Among the few good things to come out of shelter-in-place — which we can collectively say that improved air quality is now no longer on that shortlist — SF's Slow Streets Program is a celebrated nicety. But the initiative is currently facing criticisms for not undergoing environmental review.
San Francisco’s a metropolitan plagued by pedestrian injuries and deaths. The City reported twenty-nine traffic fatalities in 2019, eighteen of those being pedestrians who lost their lives to vehicle collisions; 2020 has already seen seven pedestrian losses. And when the Slow Streets Program began rolling out its first phase of street closures in late-April, it was welcomed by locals; the shuttered roads were almost instantly filled with kids playing, runners jogging, grown-ups conversing with neighbors in the middle of empty roadways.
Our crews have begun installation of roadway delineators on Page Street, this is a new treatment the Slow Streets program is testing. These delineators are intended to reduce maintenance and replacement costs of the bulkier barricades and signs. pic.twitter.com/mSQSrhaCPH— SFMTA (@sfmta_muni) September 10, 2020
However, the program, as well as transit-only lane initiatives proposed by SFMTA, are facing criticism for not going under prior environmental review.
According to the SF Examiner, the Coalition of Adequate Review and transit activist David Pilpel have jointly filed five appeals saying that SFMTA and the SF Planning Department are in violation state laws by implementing these programs without appropriate environmental review, which is required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Detractors of the initiatives also cite that these street closures deflect sales from struggling businesses that rely on car traffic and that first-responders steering emergency vehicles are having a difficult time accessing certain areas.
Members of SFMTA’s staff, in the wake of already strapped resources, are now reportedly spending much of their time fighting these appeals — instead of using those hours to spearhead more pedestrian-safety initiatives and cement plans to make additional room for bikers and walkers, among other high-property tasks.
“Instead of doing the work needed to implement and evaluate [projects and initiatives like the Slow Streets Program], they’re spending time on the appeal response instead,” said Sarah Jones, SFMTA's Planning Director, to the local newspaper. “We’re having to push other projects out because we’re so booked up dealing with these appeals.”
The Slow Streets Program — which has made popular roads like Twin Peaks Boulevard and the upper stretch of the Great Highway off-limits to vehicles, helping encourage people to get outside while properly social distancing — is considered an integral part of SF's COVID-19 emergency response and containment strategies. And because the program, too, is considered an emergency measure by the City, it does not need CEQA approval to exist.
(Research shows that contracting COVID-19 outdoors is fairly difficult due to elemental stresses, though the pathogen, SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the disease seemingly flourishes indoors. Moreover, time spent communing with Mother Nature is proving to be vital to buoying mental health. Recent reports of a "pandemic of depression" have tallied since shelter-in-place began in March; both neurobiologists and clinical therapists alike agree that the increased time spent indoors has exacerbated the issue; engaging with the great outdoors — hiking, biking, running, etc. — is proving to be a lifeline to keep depressive episodes at bay or lessen their stings.)
Jones has said SFMTA's efforts to ensure people can "travel to essential work, get outside for mental and physical health," all while maintaining appropriate social distancing practices, are paramount.
The SF Planning Department — which, prior to phase one of the Safe Streets Program being implemented, signed off on it and other like projects — shares a similar sentiment.
“COVID-19 is a sudden and unexpected occurrence […] COVID-19 involves a clear and imminent danger and can cause damage to life and health,” says Lisa Gibson, environmental review officer for the SF Planning Department, to the SF Examiner in response to the appellants.
The newspaper notes that the Board of Supervisors and SFMTA officials have said these projects are approved only as temporary measures, meaning once the local emergency is called off, they would end 120 days afterward.
Right now, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear the appeals on these projects on September 22. If the program does inevitably become permanent, it will then go under CEQA review.
Many of the currently realized Slow Street corridors exist on many of Vision Zero's "high-injury streets," per their 2017 network analysis.
Image: Courtesy of Twitter via @paulvaldezsf