The intersection of 16th Street and South Van Ness Avenue has stories to tell. Just call the number on one of the signs affixed to the utility poles there and listen.
One of the voices you will hear belongs to Julie Mitchell, whose son Dylan was killed at the intersection while riding his bike. Another is that of Paula Tejeda, who runs her Chilean empanada and coffee shop Chile Lindo just up the block. Then there’s Elizabeth Bardi, a resident at the SRO hotel on the corner, and Coral Fagan, who works at a nonprofit around the corner.
The listening posts are part of a project by a design firm called Gehl and a research group supported by Ford called Greenfield Labs, which have started a project called the National Street Service, though its work so far has been focused on San Francisco. The project is part of the group’s efforts to gather somewhat ephemeral information about how road users other than drivers interact with the streets.
Other approaches the National Street Service is taking include setting up temporary, manned feedback stations on San Francisco streets, and a signage campaign that calculates the cost of car use – by working out, for example, how much a parking spot costs the city to maintain every year, and how much a bike rack benefits nearby businesses. One of the signs remains in place in Bernal Heights.
In part, the project will “help reveal these different perspectives…to understand that we don’t all have the same power and privilege on the street,” said Beaudry Kock, who works with Greenfield Labs.
Greenfield, Gehl, and Ford are also trying to figure out how to improve street infrastructure. Ford has been sponsoring the Bay Area Bike Share program, but Kock said the group found that people are less likely to use bike sharing programs, or ride bikes in general, if the infrastructure doesn’t make them feel safe. To learn how people experience the street, the group hired some audio journalists and set out to gather site-specific stories about people’s experiences with the intersection.
“It’s important that we have a street/design a street that …will protect those with the most vulnerability,” said Kock. He described the most vulnerable as people not driving cars – “people not encased in two tons of metal and moving quickly.”
The stories you’ll hear don’t all deal directly with infrastructure. But they invite a passerby rushing from one block to the next to take a moment to hear how others experience the street.
“I think that we have a sort of limited imagination around what our streets are for,” said Anna Muessig, who works with the urban design firm Gehl. “They just are the way they are, they look the way they look, they serve us to a certain extent until they don’t. The purpose of this listening post project and the other projects that are part of the National Street Service was to…expand people’s imagination around what the street is for.”
At the beginning and end of each story, the listener is invited to leave a voicemail at the number with their own one-minute story from the corner. Muessig and Kock said they’ve already received a good number of stories from the various listening posts around the Bay Area.
“Every single intersection in the city has so many stories and people are dying to tell them,” she said. “It’s been really wonderful to hear the stories people want to share in return.”
People were eager to talk, she said.
“If you just sit and stay a while, any small invitation to step out of the flow of the city provides a totally new perspective on how the city works,” Muessig said. “That’s a really rough corner. There’s a lot of pessimism, particularly about that corner, about what it can be. And it was really wonderful to see some beautiful things happen right there on that corner.”
The Listening Posts at 16th and South Van Ness will remain in place until the Ride of Silence, a bike ride memorializing those who have been killed while cycling, on May 17.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Beaudry Kock’s last name.