Narrowing a Residential Street – McAllister

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

  27 comments for “Narrowing a Residential Street – McAllister

  1. May 4, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Yup, some streets should be made more narrow, some should be closed for auto use completely, and some should be closed to auto use during certain times of the day/week. Can you ‘guys’ show Grant Street as a street that has a swinging gate at its entrance and then open only to pedestrians on weekends? What can a close street look like?

    Thanks for doing this.

    • Steve
      May 6, 2015 at 6:31 pm

      Philip, next time I’m in Chinatown I’ll snap some pictures of Grant. Your basic idea is the type of thing the city should be experimenting with. It’s low commitment — pick a weekend, open the street to pedestrians, and see how it works. If it’s a success, make it permanent.

      • Gorkem
        May 7, 2015 at 5:40 pm

        Polk street during weekend nights can be a great place to start, its also a lot safer for people leaving the bars.

  2. Zane Bishop
    May 6, 2015 at 8:38 am

    This is a great idea! How much could this land be sold for, and what would potential uses of that money be?

    • Steve
      May 6, 2015 at 6:46 pm

      Hi Zane. I’ve yet to calculate the citywide numbers, but suffice to say it’s a lot. The best use might be to invest in a better transit system — perhaps a cut-and-cover subway as part of the street conversion. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

      • bbqroast
        May 22, 2015 at 10:39 pm

        I don’t know anything about SF. But would a dedicated busway help in some areas? Could speed buses along, past traffic, making them more attractive for any route that uses the busway.

  3. May 6, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    This is totally cool. Brilliant. I am hooked. Please keep me in the loop. Thanks. Bob

    • Steve
      May 6, 2015 at 6:47 pm

      Thanks Bob. You can subscribe by email in the sidebar.

  4. K B
    May 7, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Thanks for highlighting my block! Your shot really highlights the freshly repaved street we got after the city replaced our sewer line. I do find it odd you’d use us as an example of your idea, as reconfiguring the street such that the 5 Fulton ceases to exist seems rather foolhardy.

    Furthermore, the sheer cost of rerouting utility lines (including that freshly redone sewer) on the average street would drive up the cost of this “retrofit” to the point of being laughably expensive. The resulting units released would likely be as much a billionaires’ playground as any penthouse planned for Soma.

    Best of luck working out those details.

    • Steve
      May 7, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      Thanks Khalil. Always nice to hear from a neighbor.

  5. May 9, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Narrow streets are great – right up until you need a moving van or other large commercial vehicle. For example, would existing trash trucks be able to fit in such a small space?

    And while we’re on the topic, Philly has streets like this:

    I think Old Town Alexandria also has streets like this, but I don’t know first hand.

    • Kevin
      May 10, 2015 at 11:45 am

      I actually lived in South Philly for over a decade – home to many many crazy narrow streets and alleys.

      Moving trucks are not easy, but usually it’s just a matter of having the truck park on a larger street nearby and using hand trucks to move individual pieces. More work, yes. Not the end of the world though.

    • Narrow Joe
      May 11, 2015 at 9:21 am

      Use trucks designed for smaller streets. One sees this kind of vehicle in Japan all the time, and once in a while here in NYC.

      • bbqroast
        May 22, 2015 at 10:41 pm

        Mighty Cars!

        Basically a gas powered ute, except it’s slightly wider than a bbq gas bottle. Carries plenty, very maneuverable as well.

        Fun fact, apparently more households own cargo bikes than cars in Amsterdam.

    • Scopa
      May 12, 2015 at 10:45 am

      This is the primary roadblock. Moving vans, garbage trucks, buses etc are too big, but the real issue is that the US doesn’t have the safety infrastructure to work on narrow streets. Our Police/Fire/Rescue vehicles are too big. Another person mentioned, “just get smaller trucks”, but it’s not that simple and it’s very expensive.

  6. May 9, 2015 at 9:10 pm

    I disagree with making the area too much more dense, I think building parking below the streets, widening the road for cars, and making an above street Pedestrian+bike road would be optimal. The side of the roads that used to be parking would serve as upper and lower ramps for underground parking and upper level pedestrian use. I also think the roof tops of buildings should have terraces, greenhouses and solar panels. I included my sketch to show my ideas on paper, not as pretty as their view but I have lowered the impact of congestion by mixing transportation options.

