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California considers toll and reservation system for San Francisco’s Lombard Street

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Photo by Mark Heard.

For decades, Lombard Street – the so-called “crookedest street in the world” – has served as one of the essential tourist stops in San Francisco, as instantly recognizable as the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz. But just as cities like Venice have lately begun to address the strains put on it by tourism, San Francisco’s city leaders may soon require anybody driving down the street to pay a toll.

“It has become increasing difficult to manage the crowds and traffic congestion on Lombard Street,” California Assemblyman and San Franciscan Phil Ting said in a statement. “AB1605 offers a fix worth trying to improve public safety and quality of life for residents.”

While Lombard runs from the windy streets of the Presidio, then concurrent with U.S. 101 through straight city streets on its way to Russian Hill (and then, after a gap near Coit Tower, straight again to the Embarcadero), its most famous one-block section lies between Hyde and Leavenworth streets, where it narrows to a single lane and makes eight switchbacks as it descends a 27 percent grade amid manicured gardens.

According to San Francisco’s Guidelines newsletter, Lombard didn’t always have its hairpins. Prior to the Twenties, the cobblestone street ran straight up and down, but was entirely unsuitable for automobiles. Terracing the street was proposed as early as 1905, but it wasn’t until 1922 that businessman Carl Henry – who owned many of the properties along that stretch of Lombard and wanted to increase his property values by making them accessible to automobiles – approached city engineer Clyde Healy with the switchback design that would reduce the grade to 16 percent.

As initially constructed, Lombard through this section remained a two-way street with steps along either side. It became one-way in 1939, but remained relatively unknown until the early 1960s, when a newspaper photograph of the street, lined with in-bloom hydrangeas, turned it into a tourist destination, leading to its “crookedest street” title.

(San Francisco’s Vermont Street, with seven curves and a 14.3 percent grade, vies with Lombard for that title, as does Snake Alley in Burlington, Iowa, with seven curves and a 21 percent grade.)

Photo by David Yu.

Lombard Street tourism has long caused headaches, as Guidelines noted. While the city has declined petitions to close the street to everybody but local residents multiple times in the Seventies and Eighties, it did close the street to tour buses in 1980. Perhaps due to that inaction, the street now sees more than 2 million visitors annually, with up to 350 cars an hour descending the street. Drivers reportedly wait for hours in line to drive the street, causing massive congestion in the area.

While state law allows the city to close the street, it doesn’t currently allow any local agency to charge for access to its roads – with only a few exceptions. AB1605, which Ting and Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced in February, would add the crooked section of Lombard Street to those exceptions by authorizing the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco to implement both a reservation and a pricing program for the street.

“A reservation and pricing program is a potentially useful tool for managing automobile demand and access for visitors to the street,” Ting and Bloom wrote. “It would reduce traffic congestion and fund program administration, traffic management, and enforcement.”

The board of supervisors is expected to hold two public hearings on the plan to charge for access to Lombard Street. No pricing has been announced, but the San Francisco County Transportation Authority recommended $5 per car weekdays and $10 weekends and holidays.

With approval from both California’s senate and assembly earlier this month, AB1605 now heads to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk.