Soon after the pandemic shut down indoor restaurant dining across the country last year, cities throughout California, from Los Angeles to Sacramento, adopted programs that barred most drivers from using certain stretches of street. The Slow Streets idea, a reimagining of pavement with pedestrians in mind, grew rapidly throughout the state. San Francisco, the second densest city in the nation, shuttered 38 miles of pavement to cars. Once literally marginalized, pedestrians were allowed to venture outside the narrow cement confines of the sidewalk, a zone they’d been relegated to since the advent of the automobile.
This pandemic-born program also meant that once businesses could finally reopen in some capacity, people had unhindered access to their favorite restaurants, cafes, and bars. In a city that makes it nearly impossible to open and operate small businesses — the sagas of Jason Yu’s aborted ice cream shop and Dennis Cantwell and Monica Wong’s Palm City Wine being two tragic examples out of many — Slow Streets could give a second life to floundering and new establishments alike.
“Slow Streets are part of making San Francisco a city where it is incredibly safe and desirable to walk for more trips,” Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, a pedestrian advocacy group, tells Eater. “That means more foot traffic, which is that key ingredient for so many businesses in the city.” Specifically for restaurants, more foot traffic can bring in a fresh crowd and transform their block. And then there’s the social benefit: David Nayfeld, chef and owner of Che Fico, says, “Slow Streets are adding more community to our city, which we need so much right now.”
They’re not wrong.
A recent sojourn to a handful of Slow Streets in San Francisco found people out and about, chatting with neighbors and lollygagging in spaces normally reserved for two-ton hunks of steel and gasoline. On a morning walk, iced espresso in hand, over on Clay Street in tony Presidio Heights, you can spot families decked out in matching black athleisure chatting with other families, smack-dab in the middle of a street. It’s a calming scene compared to Sacramento Street, which runs parallel and buzzes with streateries and vehicles. Down over in the Excelsior on its eponymous avenue, a child on a bike is learning how to ride while a young couple walks arm in arm for an amorous afternoon stroll two blocks from Excelsior Coffee. All of this minus the fear of a driver’s menacing presence.
Keep in mind that the majority of San Francisco’s restaurants aren’t on Slow Streets. Most Slow Streets are specifically set on quiet residential blocks so they don’t interfere with business along bustling commercial corridors. But the few restaurants that have found themselves situated on a Slow Street say they really don’t mind the extra foot traffic — and the sales that come with it.
Noe Cafe is that sleek former laundromat turned coffee shop in Noe Valley, which during the pandemic expanded from one corner to take over the full space and already has fans for its house-roasted coffee, not to mention the pastry case filled with Dynamo doughnuts, Kahnection croissants, and Midnite bagels. It’s on a once-quiet block of Sanchez Slow Street at 26th, which is now overtaken by puppies and toddlers who sip babycinos at the sidewalk tables or in the parklet. Co-owner Maricar Laguna, a 10-year resident of the Noe Valley neighborhood, credits Slow Streets for making her business a success during a difficult time. “We got really lucky by opening at the worst time but also the best time, because we’re one of the few businesses in a Slow Streets area,” she says. “I’ve heard about area neighbors who haven’t talked to or seen each other for years develop friendships because they now hang out on the same street.”
Laguna, who is actively involved with Slow Sanchez, a community group aimed at improving the mini-thoroughfare, says she sees more people walking in the area than before. “When people take their walk, they see people outside playing games, or kids drawing in coloring books. Our customers now see this place as a community hub. More importantly, I want my employees to feel safe,” she says. “And with Slow Streets just outside my cafe’s doors, they do.” It hasn’t hurt business, either, which is saying something during an economically eviscerating pandemic. When Noe Coffee was serving out of its former incarnation, in a corner of the laundromat, Laguna pulled in $600 on an average Saturday; now she takes in nearly $5,000.
Andytown Coffee Roaster, noted for the Snowy Plover, a potent cold brew christened in honor of the birds seen flitting about in the Outer Sunset, has three locations: one at Taraval and 40th Avenue, one at Lawton near the Great Highway, and a downtown spot next to the Transbay Transit Center (currently shuttered). Co-owner Lauren Crabbe says, “Honestly, everything was so topsy-turvy with the pandemic at play, but I can say for sure that our Taraval location has seen a lot of pedestrian traffic. If it wasn’t for the pedestrian traffic on the Great Highway, it would have been rough.” The closure of Great Highway to vehicle traffic, though not technically part of Slow Streets, brought in a fresh crowd. “Folks are coming from all over the city, and instead of driving around our neighborhood, they’re getting out of their cars and enjoying what the Outer Sunset has to offer,” she says.
