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SF has the opportunity to become a real ‘Paris of the West’

Illustration | Leo Cooperband

Jane Natoli is a local advocate who sits on the Airport Commission and spends too much time thinking about the future of San Francisco. She resides in the Inner Richmond when she’s not biking all over the city. 

Only 10 years ago, the streets of Paris looked very different. A 2012 video on Twitter shows a scene familiar to anyone regardless of whether you’re familiar with the City of Light or not. Cars crawl along slowly, blocking the box, while pedestrians idly wait, stuck, unable to cross the street. You can practically feel the anxiety and stress—and you can see something similar on just about any busy street in San Francisco today.

About halfway through, the video abruptly shifts to show what the street looked like in 2020. You immediately notice how much quieter it is. People stream by on bikes and scooters as a driver waits patiently to make a turn. What a difference eight years can make! I’ve lived in San Francisco for that same amount of time. While we have made some improvements in that time, it pales in comparison to how Paris has materially changed the way people get around.

Mayor London Breed recently paid an official visit to Paris, one of SF’s sister cities. In addition to reaffirming that status, Breed toured streets just like the one in the video alongside Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and other officials responsible for ushering in such dramatic transformations all over the city, from the Arc de Triomphe to the banks of the Seine. As a transit advocate, I also hope Hidalgo shared some advice about what it has taken to turn Paris into a truly great place to get around by bike. Because it’s not really a problem of technology: It is a challenge of finding the will to stay the course. 

While the mayor’s tour was ultimately about boosting international travel and tourism—full disclosure, I sit on the Airport Commission, so I hope that’s successful!—it is heartening to see the mayor discussing better bike infrastructure with her Parisian counterpart. It’s even more heartening to see photos of her out on the streets of Paris on a bike as well

I hope experiencing that infrastructure firsthand had the impact she wrote about on Medium. People “wanted to hear what was new and different, like all the work we were doing to create more open space in San Francisco,” she said. So let’s give people what they want.

We have been arguing about JFK Drive for two years—this time around, at least. But San Francisco has debated whether or not even a small portion of a park should be car-free for even longer than that. Most Slow Streets seem to involve a protracted fight over, at most, a couple of miles, and they remain largely disconnected from each other, disparately scattered around the city. Valencia Street remains a better spot to double park than to ride a bike. Despite a lot of fanfare celebrating Better Market Street after a decade of advocacy, it has been significantly watered down. At present, the only thing “better” about it is that it remains the better part of a decade away.

Granted, the last couple of years have been unprecedented. But briefly, at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a glimmer of what is possible if we just have the will to reimagine our streets. We see it when we look at every Shared Space, we see it when we look at Slow Sanchez, and we know that it begins when we start to truly reorganize our cities not around where and how we work but where and how we live. So in that case, what is missing?

Unlike delay-plagued transit projects like Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and the Central Subway, bike projects are relatively quick and easily adaptable. That’s why SFMTA has pursued more quick build projects in recent years. Instead of asking if we will be like Paris and remake our streets for people, we need to be asking how we will be like Paris and remake our streets for people. 

I have no illusions that Paris is free of dissenting voices. I’m sure people disagreed with the original plans that Anne Hidalgo put forth almost a decade ago to turn it into such a cycling success story; I’m sure some people disagree with them still. So I hope that’s the one piece of advice she truly imparted to our mayor: how to remain dedicated to a vision despite the naysayers, how to truly transform our city and actually meet our climate goals by changing how we get around. I sincerely hope that is something that Mayor Breed brought back from Paris to the Paris of the West.

Too often, we get caught up in bespoke plans and in our need to find something tailored specifically to San Francisco when it comes to pushing for change here. San Francisco is truly a special and unique city, but we don’t need unique plans. It doesn’t involve any magic new technology or a billion-dollar investment either—just the humble bicycle and some well-placed concrete in a lot of cases.

I’ve seen too many videos of gridlocked traffic and blocked intersections on our streets. I could have taken videos nine years ago that show the same dangerous and overwhelming traffic patterns I still see today in too many places around this city. I look forward to when we put a video from today side by side with one in 2030, and I see streams of bikes and scooters and people walking and just one or two cars. It’s hard to imagine now, I know. But it was hard to imagine in Paris in 2012, too.

Follow Jane on Twitter at @wafoli

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