Grab the Brass Ring!


The carousel at Yerba Buena Gardens

Leaving downtown one exceptionally fine afternoon last week, I chose to walk home instead of take public transit. At 3rd and Howard, where the sidewalk remains closed due to one of San Francisco’s countless construction sites, I turned and headed over to 4th Street, and was about to turn onto 4th when I looked up to see the carousel at Yerba Buena Gardens.

There was no reason to hurry, so I lingered by the entrance, watching the children riding the ornate herd that galloped by in a grand, up and down rolling loop. The fairground sound of carousel music washed away the racket of rush hour outside.


A row of four giraffes await their riders

This was the carousel where my future husband had taken me on a date the first year we dated. I reminisced fondly as I watched the hand-carved horses and camels, one with a monkey crouching on its rump, and the rams and giraffes circling in front of me. Then I recalled another carousel my mother used to take me to when I was a child.

I always chose a horse on the outside. I loved to reach way out on the wooden steed as we passed the dispenser that contained a hundred silver rings, and try to grab the brass ring. Sometimes I did catch it, and then I got to ride again for free.

I continued on my way by abandoning the sidewalk alongside 4th Street in favor of the footpath through Yerba Buena Gardens, which is really more a park than a garden. It was something I could do because I was on foot.

San Francisco is an increasingly congested city, its inhabitants stressing a little more each time they try to go somewhere.

What folly, to creep entangled in a snarl of other vehicles to each intersection, watching one change of the signal after another till you’re finally through, and then it’s a matter of yards to the next intersection. One BART conductor likes to announce over the public address system on his train leaving the Oakland station for San Francisco: “Like a herd of turtles we race to the next stop.” We are a herd of turtles in San Francisco nowadays. Why is the City not acknowledging that there are too many cars clogging up our streets?

People get around San Francisco in a number of ways. Many, like myself, opt to walk because we truly enjoy it. But there are also those who react with bewilderment when I tell them I prefer to walk to get places. Most of the time, I can get where I’m going faster on foot, I tell them. I find it to be less stressful than being on a bus or streetcar in this mess. And I get some exercise.

This is met with silent contemplation by some, who no doubt are replaying their most recent torturously slow ride in a car through San Francisco. Data from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority shows that traffic speeds on the City’s arterial roadways during peak travel periods are dropping precipitously. The latest staff memorandum tentatively suggests the slowdown is due to the ubiquitous construction sites that close traffic lanes (in addition to sidewalks), plus massive job growth, and a resulting influx of newcomers into the region. Though unacknowledged by the CTA in its biannual report, the tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft cars flooding our City streets, unchecked, are more likely the reason for the average traffic speed during the afternoon’s peak travel period slowing from 16 miles per hour in 2013, to 12.7 mph in 2015. That’s a 20 percent decrease in two years. The morning’s peak average traffic speed has also plummeted, by 14 percent, from 17.1 mph to 14.6 mph in the same two-year period.

(Data compiled from CTA biannual reports for the years 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 demonstrate this peak travel slowdown on arterial roadways dramatically in graph and table format. To view, click on this link:  Average Automobile Travel Speed, SF 2007-15 as revised.)

Due to construction of the Central Subway, traffic from I-280 North was detoured from King St. onto a side street on two occasions in 2015. Here, a Lyft passenger tired of waiting for the traffic signal at 3rd St. to change gets out to walk.CIMG2723

The nearly stopped traffic hasn’t stopped people from getting into cars — if not their own, someone else’s. On the contrary, if anything, the increased amount of time it takes to get anywhere in all that traffic seems to have convinced folks that it is more necessary than ever to get in a car. It is as if they believe the distance between points A and B is further than it actually is. Time stuck in traffic has warped their sense of distance.

Talk about riding the merry-go-round!

Pausing to watch children on a carousel was not in my plans when I chose to walk home that afternoon instead of take public transit. I would never have gotten that reward of sunshine and the breeze on my face had I been in a car or a bus or streetcar, getting stuck at every intersection for several changes of the light.

I felt like I’d grabbed the brass ring.












Published by

Bettina Cohen

I've watched the little corner of San Francisco where I live get "built out" and the neighborhood grow by leaps and bounds to its current near-completion status. I am the author of hundreds of published articles, two nonfiction book chapters published as part of an authoritative guide series, and an unpublished novel. I recently resumed freelance writing as a community reporter for The Potrero View.

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