Narrow Streets SF

Originally posted on Narrow Streets SF

We will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

– Derived from the Ephebic Oath, Athens, 4th Century BCE

I took the image below outside my apartment on the 1400 block of McAllister Street between Scott and Pierce.

McAllister Street as it stands today -- two travel lanes, two parking lanes, and two sidewalks.

It’s a pretty ordinary street in San Francisco. The buildings are primarily three-story Victorians divided into flats. The other properties consist of two corner apartment buildings, an assisted living facility, and a surface parking lot.

Measured from building to building, the public right-of-way is 68′ 9″ — a common width for residential streets in the city.

StreetMix illustration of present-day McAllister St with two 15' sidewalks, two roughly 8' parking lanes, and two 12' driving lanes.

click to zoom
  • (2) 15′ sidewalks
  • (2) ~8′ parking lanes
  • (2) 12′ driving lanes

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.

Remember that San Francisco is suffering through an affordability crisis caused in large part by a massive housing deficit. We need space for a lot more units than we have, and no one wants to build up.

Looking east down the center of McAllister Street.


Let’s pause here briefly and ponder a question: 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. This includes:

  • Houses
  • Offices
  • Factories
  • Warehouses
  • Beaches
  • Marinas
  • Parks
  • Museums
  • Restaurants
  • Shops
  • Theaters
  • Schools
  • Hotels
  • Sports fields
  • Train stations
  • Plazas/central squares
  • Gardens/yards/courtyards

In short, if you “do something,” like work or sleep or go shopping or have a picnic or a party, it’s the place where you do it. A destination. The location where people interact. Places are universally pedestrian places. Nothing happens while people are in their cars. Cars are just the means to get from one Place to another Place.

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”.



Freiburg, Germany

The high ratio of “Places” to “Non-Places” explains why Traditional Cities generally feel more pleasant than American cities.

Cesky Krumlov 2001 (08 von 15)

passing through a Schnoor Allee

Freiburg Street #1

Freiburg Photowalk

The basic pattern continues to work even in modern times. Here’s Tokyo:




Looks pretty nice, right? Now let’s say we wanted to emulate a similar traditional pattern here in San Francisco in order to maximize the amount of “Place” in our neighborhoods. We have the space to do it — but it would require us to stop parking and driving on so much of it.


StreetMix illustration of present-day McAllister St with two 15' sidewalks, two roughly 8' parking lanes, and two 12' driving lanes.


StreetMix illustration of a narrowed McAllister, now consisting of two 15' Narrow Streets For People. Houses and shops have replaced the central roadway at a width of 38.75 feet.

Both the Before and After diagrams are exactly the same scale. But in the new version, we trade the wide street and segregated sidewalks for the following:

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.

Here’s how McAllister might look at about 15′ wide.

Imagining McAllister Street narrowed to about 15 feet wide -- the size of the existing sidewalk -- with a row of new houses placed in the existing auto roadway.

Not too bad, is it? The drab concrete sidewalk gets upgraded to brick or stone. Telephone poles and utility boxes are placed underground to clear the space for people and the occasional car. The big trees are gone, too, since we no longer need a buffer against the unpleasant street (there’s still plenty of room for potted plants and window boxes and other greenery on a narrow street). If we want, we might add some bollards like we see here in the Netherlands for protection against the occasional vehicle…

13574 (Dylan Passmore)

The architectural inspiration for our new houses comes from the English town of Berkeley. I like how they’re each a bit different from one another…

Berkeley, Gloucestershire

…but we can really take the architecture in any direction we want, so long as it conforms to a few form-based rules. Maybe you prefer something more French…

imposing Lyon

or Japanese…

Takemura (竹むら)

or modern…


or classic San Francisco…

San Francisco from cable car

Whatever the case, we can grant individual homebuyers/builders plenty of leeway to choose their own architectural style as long as it meets our basic form — houses side-by-side and up against the street.

This is a good stopping point for now. More to come.

Update (5/18/15): Here’s a video from the Netherlands showing a narrow street in practice (known as a woonerf or plural woonerven). Since it’s not an arterial, the street prioritizes living over “traffic”. Note that Dutch streets didn’t always look this peaceful; the streets in the video were formerly car-centric and were converted to woonerven beginning in the 1970s. They’ve accommodated some on-street parking here, though not all woonerven do.

Update 6/24/15: Want narrower streets and better transit? Here’s a reader suggestion from Mr. Eric Sir:

“[W]here will all the money go from selling the land and the subsequent property tax? Well, that’s where my proposal comes in. Before the new structures get built, let’s dig a cut and cover subway underneath them.”

Street diagram of McAllister with a new subway system and new housing / retail.

The method he suggests (“cut-and-cover”) was used to build most of the world’s original subway systems — New York, Paris, London, etc. Crews essentially dig a trench in the street, assemble the tunnel, and then cover everything back up. It can be a faster and less expensive method than using tunnel boring machines. The downside is it requires direct surface access along the length of the tunnel — access that’s often not possible, but which would be available during a retrofit to narrower streets.

If we combine the two ideas it gives us a basic financial scenario: (a) Sell or lease the street space for housing, (b) use the funds to pay for the relocation of underground utilities and other retrofit needs, and (c) use the remaining funds to help pay for a cut-and-cover subway system. In the end it might not pay for itself in full, but at current land prices it could go a long way toward funding a fast and efficient transit system. Which might look something like this proposed map from Elliott Spelman:

SF Subway Map of Our Dreams