Commentary: Julie Pitta

In Praise of Slow Lake Street

By Julie Pitta

Richmond District resident Martin MacIntyre has been a life-long community activist. In 1970, MacIntyre, a recent arrival to Lake Street, became alarmed by the car traffic speeding by his family’s new home. The street was far too dangerous for the MacIntyre’s 6-year-old daughter to ride her bike to nearby Mountain Lake Park.

Despite the demands of a busy dental practice, MacIntyre rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He rounded up like-minded neighbors who pressured city officials to calm Lake Street traffic. After months of tireless lobbying, they won. The Board of Supervisors agreed to erect stop signs at seven intersections. A year later, on May 23, 1971, Richmond residents crowded onto Lake Street to celebrate the improvements, which included the City’s first bicycle lanes.

Today, a new group of activists is looking to build on the foundation laid by MacIntyre. They are fighting to preserve Slow Lake Street, one of several Slow Streets created by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) in 2020. The Friends of Slow Lake, 2000-members strong, hail from a variety of backgrounds: They are renters and homeowners, young parents and long-time empty nesters, tech workers, lawyers, public school teachers and nurses. What binds them is their commitment to the environment and to safe streets.

Slow Streets were an effort by the SFMTA to create a network of safe spaces for San Franciscans to pedal, walk and roll across the City. They began a trial, one that proved enormously popular. The streets selected were chosen for their proximity to public transportation and their providing a good location for pedestrians and cyclists. Longtime SFMTA planner Andy Thornley calls Slow Streets the “best kind” of city planning in that they are inexpensive to implement and can be easily modified to accommodate changing transportation needs.

Slow Streets are open to all, except cut-through traffic. Cars – and emergency vehicles – are allowed full access. Motorists simply cannot use the street as a shortcut and are asked to drive slower and more considerately. This is a small concession for an enormous benefit. They bring the City closer to achieving the goals set by Vision Zero – its program designed to prevent traffic deaths – and the San Francisco Climate Action Plan, a blueprint for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an ambitious 60% in less than 10 years.

Sensible San Franciscans have embraced Slow Streets including the Richmond’s Slow Lake. A recent SFMTA study found that more than 83% of Lake Street denizens support them while more than half of Richmond residents also approve. During a recent afternoon stroll on Slow Lake, I saw parents and strollers, children on bikes, joggers and dog walkers of all ages, and a middle-aged couple pushing an elderly relative in a wheelchair. On mornings, Slow Lake Street is filled with parents taking their children to school and residents heading to work. The most common use of Slow Lake, according to SFMTA, is “essential travel.” 

Last August, the SFMTA board voted unanimously to make four Slow Streets permanent, including Lake. This was a big win for neighborhood activists. That is, until it wasn’t. 

Since the SFMTA vote, a group of wealthy Lake Street residents has pressured the mayor to kill Slow Lake, offering up specious claims to bolster their arguments for doing so. They claim it has resulted in more neighborhood crime, although study after study finds that increased foot-traffic acts as a deterrent to potential thieves. They maintain that Slow Lake has created intolerable traffic on nearby California Street; SFMTA studies have shown that impact to surrounding streets has been negligible.

What is clear is they find Slow Lake Street to be inconvenient.


After months of work – including public hearings and a survey to assess neighborhood sentiment on potential designs – Slow Lake Street is dead. The mayor caved into demands from some her wealthiest constituents. What has been offered up instead are a few stop signs and a couple of raised crosswalks. Whether the SFMTA board will buck the mayor’s decision remains an open question.

As the opposition to Slow Lake Street proves, weaning people from automobile dependence will be even more difficult than previously imagined. And it’s a stark reminder that some in our City believe a slight personal inconvenience outweighs neighborhood good. Not only are they selfish, they are in denial about the need to promote alternative forms of transportation.

MacIntyre, now 85, went on to wage many more political battles. He led the yearslong campaign to change San Francisco elections from citywide to district contests. We have him to thank, at least in part, for a city government that reflects the diversity of San Francisco. A Slow Lake Street fan, MacIntyre hopes the project will survive.

“There are two ways to get things done: Either by community action or because of an accident,” he said. “The pandemic was an accident. This is a case of something good coming out of something bad.” 

Julie Pitta, a former journalist at The Los Angeles Times and Forbes Magazine, is a neighborhood activist. She can be reached at julie.pitta@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @juliepitta.

2 replies »

  1. Would love to read the “study after study” that found “that increased foot-traffic acts as a deterrent to potential thieves,” referenced in the author’s article.


  2. Despite the next to last Lake Street survey showed that overall less than 75% (the threshold for permanence per public statements by the SFMTA including Tumlin himself) of the neighborhood wanted a permanent slow Lake Street, the last design survey included permanent traffic diverters that would have essentially made slow Lake Street permanent. That last survey showed that 54% opposed permanent concrete traffic diverters. This latter result confirms that a permanent slow Lake Street is not supported by the neighborhood because even if Lake was no longer deemed a “slow” street the diverters would have resulted in a functional slow street and it was rejected. It was not just “wealthy Lake Street residents” who want Lake reopened.


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