This Clever New Design Solves San Francisco’s Housing Crisis By Taking Space Away From Cars

A novel, but simple idea: With smaller streets, the city has more room for homes and people.

In cities with out-of-control rental markets like San Francisco–where a 1-bedroom apartment now goes for $3,500–part of the problem is that there’s limited space on the ground for new buildings that can squeeze everyone in. But one San Francisco resident has a brilliant suggestion: Why not take back some of the space that’s currently used by cars?


By shrinking down a wide street into two tiny side streets, traffic lanes, and parking spaces could turn into a narrow new block of buildings that match the height of current neighborhoods. The side streets–just wide enough to fit an occasional car–could turn into charming cobbled roads where people actually want to walk and spend time.

“My focus is how do we make San Francisco an even better city for people,” says Steve Dombek, an activist who is reimagining how local streets would look through a project called Narrow Streets SF. “For me, that means narrower streets, slower traffic, and more space for people. If you do that to the streets, it frees up a lot of space for more housing, which might be a creative way to address the housing shortage. Whether it can make San Francisco more affordable, I don’t know. But I think it would make it safer, more sustainable, and more pleasant for most people to live in.”

The narrow streets would be dedicated mostly to pedestrian traffic, while cars and bikes would travel on larger arterial roads. “Nathan Lewis suggests 80% of our streets should be narrow streets, and the rest should be arterials and boulevards,” says Dombek. “If you drive or bike, you can live on a safe, quiet street but still get somewhere quickly when you need to.”

On Dombek’s own block–a fairly ordinary-looking street with two lanes of traffic and parking on both sides–the redesign would allow for 45,000 square feet of new three-story housing. For the entire length of the street, the switch could create a million square feet (or even more, if the buildings went up a story or two).

“Right now I’m working block-by-block to get a figure for the whole city,” Dombek says. “It’s a work in progress.”

The project is unlikely to ever happen in the political climate of today’s San Francisco. “The people who support an idea like this generally aren’t the people who show up to community meetings,” Dombek says. “The process tends to be dominated by homeowners and hardline motorists, and we see their interests reflected in our streets. That needs to change if we want things to improve.”


Still, though it might not happen now, he argues that there’s evidence elsewhere that the layout could work. “In terms of technical feasibility, it would need to be studied,” he says. “But we can look at this type of traditional city design around the world and see that it works for most people. Kids and the elderly do particularly well if the streets are safe and they don’t need to rely on a driver for everything.”

“I started this for fun,” he adds. “No expectations. I hope it can change the way we think about our streets, and I hope people go out and support changes that move us in that direction.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.