Slow Street on Shotwell. Barrier
A barrier on Shotwell Street. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken April 16, 2021.

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.”

Annika Hom

Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused...

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12 Comments

  1. The city must install permanent roadblocks with signs, unlike the vulnerable signs pictured above. A few angry trolls among neighbors move them aside, vandalize them, even run them over here on Page Street. Cheaper sawhorse roadblocks and traffic cones placed by the city suffer a worse fate, often disappearing altogether. (One antisocial guy at Page and Lyon steals them, preventing anyone on his block from enjoying traffic-free space. Numerous complaints to 311 accomplishes nothing.)

    And, yes, cars angry speed by cyclists, families and other pedestrians taking advantage of the open space. SF Rec and Parks installed heavy, orange plastic roadblocks on closed streets in Golden Gate Park—a possible solution for the city.

    1. Chaz, these were never designed to be “traffic free” streets as you claim. That is impossible in any event as vehicular access to the homes has to be retained.

      So “roadblocks” is the wrong word to use here. The signs and obstacles are there to deter thru traffic and not to prevent it. If your expectation was instead for a traffic-free blissed-out pedestrian boulevard then it is no surprise that you are disappointed.

      Also bear in mind that even if thru traffic is diverted elsewhere, that just displaces traffic on adjacent and parallel streets. So for instance 20th Street in the Mission is a “slow street” but that has made 21st Street more busy. So there are winners and losers here and these debates are likely to turn neighbors against each other. That didn’t matter when slow streets were just temporary responses to Covid, but now there are interest groups trying to sneak them in as permanent without a proper local consultation.

        1. That is a theory certainly, but the aim of Slow Streets is not to reduce the total amount of vehicular traffic in SF. It is to create a few quiet blocks in certain locations without significant disruption, as a response to Covid. It is temporary and tactical.

          I doubt that anyone wakes up in the morning and says “I won’t drive to Trader Joes” today because there is a slow street on my route”. People will just adjust their route.

          1. People still go to the grocery store — the question is what mode of transport they choose. Any city that is serious about climate change must focus on steadily shifting people’s mode of transport away from cars and toward transit, walking, and biking. Driving is already a terrible experience, and it will only get worse, so we need to focus on giving people safe and efficient alternatives. Safe slow streets are a good (and frankly quite modest) way to help facilitate that modal shift, in addition to all of the well documented quality of life and public health benefits.

            The purpose and scope of public initiatives like this one will always need to evolve — the fact that slow streets were initially implemented in response to the pandemic is an interesting historical footnote, but not terribly relevant to the question that we should be asking: are permanent Slow Streets aligned with our values as a city, and will they enhance quality of life for most residents?

      1. Thanks to all of you for thoughtful responses to this article. It has been updated with new data presented to me from SFMTA, in which they said that about 10 percent of traffic is diverted to adjacent streets and in their analysis these streets have absorbed them easily and 50 percent of vehicular reduction overall.

  2. I live on Shotwell and while it hasn’t been as overwhelming of a success as certain other Slow Streets like Page (which I ride my bike on often), it’s definitely an improvement: safer on foot and bike both.

    For the permanent project, we’ve been asking SFMTA to make the through-traffic restriction self-enforcing by placing diverters at intersections. Berkeley has diverters on some of its bike boulevards, and they work well. Long term, diverters could also include rain gardens, as you see today at the Tiffany/Duncan/Valencia intersection. That would have the bonus benefit of improving drainage, which would be welcome at 17th or 18th Streets, one of the lowest-lying areas in the city which tends to flood during rainy season.

    1. Hi Scott,
      Thanks for reading and commenting your thoughts, especially as a Shotwell resident. It is important to share our opinions especially as the city obtains more information on community perspectives.

  3. I live nearby on Capp Street, and was excited when Shotwell was designated a Slow Street because there are few places to run in the Mission (besides down a sidewalk dodging people). Agree with Scott it has not been an overwhelming success. Cars often appear undeterred, and I’ve been yelled at by a driver to get out of the street myself while running. The small barricades with sandbags are usually moved or broken. Improvements like diverters would go a long way.

  4. We need to ask the SFMTA what their plans were before their public outreach were, what their plans after public outreach will be and to get them to explain why they rejected suggestions.

    The MTA has a problem with trust because it has played fast and loose with the facts in a way that conveys a barely concealed contempt for the citizenry.

    The current design does not intuitively discourage cars. It seems like MTA staffers lost interest at certain blocks and snapped to life on the next block.

    The glaring lack of equity in signage when compared to Page stands out. Page is set off by admonishing danger/warning signs.

    Shotwell has quizzical little museum exhibit tag looking signlets that one might follow on a walking tour. They can’t communicate “don’t drive here” to motorists because they are so unfamiliar.

    The SFMTA is usually quite anal on street treatments, adhering to guidelines and standards. I wonder where these purple signs fit into that grand scheme of things?

    1. Sounds like a good question for our District Supervisor (Hillary Ronen). I feel like the Mission often get’s a weird, haphazard version of any fixes based on the lack of genuine concern and directive via our neighborhood leadership.

      1. Central Mission Neighbors has been working closely with the Slow Streets team at SFMTA for the SS permanence on Shotwell. In fact, they have let us know that their model for neighborhood engagement is based on their work with us. There has been a weeks-long formal feedback process, surveying, and canvassing with flyers and posters asking for neighbor feedback. If anyone wants to get involved with this project (or others) please reach out! We are working on close engagement between CMN and the city to get the same kind of treatment in the Mission that other, more organized neighborhoods are getting!

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