I’I was lost in nostalgia this week. Between busy typing and moving my micro-apartment – only to put furniture back in its original position after finding that its sharp corners sat more relaxed than before – I came across an old San Francisco Chronicle pillar from Herb Caen, the famous (and beloved) journalist from San Francisco.
Caen’s role “Love Letters to San F.rancisco ” sit as a welcome, albeit dichotomous, allegory of current narratives about the city. (But to be fair: Caens San Francisco existed in a period before record homelessness, a string of tech booms, and where there weren’t hideous examples of individual greed on every street corner – albatrosses until the 1970s, more meditative positions on humanity. )
Courtesy of Twitter via @chrisarvinsf
One of the most beloved Caen times past was an activity that most of us two-legged take for granted: the simple joy of walking. Also: Trekking through San Francisco to enhance the cityscape with its clear panoramas and dewy horizons. And it is Caen’s overflowing admiration for walking San Francisco that is a nondescript example of why Slow Street corridors should remain open in the post-Covid-19 world.
The streets of San Francisco, especially those around the Tenderloin and Civic Center, are notoriously dangerous for pedestrians. In 2019, the city recorded 29 pedestrian deaths – a three-year high and about six more deaths from the previous year. Though the 2020 numbers have not yet been released in an official city report, Vision Zero SF has recorded at least 13 pedestrian deaths this year, a reduction of over 50% from the previous year.
The big reasons for this reduction? Less congested streets, a global pandemic that was forcing city residents inside, and of course San Francisco’s Slow Streets program, which opened over two dozen car-free corridors in the seven by seven years. (Many of these car-free roads were also built in high-injury zones, which can be found on the latest Vision Zero SF network map.)
However, the benefits of car-free streets – like JFK Drive, which has become a key activity point in keeping the city’s Slow Streets program alive for the foreseeable future – go beyond pedestrian safety. Flooding streets with fewer cars (replaced by passers-by walking or cycling) is also a unanimous win for the environment. In the absence of ubiquitous human intercourse, the local wildlife has thrived; Coyotes roam our streets and reduced traffic noise has (theoretically) made it easier for bird populations to attract mates, understand conspecific songs, and maintain social bonds.
Of course, there is the other positive of having fewer cars on the streets of San Francisco: improved air conditions. The only real solution to suppressing air pollution is to reduce the number of vehicles moving by making it less convenient. And when you consider that around half of all car journeys in urban areas are still around 5 km away – the equivalent of an hour’s walk or a 20-minute bike ride or even a shorter Muni commute – less driving is a perfectly feasible response on the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
But back to Caen’s walkable San Francisco.
Caen’s writing about San Francisco has a comforting quality that is particularly emphasized in this piece. Caen’s rich language describing the sight of roast poultry on the other side of a deli window; how as an old friend he anthropomorphized the fog, touched buildings and stroked faces; The remarkable frustration he wears when he sees a changing metropolis displacing the elderly – including “the old queens [who’ve] got fat “; The fact that walking around San Francisco makes you slow down and notice and appreciate the city for all that it is.
The current clutter of Slow Streets corridors is an opportunity for all of us to open our eyes to San Francisco in ways that were not previously available to us. These safer passageways have given us the ability to remove the metaphorical horse blinds we carry behind the wheel of a car and only notice what is in front of us and not what also exists to the left and right of us. We can go hand in hand with SF instead of rolling past it. It’s that sense of presence not only in San Francisco but also in Mother Nature. I hope we can move on in a post-pandemic world.
We could all stand like Caen.