Taking back the streets from cars could create a whole lot of housing (and make much nicer streets)

McAllister after construction
© Steve Dombeck

In many cities, people are screaming for more housing and complaining about the high cost of the existing stock. All the experts say we should ease zoning restrictions and get rid of preservationists so that supply can be increased, which they claim will, by the simple rules of supply and demand, reduce the cost. However there may be another way to increase supply of land and housing; how about taking back some of that land we have given up for cars?

That's Steve Dombeck's clever idea. He reimagines our streets as a place for people, building housing in the middle of the road, and leave pedestrian streets like they have all over Europe. The San Francisco urban activist looks at a typical city street with an almost universal road width (just over one surveyor's chain, 66') and finds that in just one block, more than 15,000 square feet of land are devoted to cars. He reminds us:

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.

He proposes that the space previously owned by cars be filled with housing, leaving enough room that a car can get through in a pinch, really slowly and carefully. "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. "

He then shows us beautiful photos of very beautiful European cities that have narrow pedestrian oriented streets. All cities that have package deliveries, fire protection services and police without the need for big wide streets.

He is not alone in thinking this way; it's now pretty much accepted by urban designers that we have for too long been worried more about the speed and convenience of cars than we have been about the safety and comfort of pedestrians.

Matt Yglesias likes the idea, but writes in VOX that the NIMBYs (NIMFYs?) would resist putting new housing in their front yards.

The problem is that it takes something (parking, specifically) away from people who already live on McAllister Street in order to benefit hypothetical occupants of new homes who, by definition, don't live there. That would be good for San Francisco, good for California, good for America, and good for the world. But it's not good for the people currently living on the block — and those are the people the city council is going to respond to.

Toronto housingToronto stacked townhouses by Wallman Clewes Bergman Architects/via

I am not sure he is right (as is often the case); In fact, by putting parking under the new housing, the city could offer private secure spaces for the homeowners on either side. In Toronto there is a popular housing type where stacked townhouses, with their front doors on pedestrian streets, are built on top of a level of parking. I am sure many would trade the wide road in front of their house for a secure underground parking spot or two. All those horrible ground floor garages that line the streets and make being a pedestrian so dull in San Francisco could be turned into living space or rental apartments. This is a huge plus for every homeowner, and a lot nicer for every pedestrian.

Lots to think about at Narrow Streets SF

Taking back the streets from cars could create a whole lot of housing (and make much nicer streets)
Who said about land "their not making any more of it?" Steve Dombeck finds it lying in the middle of the road.

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