    • Nick
      May 22, 2015 at 2:36 pm

      I love the creative thinking – but no one is going to want to hang out at those stores you have proposed. It is unpleasant to shop and sit adjacent to a fast multilane street with no buffer, and with the sun light blocked by the elevated (and thus, less usesful) biking and walking path.

      • Billy
        May 22, 2015 at 4:02 pm

        It has to be tried, no one first example is perfect, things evolve, but if you cancel out ideas before testing them you never really know if something is better. Ps the stores can be storage or anything useful, and you get the sun usage from the roof top repurposing I added.

  7. Dan
    May 10, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    Great ideas. Thanks for bringing them out as well as posting the pictures of Freiburg Germany where I spent a few years. Great town. The public transit system works great. Only streetcars, bikes, and pedestrians are allowed in the picturesque old city (and the occasional small delivery van). Cars and buses must stick to the ring road. Then again, their public transit system is reliable, well-planned, clean, and interconnected unlike our beloved MUNI.

  8. mike
    May 11, 2015 at 1:17 am

    No. i don’t like this in the least.
    We have light. Sunshine. Bags and bags of it.

    We have privacy. At least some worth retaining.
    We have noise isolation.

    Romanticize about Europe all you want. This simply packs more people into a finite piece of ground, and enriches real estate developers. No more Manhattans. The solution is telecommuting. Go to Davis, or Sacramento and telecommute to twitter. We are happy to roast your coffee, brew your beer, and play music for you, but at the end of the night shove off back across the bridge.

    You dont need to freaking move in and jack the place all up.

    Editor’s Note: You get one rude comment, Mike. I’m not publishing the second rant you posted 10 minutes after this one.

  9. joe f.
    May 11, 2015 at 3:26 am

    Having lived and traveled in Europe, Korea and Panama with the Army I must say I think you’re on to something. My last overseas post was Garmisch, Germany, which is kind of like the Aspen of Germany. I lived on the pedestrian zone, and it was great. As I look back at my favorite places, they’re all kind of like this. Even those in big cities seemed to be blocks of narrow streets bounded by large boulevards. Was it a pain to park? Mostly in the older areas where parking was retrofitted into the space. But there’s no reason you couldn’t build it into the space smartly if you took the time. And a bonus is that you can get cafes worth going to.

  10. Froh
    May 11, 2015 at 5:49 am

    Just a suggestion: At least partially consider converting the existing center of the street into a small park instead of new housing (including trees etc.). It will positively affect the micro climate (trees evaporate water, cooling the street a lot) etc. To the left and right keep the narrow streets (as shown in your suggestion).

    • bbqroast
      May 22, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      It would be nice to have a line of buildings in the middle, cut up with parks (that also allow you to get between the streets).

  11. Steven
    May 11, 2015 at 6:03 am

    I appreciate this discussion. I’ve lived in LA, Kyoto, and now NYC. One unaddressed tension is how Americans value “private place” vs “social place” in relation to achieving the everyday minutiae of life. Despite living in dense areas all my life & appreciating the same. I have always felt uncomfortable with the cafe/congregation space right outside my door (represented by your european examples) or the mixed ROW’s or services crammed together in the Japanese examples. Each individual wants access to shops, restaurants ( “place” as you put it. I might modify with “social place”) when they want it, but then want no one else around them when they want “private place”. The benefit of American infrastructure is that it (over)supplies dedicated infrastructure for individuals to get to these places. The downside is that bias towards individual travel forces these social places further apart & takes more nonplace space. A random photo of strolling down a quaint medieval european street seems quite pleasant, but it isn’t as pleasant when the cafe outside your bedroom window won’t shut up at 2am in Barcelona or you have to move an Ikea couch up into your flat or move out of your apartment, or take one child to a soccer match and then another to a dance class or religious studies or cultural activity. Those are the everyday things in life that don’t show up in an idyllic photo of some tourist. Sleeping in peace, only seeing the people you want to see and not having to deal with others you don’t care about, being able to transport the people or things you want without a huge amount of physical effort are critical benefits that matter every day. There’s a lot to be said that the US has swung too far in separating these places out to achieve scale (malls, tract homes, etc) and that lack of “human scale” leaves everyone sitting in traffic. Not to shoot down the article but rather I would argue refocusing upon how autonomous cars and reimagining parking spaces might be a far more achievable goal over the next 10 years that could easily slot into the personality of Americans, help them achieve their mundane goals while increasing the accessibility of social space compared to having to cram in new buildings within a predefined city grid system.

