Slow Streets

Slow Lake Street Debate Divides Neighbors

By Thomas K. Pendergast

A couple holding hands, joggers running down the middle of the road with passing bicyclists, babies rolling along in strollers under clear sunny skies; to any casual observer, Lake Street might appear an idyllic place.

But just beneath the surface of this placid scene a social storm has been raging, pitting neighbor against neighbor and dividing this community into hostile camps.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at a marathon Dec. 6 meeting of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) Board of Directors when Lake Street was officially added to more than a dozen other roads across the City as a permanent “Slow Street” where pedestrians and cars will share the roadway with other means of transportation.

The decision was so controversial that, although they first decided in August of 2021 to make “Slow Lake Street” permanent, the directors subsequently reversed that decision after community feedback exposed just how deeply divided the locals were and the agency’s staff was unable to make a recommendation one way or the other.

“The reason staff doesn’t have a recommendation for you is because of the intense discord, anger and distrust that it has created in my community,” Nick Podell said during public comment. “I can’t think of any commission in San Francisco that would move forward a project that had this level of rancor and discord and anger, vitriol, people are spitting on people, screaming at them, telling them to ‘eff off,’ flipping the bird. It’s chaos.”

Podell’s position was clear.

“You have created mayhem in my neighborhood,” he said.

“You ruined my neighborhood with your decision to make it a slow lane,” Jim Reilly said, holding up his phone while standing next to his son Isaiah.

“This phone is full of screaming matches, arguments between pedestrians and motorists, parents with a stroller fighting with a Fed Ex truck.

“During Outside Lands and all those concerts when nobody took anything into consideration, it was very safe; it was very friendly. It’s a hostile street now. I’m harassed trying to get in and out of my garage constantly,” Reilly said.

“People say ‘get off the street! The street’s closed! I’ve got your license plate number! I’m calling the police!’” he said. “My garage is on Lake Street. I can’t levitate into my garage. It’s a mess.”

Another neighbor, Andrew Schmidt, said the Slow Street program was “dropped on our neighborhood without guidelines for usage and without any plan to enforce the rules. This has created a deep division in my community, as witnessed here today. So here we are. The goal posts have been changed again and moved again.”

The implementation of Slow Lake Street (among others) has caused friction between neighbors who have strong feelings about returning the street to cars against those with equally strong feelings about keeping the roadway with limited access for motor vehicles to create a space for safe recreation. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

“What used to be an otherwise close-knit community has been completely ripped apart, divided and confrontational,” Linda Chan said. “I’ve been cursed at, flipped off, and glared at just for coming and going from my driveway.”

For their part, board members admitted that the inclusion of Lake Street in the program could have been handled better.

“It does pain me to see a lot of my neighbors at odds about this,” Director Steve Heminger said. “I do think that some of the vitriol and the bad feeling that has pervaded this program is because the rules aren’t clear to folks. And folks have sort of taken it on themselves to enforce the rules as they understand them, which may not be what the rules actually are.

“We rely on the police department and other neutral arbiters of authority to enforce laws; it’s not something that residents should be doing,” he said.

Heminger suggested the rules should be posted and have police offers on hand to see that the rules are followed.

“It seems to me we ought to talk to the police department about some kind of enforcement program,” he said. “They’ve got guys on bikes, and this would be a good use to put them to.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about these streets as being closed,” SFMTA Board’s vice chair Amanda Eaken said. “Our vision for the future of the Slow Streets program is clearly not that any street is closed but that these become shared streets that we’re able to use safely by all modes.”

“We have fallen down on the communication of what is a Slow Street; how are you supposed to use it,” Eaken said. “And this sort of informal policing has sprung up with neighbors thinking it’s their job to tell the car that they’re not allowed to drive on the street,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s any of our vision for how we want this to work. So, I do want to reinforce the call for posted rules of the road. Where do we go forward from here to help, especially Lake Street, which seems like it has been so divisive, to allow residents to come back together and feel that they can share this street?”

Director Manny Yekutiel delivered a speech after public comment.

“The root of these feelings centers on freedom,” Yekutiel said. “The thing about driving in a car is that it can give whoever is in the driver’s seat, regardless of proportional wealth or well-being, the ability to go anywhere, windows down, music on. It can be the best feeling in the world.

“So, I get it. I get how ‘road closed’ signs and things that say ‘do not enter’ and requiring you to slow down can feel like an affront, infuriating even. As a driver, I get it.

Yekutiel continued, calling for patience and cooperation.

“The world is changing. And we need to change with it if we’re going to lead.” he said. “The streets are not closed; they just have treatments on them to get folks to slow down. This program is just in its infancy. Once these streets become permanent, the whole City needs to come together to make them successful. We need to do better by each other. The tenor of this conversation, especially online, has been embarrassing. You would think people were talking about the apocalypse.

“Calling people ‘white supremacists,’ saying neighborhoods are being burned down, becoming unlivable, using the ‘stop the steal’ rhetoric to describe what’s happening on the streets, and calling SFMTA staffers ‘lying snakes.’ It’s sad,” Yekutiel said

Board Chair Gwyneth Borden had observations to share.

“There are real problems in this world, in our City, that we’re dealing with and that people have spent thousands of hours on this issue, pitting neighbor against neighbor, is really devastating because all that energy could be really put to force for good,” Borden said.

“I don’t know what’s happened to our society that we’ve become so polarized, so polarized that we want to police other people’s behavior,” Borden said. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me, but it reminds me of when we had masks on the bus and people screaming at people about not having a mask on,” she said. “I think we need to get away from this condemnation. Because if you condemn me, I’m certainly not going to convert to your side.

