Shotwell Street is cruising toward life in the slow lane.
The city rolled out the “Slow Streets Program” in April, 2020, as the city settled into shelter-in-place and health officials urged social distancing. In order to open up more space for pedestrians and bicyclists to keep apart from one another, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency installed barriers of various materials, sizes and colors at certain intersections to prevent cars from speeding and passing through as easily.
But as city residents become vaccinated and life returns to something approximating normal, only three of the 26 officially implemented Slow Streets — Page Street, Sanchez Street and Shotwell — are greenlit to move forward as a potential permanent Slow Street.
The SFMTA describes Slow Streets as not fully closed streets, but a “shared roadway” that tries to promote and prioritize bicyclists and pedestrians by strategically placing traffic diverters and “warning” cars to reduce their speeds and to be aware of others.
At present, nearly all of Shotwell is “slow,” starting from near 14th Street by the Foods Co. to Cesar Chavez Street, approximately 1.5 miles away. Has it made Shotwell, an already somewhat sleepy avenue, safer?
Hilda Cervantes, who lives on Shotwell by 14th Street with her husband and two kids, said she doesn’t think the Slow Street had much effect. “There’s not a lot of traffic here,” she said of Shotwell in Spanish. “It’s a quiet street.”
Drivers’ speeds, which already ranged between 18 to 24 mph, didn’t change, according to a SFMTA survey released in October, 2020, that queried both residents and visitors on the corridors of Shotwell Street, Lake Street from Seacliff to the Presidio, and Page Street from Gough to Stanyan.
Only 32 percent of 162 Shotwell visitors and 56 percent of 114 residents felt “very safe” or “safer” after the program. In comparison, 67 percent of 319 residents on Lake and 80 percent of 338 residents on Page “strongly agreed” that, regarding traffic, Slow Streets were safer than they were pre-pandemic.
When it came to feeling just “somewhat safe” when using the Slow Street, about 52 percent of the Shotwell survey respondents concurred. Most reservations were due to “vehicles disobeying non-local access.”
Perhaps this, and a Slow Street’s success, depends on who’s breaking barriers. David Hall, the co-owner of the bar Shotwell’s Beer Saloon on 3349 20th St. and Shotwell, said that on his intersection, the barriers do little to deter drivers from coming through. It’s easy to guess why: the signage is a skinny, singular pole a few feet high, and a larger, graffitied purple “Slow Street” sign is located not in the roadway but in front of parallel parking spots. Hall said he’s seen numerous cars just vroom on by, even though kids and cyclists are using the street and should be prioritized.
“It’s been good, it’s just the intersection is still super busy and it’s somewhat dangerous,” Hall said.
Matthew Bajda, who works on Shotwell by 14th Street, agrees. “It can be confusing. You see the sign, and then you see just one person blatantly disregard it, and then I’ve watched people follow. It just takes one bad apple.”
Up and down Shotwell, there are a variety of barriers meant to slow cars down. There are wider ones that take up half the street, like those on 15th Street, or white and orange signage held down by sandbags. But on 17th Street, that gives way to mini-barriers made of flexible material that can survive a love-tap. And on 20th Street, all one finds are emaciated, singular poles. Some intersections, like Shotwell and 16th streets, have no signs at all.
At first, the flimsy orange-and-white folded barricades posted by Robin’s Cafe on Shotwell and 17th did little, said owner Enrique Espinoza. People would remove them from the designated corners and put them in the middle of the street, which derailed drivers and their attention from denizens frequenting the roadway.
“Cars almost hit pedestrians; it would almost cause accidents,” Espinoza said. “I tried explaining to [those who moved it and kept returning them to the original corners], but I got tired of it.”
Around December 2020, the SFMTA put smaller barriers on the corners that are weighed down and harder to move, and Espinoza is happy, claiming these work much better.
A statement from SFTMA said that in its analysis all barriers are effective at reducing traffic. However, the SFMTA Slow Streets FAQ page seems to acknowledge the problem, and states it’s attempting to acquire more barriers and is “also looking into new types of barriers that will stand up to the wear and tear that can occur on outdoor signage.”
Hall joined a community meeting this past week, where about 20 community members participated, he recalled. The SFMTA representatives made a commitment to figuring out how to better advertise the slow street and enforce the restricted traffic. “I have complete confidence in SFMTA to do their jobs,” he said.
Slow Streets also decreased “vehicle volumes” by 50 percent, the October analysis found.
And most locals seem in favor. Out of the 114 Shotwell residents surveyed about their street in October, 94 percent said they supported permanence. In comparison, 96 percent of 338 surveyed Page Street visitors supported a permanent Slow Street, and 67 percent of 319 respondents supported Lake Street. For visitor surveys, 1,285 people were questioned for Lake, 672 for Page and 162 for Shotwell.
SFMTA said the stark differences in sample sizes, a spokesperson said “we mailed them to everyone on the slow street and hung the same amount of flyers with QR codes, but some neighborhoods have higher participation rates than others.”
Kefee Lindenberg, who lives on Shotwell near 24th, said, “a lot of people zip down here, and I believe those big signs slow them down. Others, like Sanchez, seem to be successful, so I welcome it.”
Espinoza said he believes biking and walking increased during nice weather. He said he didn’t ride on Shotwell until it became a Slow Street, but now he brings his family often. SFMTA data showed biking increased by 65 percent on weekdays and 80 percent on weekends.
There’s been little positive or negative impact on businesses, Shotwell entrepreneurs said. Juan Gallardo of Gallardo’s said in Spanish that Slow Streets are “a great idea for the neighborhoods” and so far hasn’t greatly affected parking for his restaurant. And, coupled with the seemingly unrelated removal of sex workers that have long aggravated some Shotwell neighbors like him, Gallardo said Slow Streets are welcome addition to what he considers a family-oriented community.
A SFMTA spokesperson added later that traffic volumes on adjacent streets, where traffic may be diverted, experienced only “a small increase” of about 10 percent: “Our analysis of all implemented Slow Streets so far has shown that any increase on parallel corridors is easily absorbed by the network of routes available to through traffic.” The statement added that SFMTA are trying to introduce new signage to alert drivers of Slow Streets instead of those easily confused with traffic diverters.
And, the department spokesperson said SFMTA worked with Google and Apple Maps to “automatically reroute” users who may otherwise cross a Slow Street. “This means that people using navigation services while driving, and those that rely on navigation services like Uber/Lyft, will often not even encounter a Slow Street if their final destination is not located on the Slow Street.”
Still, if all goes well, Shotwell’s permanency won’t be reached until Fall 2021, according to the SFMTA. After wrapping up community feedback from virtual “Open Houses” this past week, SFMTA will refine designs and then eventually send it to the SFMTA board for final approval, a spokesperson emailed Mission Local.
Hall at Shotwell’s hopes it stays, as he loves Slow Streets and believes it has been a positive addition to the block: “Slowing down allows people to be more aware of your street.”