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November/December 2006

Grand Award: San Francisco Street Renaissance

Citizen Activists Take Back Their Streets in Hayes Valley and the Mission District

Activist Gillian Gillett poses with her daughter Lucy in their “traffic-calmed” Guerrero Street neighborhood. Banners declare “We live here! Please slow down,” while native plants take root in the median. (Photo: Noah Berger)

This year’s Grand Award is equally shared by two neighborhood efforts to reclaim their streets from the blight and danger of heavy through traffic. Both projects involve thoroughfares in San Francisco, and both owe their success to countless volunteer hours on the part of community residents, and the professional expertise of the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic as well as the Department of Public Works.

San Jose/Guerrero Coalition to Save Our Streets

Several years ago, San Francisco resident Gillian Gillett found that taking her young daughter out for walks in her Guerrero Street neighborhood (Mission District) was dangerous, with speeding drivers treating the six-lane arterial as an extension of Interstate 280.

“There were no traffic controls on the six-block stretch between Cesar Chavez and 29th Street,” she said. “There was a four-foot median on Guerrero, and it was very dangerous if you were stuck in the middle. Cars sped by at 50 to 60 miles per hour. You could wait as long as 10 minutes to cross the street. There was tremendous pollution and noise, and there were regular collisions between cars and houses.”

In 2003, Gillian discovered and joined an existing neighborhood organization, the San Jose Avenue Coalition to Save Our Streets, convincing the group to expand its target area to include Guerrero Street.

Gillian researched the history of her neighborhood and learned that both San Jose Avenue and Guerrero Street were expanded from four to six lanes in the 1950s. Many houses on these streets were literally moved onto their own backyards, and the sidewalks were severely narrowed to incorporate extra traffic lanes.

Bike lane
Less room for cars translates to more room for bicyclists. (Photo: Noah Berger)

In 2003, Gillian and Coalition members circulated a petition among neighbors and collected 300 signatures, submitting them to the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic and their district supervisors. They requested wider medians, bike lanes, the reduction of multiple-turn lanes and a “no right turns on red lights” policy near schools.

Next, the Coalition worked with the San Francisco Department of Public Health to produce street banners featuring pictures of children and the slogan “We live here! Please slow down” in English and Spanish — and raised $5,700 for the project. More than 100 neighbors and schoolchildren held a demonstration at Cesar Chavez and Guerrero streets to protest traffic speeds and unsafe pedestrian conditions. Gillian and her husband also created a Web site as a community resource.

As a result of the Coalition’s efforts, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in October 2004 unanimously passed legislation to calm vehicle traffic on Guerrero Street and San Jose Avenue. The city narrowed traffic lanes on both streets from six lanes to four, created bicycle lanes, established four-foot-wide buffer zones on both sides of the center medians, installed a new traffic signal, transformed rush-hour tow-away lanes into parking, reduced the speed limit from 35 to 25 miles per hour and scaled back multiple-turn lanes.

Following on this success, the Coalition raised money from local residents and businesses to “green” Guerrero and in November 2005, more than 125 people came out to plant drought-tolerant shrubs in medians along three blocks.

“People are delighted to have their neighborhood back,” said Gillian. “It changes the way you look at the street. It doesn’t have to be the way it’s been for 50 years.”

In 2004 the Coalition won a $90,000 grant — $75,000 from MTC’s Transportation for Livable Communities Program and $15,000 from the San Francisco Transportation Authority — to create a Neighborhood Plan. And the community and sponsors have contributed $65,000 to green the medians along another 10 blocks of Guerrero.
— Marjorie Blackwell

See the story on the Grand Award co-winner, Octavia Boulevard