San Francisco has a lot of streets. Take a look at an aerial picture, or just look at the land-use statistics. More of this city is devoted to paved roads pathways used largely and designed primarily for private automobiles than any other single use. Parks, for example, don’t even come close.
That’s partially a matter of urban density. In more suburban-type cities like Berkeley or Portland or Seattle, the lots are bigger, yards are bigger, houses are bigger, and there’s more space between the strips of pavement.
But that density gives us a choice other cities don’t have. Maybe we don’t really need that much pavement.
I know it’s kind of a crazy thought, but imagine what some San Francisco neighborhoods would look like if we closed down, let’s say, one out of every four streets. I don’t mean open that land up for development, either leave it as a passageway, a thoroughfare but not for cars. Tear up the concrete, plant grass, make pathways for walking and biking … make the streets places where people can gather, kids can play, stores can enjoy the kind of traffic that only comes with a pedestrian mall, and restaurants can have outdoor seating in what would amount to a strip of mixed-use urban parkland.
Closing streets to cars creates plenty of problems, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable. Seniors and disabled people might have trouble with eliminating bus routes and parking in front of their houses, and that’s a legit concern. (Of course, the number of pedestrian seniors and disabled people killed or maimed by cars might go down too.) So maybe some streets could be turned into one-lane strips, and only people with disabled placards could use them. And ambulances and police and fire vehicles can already drive on car-free pathways in parks. And Muni could run a fleet of electric golf carts to ferry people with mobility issues up and down the grassy lanes.
Those of us who have cars would give up a certain amount of convenience; people without cars would get more of the benefits. That might discourage car use, which is good.
But even for drivers, I wonder. Would I be willing to give up the relative ease of parking near my house in exchange for letting my kids just open the front door of the house and run out and play in a safe, vehicle-free park that used to be a street? Would you?
The world is changing; the days of car culture driven by cheap oil are almost over. More and more people are going to be living in cities (that particular demographic trend is one of the most consistent in modern history). When we talk about the Streets of San Francisco, let’s stop for a moment and ask: does it all have to be about cars?