Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Sidewalks are a last shred of safe public space. No wonder we’re fighting over them.
Whatever the Poop Patrol will be wearing as they power-wash feces off San Francisco’s sidewalks, let’s hope they get a great embroidered patch.
Armed with steam cleaners, a crew from the city’s Department of Public Works will target downtown alleys and sidewalks for human and animal droppings starting next month, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. They’ll start their vigil in the afternoon, aiming to clear deposits that appear after overnight crews have done their cleaning, but before any residents complain.
In the eyes of conservative media outlets, San Francisco’s ongoing shit saga is the latest expression of progressive urban politics gone haywire. That’s not true. That there are “more feces on sidewalks than I have ever seen,” as Mayor London Breed recently observed, doesn’t reflect faulty ideology. But it is, plainly, the result of bad policy. In fact, sidewalks have long been a dumping ground for all kinds of policy failures—not just in San Francisco, though it is particularly vivid there, and not just related to public health.
Where housing is unaffordable, public space is increasingly privatized, and streets prioritize personal vehicles, sidewalks are the Last Commons—a rare surviving patch of urban space where people are allowed to just exist. In the absence of shelter, toilets, and protected lanes for alternative transportation, those five to ten feet of pedestrian pathway are inevitably where squeezed-out people land. Whether others like it, or if it’s legal, is kind of a secondary matter.
“Sidewalks are the safest space,” said Cathy DeLuca, the policy and program director of Walk SF, a pedestrian advocacy group. “Of course this is where everything winds up.”
Indeed, the reasons people leave feces and urine in public rights-of-way aren’t unrelated to the reasons others leave shared bicycles and scooters there, an issue irking residents from San Diego to Washington, D.C. Nor are they so separate from the legal battles over sidewalk food vendors in Los Angeles, and around the world. Sidewalks are, not coincidentally, chronically neglected infrastructure in many cities—a phenomenon that reflects the primacy of the vehicles that use the roadways a few feet away, and the lack of power of those who rely on sidewalks for basic mobility. From skateboarding teens to moms wrestling double-strollers over busted curbs, if you want to see what your city is failing to provide proper space for, look on the sidewalk. It’s probably there.
At present, the “sidewalk clutter” battlefront is eerily quiet in San Francisco—the thousands of startup-backed e-scooters that sprang up in April were temporarily banned in June and the city is now attempting to configure a permitting scheme. By many accounts, transportation officials are a bit in over their heads with that process now, sorting applications from 12 different startups, deflecting pressure from the more outspoken companies, and above all, weighing the safety risks of the new vehicles, which were mostly dumped, parked, and ridden—illegally—on sidewalks.
“Tellingly, none of these scooters first put on San Francisco’s sidewalks had instructions on them informing riders that it is illegal to operate them on sidewalks, which is where they pose the greatest danger to pedestrians,” wrote Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, in op-ed in the Chronicle explaining the prohibition.
Are sidewalk scooters a danger? Not much: It seems only a handful of minor injuries have been reported in San Francisco; in Dallas, police could only turn up four since that city rolled out shared e-scooters in May. The battery-boosted conveyances certainly put pedestrians on edge, and they pose a potential hazard to elderly folks and people with disabilities, especially visual impairments. But it can also be pretty unsafe to ride scooters where it’s legal, which is to say in the road or in bike lanes. Unprotected as those spaces often are, it often feels safer to ride as far away from cars as possible.
This is not to excuse startups that scatter their wares without consultation with the city and and fail to educate riders on safety—that isn’t right. Instead, it is to point out that when people choose or need to move outside the spheres of car ownership, there isn’t much room to do it safely. Virtually everyone who lives in a city has to use the sidewalk at some point during the day, yet the vast majority of rights-of-way in cities are devoted to the movement and parking of cars. Besides being unsafe, that’s a pretty inefficient use of space, especially as urban populations grow. This is poor policy.
