Street Life

When Little People Take Over Big Streets

Written by Sven Eberlein

Yesterday was the kickoff to the 2012 Sunday Streets season in San Francisco, an event that creates a large, temporary, public space by closing off stretches of a neighborhood’s streets to automobile traffic, and opening them to pedestrians, bicyclists, and activities. The opener to what promises to be another glorious season of people-powered streets took place along the Embarcadero, from Mariposa @ 3rd Street at the southern end all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.

We’re talking 4 miles of streets the way little people would imagine and design them if they were in charge!


Here’s a series of impressions of a carless afternoon from yours truly, bike reporter Sven. And yes, most photos were taken while riding, another testament to the liberating creative power of losing your fear of being flattened by 3000 pounds of steel.


My partner Deb and I started out on Terry Francois Street at the southern end on an overcast, drizzly late morning. This first stretch was really nice, because with the cars gone and the main attractions waiting further north, it was great to just coast and enjoy the uninterrupted flow. As we rode past the Bay View Boat Club and China Basin along the Giants ballpark it felt a bit like we were participants in the Tour de France, only a bit smaller…


When we got to the Bay Bridge, “traffic” started to pick up a bit…


As I was looking around me, I was noticing a demographic trend.


There were little people in all sizes…


at all levels…


with all kinds of different modes of non-motorized transportation…


You know, it seems so simple: if we want to have cities that are made for people (which I assume to be the purpose of a city) then all we have to do is make them usable for kids. Children are people, and if they’re happy and safe, then all of us are. We keep saying how everything we do, we do for our children. So the first logical step is to make the streets available to our youngest residents, and invariably the rest of us will start to have a really good time!

Think about it, adults are simply children who’ve forgotten how to play.


Give ’em an open street…


and they’ll come up with the most creative…


and geeky ways to put the fun back into functionality …


Streets are for lovers…


and for patriots!


Speaking of fun, what’s a city street without music?!?!?!


Don’t try this with cars in the street…


You know, the whole children-in-the-street thing may sound kind of naive, because we’ve become so used to ceding all our street space to cars and have come to accept the deadly hazards they present, but it’s important to remind ourselves how recent the introduction of automobiles into city streets really was. For most of human history parents didn’t have to teach their children to stay out of the street and pray that they wouldn’t forget.

Considering that pedestrian and bicycle projects receive less than 2 percent of federal transportation dollars, it’s no surprise that children playing in streets have become an endangered species. This is where events like Sunday Streets are so important in reminding people that not all streets have to automatically belong to cars and that the world doesn’t end because we can’t drive everywhere.

The opposite, it feels like the world really only begins once we meet again in the street. But to get there, we have to break the cycle of fear and fortification that has turned our streets into battle fields. It’s like we’re having to relearn the lost art of street life, and who better to start with than our youngest citizens?

Just past the Ferry Building, the SF Bike Coalition had their Freedom from Training Wheels course set up.


Future fearless street citizen!


After a delicious lunch sandwich and coffee at the Ferry Building, Deb and I decided to head back southward. We didn’t get far, because right around the Bay Bridge a crowd had gathered around some super funkin’ groovin’ sounds by Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic.


Next thing we knew, a group of young ballerinas came dancing onto the scene, and to everyone’s (including the band’s) surprise we had ourselves an impromptu Bay Bridge Zydeco ballet performance.


It was quite surreal, beautiful, and a testament to the spontaneous magic of human beings coming together in the street.


We stayed till the last note was played and then followed along the bay to the sounds of SF streets legend Amandeep Jawa and his boombox bike.


That’s also where I caught this guy in the acrobatic act…


before witnessing some more acrobatics…


What? Me?


All in all, just an amazing day. While riding a bike in the city usually is a very guarded, boxed in, and tense experience, both Deb and I were relaxed and ecstatic. Having so much territory blocked off from cars and being able to cover so much city ground on bike felt amazingly liberating. When we got to the barricades at Mariposa Street, neither one of us wanted to leave, so we just turned around and rode back to the ballpark.

It really is that good when little people take over big streets!


About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • San Francisco must be the heart of a vortex leading directly to the Source of Love. You know what’s really awesome? That you guys share these beautiful stories and photos to inspire the rest of us. Thank you, Sven and Deb.

    • Thing is, Pam, this one only happens 10 times this year, which is great, but the rest of the time we’re still drowning in cars like the rest of the country. The source is there, we just have to learn how to keep the lid open. 😉

  • For those who don’t know him, Richie Havens opened Woodstock. He is a music legend. I prefer to see him live because his stories are as good as his songs, and luckily he still tours. I got to see him a few years ago, and of the whole concert, the thing I remember most was his story about growing up, a kid in the 50s playing stickball in the street. In the story it was his turn to bring the stick — to break his mother’s broom so they could play the game. I realize your focus here was bicycles, but I also know you and Richie share a concern for the endangered practice of playing in the street.

    • I love Richie Havens, his guitar playing is stunning. And you know you have a healthy city when people old and young are playing in the street. There’s no better indicator, in my opinion.