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Perspective: SF Has the Opportunity to Become a Real ‘Paris of the West’
Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Perspective: SF Has the Opportunity to Become a Real ‘Paris of the West’

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. 

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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

  • Have any of the “decision makers” ventured out to JFK Drive during the week? If they did, they would find very little pedestrian traffic to support the pending “permanent” Monday through Friday closure.

    And why haven’t “they” taken the time? Probably because they may be busy at work or school or other activities. Or maybe it’s difficult to check usage because they cannot access the roadway by car and are unwilling to walk to JFK Drive. That is the primary – and unacknowledged – problem with pending closure: there’s a lack of demand when it comes to the actual number of users. So why are we negatively impacting our local institutions (DeYoung opposes the closure) and the public who need access via the automobile during part of the week?

    Take some time to visit JFK Drive during the week. You will find the closed roadway primarily benefits cyclists and some runners. Most pedestrians use the green-lined sidewalks because they feel safer and are not utilizing the roadway. Check out the Band Concourse; that is the primary area locals and visitors congregate, accessing the DeYoung and Academy of Sciences, enjoying the Ferris wheel, fountains, plentiful benches and quiet, welcoming ambiance. There is food and drink and art shows there too – on the weekends.

    So, “decision makers”, let’s be honest. This “taking” of a roadway is not warranted by its current usage; it’s really a “taking” by SFMTA, SF Bike Coalition and unreasonable local politicos to benefit cyclists and limit motor vehicles from the park. It’s not because of the demand based on public usage. Go see for yourself – during the week.

  • When Mayor Feinstein reminded everyone that Van Ness was the Champs Elysee of the West I was perplexed by her comparison. I admire the beauty of central Paris as much as I admire the beauty of San Francisco’s topography, but the cities are completely different. Our city’s topography, unlike that of central Paris, makes bicycling an endurance sport instead of an efficient option for getting around. Most of us will need a bus to help carry our bikes over a hill. Yet, urged by climate change, I agree with Commissioner Natoli that we need to implement the network of complete streets proposed by Livable City over 15 years ago along with living boulevards that connect our open spaces to aid species diversity. Similar to San Francisco, closing streets to cars was controversial in Paris. Even before Mayor Hidalgo, the city experimented with banning cars in central areas and studying the results. Les citoyens grumbled, but eventually saw the light.

  • Thanks Jane. IMO it is in the long term best interests of SF residents to reenvision our park roads as park spaces instead of car commuting and car storage shortcuts. NYC did this with Central Park and Prospect Park by banning cars. We will get there as well.

  • We continually ignore the obvious differences between SF and virtually every city in the world that has successful bicycle transportation. First, topography, which makes it difficult for normal people to traverse major areas of the city by bike, and which encourages the athletes among us to bomb down the hills at dangerous speeds. Second, SF attitude, that laws and rules are for the other guy. Riders routinely ignore traffic lights and stop signs, often dangerously. I see it 20 times a day here in Dogpatch. And please don’t tell me that somehow this will change. Not in your lifetime.

  • Absolutely we need to become a City where virtually all transportation is done by bicycle, walking, telecommuting, and transit. We know that this is the only way to reduce obesity, diabetes, heart disease, air pollution, traffic congestion, water pollution, climate change, stress, road rage, traffic fatalities, traffic congestion, economic inefficiency, and parking congestion and to improve our quality of life. The recent biking and pedestrian improvements in our City have been amazing and wonderful. We need greater incentives – any family that does not own a car should receive an annual tax credit. Any family that uses transit or owns, rents, or borrows a bike should receive a property tax deduction. Any household with two or more cars should have to pay an $10,000 annual car tax on the second car, a $20,000 extra tax on the third car, etc. Other than having fewer children, driving less is the single best action one can take for our planet. It also is the best way to improve one’s health and quality of life.

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