I just spent a week visiting San Francisco for the first time, and one thing I can tell you: San Francisco has huge sidewalks. I guess it's because it had the relatively unique combination of being built during the time before cars, but out in the West where there was plenty of room to grow and expand… "The West" before WWII was pretty empty and wide open, and I guess there was plenty of space to lay out really wide streets. The amazing thing about this sidewalk, though, is that San Francisco never widened their street to accommodate another lane of traffic during the 50’s and 60’s, when this part of the city was surely overwhelmed with traffic. (I guess this had something to do with San Francisco’s excellent transit system, complete with vintage streetcars (!).) This particular sidewalk sits in the Mission District, somewhere around Mission & 22nd, and someone has, for some reason, laid tiles with multi-lingual geographic facts into the street. As an urban geographer, its impossible not to get excited by a sidewalk like this.
In fact, though, almost all of San Francisco has huge sidewalks, and its hard to feel like you're about to be hit by a car when you're walking around the city. Plus, almost everywhere you go there are interesting buildings and shops to look at as you stroll around, not to mention the fact that the topographic chaos makes for nice views and interesting little staircases that run through the neighborhoods.
One thing that you might think, though, is that San Francisco is so vibrant simply because everyone there is so rich... after all its a poster child of gentrification. But when I was there I spent quite a few time in neighborhoods that weren't that yuppified... places like the tenderloin and the Mission, where the streetside businesses sold cheap chinese goods leftover from the 80's if they sold anything at all. But even in these places (and even if they're disappearing), vibrant sidewalk and street life was everywhere to be found. Somehow, San Francisco has managed to maintain its walkable foundations, and historic buildings, and the end result is a real pleasure oustide of a few places near the freeways.
[Another gratuitous shot of a S.F. sidewalk downtown, away from Mission St. Look how wide! Two segways could pass side-by-side!]
Can any city develop a San Francisco-esque, walkable, and interesting street life? That's the real question, and I'd like to say "yes." I'd like to say that vibrant pedestrian-friendly spaces are a relatively attainable goal for almost any city, from Saint Cloud MN to Durham NC to New London CT, and that these sorts of infrastructural changes can be important economic and cultural drivers for entire regions. I'd like to say this, but it certainly helps to have a good economy, land shortage, and a large region of relatively un-bulldozed historical buildings around...