Solving San Francisco's housing crisis with narrow, human-scale streets


The Narrow Streets SF site tries to imagine what San Francisco would be like with streets redesigned for humans instead of cars, allowing the space clawed back from the roads to be used for more housing.

In this excellent post, we get a glimpse of what could be done with McAllister Street, with a 69' 9" right of way from building to building. By clawing back the center roadway for narrow buildings on just one block, an additional 14,000 square feet of space for living, working and retail could be added to this city street.

Tight housing markets like the one in San Francisco are great for real-estate speculators and mortgage lenders, but they're terrible for everyone else. Your home is supposed to be the place where you feel safe and secure. When housing prices balloon, landlords start playing crooked games to throw out their sitting tenants and replace them with higher-yield people, tearing apart communities and wrenching kids out of their schools and away from their friends. Home becomes a source of constant worry, the nexus of your precarity. People who are worried about losing the place where they sleep and live struggle to find the imaginative room to start businesses, let alone the sense of ease that allows them to volunteer in their community and participate in civic life. Plus, every dollar you pay to your landlord or lender is a dollar you don't spend in the local economy.

It's not just squishy human factors that suffer from tight housing markets, either: business suffers too. There are lots of people who could be participating in the hot economies of San Francisco, London, New York, and other housing infernos who are scared away by the prospect of cramming into substandard housing that nevertheless eats most of their paychecks. Tight housing markets create tight labor markets, making it more expensive to start and run your business.

Narrow Streets SF depicts a San Francisco remade for density more like the US median, without having to go super-high-rise to get there. Just by reclaiming road-space and useless green-spaces (not parks -- things like verges and medians planted with halfhearted greenery that's only used as a toilet for dogs, if that), the city could accommodate far more people, and give them more places to go.

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.

...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:

(2) 15′ Narrow Streets For People

(1) 38.75′ Buildable Space (New Homes, Shops, etc.)

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.


Narrowing a Residential Street – McAllister [Steve/Narrow Streets SF]

(via JWZ)