Sunday Streets: Western Addition Edition

Words: Babak Haghighi

It is a beautiful, sunny Sunday in the Western Addition district of San Francisco. Bass is bumping and fists are pumping as a local house DJ puts on a show for his audience across the street from the Panhandle at the southern end of the Sunday Streets route. His unique, yet effective sound system comprises of no more than four boomboxes, each blaring his original beats.

Nearby, two young adults sporting shorts, sunglasses, and bare feet rest on an air mattress on the sidewalk as they sip on their Bud Lights and indulge in some people watching. A couple blocks away, an elderly woman, a child, and a college girl show off their best hula hoop moves while the crowd surrounding them does its best to keep up—just one of many hula hoop circles along the route. Further down the road, a teenager, accompanied by his garage band buddies, puts on a three-man rock show for his cousin, aunt, mother, and anyone else looking for some entertainment. His messy, dark hair swings from side to side as his fingers slide down the fretboard of his guitar. His 2010 San Francisco Giants Championship t-shirt occasionally sways in the calm breeze. Around the corner, a group of Western Addition residents and their families dance to The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache.” Costumed rollerbladers are easy to spot, and cruising past all of them, at a modest pace, are countless bicyclists. But what brings these people together is the one thing they all have in common—the massive smiles on their faces. This is Sunday at its finest.

If it sounds like a normal day in the city, it’s not. It’s the ultimate hangover cure. It’s Sunday Streets in San Francisco.

Despite its hilly features, San Francisco is a bicycle-friendly city. At Sunday Streets, that friendship turns into a romance. Bicycles, skateboards, and wheelchairs alike take over the streets alongside pedestrians. A pre-determined route is turned into a no-car zone, and along the way there is all sorts of fun to be had.

“Sunday Streets is a celebration of San Francisco, our diverse neighborhoods, and the opportunity to enjoy San Francisco streets without cars,” said Susan King, program director of Sunday Streets on behalf of Livable City. “It creates miles of car-free streets for people to get out and be active.”

Sunday Streets is a series of events put on each year by the city of San Francisco and Livable City, a sustainable transportation and land use advocacy non-profit organization. San Francisco Bicycle Coalition runs the volunteer operation, which plays a major role in making the event happen. Though the relatively young event has grown significantly since its introduction in 2008, it has always been an event focused on providing safe, car-free environments for people to play and socialize in as well as promoting community involvement throughout the city’s various neighborhoods. The 2012 Sunday Streets season has created these environments in many distinct neighborhoods throughout the city, each of which offered a unique atmosphere and no shortage of free music and activities. In September, it was Western Addition’s turn.

“Everyone has their own reasons for liking the program,” King explains. Although Sunday Streets is organized by the city, King says that the unique local communities and neighborhoods are what makes each event enjoyable and special.

“It is the response of the community that puts the magic into each event,” she said.

SFMTA and other city departments take care of removing cars from the streets and traffic control, but “the activities along the route are all provided by community organizations at no charge to Sunday Streets or participants.”

These activities include free bike rentals, repairs, dance lessons, rock climbing, yoga, martial arts, kids activities, programs for pets, and more. Organized activities aside, it is the spontaneous nature of the event-goers that brings most of the fun to the event—the people dressed up in wacky costumes, the people who attach speakers to their bicycles and blast their favorite tunes as they ride, the people selling lemonade and having garage sales in the middle of the street, and the people who come to Sunday Streets just to express themselves and have a great time on the city streets.

Among those event-goers is SF State student and bicyclist Jon Amidjojo, who attended his third Sunday Streets at Western Addition.

“Good music, good people. Just good vibes,” said Amidjojo. “It’s just great.”

Amidjojo, like many others, cycled to the event from his home in the Sunset. He rode into Western Addition from the southwest entrance of the Sunday Streets route at the Panhandle alongside some of his fellow cyclist friends. The loud house music encouraged him to keep the good vibes going as he continued to pedal north. As he turned onto Baker Street, a photo booth run by REI caught his eye. The group of friends huddled together in front of the cameraman, and within seconds they were transported to the Grand Canyon. A few seconds later they were back on their bikes and riding east on Fulton, perhaps the busiest street of the entire route. As he rode uphill on Fulton, Amidjojo soaked up all the live music around him.

