Lake Street at the Center of the West Side’s Slow Street Debate

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Before the pandemic, Lake Street was a relatively quiet and perhaps even tony street on the north side of the Richmond District, nestled up against Mountain Lake and the Presidio.

So, when the City chose this street to join the network of Slow Streets, in which pedestrians and bicyclists share the roadway with motor vehicles driven predominantly by locals from the area, it made sense to a lot of people. 

Now that the threat of the pandemic seems to be fading, and as children go back to school and adults starting commuting to work again, this street has become an unlikely hotbed of noise and neighbor-to-neighbor vitriol because a movement to end the program has crashed into an equally passionate movement to make it permanent. 

Both sides are circulating petitions and lobbying City officials. 

A few months ago, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) surveyed the residents of that area to find out where people stood on the issue by offering four alternatives. The agency has yet to make a final decision or release the results of the survey, although it is expected to do so sometime this coming month or so. 

Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

The first Slow Street configuration allows for two-way motor vehicle traffic in a center lane and also has two “edge lanes” for passing other cars. The center lane is dedicated to motor vehicles traveling in both directions. Other users like pedestrians and bicyclists have the right-of-way in the edge lands but motorists can use them as passing lanes. Pedestrians and bicyclists cannot use the center lane. Delivery vehicles can also use the edge lanes. 

The second option keeps the Slow Street designation and removes all lane-striping entirely, which, according to the SFMTA “creates ambiguity that forces drivers to drive more carefully.”

The third configuration maintains the existing Slow Street configuration with certain design features added, like speed humps, median delineators, left-turn restrictions, partial diverters, pavement markings and way-finding signs.

The fourth option ends the Slow Street program and reverts Lake Street to its pre-pandemic status. 

“The pandemic is definitely not over…. Assuming the pandemic was over, I don’t think the need for this has gone away,” Ruth Malone said.  

The Sea Cliff resident said she started riding an electric bicycle before the pandemic, but then Lake became a Slow Street and gave her a place to ride without as much fear. 

“Having the Slow Streets has been amazing for me in terms of being able to ride without being anxious about being run over by a car…. All the little kids that are learning to ride and feeling safer riding on these Slow Streets, it’s made a huge difference. I think it’s time, in a city with this many streets, that you have some network of safer streets for people to use.” 

Mitchell Merrick, on the other hand, lives in the Inner Richmond and wants to end the program on Lake because he thinks it is less safe now.

“I’ve seen too many people mistakenly not realize that it is a Slow Street,” Merrick said. “Tons of people don’t know it’s a Slow Street, especially people that aren’t familiar with Slow Streets or aren’t familiar with the area and then they come barreling down on all the people.”

But Susan Yu in the Central Richmond has the opposite view. She said she wants to make the change permanent because this makes it safer for families and help keep them from leaving San Francisco.

“Change is hard and changing behavior is hard. I think it was a really good experiment during the pandemic and … so many people just love it and I just don’t understand the opposition,” Yu said. “Because it was such a long experiment it actually shifted the behavior of some people that realized ‘Hey, I don’t really need to be running all my errands or doing all my trips in a car; for short distances I could ride my bike or walk over there.’ So, I think there’s been a shift in the way we think and sometimes it takes an event like a pandemic for us to really think about it. Is it the right thing to prioritize cars all the time? Can we at least have a space for safe travel of other modes throughout the city?”

But Robert Clark of the Outer Richmond couldn’t disagree more. 

“Lake Street was never a high pedestrian accident place. I don’t share the wisdom that it’s making people safer. What it’s doing instead is taking that (traffic) to someone else’s neighborhood and then making them less safe,” Clark said. “This pandemic decision has been usurped by people who really want to see change, but they haven’t been able to foment that change gradually. It feels like they’re just usurping this for their own interests without considering the larger population.”

Joseph Tartakovsky does see an opportunity for change with keeping the street as a Slow Street. 

“I know this was a creation of the pandemic but sometimes crises like that usher in new modes of civic planning,” he said. “It’s like the earthquake in 1989 led to the end of the freeway at the Embarcadero. 

“The pandemic gave us a chance to try it out as an experiment. But I think it’s proven to be a wonderful success.”

Marcel Deste, on the other hand, doesn’t support the idea at all. 

“It wasn’t voted on by the people to close Lake Street. Lake Street is not different than any other street in the City, except maybe who donates to campaigns and lives on Lake Street,” Destre said. “All the other streets, there’s absolutely no reason to keep them closed either. It’s the policy of closing streets that needs to be eliminated. This was done in the case of an emergency and not after careful study.” 

Luke Bornheimer, on the other hand, has done his own study by observation. 

“The reason to keep them going is because during the pandemic people have discovered these spaces and have started utilizing this public space in a far more effective and useful way,” Bornheimer said. “And they’ve become community spaces where people are connecting with neighbors. It kind of evolved out of that original purpose.” 

But Teri Green of the Central Richmond sees this as an equality issue. 

“I don’t think it’s fair. There are plenty of streets in San Francisco … Lake Street is right by Mountain Lake Park and the Presidio, so it’s not like they’re in the dead center of an urban area and have no park life around them. They’re right at the park. It just seems like a haphazard way to pick a Slow Street that one neighborhood gets it and another one doesn’t.

“Lake Street is one of the quieter streets in the City just because of its location. To me, it’s really more about equality. I think that it pits the neighbors against each other and creates more division,” Green said. “I don’t think we need that.”

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