a bollard lies flat on the ground
Capp Street bollard, collapsed on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

Since they were installed on four intersections of Capp Street in May, the steel bollards intended to deter sex work on this street have been struggling to stay erect

Now, four months later, residents and police say that the fallen and vandalized bollards have, despite their unsightliness, been effective in their primary goal of clearing out the sex workers and clients who flooded Capp Street for years. They have been less effective, however, in the more traditional bollard role of preventing motor-vehicle traffic. 

Bollards on Capp Street
Damaged bollards at 22nd and Capp streets on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.
Damaged bollards propped up by construction signs, orange cones, or planters
Damaged bollards at 22nd and Capp streets are propped up by construction signs, held in place with orange cones, or reinforced with planters. Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

Santiago Lerma, a legislative aide for District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, said that in his conversations with Mission Station Captain Thomas Harvey, it is clear “the bollards have helped incredibly to reduce the scale of the problem as it existed on Capp Street when it was unchecked.”

The San Francisco Police Department, for its part, said it has been using traffic stops as part of its enforcement on Capp Street “to mitigate sex trafficking in San Francisco.” 

Two flattened bollards
At 20th and Capp streets, two bollards lie flat, allowing cars to drive through.

“Definitely feels like the neighborhood is safer and quiet, so overall it’s been good,” agreed one Capp Street resident who wished to remain anonymous. Nowadays, he said, sex work on Capp Street has been drastically reduced from what it was a few months ago. 

But, the resident continued, the bollards are of such poor quality that drivers of larger vehicles “just barge through and break them,” while other impatient drivers drive onto the sidewalk to get around them. When the bollards are laid flat, the resident noticed that cars drive over them at high speeds, making the intersections more risky for pedestrians — especially pedestrians now accustomed to a quiet street largely free of through traffic. 

The bollards were intended as “a temporary fix,” Lerma said, to “bring the temperature down” on Capp Street. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency used cheaper, less durable materials when the bollards were initially rolled out

“I thought those bollards were going to be inadequate, just because of their size and construction and design,” said Lerma, referring to the current steel bollards. 

Now, Lerma said the supervisor’s office and MTA are discussing the “possibility of making them permanent,” which would require a motion and approval from the transit board, and funding for the project. 

steel bollard that has been snapped off
A Capp Street bollard that has been fully snapped off on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.
mini van driving through capp street bollards
A driver blows through a gap in the bollards on Capp Street on July 15, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.
construction sign lying next to yellow steel bollard
A Capp Street bollard next to a construction sign on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.
A plastic water barrier also reinforces the broken bollards at 22nd and Capp streets. It is covered with graffiti, and filled with trash on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.
At first glance, the bollards at 21st and Capp streets appear to be intact, accompanied by some gravel and haphazard signs. A few bollards have their pins destroyed, but they remain propped up in place on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

“The SFMTA is exploring alternative devices in lieu of the bollards, which have proven to require frequent maintenance,” said MTA spokesperson Stephen Chun in an email.

The initial purchase cost of the bollards was over $34,000, Chun confirmed.

Mission Local contacted the Department of Public Works for more information on the cost of maintaining the bollards. This story will be updated if the agency responds. 

The south end of the 18th and Capp streets intersection is blocked with bollards, as are the north intersections of 20th and Capp streets, 21st and Capp streets, and 22nd and Capp streets. Residents have reported a spread of sex work to nearby numbered streets or South Van Ness Avenue and Shotwell Street. Regarding that shift, Lerma said the city’s hands are tied. 

“We can’t close every street in San Francisco, you know,” Lerma said, noting that Ronen’s office will support the police in their ongoing enforcement efforts in the area. “From the board perspective … [there] isn’t too much more that we can do.”