Specifically, he was captivated by a big group of folk musicians who were jamming in a circle at Alamo Square.

“They had great harmonies, phenomenal rhythm, and an awesome beat on the upright bass,” he said ecstatically.

He couldn’t resist pulling out his iPhone and taking a video of the old-timers playing some tunes. They were just one of many groups of folk musicians playing along the route, but these guys had multiple banjos, guitars, an upright bass, and then some—the whole works. Music aside, Amidjojo enjoyed just about everything else going on in the Western Addition.

“I think it’s really cool that they block off the roads for bikers and others,” he said. “The biking community comes together, and there’s all these tents and organizations and events going on. Just the whole idea of building the community up is awesome.”

King says that the community-building aspect of Sunday Streets is what people enjoy most about the event, as well as the focus on free activities as opposed to the commercial activities that are common among other street fairs.

That being said, some of the aforementioned spontaneous activity that livens up the event might interfere with the supposed purpose of Sunday Streets. Loud music can disrupt neighborhood residents and churches, despite the wonderful vibes it creates. King emphasizes that Sunday Streets does not support outside merchants and food vendors and plans to step up enforcement on keeping them out of the program. A big part of the mission of Sunday Streets is to show off the local culture and vibe of a specific neighborhood, so it is essential that outside vendors do not interfere with the local businesses and community merchants that are featured along the route.

“Garage sales and lemonade stands are A-ok,” explains King, “as long as folks are not selling new items a la street fair vending booths.”

Needless to say, Sunday Streets attracts a widely diverse crowd. Maria Stepkowska, an exchange student from Denmark, experienced her first Sunday Streets at Western Addition.

“I wasn’t there for long,” said Stepkowska, “but it was pretty cool. There was lots of good music,” she says. “And I saw a really huge dog.”

Perhaps not the greatest Sunday Streets has to offer, but fascinating nonetheless. The idea behind Sunday Streets comes from Ciclovía (which translates literally to “bike path” in Spanish), a weekly Columbian event in which certain streets in certain cities are blocked off to cars each Sunday. Columbia’s Ciclovía has been going on for more than 30 years. It promotes healthy, outdoor activity, as does San Francisco’s version of the event. San Francisco isn’t the only American city with Ciclovía-inspired events, but it was among the first. Portland’s Summer Parkways and New York City’s Summer Streets both premiered alongside San Francisco’s Sunday Streets in the summer of 2008, according to King.

Sunday Streets was first introduced to San Francisco by former mayor Gavin Newsom. Mayor Ed Lee now carries out the operation. In its first year (2008), Sunday Streets was a program consisting of only two events. Since then, the program has grown larger and more ambitious. In 2009, Sunday Streets had six events. The following two years each held nine events. This year, Sunday Streets is bigger than ever. With its final event of the year coming on October 21, Sunday Streets will have had ten events in 2012.

October’s Sunday Streets will mark the event’s first visit to the Excelsior. It will also be the first time that Mission Street will be included on the route, although the event has occurred in the Mission district numerous times. Sunday Streets Excelsior will also be taking place alongside the annual Excelsior Festival, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary. This may just be the wildest Sunday Streets yet.

“This is one of the most racially diverse communities, with many different Asian and Latino cultures living and thriving together,” said King about the Excelsior district.

The 2012 season has taken over the Embarcadero, the Great Highway, Bayview, Chinatown, and more. Between May and August, Sunday Streets introduced a pilot project in which an event was held the first Sunday of each month in the Mission on an identical route. The project was largely successful, and the Mission route became a favorite of Sunday Streets fans.

“[Sunday Streets Western Addition] wasn’t as good as the ones in the Mission,” says Mike Campton, an avid Sunday Streets attendee. Though by no means disappointed, he didn’t find Western Addition’s route too impressive.

