Narrow Streets SF

Narrowing a Residential Street: McAllister:

It's a pretty ordinary street in San Francisco. The buildings are primarily three-story Victorians divided into flats. Measured from building to building, the public right-of-way is 68′ 9″ -- a common width for residential streets in the city.

I want to highlight the total space we're setting aside for cars in the current setup. When we multiply the width of the lanes (38′ 9″) by the length of the block (425′), the result is more than 15,000 square feet of space for cars, just on a single block of McAllister Street.

We can now reuse the old center roadway -- nearly 40′ across -- in a more productive way. Assuming we build to three stories, we now have 45,000 square feet of buildable space where people can live, work, shop, and relax -- just on the 1400 block of McAllister.


The old segregated sidewalks (each 15′) are wide enough to become our new shared streets, built at a comfortable scale for people. Drivers respond to narrow streets by avoiding them when they can, and by moving very slowly -- no more than about 5 mph -- when they need to use them for local access. In a future post we'll look at how to supplement narrow streets with a network of arterials and boulevards where cars and transit can move more quickly. [...]

What type of places make a city great? To answer that it's helpful to think about the difference between "Places" and "Non-Places". Nathan Lewis defines them: Places are areas where things happen. [...] Non-Places are areas of the city where nothing happens. This includes:

  • Parking lots
  • Useless greenery (not a park, but landscaping where nobody goes)
  • Roadways and other transportation infrastructure
  • Areas around buildings which are not "destinations," and often have no real purpose
When we look at traditional cities outside of North America we can see a consistent pattern -- lots of "Place" and very little "Non-Place".

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23 Responses:

  1. mlis says:

    wrong approach! we should instead make the city uninhabitable: http://lordofthefails.com/2015/02/22/together-we-can-solve-the-housing-crisis/

  2. nooj says:

    My University is getting more crowded, and part of the plan is to reclaim interior roadways. It was built in the style of a typical downtown with streets in a grid, so there is a lot of square footage to claim.

    The problem is, they don't actually remove the roads, or reduce the amount of road surface! They just re-route the road around the new building and put a semi-permanent gate across it.

    • deannm says:

      I recently saw a building being constructed on top of a railway trench (straddling it, accessible from both sides—so it provides a new crossing too). Even without eliminating roads there's a lot of space that could be reclaimed. In the example shown, you could put an additional 68'-long block of apartments at one end or both by connecting the buildings with a perpendicular hallway 1 or 2 stories up.

      Overdoing it could result in something resembling subterranean dystopia; but narrow streets might also block too much light if not done carefully.

  3. Peter says:

    I started composing a long-ish reasoned rebuttal, but then decided I couldn't be arsed to waste time on daft ideas such as this.

    The proposal seems to be basically the equivalent of anti-homeless spikes applied to cars. Make the car problem go elsewhere rather than solve it, but not even achieving that but rather creating a so-called "shared space" which has already been proven to be a bad idea in practice because where cars are permitted, they hog space. See those parallel metal lines going down the narrow European streets in some of the other photos? Get a few of those "track" thingies in to reduce the need for cars, then ban the cars and build over the otherwise still-essential infrastructure. Otherwise SF's problems just get worse.

  4. Mariachi says:

    The odds of any new construction resembling charming two-story prewar European townhouses are unfortunately nil, and these narrow streets would wind up looking more like the Death Star trench than Copenhagen.

  5. TravisD says:

    That'll be a fucking riot the first time a moving/delivery van shows up.

    • jwz says:

      Yeah, they don't have deliveries in the legacy Socialist countries because they all survive on orchid petals and wistful thoughts.

      • joe luser says:

        don't waste your breath. after you point out that there's an actual existence proof for the moving van thing he will bring up ambulances. people aren't bleeding out all over amsterdam? ok then, fire trucks! and then whatever. he simply likes cars, or more probably car advertisements he sees on television, and will object to everything. and unfortunately even though it's a dying breed, didn't one single guy keep your city from painting a single bike lane for ten years or something? gmf.

        • mattyj says:

          I'd be more worried about what would happen when the hot dog cart and the churro cart meet head-on. Who has to back up? How long do I have to wait at the end of the block for my churro? I ain't walkin' halfway down a narrow street for a damn churro. Or hot dog.

        • robert_ says:

          Indeed. I find these sort of responses are typical of the near-hysterical reactions I've heard in the US to roundabouts, despite them being both ubiquitous and successful in many other countries.

          I suspect what both this scheme and roundabouts have in common is they are 'foreign' inventions and therefore un-American and wrong. Maybe they would be more acceptable if they had eagles and flags painted all over them.

          • Jeremy Leader says:

            Weren't roundabouts much more common in the US in the first half of the 20th century? I know growing up in suburban NJ in the 60s and 70s, I remember a number of "traffic circles" (I never heard anyone call them "roundabouts") being converted to various forms of conventional traffic-light controlled intersections, supposedly because the latter were more "modern" and "efficient".

            • John Styles says:

              I believe a 'traffic circle' is different from a roundabout because traffic circles are supposed to have priority to joining traffic.

  6. nooj says:

    We should also build parking garages on top of mechanic shops and vice versa. More parking, and you can have someone work on your car while you're gone.

    • Jeremy Leader says:

      I've worked several places around LA (mostly downtown) where large parking garages had car wash and oil-change franchises inside.

  7. phuzz says:

    Whoever wrote this seems to be under the impression that the streets are narrow in a lot of European cities and towns because of some urban plan, when reall ythe streets are so narrow because they were laid out before there were any cars.
    The street plan of most places in Europe owes more to the route farmer Giles used to take his cows down to the river three thousand years ago as it does to anyone's 'plan'.

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