Capitol Alert

Would you pay a toll to tour San Francisco’s Lombard Street?

Motorists make their way down Lombard Street on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in San Francisco. San Francisco’s crooked street could soon be closed to tourists in the summertime. A transportation commission is scheduled to consider an experimental shutdown of the famously curvaceous block of Lombard Street plus an adjoining block where cars line up and wait.
Motorists make their way down Lombard Street on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in San Francisco. San Francisco’s crooked street could soon be closed to tourists in the summertime. A transportation commission is scheduled to consider an experimental shutdown of the famously curvaceous block of Lombard Street plus an adjoining block where cars line up and wait. Associated Press file

Voices are rising along the city’s most famously crooked street, and they aren’t just coming from the parade of cars, Segway tours and pedestrians snaking their way down the steep hairpin turns.

“This is a catastrophe each and every weekend,” said Sal Romano, who has lived on Lombard Street for more than 20 years. “Outside the bedroom window there’s a line of cars idling. It takes an hour for them to go two blocks. There is the squeaking of tires, people losing their clutches.”

Neighborhood residents have long complained about complications of living at one of the city’s top tourist spots – the smell of overheating engines, the long wait to get into their driveways, the cascading noise, the urgent requests to use their bathrooms.

City officials are now studying new ways to manage the crowd of up to 16,000 visitors a day in peak season, options that include closing the street to cars and nonresident pedestrians, requiring a reservation or charging a toll.

“Everyone wants to charge for everything these days,” said Julie DePalo, a visitor from Australia, pausing after snapping pictures from the top of the stairway lined with gardens of blue and purple hydrangeas, Victorian mansions and upscale condos. “It would be a shame. Not everyone could afford it. And San Francisco is already very expensive.”

The San Francisco County Transportation Agency, which is investigating options to deal with car and pedestrian congestion, will complete a report by the end of the year. Aside from limiting access to the street, it is also looking at increasing traffic enforcement, security cameras and public education and providing shuttles. At a meeting in September, frustrated residents came to hear about the proposals and to vent.

“It has gotten so much worse in the past few years,” said Sue Molinari, who’s lived on a side street one house away from Lombard for 14 years, and has noticed more trash, noise and piles of broken glass from vandalized car windows. “I’m happy to have visitors to San Francisco, but it’s becoming too difficult to live with their great impact on our little neighborhood.”

The street at the top of Russian Hill, and the city in general, has become an increasingly popular tourist destination. It’s been showcased in movies (most notably a chase scene in the movie “Bullitt,” where Steve McQueen raced downhill in a muscle car), commercials and a toy Big Wheel competition that got so crowded it was moved across town to Vermont Street.

Around 2 million people walked or rode down Lombard last year, a sizable number for a block that provides panoramic views but no public bathrooms or other amenities. The city, which stations parking officers at the top and bottom and has restricted tour bus access, experimented with closing the street to cars on weekends two years ago, but the jam of cars on nearby streets and the flow of pedestrians persisted.

The red brick road was built in the 1920s at the request of residents, who agreed to pay for the steps and maintain the plants.

Their property values grew, as did word of the street’s views of San Francisco Bay and the surrounding cityscape.

“Same as for anything touristy” there are going to be crowds, said Jennifer Camberos, a student at UC Berkeley, who was walking with friends down the steps on a recent warm weekend. They took pictures at the top and then said they could see why the city was considering restrictions.

“If they charged, I wouldn’t go,” said Alex Goetz, also from UC Berkeley. “It’s cool, but I wouldn’t pay for it.”

Behind them a cable car, the conductor calling out, “Crooked Street!” spilled out more pedestrians toting cameras, selfie sticks and iPads. A steady stream of cars, backed up less than a block before the steep ascent, filed past. Loud music wafted from a nearby car. From another, a passenger yelled to the crowd that he charged for pictures. A group balancing on Segways followed, one man shouting, “Hey, we need some theme music here!”

Kanishka Karunaratne, an aide to Supervisor Mark Farrell, who represents the area, said she was surprised by the level of anger at the neighborhood meeting, but pleased that people were involved.

“This is just the first step, to give options,” she said, after frustrated residents demanded that officials let them line up and speak – at times vociferously. Many said they wanted a balance between tourism and quality of life for the neighborhood.

Jim Hickman, vice president of Lombard Hill Improvement Association, said members have been working with Farrell’s office for three years on solving problems.

“There is no bathroom, no facilities, no rules posted,” he said. “We are just asking for a little fairness. I’m not anti-tourist. I’m retired and I travel around the world as a tourist.”

Romano jokes that only one solution will make some residents on the crooked street happy: “Straighten it.”

Like many San Franciscans, he can’t just find another place to live, he said. With rents and home prices among the highest in the country, he has to stay put. His own solution is to leave town on weekends so he can avoid the crowds.

Arabi Najdawi, a traffic control officer standing at the bottom of the hill, said he thinks the situation has been “blown out of proportion.”

He pointed to the clean sidewalks, the steady movement of traffic and the pedestrians who heeded his requests to move out of the street. He believes charging a toll would make congestion worse.

“Let the people enjoy the street,” he said. “That is out of the question, charging people to see the sights.”

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

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