  12. Roberto Sylianteng
    May 26, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    The common denominator in all the above examples of neighborhoods is that neighbors must be willing to communicate and share their thoughts with each other regarding how to sustain the use of neighborhood spaces.

  13. Matt Mohebbi
    January 28, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Thank you for putting this together. A reminder to all of us that we don’t have to be stuck with the poor decisions that were made many years ago regarding density in San Francisco. I have subscribed to your mailing list. Please keep us updated and let us know how we can help!

  14. paul m.
    March 2, 2016 at 11:04 am

    really had fun time reading this article after a 2 hour motorcycle ride through the city, relatively narrow Grant street ( all the way to the end with a little detour to Coit tower) after 8pm; I think the result would be a beautiful city; however, this project would require entire neighborhoods moved and rebuild ( many blocks/lots at a time probably); at an average cost (in $1000’s) to build a single handicap sidewalk curb ramp or sewer replacements that are happening around the city (many $millions) for the last 10 years , the cost to rebuild the city I think would be prohibitive; lets say SF is 49 sq. miles ( 1.5 billion sq. feet); a cost to build 1 sq. foot of living/retail space (one level) at a contractor rate (lowest possible) is about $100; digging up, burying utilities, transportation, garages underground would cost not less than that per sq. foot as well; so let’s say rebuilding one level would be on average 150 billion $; now let’s say we go with 4 to 6 stories buildings and subtract 30% for one level narrow streets; then we add all the upgrades for city services, police, garbage, fire, etc. fleets; we will approach a trillion dollars to rebuild the city; it maybe viable after a massive earthquake ( God forbid) destroys it, and it may still take several decades; the cost of land in the city is around $300 per sq. foot; there are 400,000 units in the city currently; many people enjoy quiet times and privacy; most do not want restaurants or neighbors above or below, want backyards, want 500 sq feet per person on average, want big trucks, suv’s, etc.; as nice and as beautiful a final result may seem, as it stands now, rebuilding of SF is a utopia of the future even more than a driver-less Google cars; yes, we can have some neighborhoods ( a street stretch of few blocks) rebuild as a model at some point, but not the majority of the city in our lifetimes ( unless of course a 9 or higher earthquake destroys the city almost entirely), but still, we will need the FUNDING and mindset of city leaders and potential voters to change things; then, the fear of future earthquakes will come to mind when redesigning and rebuilding, and narrow streets will be the last thing people will worry about; but again , it is a beautiful idea no contest, and narrow streets would be a great place to walk or tour and spend time once in a while; plus, it may help solve the lack of living units for people(families); at a current 400,000 units of mostly single level and wide streets, 4 story of living space and narrow streets may bring around ( ( ( 400,000 + 30% (narrower streets) ) * 4) * 2(half square footage per person) ) = around 4 million units; then, selling each unit even for 100K$ will probably cover the cost or be close to rebuilding the city; then again, employing the humongous population, traffic, getting to satellite cities, etc. will be an issue; so since we cannot stop time, let’s see how SF transformation will be happening in the next two decades ( I have lived in the city close to 25 years, and besides the miniscule south of Market street area , nothing really changed or has been rebuilt much, except cost of living has tripled); some new areas, neighborhoods are being developed in the last 5 years, but the main point of this I think is to profit as much as possible on the back of population who tries to afford to live in the city (eg. $1200 per sq. foot of an 8 story building, translating to almost $10,000 per sq. foot of land it is built on); a 1000% profit margin; we will need non-profit rebuilding to make it doable or be approved by population, and fortunately or unfortunately, it may never happen; (usually entire cities are rebuilt after massive disasters – war, quake, fire; otherwise, it continues to cripple along for many many decades);

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