avenue between Lincoln Way and Vicente Street were chosen for the city-wide program. In fact, 41st Avenue was the first street in the City to begin the trial.
The program is designed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to limit through traffic on certain residential streets throughout the City and allow them to be used mostly as a shared space for foot and bicycle traffic, although residents of these streets can access 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 and have designated bicycle lanes.
“Our Slow Streets staff is often out visiting and assessing the various Slow Streets sites as a field check,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said. “There is no change to parking or resident access with these street restrictions. Due to other public safety staffing commitments, these streets are designed to be self-enforcing.”
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar said the trial has shown very good results.
“With the reductions in Muni service hitting the Sunset particularly hard, we worked early and quickly to advocate for new ideas of how we can help people get where they need to go safely during shelter in place,” Mar said. “I’m happy to say the Slow Streets pilot program has been an incredible success so far. I’ve been out on 41st Avenue, our city’s very first slow street, as often as I can with my family, and it’s been so inspiring to see kids on bikes, parents with strollers, folks in wheelchairs and with walkers, and neighbors of every age and background benefiting from a slower, safer street. Residents can still drive to and from their driveways, and parking hasn’t been impacted at all.
“I’m proud District 4 has led the way on safer streets during shelter-in-place, and we’re excited to continue hearing feedback and ideas from our community on how we can best use and improve these spaces going forward, and make adjustments as needed,” Mar said. “Even as some public health restrictions are loosened, it will be a long road forward in restoring and rebuilding our transit service, and we’ll need to continue to explore ways to make the most of our streets – and we want to hear from you on how we can best do that. These streets belong to all of us, and all of us should help decide their future.”
Jeffrey Tumlin, SFMTA director of transportation, gave some background on the events that spurred city officials to implement the program. In order to protect SFMTA personnel, like bus drivers and cleaners, who are among the most vulnerable of city workers for exposure to the COVID-19 virus, the SFMTA reduced bus routes from around 70 down to about 20 lines.
“The neighborhood that was affected the most by those changes was the Sunset District,” Tumlin said. “To compensate for that, we knew that we needed to make some investments in making it safer and more comfortable for people to be able to walk a longer distance to get to Muni or to be able to use a bike in order to make their essential trips.
“So we started our biggest effort on the Slow Streets Program in the Sunset District because it was there that we had taken away the most Muni service. But also where there had been a lot of thinking already done about the desire to create safer streets and to create safer corridors, not only for bike commuting, but also for families to recreate,” he said.
Ernie Abordo lives on Kirkham Street between Ninth and 10th avenues in the house that his father bought in 1957. Sitting with his family in front of his home while celebrating his granddaughter Kiana’s 12th birthday, he gave a positive assessment of the program’s result.
“It doesn’t get overly crowded. It appears everybody is being aware of the social distancing and because they have more room to spread out it makes that easier,” Abordo said.
“As far as the closing of the streets, I was all for it from the very beginning because on Kirkham Street, this is the busiest block because of the Roxie Market, deliveries and then people coming to use parking areas, which is understandable because it’s open to businesses,” he said.
Nevertheless, every morning the trucks line up on Kirkham Street to make deliveries for the Roxie Market.
“I’ll give them a pass because where else are they going to go? But as far as the regular traffic going by, it’s been a blessing for me. I’m in total agreement. At least on this block, I wouldn’t mind if they closed it permanently,” Abordo said. “It’s tough to park here to begin with if you have multiple cars so the parking is already bad. So, this closure of the streets, if anything, it makes it easier because then generally you don’t get people coming on this street to park here who live a few blocks away.”
Abordo said that from what he has seen, in general, people are practicing social distancing and there haven’t been any big block parties as have been reported on other streets under the Slow Streets Program.
Then he nodded toward the small gathering of a half-dozen people who were throwing the party for Kiana, all of them wearing masks.
“Actually this is the biggest party I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s not like a block party where they close off the street and then you’ve got bands going on,” he said with a laugh.