Lessons learned from ‘slow streets’ experiment could help San Diego boost walking, cycling

San Diego's Howard Street "slow street" segment in May 2020
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Created during pandemic to boost exercise opportunities, slow streets have been removed except in Pacific Beach


San Diego is dialing back its slow streets program, where car traffic was partly banned on some streets to encourage biking and walking, but city officials say that’s not a sign of failure.

They say they learned important lessons from the slow streets experiment that will help them make streets across the city more friendly to bikers and walkers, which Mayor Todd Gloria is encouraging with his “sexy streets” campaign.

Slow streets, a temporary pilot program where the city closed off multiple small segments of roads around San Diego at various times, has been somewhat controversial since it was launched a year ago.

The closures prompted complaints about lost parking spots, increased traffic congestion on nearby streets and other consequences. And the city has removed every slow streets segment except one that remains in operation on Diamond Street in Pacific Beach.

But officials said this week that the program also has many fans.

An online survey found 73 percent support for slow streets during the pandemic’s stay-at-home order, and 64 percent support for keeping them long-term. Support was 81 percent in low-income areas that lack infrastructure.

“We would not consider this initiative a failure in any sense,” said Alyssa Muto, director of the city’s new Mobility Department. “The program was successful in achieving its primary goal of allowing residents to get around their neighborhoods for essential travel while maintaining physical distance from others.”

Slow streets were particularly crucial when parks and beaches were closed during the early weeks of the pandemic.

But perhaps more importantly, the program taught city officials what works, what doesn’t work and how to cooperate with merchants, residents and neighborhood leaders on future slow streets projects.

“Implementation was not without problems and did result in lessons learned that we can apply in the future to pilot or permanent complete streets projects,” Muto said.

The last remaining slow street segment – Diamond Street in Pacific Beach – has a chance to become permanent and serve as a model for other neighborhoods, Muto said. But city officials are still analyzing its impact and they might instead decide to remove it, she said

Some of the safe corridors for bikers, walkers fared better during lockdown

That’s indicative of the city’s trial-and-error approach to slow streets. The plan is to see what works in which types of situations, and maybe try that elsewhere in other situations that appear similar.

The information will be used to help implement Mayor Todd Gloria’s new “sexy streets” campaign, which envisions transforming many city streets into urban gathering places by adding bike lanes, pocket parks and other amenities.

In addition, San Diego has updated growth blueprints for dozens of neighborhoods in recent years to include urban plazas, community gathering places and other concepts similar to the slow streets experiment.

The most controversial slow street segment was on the Adams Avenue bridge over Interstate 805 between Normal Heights and North Park, which was removed in October after complaints primarily from merchants.

They said it was rolled out poorly, took away crucial parking spots, cost them business and created a long-term stigma about bike lanes.

In North Park, complaints prompted removal of a segment on Howard Avenue. It was later replaced with a segment on Lincoln Avenue, from Alabama Street to Utah Street, which was eliminated in January.

Three other segments, one in the College Area and two in southeastern San Diego, were mostly well-received when they were first created. But city officials eliminated them in February.

In the College Area, the slow street was on Saranac Street from 67th Street to 70th Street. In Emerald Hills, two segments emanated from Emerald Hills Park: Old Memory Lane to Roswell Street and Tooley Street to 60th Street.

Even the segment on Diamond Street in Pacific Beach has had its critics. That prompted city officials to shrink it, so it still starts at Mission Boulevard but now it ends at Haines Street.

City officials also abandoned proposals to add new slow-street segments in San Ysidro and Rancho Bernardo based on concerns raised by community leaders.

Community leaders in San Ysidro wanted a more permanent paseo instead of a slow street segment, while Rancho Bernardo leaders rejected a segment proposed for Acena Drive based on concerns it would be disruptive.

A common complaint about slow streets is that they forced traffic onto nearby roads, increasing congestion there. But delivery trucks, emergency vehicles and drivers living on the affected part of the street are exempt from the vehicle ban.