Shotwell Street was quiet at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday evening. A young girl rode a bike with training wheels in the middle of the street near the 20th Street intersection. A man jogged behind a boy rolling down Shotwell on a skateboard. Others carried their groceries or rode their bikes on the nearly car-free street.
Shotwell is one of the 30-plus corridors in the Slow Streets Program, which the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) launched in early April to limit through traffic on residential streets to give people space to walk or ride bikes.
The urgency of the pandemic created Slow Streets, and the new outdoor room for pedestrians and bikes has exceeded expectations, both in terms of growth and popularity. The SFMTA is currently preparing to launch Phase 4 of the program in November with the goal of adding Slow Streets to neighborhoods that do not have them yet.
Jeffrey Tumlin, Director of Transportation at the SFMTA, told Mission Local earlier this month that he imagines a grand scheme for Slow Streets in the near future. “We are starting to try to knit together corridors where normal San Franciscans can feel safe traveling across town in a wheelchair, scooter, or bike … that will be when the Slow Streets Program really matures.”
What will happen once the pandemic is over, however, is unclear.
Initially, the SFMTA imagined Slow Streets as a one-phase project. Instead, it has progressed through several additional phases, each adding new streets with the ultimate goal of tying the Slow Streets together into a network.
An early evaluation of three Slow Streets — Shotwell Street, Lake Street, and Page Street — showed enthusiasm. Ninety-two percent of visitors rated their Slow Streets experience as positive, and 83 percent of the streets’ residents who responded said that they support the program.
From April to September, the SFMTA also used a citywide online questionnaire as a means of outreach and getting feedback. The SFMTA learned from the questionnaire that 78 percent of the 6,208 respondents supported the Slow Streets Program. While the agency distributed the questionnaire via a number of channels — emailing it to existing contacts, bringing it up at community meetings, and promoting it in areas neighborhoods like Bayview — it nonetheless found that those who responded failed to represent the whole city.
Phase 4 of the program will focus on expanding Slow Streets to neighborhoods that the SFMTA failed to sufficiently reach through the survey: the Western Addition, Inner Sunset, Oceanview, Visitacion Valley, Bayview, SOMA, and Outer Mission. Thus far, Slow Streets are largely absent in these neighborhoods, many of which are lower-income communities of color.
“We really are going to be working with residents on the ground over November and December,” said Shannon Hake, the Slow Streets Program manager at the SFMTA. “We want to figure out whether implementing Slow Streets in those neighborhoods could meet the goals of neighbors and stakeholders.”
The SFMTA is still ironing out the particulars of how outreach will work in Phase 4, but Hake reports that the agency’s main goal is “to meet residents where they are.” Hake said this could entail speaking to residents at grocery stores or takeout restaurants and attending community meetings of different neighborhood associations. After concluding outreach, the SFMTA will present recommendations for new corridors to its board in January.
In expanding to these neighborhoods, Phase 4 will also bring us closer to a citywide network of Slow Streets which will make it possible to cross large swaths of the city on the low-traffic corridors.
Tumlin’s vision of such corridors prompts the question: What will happen to this emergency-driven program once we’re past the emergency?
Even though 80 percent of residents from the SFMTA’s recent survey said they would be interested in their street becoming a Slow Street permanently, the support may not be enough to carry the program forward.
“We’ve been happy to see that many people support this program. That being said, it’s an emergency program that we will only have authorization to continue until 120 days after the emergency is lifted,” Hake said. “I think that there are definitely elements of the program that could continue, but we’re figuring out what permanence could look like.”
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