The Lombard Street car restrictions have roundly been deemed a “closure,” a term with negative connotations. The other side of that action, that of opening the area for people, is ignored — as is the fact that auto domination is the status quo on San Francisco’s streets. Any impingement upon that norm that is framed as a loss.
From reading headlines found in other news sources around the country, you’d think the street is simply being closed to everyone. Cars are vaguely mentioned, if at all, while the whole “temporary trials on some afternoons” thing often gets washed over, with Lombard deemed simply and totally “closed.” Here are a few typical examples:
- Washington Post: “San Francisco to close off iconic Lombard Street to tourists”
- USA Today: “S.F. to temporarily close ‘world’s crookedest street’”
- SF Chronicle: “Lombard Street to close on 4 busy weekends this summer”
Put simply, unfettered access by cars is equated with “access”. If one cannot drive there, one cannot go there. And as those important distinctions are blurred, we lose sight of what we deem important uses of our streets.
The verbal gymnastics used to avoid mentioning cars are present not just in headlines, but in everyday conversation. In discussions about behavior on the streets, notice how often the operators of motor vehicles are described as just “people” — for example, “People are always flying down this hill.” Not that drivers aren’t people, but the mode of transport is a key distinction to make. People using other modes usually get explicit labels that posit them as “others” — people on bikes are “cyclists,” and people just walking around are “pedestrians.”
When the discussion is framed in ways like these, the role cars play is put behind the curtain. The conversation then takes for granted that most public space will be devoted to the private automobile, and most people will travel by car.
If we can’t explicitly talk about problems and their causes, we can’t talk about fixing them. And if we can’t acknowledge the subtle ways in which our lexicon is inherently centered around cars, we can’t talk about the ways in which we’ve adapted our lives, and cities, to accommodate their costs.