One of Andytown’s neighbors, Devil’s Teeth Bakery of biscuit egg sandwich and butter-bomb cinnamon roll fame, recently came under (arguably unfair) fire in May after posting a sign supporting the reopening of the Great Highway. (The owner respectfully declined an interview request from Eater.) While Crabbe prefers a car-free Great Highway, she understands why others might oppose it. “The Great Highway is a major thoroughfare through San Francisco. It’s a wonderful scenic drive ... It’s also good outdoor access for disabled and elderly folks who may not be able to walk or bike when the Great Highway is closed. I see both sides of the issue, and respect my neighbor’s opinions.”
Overall, Slow Street closures have helped bump up businesses across the country. A recent data analysis by Yelp detailing the effects of Slow Streets in four major cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, showed that business increased along corridors barred from vehicular traffic. Valencia Street in the Mission District, for example, saw an 18 percent boost in consumer activity compared to the rest of the city during the lockdown, as reported by Bloomberg Business. Not to mention the fact that having fewer cars on the road saves lives. (San Francisco, like the rest of the country, tends to place the needs of drivers over the lives of pedestrians. The city’s Vision Zero program, a plan to eliminate pedestrian deaths by 2024, fell short of its goals with 18 pedestrian deaths on city streets in 2019.) Even diners aren’t guaranteed safety eating in shared spaces: In April, a driver drove into the parklet at the Napper Tandy Irish pub, striking and injuring two.
With all the good that comes with Slow Streets, it does remain an imperfect program in its present state: The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced in May that it will no longer implement planned Slow Streets in the Bayview and Visitacion Valley, which would’ve directly served the city’s Black community. Wealthier neighborhoods appear more prominently on the Slow Streets map, while the city’s sister Shared Spaces program, a separate albeit similar entity (wherein restaurants can add tables and chairs to the sidewalk in front of their businesses, and in some cases move into the parking spot outside) is good for sales but not great for passersby. In addition to blocking sidewalk access to some disabled pedestrians, the tables and chairs, whether they’re on the sidewalk or street, are usually meant only for paying customers, further privatizing public spaces.
Wise Sons, the modern Jewish deli known for its bagel sandwiches and Rubenesque Reubens, can be found in the heart of the Mission at 24th Street, nestled among the neighborhood’s popular panaderias and taquerias. “The only challenge I see with [Slow Streets] is that with so many businesses having to rely on food delivery right now, it could be a challenge for drivers having to pick up food,” says Evan Bloom, whose 24th Street location’s parklet is at the terminus of the Shotwell Slow Street. “But I’m very supportive of them in general.” Wise Sons works with a couple of third-party delivery apps, Caviar and DoorDash, and Bloom notes that drivers simply pull around the barricades to pick up. Elsewhere in the city, seeing cars whip around those barricades has been known to upset neighbors, but Bloom says it hasn’t been a point of contention on sleepy Shotwell. And for his business, he says it’s a much bigger interruption when the city shuts down 24th Street for events like Carnaval, in which case its delivery apps are automatically switched off by the third party for the day.
To say that restaurants in San Francisco are in the red would be an understatement. Small businesses are bleeding money: as of September 2020, the number of small businesses fell by 48.7 percent compared to January of that year. And city leaders, cynically itching to shoehorn their names and faces ahead of any positive pandemic-related story, have yet to offer immediate solutions other than blowhard chatter. But the SFMTA, a city agency routinely pounced on by fist-shaking Muni passengers, is currently trying to make these street closures a permanent affair. The city will evaluate Slow Streets corridors this spring and summer to decide which ones should remain vehicle-free and which ones need tinkering.
“I am for things that bring a large amount of joy to the people of San Francisco,” says Ben Bleiman, owner of Soda Popinski’s and Teeth bars. “We need to have more data on how it affects business, of course, but we can’t deny that these Slow Streets make people really happy and they’re environmentally heading us in the right direction.”