There is also not much room for individuals who don’t have a place to sleep, use a bathroom, or self-medicate. Every major city on the West Coast is facing a crisis of unsheltered people. San Francisco has the highest rate of street homelessness in the country, with more than 4,300 people sleeping on the streets on any given night. Meanwhile, the city’s affordable housing crisis remains dire. There are fewer shelter beds than there were 15 years ago, and just 22 operating public toilets. (Five more are on the way, and operating hours will be expanded at some, with about $1 million from the city’s new $11.1 billion budget.)
Wherefore the poop, the needles, the people lying in the path? A mess of failed policies.
The sidewalk is also where the fallout of inadequate transportation and housing policies intersect. Witness the two homeless individuals killed by cars in 2017 in San Francisco—10 percent the city’s traffic fatalities that year—or the homeless man who died when he was run over in a North Beach parking garage earlier this month—not a sidewalk, but not far from it. The housing crisis; limited space to walk, sit, and be: “These are not separate issues,” DeLuca said.
Given that everyone wants a slice, who and what gets priority on the sidewalk are not easy questions to answer. San Francisco does have a long history of protecting sidewalks as pedestrian-first spaces: It cracked down hard on skateboards in the 1990s, and was the first in the world to ban Segways in the early 2000s. More recently, Supervisor Norman Yee led the charge to strictly regulate a very 21st-century pedestrian threat—sidewalk delivery robots—in late 2017.
The city would rather not be playing defense so much, Yee told me over coffee earlier this month. “When something new comes up that impacts our infrastructure, like sidewalks, you end up reacting to things all the time,” he said. “There’s always confusion when things first arrive. Like, which department is responsible?” Yee is working to convene a city task force to better plan for various insertions of innovation.
That seems good. What about a sidewalk task force—a hive-mind devoted to thinking about how to manage sidewalks, across the spheres of transportation, housing, and public health? When I asked Yee if he knew of any such effort across departments, he told me that those issues are largely seen as separate. A spokesperson for the SFMTA, the agency managing the scooter permit program, suggested the same. So did the Department of Public Health, although Megan Wier, the director of DPH’s health, equity, and sustainability program, is working to analyze traffic safety issues for homeless individuals. I’m still waiting for a callback from the Department of Public Works; I’ll update with a response.
But why should these issues be siloed, when they often fall to the same narrow band of space? There are community benefit districts in San Francisco that clean up needles and trash; that’s a start, and so is the Poop Patrol. Maybe it could be somebody’s job to be eyes on the sidewalk at the busiest hours, acting as welcoming interpreters of that space. They could help remind scooter users how to ride safely (however the city decides that is), alert sanitation workers when clean-ups are needed, and help people navigate around construction. Maybe they could liaise with social workers to help individuals who need housing support.
Sidewalk keepers wouldn’t be there to punish or report people. This wouldn’t be an armed “neighborhood watch.” They’d be like crossing guards, but for the cross-traffic of public life. Obviously, they’d get the coolest patches.
Perhaps it’s idealistic, even naive, to imagine sidewalk keepers in a country that places such heavy emphasis on armed law enforcement, and where the experience of existing in public space is so divided by race and gender. So here’s another way of putting it: Couldn’t the job of caring for sidewalks fall to everyone? It’s shared space, after all.
Allison Arieff, the editorial director of SPUR, a San Francisco-based urban policy organization, thinks of a man who operates a shoeshine stand near her office downtown. She’ll often see him talking to police officers and hotel doormen, and keeping an eye on individuals living on the street. “The shoeshine guy is a fixture," Arieff said. “He’s a consistent presence. There’s less and less of that sort of thing.” (Indeed, a block away, there’s a robot barista.)
Yet more ideally, sidewalks wouldn’t have to be the hottest real estate next to real estate. Cities would have the housing supply and health services to respond to homelessness in a humane manner, so people wouldn’t need to sleep and relieve themselves where others need to walk. And cities wouldn’t need to ban scooters and skateboards, which seems counter to the common civic goals of reducing emissions, easing congestion, and preventing traffic fatalities. Ideally, streets would be designed for people first, with less space and slower speeds for cars, protected lanes for buses, bikes, and scooters, and more room for everyone else who needs to get around.
In other words, they’d be big old sidewalks—places where policy doesn’t go bad, but where people go to move.