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Barricades down, bike lane blocked

A Sunset Slow Street at 41st and Irving looking South

Over last weekend, chunks of Slow Streets in the Sunset mysteriously disappeared. 

“Who removed the slow street barriers in District 4, and who directed them to do so?” queried local writer Chris Labarthe. District 4 resident and Bart Director Janice Li tweeted, “I find myself absolutely shocked,” with pictures of “barricades down” and a “bike lane blocked” near Ocean Beach. One Twitter user even noticed swaths of Slow Streets removed from the San Francisco Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) digital map of the traffic-calming measure.

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin—who essentially manages San Francisco’s streets—admitted he had no idea where the Slow Streets had gone. “I did not authorize removal of Slow Streets in the Sunset, and I don’t yet understand why our online map got edited,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

The confusion came amid an announcement by Supervisor Gordon Mar Friday saying that he was supporting “a unanimous request” by San Francisco Unified principals in the Sunset to remove Slow Streets to accommodate increased traffic as classes resumed. SFUSD reopened 22 of its campuses for a portion of its preschool through 3rd graders on April 12.

But by Sunday, following alternative transit advocates coming down hard on Mar and wondering how certain Slow Streets could simply vanish without community input, the barriers that had been removed around 41st and Ortega were replaced. SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato told Here/Say that “there was an internal miscommunication,” SFUSD Public Relations Manager Laura Dudnick said that Sunset principals “never advocated for complete elimination of the City’s [Slow Streets] program,” and Mar shared a statement apologizing for the “great deal of confusion and frustration.” 

While most Sunset Slow Streets are back to “normal”—for now—the weekend debacle raises questions about how San Francisco will balance reopening with pedestrian-first policies implemented during the pandemic. There has been incremental government movement to make Slow Streets a permanent fixture of San Francisco, but some residents fear that Supervisor Mar’s actions last week could put the future of the program in danger citywide. 

I’m concerned that this will be happening in the Richmond District next, that Slow Streets that aren’t even connected to schools will be ripped out because people that want to drive their car down Cabrillo to get to Argonne, for example, don’t want the inconvenience of having to go a block over,” bike advocate and SFUSD parent Jay Bain told Here/Say.

Bain also observed that the city’s predominant curbside drop-off culture” when it comes to shuttling kids to and from school would be a tough hurdle to overcome as students transition back to attending school in person. 

There’s a lot of concern being raised by parents who aren’t really as worried about the Slow Streets as much as they are getting their kids to school,” said Bain, who is sympathetic to parents who feel their only option is to transport their kids by car but hopes that city leadership will take measured steps toward addressing the future of Slow Streets. “I really hope that my Supervisor is thoughtful, and if they make decisions about changing things, that there is some kind of process, and that they recognize the value of what Slow Streets can be.”

Slow Street signage at 41st and Irving in the Sunset | Photo by Rob Aiavao for Here/Say

Sunset resident and local activist Cyn Wang, who lives off one of the Sunset’s Slow Streets, echoed Bain’s worry about not being able to bike with her daughter to her elementary school if her neighborhood’s Slow Streets were removed and the “huge loss” it would mean for the community. 

It’s like a death knell,commented self-described “mobility agitator” and SFUSD parent Stacey Randecker, who hosted a Clubhouse discussion on “Schools As Car-Free Zones” a few days after the incident, and later spoke with Here/Say. If they’re not going to work there, they’re not going to work anywhere.”

Randecker’s Clubhouse discussion also raised concerns about air pollution, traffic congestion and student-pedestrian safety around schools as more parents chauffeur their children to reopening campuses.

But San Francisco Bike Coalition Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier disagrees with assertions that the attempted removal of Slow Streets from the Sunset marks a grim outlook for the future of the city’s Slow Streets. 

“We know our members and folks in the community have demonstrated really strong support for Slow Streets in District 4 and in the Sunset neighborhood,” said Wiedenmeier, despite the community’s reputation as a more suburban, less dense and sprawled out part of the city that relies on cars.I think Slow Streets have a promising future citywide, and that includes the Sunset district.”

Yet, Wiedenmeier does worry that last weekend’s confusing series of events illustrates a bigger, more fundamental misperception of how Slow Streets actually work in local neighborhoods. According to SFMTA’s website, Slow Streets limit through traffic on residential streets with cones, barriers and signage, but they do not prohibit resident access and parking to such streets. SFMTA confirmed with Here/Say that school traffic to pick up or drop off students is allowed on Slow Streets. 

“A way that I like to think about them is just an expanded school zone,” Wiedenmeier said. “They do not prevent parents from dropping off students by car if that’s how they’re getting to school. At the same time, they encourage more families to walk and bike to school.” 

Ultimately, the decision to keep or remove Slow Streets in the future should be transparent and data-driven, said Wiedenmeier.

“There is a really important discussion to be had about what the transportation recovery looks like and how our streets best support the reopening of schools, the reopening of businesses, the return of a lot of in-person activities,” said Wiedenmeier. “Being hyper-reactive and responding quickly without consideration or more thorough outreach and communication is not the way to go about that.”

Local residents like Wang would also appreciate more communication between city officials, community members and local schools before any major changes are made. 

I would welcome further community engagement and conversation,” said Wang. “I’m sure that there are alternative ways we can come up with where families can do safe and accessible drop-off and pick-up while at the same time preserving Slow Streets.”

Alternative transit advocates believe that Slow Streets like this one can make the areas around schools safer | Rob Aiavao for Here/Say

But for Mar, Slow Streets never worked that well in the Sunset to begin with. “We’re at the point where we need to move beyond all these temporary, reactive, emergency measures and really be forward-thinking. As best as I can tell, there is no comprehensive plan for Slow Streets, and what started as an experiment continues to be an experiment,” the Supervisor told Here/Say. 

Ultimately, the Slow Streets snafu reveals a broader question about what San Francisco’s streets will look like in a post-pandemic world. Which changes implemented during lockdown in an unprecedented time in San Francisco’s history will the city choose to keep?

“I think this is a once in a generation opportunity to take a different look at the infrastructure in the shared spaces we have and think differently about how we use them,” said Bain.