Streetwise - Out for a Walk

by Frank Dunnigan
February 2016


Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

As a veteran walker in the western neighborhoods (having first pounded the pavement between my parents’ home at 18th Avenue and Vicente Street and the shopping areas of Taraval Street and West Portal Avenue back in the early 1950s with Mom), it’s always interesting to see how things change. Until recently, the City and County of San Francisco did little more than lay down concrete sidewalks and asphalt pavement, perhaps with an occasional playground drinking fountain, rare bus shelter (Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue) or a wooden bench painted forest-green along Sunset Boulevard. Today, however, municipal government has a vast stockpile of new amenities available for the enjoyment of walkers.

Activating Street Space: Merchandise displays, outdoor café and restaurant seating, street fairs and block parties, parklets, and street vendors.

  • Parklets—These amenities began to appear circa 2011 in locations such as 3rd Avenue and Clement Street, 37th Avenue and Balboa Street, and along some of the retail portions of Judah, Noriega, and Taraval Streets. By transforming a small number of curbside parking spaces with minimal construction, many neighborhoods now have additional public seating and container plantings that can be enjoyed by everyone—thus encouraging pedestrians rather than cars in neighborhood shopping areas. These spots are often located adjacent to bakeries, delis, and coffeehouses, thus creating a bit of a neighborhood social center, while still ensuring quick turnover, as there are generally benches, but no tables. Many merchants thoughtfully provide large water bowls for four-legged visitors.
  • Café and Restaurant Seating—Depending on the width of the sidewalk, established food-service businesses may apply for permission to place their own tables and chairs on the sidewalk adjacent to the business for the exclusive use of their customers.
  • Street Vendors—Individual vendors may apply for permission to sell food or other goods from mobile carts on public streets.
  • Street Fairs and Block Parties—Popular since the late 1960s, street fairs continue to enjoy support in many neighborhoods. Individual residents may also join together to request temporary use of a city street for informal gatherings. These temporary street closings (mysteriously called “street openings” in City-speak) can accommodate large regional events or smaller neighborhood block parties.
  • Merchandise Displays—Sidewalk displays of merchandise (often produce or books) can enliven a neighborhood walk. City officials monitor such displays to ensure that they do not overwhelm the available sidewalk space or cause unnecessary congestion.

Water bottle filling station and parcel seating on Clement Street at 3rd Avenue, January 2016. - WNP photo

Greening/Storm water Management: Median plantings, street trees, sidewalk landscaping, parking lane planters, permeable pavement, and others.

  • Medians—The center divides on major streets, officially known as “medians” have changed considerably in recent years, some for the better and some…well, let’s just say that the City and County of San Francisco has had mixed results on this one.

    One area that has been vastly improved in recent times is 19th Avenue from Lincoln Way to Sloat Boulevard. Since the street was widened in 1940, this stretch of California Highway 1 was a long, dismal six-lane stretch of concrete and asphalt. It was vastly improved in 2014 when the median was planted with a variety of small, hardy plantings that seem to be thriving. It’s not exactly a scenic parkway, but those plants provide a softening effect and are a vast improvement over the plain concrete center islands that were once home to various bits of trash and lost hubcaps.

    On the other hand, Sunset Boulevard from Lincoln Way to Sloat Boulevard represents a mixed bag of results. Since the 1930s, this street has long been a grassy, tree-lined parkway, and its entire length was upgraded about 40 years ago with new lawns and automated sprinklers. In fact, when there was a proposal just a few years later, circa 1975-76, to route a new MUNI streetcar line along the Sunset Boulevard median, there was a huge neighborhood outcry of protest, claiming that the plan would destroy the freshly renovated landscaping. By 2010, that old 1970s landscape was looking pretty sad—the lawns dead and weed-infested, with many of the older trees, planted by WPA crews in the 1930s, beginning to topple over with alarming frequency. A new variety of grass, claimed to be both drought-tolerant and low-maintenance was installed to replace the dead grass. In less than a year, though, neighborhood complaints increased as the newly planted grass began looking worse than what it had replaced. The City then ripped it out and began to replant the median with a variety of plantings, some of which look more attractive than others, though weed control still seems to be something of a challenge. Dead and dying trees are being replaced sporadically—a project that might best have commenced in earnest 20 or 30 years ago.

  • Street Trees—The greening of San Francisco began in the 1960s, with small street trees planted by Friends of the Urban Forest, and located along neighborhood shopping areas, such as West Portal Avenue. Unfortunately, some of the choices made in those early days included some varieties that were not particularly well-suited to sidewalk planting areas. Trees with invasive roots were sometimes used, with unfortunate long-term results, and other trees were allowed to grow to second-floor and higher elevations, thus diminishing the architectural effect of bay windows that were intended to bring in more daylight. As some of these trees begin to exceed 30 and 40 years old, there has been renewed discussion about long-term maintenance issues, for although the City was involved in planting great numbers of them in the past, the responsibility for the trees was eventually assigned to individual property owners.

Clement Street Fair, Busvan store, sometime in the late 1970s? - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

Pedestrian Safety/Traffic Calming: Crosswalks, curb ramps, bulb-outs, chicanes, medians/islands, speed humps, and traffic circles.

