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.”
“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.
Categories: Slow Streets