According to the city archivist, San Francisco has 43 hills ranging upward from 200 to 938 feet.
But for those whose favorite sport is scaring friends from the flatlands, only five really count. The city’s 10 steepest through streets (open to vehicles) are conveniently confined to Russian and Nob Hills and Pacific, Dolores and Buena Vista Heights.
Most of these eccentric arteries are marked at the point where they vanish into space with yellow “Hill” or “Grade” signs. What this means is “Don’t try it unless you’ve had your brakes checked recently.” In such precipitous surroundings, keeping parked cars in place is a matter of municipal concern. The city ordinance requiring drivers to “CURB WHEELS. PARK IN GEAR. SET BRAKE,” applies to every degree of incline. Though not posted, another good rule is to stop well behind the car in front when traffic backs up on a hill; it may roll back while the gears engage.
Hill dwellers have their own set of rules:
Don’t charge downhill in brand new leather-soled shoes; they’re to cement what skis are to snow.
Don’t open the door on the car’s downhill side with a bag of groceries on the front seat; cantaloupes, oranges, round roasts and toilet paper roll for blocks.
Don’t pretend you’re Steve McQueen in the “Bullitt” chase scene; you’ll rupture your shocks, get a ticket or both.
Here, according to the city Bureau of Engineering, are the steepest of the steep in descending order:
1. & 2. Filbert between Leavenworth and Hyde; 22nd Street between Church and Vicksburg, both 31.5 percent gradient.
3. Jones between Union and Filbert, 29 percent.
4. Duboce between Buena Vista and Alpine, 27.9 percent.
5. & 6. Jones between Green and Union; Webster between Vallejo and Broadway, both 26 percent.
7. & 8. Duboce between Divisadero and Alpine; Duboce between Castro and Divisadero, both 25 percent.
9. Jones between Pine and California, 24.8 percent.
10. Fillmore between Vallejo and Broadway, 24 percent.
Parking on the foregoing is, in most cases, perpendicular to the curb and sidewalks are stepped to give pedestrians a better footing. The intersections at their summits have been graded for 20 feet or so to prevent cars from scraping bottom at the crest.
Some of San Francisco’s most celebrated slopes don’t make the grade. Lombard’s 1,000 block, known for its switchbacks as “The World’s Crookedest Street,” is only an 18 percent incline. Hyde where the cable cars schuss down to Aquatic Park is 21.3. Mason where it plunges down Nob Hill’s south face next to the Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental Hotel is 22.2.
There is, however, a sleeper not officially listed among the top 10. Kearny between Vallejo and Broadway (29.8 percent), though walled at the top, is accessible to vehicles via Romolo and Fresno alleys. Clambering up or down Kearny’s 145 madly irregular steeps is an adventure in itself.
The surest way to get a rise out of a visitor from the steppes is to zip down Filbert Street’s 31.5 grade (it’s one-way) and up intersecting Jones’ 29 percent pitch. Even the most blasé blanch. The old chestnut about Filbert is that only a nut would drive down its 1100 block. There’s also the saying, “When you get tired of walking around San Francisco, you can always lean against it.”
Taxi company maintenance foreman maintain that hard-driving San Francisco cabbies burn out their brakes every 1,500 to 2,500 miles. Brakes and gear boxes aside, the views are smashing.