Balompié Cafe #1 at 18th and Capp streets got rid of its parklet, but spread its planters and trash bins into the street on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.
The 18th and Capp streets bollards appear to be the most intact, as compared to their southerly neighbors. But don’t be fooled — two of these are also propped upright and fall when touched, on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo of Eleni Balakrishnan

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REPORTER. Eleni reports on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim more than 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. It’s remarkable what SFMTA will do for certain people on certain streets in certain neighborhoods. Other people, other streets, other neighborhoods: not so much.

    Initially Capp Street was closed off with multi-ton concrete K-rails. Then collapsible bollards (~$35k worth). And now people have been adding planters/dirt-filled barrels to block traffic. And SFMTA is 100% supportive of all of it.

    But for three years SFMTA (and the somewhat silent partners they shill for, SFFD) have insisted that it is infeasible, impractical and outright dangerous to install a gate on an alley adjacent to Tenderloin Community School so 3 to 11 year old children can have a bit of much-needed outdoor space that isn’t filled with syringes, fentanyl foil, garbage, rotting food and human waste and is almost entirely neglected by well-paid city staff (here’s looking at you, Public Works). In 2020, a public health state of emergency declaration was insufficient for them to imagine that maybe they could think more genuinely rather than spewing nonsense.

    A second, neighborhood-specific state of emergency has still been insufficient to convince SFMTA that they are wrong. Their ever-growing list of pretend reasons it cannot be done miraculously don’t apply on hundreds of other streets in San Francisco: gated streets to make a luxury shopping area (Maiden Lane) or private property (Meacham Street of Post near Hyde), planters (Capp Street among others), narrow roadways with parking and two-way traffic, dead end streets, a street entirely converted to an outdoor food court (Belden Place) or a bar seating area with sandwich board sign and illegal car parking (The Irish Bank on Mark Street off Bush between Kearny and Grant).

    Yet SFMTA will continue to say they are committed to “equity” even as they’ve insisted for more than three years that there is no feasible way to turn one insignificant alley into a healthy, safe and fun kid-focused play and recreation area in a neighborhood where each resident has 2.75 square feet of park and playground space (that’s just slightly larger than the seat of my desk chair).

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  2. 21st and Shotwell is a COMPLETE disaster since those barriers went up (they do seem to have worked… for Capp St) and I’m so encouraged to hear that Hilary Rosen’s office has just decided to throw Shotwell under the bus like that. Three or four nights a week, it is on, and we get half naked hookers standing around, slow vehicle traffic up and down the block, pimps and lookouts on scooters patrolling back and forth, gangsters parking and drinking and pissing on the street… it truly truly sucks and we are PISSED.

    wtf does Hilary Rosen even do? who tf is this smarmy Santiago that thinks he can just wave off the constituents? what are the locals supposed to do, just handle it ourselves?

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  3. The National Park Service bollards are just vertical steel pipes dropping into larger pipes in the ground, removable by unlocking the padlocks. They do require boring a hole in the ground. The fire department manages to deal with those quite easily. They don’t cost very much.

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  4. Its so strange how Rosen just wants to throw up barriers all over the place as some sort of magic solution. Street vending? homelessness? prostitution? Just throw up a fence I guess. The 24th/mission plaza is just entirely full of metal barriers now, and the street vendors are pushed to more obtrusive spots. Likewise, sex workers are still very much so in the Capp/Shotwell area, like they have been for decades, but again, just one block away from where they used to be.

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  5. Why don’t they just turn the street into a slow street. Those seem to work fairly well and are a lot less unsightly than the things they are doing with the bollards.

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  6. Big fan of the change to block Capp streets – has made the street/neighborhood so much nicer. These are tough and entrenched problems the city is tackling; makes sense to make a small investment at first to experiment and hopefully move to a longer term solution

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    1. If you walk around the neighborhood at all you will know that it is exactly the same as it always was, except for capp street itself. Maybe your block feels nicer to you and that’s great, but at the same time, you didn’t have to move onto a block where this activity has been going on for decades. In lieu of legalized and regulated prostitution, sex workers are still going to work, and just like there’s agglomerations of different kinds of specialized business in different areas, this just happens to be the prostitution area.

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