Accidentally walkable

Sep 4, 2021

I’m in Denver right now, staying near downtown in the “LoDo” (Lower Denver) district. It’s nestled into the South Platte river, along which the city’s done a nice job of building out a system of bike/pedestrian pathways and recreational areas.

Spending a week in Denver’s downtown environment has got me thinking once again about walkable places, and specifically, San Francisco. If you look for lists of America’s most walkable cities, SF invariably takes either the number one or number two position, neck-in-neck with NYC. But as one of the continent’s very rare more densely packed cities, SF’s position is mainly due to walking being possible, rather than good.

While SF has relative density on its side, it fails to deliver on walk-friendliness in most other ways, and especially when comparing to other cities that do a good job, it’s very noticeable. Some observations:

  • Traffic volume: Almost every one of San Francisco’s streets has constant traffic volume almost all the time. This is somewhat of a density problem, but also a symptom of the fact that since other modes of transport aren’t plausible, people choose to drive. The most obvious externality of more volume is that it’s loud, but it also makes bad interactions with cars more likely because they’re more frequent, and leads to other problems like “blocking the box” – during the day in SOMA/FiDi it’s difficult to use many crosswalks as cars that were trying to make a light are parked in them.

  • Road rage: Increased volume leads to increased stress. Drivers are in a hurry, tired of stopping, and compensate by behaving more irresponsibly and aggressively. In California it’s the law to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk (even one that’s unmarked), but in San Francisco by informal convention, pedestrians yield to drivers, especially where 4-way stops are concerned. Crosswalks without lights or stop signs are generally just not used – it’s far too dangerous to do so.

  • Blocked sidewalks: More cars means a greater demand for parking. Since street parking is vastly oversubscribed, drivers find other places to park, and one of the most common alternatives is the sidewalk. In SF, it’s rare to walk the length of an entire block without finding a vehicle parked along it somewhere.

  • Pedestrian infrastructure: SF has very little in the way of pedestrian overpasses / underpasses / +15 walkways / etc., features that are fairly common in many other cities. Sidewalks are usually narrow and encumbered by electrical installations, obsolete emergency call boxes, bike racks, and fenced mini-yards. These latter two are nice-to-haves, but leave little room leftover for walking.

  • No dedicated walkways: One of the most surprising voids in San Francisco is the absence of dedicated walkways. There are a few relatively unbroken stretches like the Embarcadero or down near the water in the Marina, but even those are compromised by frequent car turn ins / turn outs, meaning that you still have to keep an eye out for inattentive drivers doing dangerous things at all times. There isn’t a single walkway in SF where you can just point your feet the right way, start walking, stop paying attention, and let your mind drift. 1

One of the most noticeable things about Denver’s downtown compared to San Francisco’s is how pleasant the urban environment is. Between far reduced traffic volume, large pedestrian plazas to provide more people space, and a fleet of whisper-quiet electric buses (first time I’d seen one of these in person – they make a night and day difference in reduced noise), Denver is a more tranquil place, and by extension, feels nicer to be in, and yet, no one thinks of Denver as walkable.

San Francisco is an accidentally walkable city – walkable by virtue of historic density, but a place where there’s never been proactive effort in creating a people-friendly urban environment.

1 Covid actually had the effect of opening a few in the form of making Twin Peaks, and parts of the Great Highway and JFK in Golden Park pedestrian/bike spaces for purposes of social distancing. But since then the city’s heroic leadership has been working hard to close them again, with the former two already gone and the third only a matter of time now.

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