Pushing to make street closures permanent meets resistance
When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency launched Slow Streets in April 2020, it marketed the program as a necessary but temporary emergency response.
Closing the streets to traffic would make it possible to cycle, walk or ride between destinations, fill in the gaps left by the Muni cuts, and protect the space for socially distant outdoor recreation.
Public support has been rapid.
By October 2020, vehicle use on these roads had halved, pedestrian use increased by 17% and the number of bicycles increased by 65% and 80% on weekends and weekdays, respectively, according to data from the SFMTA.
Initial surveys of over 6,000 people on Page, Lake and Shotwell streets showed that a large majority supported the program as a whole and the possibility of making it permanent in some form or another.
As the end of the pandemic draws closer, however, and the SFMTA moves forward with plans to assess the future of 26 Slow Streets across town, some are sounding the alarm bells.
A number of neighbors, supervisors and principals have expressed concerns about the community’s lack of commitment to the closures, confusion over next steps, and a general feeling that what started out as an admirable effort. to support travel across the city has exceeded its mandate.
“The way I would sum it up is that what started out as an understandable and good response to the pandemic has turned into a monster,” said Jeff, a Sanchez Street resident who asked not to release his last name. “The way it has progressed, however, is that they aren’t problems anymore or they don’t become problems quickly.”
What is a slow street?
A slow street is defined as a low volume residential roadway that is safe and comfortable for walking and cycling for all ages and abilities, according to Shannon Hake, the SFMTA program manager. They are intended to be part of the city-wide transportation network that connects to parks, open spaces or protected cycling facilities, for example.
But what does this really mean?
Janice Li, advocacy director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, has an idea: “At the end of the day, we want to see streets focused on people who have designs that slow down speed and divert or restrict traffic.”
Others say the message is cloudier.
“I don’t think MTA has done a good job of being clear with us or the public about what they consider success on a slow street,” said Edward Wright, an assistant to District 4 supervisor Gordon. Mar.
Advocacy groups say Slow Streets’ resemblance to an urban park is evidence of success. Page and Sanchez streets, for example, have become the site of street murals and sidewalk art and a destination for happy hour walks.
Most enjoy these community building activities, but not all think they belong to a street.
“Let’s build a park. Let’s improve public spaces and go through the right channels, ”said Jeff. .
Celeste, another Sanchez Street resident who asked that her last name not be used, expressed frustration at her 12.5-year-old home in becoming a “tourist destination, not a passageway.”
She said she wanted to work with the SFMTA to find a solution such as a protected bike path.
In fact, she says she has been in contact with the agency, but continues to feel ignored.
Sanchez Street is one of three roads that the SFMTA hopes to initially create permanent slow streets. The other two are Shotwell and Page streets.
Many residents say they have repeatedly reached out to express apprehension, but have felt eclipsed by the momentum of the Slow Street movement within the agency and other community groups with more political know-how.
“The honest answer is they feel like they’re not listening and they don’t care,” Jeff said. “This is the most disheartening part.”
SFMTA says it has carried out extensive outreach along all corridors, including posted notices, high-visibility posters and leaflets. He also plans to resume outdoor table events in the coming weeks and have more in-person meetings.
Others across the city share the feeling that their contribution has not been sufficiently taken into account.
Twitter exploded in April when Slow Street signage all over the Sunset was removed virtually overnight without public notice following a letter from local school principals with support from Mar to completely open the roads to people. vehicles in time for the reopening of classrooms.
The barriers were quickly reinstalled after the protests and the post reiterated that slow streets are open to local traffic, including pick-up and drop-off from schools, but the communications breakdown has exposed tensions between Sunset stakeholders.
“Our review of Slow Streets is primarily a reflection of the lack of process and lack of investment to ensure their success, and our commitment is to ensure that we have a successful network that meets future needs,” said Wright.
He added that the supervisor’s office had secured funds to support community outreach and improved barriers to improve safety, among other things, but there had been little progress.
“As to where and how this program is failing, it’s really hard for us to say because that work hasn’t happened,” he said. “We think it doesn’t work because they’re just not overused.”
According to a March statement citing SFMTA data, 44 average daily cyclists use 41st Avenue Slow Street on weekdays and under 30s use Ortega Street Slow Street daily on weekends and weekdays.
Currently, all slow streets in District Four are listed as “not on track to permanence” on the SFMTA website, pending the results of the ongoing District 4 Mobility Study.
Li acknowledges that public awareness is essential, but retorts that the government that simply tracks the results of awareness raising may miss out on opportunities to innovate or demonstrate the art of the possible.
“As elected leaders or leaders, you are supposed to push the status quo to make our streets safer […], “she said.” I think we start with the goals and make sure people understand why those are the goals rather than starting from separate goals or misunderstanding what the goals are. “
The idea of limiting vehicle traffic in favor of alternative modes of travel on residential streets is not new.
The SFMTA website is littered with project pages designed to achieve this exact goal: neighborhoods, bicycle networks, greenways, now Slow Streets. While some certainly spark fierce public engagement, few have created the same divide as the Slow Streets program.
Both supporters and detractors attribute this fervor largely to the lack of clarity.
Supporters frankly say it was difficult to follow the process and trust the SFMTA for enforcement and security. Cars regularly pass through the barriers of Page Street and others.
Critics say they feel left out of the decision-making process and see themselves as victims of bait and change, which has been sold as part of a temporary program only to see it made permanent.
SFMTA will propose a Conceptual Network of Permanent Slow Streets to the Board of Directors in July. If approved, staff will conduct corridor-specific outreach activities to identify design treatments and safety measures.
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