Lombard Street is one of the most recognizable sites in San Francisco. It seems like everybody knows about “the crookedest street in the world”. I always assumed that the construction of an 8-hairpin road caused a stir in the media and a crowd to flock for its grand opening. Well, that was not the case. Actually, the curvy street existed for 40 years before anybody even cared.
Lombard Street was straight when it was first built. The block between Hyde and Leavenworth St was super steep, but it wasn’t a big deal until the car came along. The cars of that time couldn’t handle the 40% grade slope. Residents of the hyde/lombard block were upset that they couldn’t get their fancy new cars to their houses, so the city called on Clyde Healy, who designed the curvy solution. The city agreed to pay for the road, and the residents agreed to pay for the stairs, street lights, and the plants. The final route was completed in 1922, and reduced the grade to 16%.
The hairpin turns solved the accessibility problem, but created a new dilemma: erosion. To fix the issue of erosion, hydrangea bushes were planted along side the road. In 1961, a photographer captured the crooked road lined with flowers and printed the image on a postcard. The street became instantly famous and tourists flocked to see for themselves.
Today, the tourists are still flocking. I visited the site today and it was incredibly crowded. Pedestrians gathered at the top to take pictures of the view, blocked the streets, and jammed the stairs on either side of the road.
There were even more visitors in cars. There is a traffic cop at the top and bottom of the hill 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. I talked to one tourist who waited in traffic for 45 minutes for the chance to drive down the winding road (which, by the way, takes 30 seconds). My husband says, “I guess he wasn’t bent-out-of-shape by lombard street!”