Since its introduction, Sunday Streets has continually succeeded in providing safe, fun environments for communities to gather in and for neighborhoods to show off their personalities. Although the event has quickly become a huge success, there is still plenty of room for it to grow bigger. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which manages the 75-150 volunteers that work at each Sunday Streets event, has high hopes for Sunday Streets’ future.

“Imagine five years from now when you can step out of your door on any Sunday and bike with your loved ones and hundreds of thousands of people through every part of the city,” says San Francisco Bicycle Coalition on their official website.

“Our 2012-2017 strategic plan sets the goal to help create and sustain a citywide network of weekly, seasonal Sunday Streets routes that gets 50,000 people new or less familiar with biking, on a bike in San Francisco.”

This ambitious goal of having Sunday Streets every week may not be so far out of sight. The event has been getting bigger and more popular every year, and people are passionate about it. According to King, Livable City raises an annual budget of $300,000 to cover outside expenses, while SFMTA and various city departments cover the cost of providing staff and city resources for traffic safety-related tasks.

The rest of the work is done by community leaders and volunteers. King says that Livable City and the City of San Francisco are continually looking for ways to expand the amount of Sunday Streets programming while also minimizing costs.

“We are seeing more interest from funders and potential sponsors, which is a relief,” says King. “It has always been a financial struggle to cover the many costs of running a program of this scale. We are identifying ways to make the events cheaper on the city and reducing the need for city staff by taking on tasks they previously performed—such as putting up signs, making maps, and providing equipment— and cutting down on positions that need either Police or Traffic safety by using volunteers and interns instead.”

In September, San Francisco and SFMTA released the 2012 State of Cycling Report. The report, which gives an in-depth analysis of practically all things related to San Francisco cycling, made its first and most recent appearance in 2008 alongside the introduction of Sunday Streets. Since then, the state of cycling in San Francisco has reportedly improved significantly.

Since 2006, the number of people riding bikes in the city has increased by 71%. Within the past year-and-a-half, 23 miles of new bike paths have been striped throughout the city. Since 2008, nearly 1,200 new bike parking racks have been installed, bringing the total to more than 2,500. Bike Score recently gave San Francisco a score of 70 out of 100, tying it with Portland as the second most bikeable city in the United States. For the past three years, SFMTA has given free bike lights to cyclists each fall. During 2010’s Bike to Work Day, organized by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, 600 bicycles were counted on Market Street between 8 and 9 a.m. alongside only 330 automobiles. On this year’s Bike to Work Day in May, 1,031 bikers were counted at Van Ness and Market between 8 and 9 a.m., compared to 362 automobiles.

“The State of Cycling in San Francisco is strong,” says the State of Cycling Report. “It can and should continue to get stronger. … The bicycle should play a growing role in mobility in the city and the SFMTA will do all it can to make it as common as walking, driving, and taking transit.”

Perhaps the most significant step towards improving the state of cycling is a series of pilot projects for better bikeways and bike facilities. Events such as Sunday Streets aside, the city has implemented various pilot bikeway installations such as green bike paths that are physically separated from the road, green bicycle “boxes” that allow cyclists to queue up in front of cars at red lights, and green sharrows that indicate that a lane is shared equally by drivers and cyclists.

The most innovative of these projects is the “Green Wave” on Valencia Street. The “Green Wave” is a stretch of traffic lights with signals that are timed so that bicycles traveling at roughly 13 miles per hour will consistently encounter green lights for ten consecutive intersections on Valencia between 16th and 25th streets. SFMTA also has future plans for more protected bike paths, entirely separate bicycle tracks, and a large-scale, 50-station bicycle sharing pilot program.

The City continually works towards making San Francisco a better and safer place for bicyclists, and as a result it aims to make San Francisco a better city overall. As long as this continues, Sunday Streets will continue to be the quintessential celebration of San Francisco cycling and safe streets and neighborhoods.
“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”
– Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green