“Let’s just be clear. Anybody who is mean, threatens and intimidates doesn’t encourage people to change their behavior,” Borden said.

Lake Street between 28th Avenue and Arguello Boulevard was added to the 14 other streets already in the Slow Streets program, which also includes Cabrillo Street between 25th and 45th avenues.

12 replies »

  1. Whatever the intentions were when streets like Lake Street were labeled slow streets, they are only going to be hostile streets now. You can’t change society or behaviors by confusing people and then blame them for the confusion you created.

    The stupid lie is there for all to see. There was never any need to recreate on Lake Street. One of the largest parks in the city, Presideo Park, is one short block off Lake Street. Saying you need a Slow Lake Street is like saying you need a Slow Fulton or Lincoln right next to Golden Gate Park. People are not stupid.

    City Hall can’t fix the problems people care about so they create animosity and division among the citizens to take our mind off their failures. Way to go SF!

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  2. On December 6, 2022, I watched Gwyneth Borden ridicule and laugh at the Lake Street neighbors who opposed the Slow Streets Project. In May, 2022, She also ridiculed the opposition to closing Golden Gate Park to people who travel in cars. Yekutiel votes Yes on every SF Bicycle Coalition project that comes his way.
    When Slow Streets was originally shoved down the public’s throats in 2020 under the pretext of a “covid emergency” measure, MTA and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors assured that the Slow Streets Project would end with the covid emergency declarations which were the rationale for recreationists to claim they needed to walk, ride bicycles, and skateboard in the middle of public streets instead of designated areas and sidewalks.
    Now we are told these measures will be made permanent for no reason.
    Stop Slow Streets now! ALL of them!

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  3. I’m a taxpayer. I pay for roads, and I pay for the employees who have been screwing up our neighborhoods and creating physical and intellectual congestion by taking away my resources, instead of listening to my needs. I’m happy to pay for infrastructure that is used by and for everyone. I’m not happy to continue employing people who think that cars should be impaired. The “slow streets” idea is fundamentally broken – I want roads that are safe because they are efficient, not safe because they are made slow or closed to commerce or usage by certain types of citizens. I vote, and I intend to vote next time for people who are focused on engineering solutions that facilitate safe road usage for everyone, and efficient road usage for people who buy and sell goods commercially that are too small to fit on a bike or muni ride – like most people . . . which is a REQUIREMENT right in the city transportation element which indicates that cars should be accommodated exactly for this purpose (go read it please if this is unclear). For those of you who want to get rid of cars, please just stop ordering from Amazon, riding on Uber, or eating anything unless you are sure it has been walked or biked into the city. If you adjust your diet in this fashion it will quickly address the “problem” that has been trying to justify taking public property from all of the public.

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  4. Other than the photoshopped visual of Lake showing tons of usage, the author basically got it right. Slow Streets divide motorists who need to use them and locals and property owners who want no car traffic on their street.
    To say the SFMTA might have communicated better is the understatement of the year. SFPD is understaffed by 500 officers and to think they’re going to dedicate staff to policing Lake is delusional but it’s how the BOD of the SFMTA actually thinks. The fight is not over.

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  5. If “slow streets” is still a thing next election then I will be looking to get rid of Breed. I mean, she can’t be this dumb . . . can she? Even the fire department has said it is a bad idea due to slower emergency response times. I’m not interested in a race to the bottom with all our roads getting closed or reduced to a snail’s pace – what is wrong with people just sharing sidewalks and paved roads? It was quite straightforward prior to the pandemic. Now the management of the streets is quite literally retarded.

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    • Jan,
      Your side lost last election. You lost by over 20 points. There was no groundswell of support by the silent majority. Face it, the drive anywhere, all the time attitude is done. It’s over. People don’t want it.

      If slow streets is on the ballot again next time, expect to lose by even more. Because by then everyone will be used to having a nicer city and a nicer Lake st. Great Highway Park, and JFK Promenade.

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      • Jan said nothing about Prop I or J, but you (and the SFMTA Board, etc) are inferring that closing park roads and outlying throughways equates to everyone wanting to ALSO meddle with access on important residential streets where traffic will always be a factor. Big leap, not supported by data and experience, but “momentum… in the same ballpark”.

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  6. The ill-advised / no-chance Prop I sunk any hope of peeling Lake St away from the Slow Street debate. Guilty by association. At the end, I am left wondering what the debate would have felt like had the SFMTA foreseen and messaged against pedestrian entitlement and the subsequent ‘nasty neighbor policing’ right out of the gate, instead of 2.5 years later. The new guidelines for pedestrians quote state law, and are now quite blunt in stating that pedestrians “Must Make Room” for and yield the roadway to vehicles that (still) have the right-of-way on Slow Streets. A teachable messaging moment, one would hope.

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  7. The remaining “Slow Street” in the Mission, Shotwell, is purely advisory. Cars blow through unimpeded.

    The problem we’ve got here is an influx of urbanists who realize that they actually hate the grit and unpredictability of the chaotic, contended city, and wish to remodel the City to be wholly within their comfort zones.

    So they react by making these spatial claims and imbuing them with all manner of good versus evil binaries. Spatial claims had been made before and ignored. The only reason why these claims are being honored now is because the economic class of the petitioners has been upgraded and the politicians are taking notice.

    Vision Zero has a policy recommendation to “magnify the dangers” to increase support for V0. My take is that many of these advocates have been spoon fed magnified dangers such that they are high on their own supply. Cycling and walking in SF might be scary at times, but based on bike/ped miles, is not particularly dangerous.

    Urban design is all about trade-offs, there are no silver bullets, the urbanist theme park treatments included.

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