  • Pedestrian Refuge Islands—Most of Noriega Street is an over-wide thoroughfare that was laid out for the possibility of a never-built streetcar line (public transit on Noriega has always involved MUNI bus service), so this area has long posed a challenge to pedestrians. Crossing from one side to the other, especially in the busy retail areas clustered between 20th Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, has long been especially dangerous. Circa 2011, the City began to address this problem by installing what are known as “pedestrian refuge islands” at many of the intersections, where pedestrians can pause safely at the mid-point of the crosswalk when navigating such a wide thoroughfare. Each of the small islands has been planted with native grasses and other drought-tolerant plantings. Overall, the project along Noriega has been a big improvement—both in visual effect and in traffic safety.

    In order to slow traffic on another nearby street, the City installed another of these small pedestrian refuge islands smack in the middle of the 2400 block of 20th Avenue, just south of Taraval Street back in 2011. Several motorists, not anticipating this new feature, managed to drive over the top of it, and some damaged cars had to be towed off. The City later added yellow lines on the pavement, plus warning signs mounted on steel posts and orange plastic cones on the island to provide further warning to motorists to slow down. At least a couple of drivers managed to plow down the metal signs and keep going. This particular “traffic calming” experiment was eventually removed in 2015.

  • Bulb-Outs—This design (also known as “curb extensions”) continues the sidewalk into the parking lane and the intersection. By doing so, the distance between opposite sides of the street is shortened and pedestrians are able to cross more quickly, while remaining highly visible to oncoming traffic. Depending on a particular street configuration, some bulb-outs also provide space for landscaping, street trees, benches, trash receptacles and other amenities. Generally located near corners, bulb-outs seldom require the loss of any on-street parking spaces.
  • Parking Lane Planters—By removing a single parking space and extending the sidewalk with a 5-foot stretch of landscaped space, there is a visual narrowing of the roadway, which has the much desired effect of slowing down traffic to a speed that is safe for pedestrians in neighborhood shopping areas.
  • Chicanes—A chicane involves multiple mid-block islands or curb extensions that are designed to force vehicle traffic into a weaving pattern, rather than a straight line, thus discouraging motorists from speeding on residential streets. These installations are often difficult to implement, since the City is careful to avoid such installations on streets with MUNI lines, as well as in areas near hospitals that receive regular ambulance traffic. Overall, chicanes are loved by some residents and despised by others. Rather ironically, the word “chicane” comes from the French—chicaner—meaning “to argue” or “to prevent justice.”
  • Speed Humps—No longer called “bumps” since the effect has been slightly diminished to prevent possible damage to vehicles or passengers, speed humps are generally installed by the City in response to neighborhood requests for help in slowing traffic through residential areas. Speed humps are practical only on streets with fewer than 6,000 daily vehicles.
  • Traffic Circles—Likely the most controversial of all street projects. Although San Franciscans, especially in the western neighborhoods, have long understood the concept—think of the St. Francis Wood intersection at Santa Ana Way and St. Francis Boulevard with the massive fountain that was often filled with bubbles from dishwashing liquid. Most people know how to navigate around this, but when similar circles have been installed elsewhere in the city, motorists have demonstrated confusion, anger, and sometimes just plain poor judgement.

Sloat Boulevard at 19th Avenue, Scottish Rite Temple, early 1980s. - Parkside District Improvement Club files

Reclaiming Roadway Space: On-street bicycle parking, living alleys, and pedestrian-only streets/alleys.

  • Living Alleys—These are generally complex projects, that often limit motor vehicles, but do not ban them outright. Maiden Lane off Union Square is a classic example that has been in place for more 50 years, with limited hours for vehicle access, and then conversion for several hours to a pedestrian-only environment. Living alleys often involve various combinations of streetscape elements, such as special sidewalk paving, distinctive street lighting, benches, and café/restaurant seating.
  • On-Street Bicycle Parking—Rather than restricting pedestrian access to limited sidewalk space with the installation of bike racks, an alternate solution has been to convert a single curb-side parking space to bicycles-only parking by bolting a metal bike rack to the street itself, and protecting the space from vehicle damage/intrusion by installing sturdy planter boxes on each end.

Other Streetscape Elements: New items include special sidewalk paving, street lighting, seating, banners, informational kiosks, fixed pedestal news racks, public art, public toilets, transit shelters, trash cans, etc.

  • Street Lighting—City government maintains an extensive catalog of different types of street lighting. The so-called “Path of Gold” three-lamp fixtures on Market Street are unique to their setting, as are the similar, but smaller, two-lamp fixtures on downtown commercial streets in the Union Square area. Many individual neighborhoods are now working with the City to replace the harsh mercury vapor streetlights that were widely used in the 1960s with smaller fixtures, more suited to providing greater sidewalk illumination for pedestrians.
  • Banners—Banners lend a festive air to commercial strips as well as to major thoroughfares like Nineteenth Avenue. Often used to advertise events (deYoung Museum exhibitions, Fleet Week, etc.), they are also available to public and private organizations to advertise their own events (Lowell High School’s 50 years at its Lake Merced campus in 2013, the 150th anniversary of St. Ignatius in 2005). Sponsors pay the City a fee for a one-month-long display of such banners.
  • Water Bottle Refill Stations—One of the newest sidewalk amenities, water bottle refill stations, provide a tremendous convenience, but without the sanitary concerns or maintenance costs of drinking fountains. The program, begun in 2010, now has more than 36 locations on the streets of San Francisco, plus additional spots on the grounds of many public schools.
  • Public Toilets—As any walker will attest, this is an essential city service.

While there is always some disagreement about certain aspects of city life, it is generally accepted that most of our neighborhoods have become far more pedestrian-friendly in recent times with these newer items.


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