Word on the Street

There are lots of strange markings hiding on San Francisco’s streets. Dots and dashes, lines and shapes—to most passerby, they are almost invisible. But a few observant residents have noticed them and made these marks a journey into the past. After reading one of these chronicles, I began to pay closer attention to my surroundings. I noticed there were many stories waiting to be unearthed. So with just a little more research, I learned some intriguing snippets that I thought I’d share.



One of San Francisco’s small gifts to its pedestrians are its street signs—not the ones on poles for the drivers, but the ones further down. Walk to a street corner and look at your toes. Chances are, you’ll see the name of the street you’re about to cross. Let your eye follow the arc of the street corner, and you’re likely to find the name of the street you’re traveling along.

a street corner

Some say that this tradition was started after the 1906 fire, when everything that once stood burned down, leaving nothing but concrete. Who knows if this is truth or myth?

In a city filled with one way streets (and therefore a lack of street signs at eye level), these signs are a blessing. No longer does the wanderer need to examine the opposite corners of the street for hope of directions, which are often blocked by vehicles or showing you the thin sides of their profiles. No more figuring out the direction of traffic to determine which way driving eyes point and therefore which corner has the sign.

There’s a little extra charm, too. Since these signs are hand-stamped, not mass printed, there are occasional and delightful misspellings.



The asphalt roads of San Francisco are filled with all sorts of markings. There are the typical lane lines, the transient sprays of paint, and the cracks of time. Occasionally, they are interrupted by strange yellow circles.

Some of these circles are whole. Others are broken. Oftentimes, they have an arm (or is that a leg?) They usually appear in pairs or sets of pairs.

muni circles

These strange markings are the work of the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, the public transit system that, among other things, operates electric trolley buses. These yellow symbols are used by electric trolley conductors to operate their vehicles through intersections:

“They help operators time their acceleration properly as their electric trolley poles and train pantographs pass through the “breakers” that connect different sections of wire. The arms and gaps on the circle indicate which vehicles they apply to, based on the vehicle type and the direction of approach.”


Additionally, the circles are affectionately known as “tadpoles”, “frying pans”, “hamburgers”, and “pancakes”.



There is a lot of colorful paint on the grounds of our city. Curbs, utility markings, and construction sketches are just a few of the common ones. It makes it easy to miss the tiny ones, unless they’re colorful—like these are.

sewer dots

Many of San Francisco’s sewers rest on the road and butt up against the sidewalks. Their dark color blends in with the roads. But oftentimes, you’ll find a little pile of colorful dots entertaining them. They rest just at the edge of the curb.

These dots are the artistry of the Public Utilities Commission’s Mosquito Abatement Team. Their duty is to check the sewers and drains (amongst other potential locations for standing water) and deal with mosquitoes. So how do these dots fit in?

Each inspection period is color coded. If a sewer is inspected and it passes the test, it gets a little dot of the period’s color (say, blue). A badge of success, if you will. If a new inspector comes by and sees the blue dot, then he or she knows that this sewer has been inspected, and therefore moves on to another sewer to continue the job. And when the next inspection period comes, a new color is added on top of the old one.



Not all markings in the city are so small, though. Some are large. A few of these hint at something much, much larger lurking just beneath the surface.

At first glance, there’s a harmless old row of bricks. They are often partially covered in a layer of cement or asphalt. But as your eye follows the row, you realize that a curve is forming. Before you know it, your eye is back at the starting point. This isn’t a row, it’s a circle! One that would reach from one end of the intersection to the other, if it were actually centered on the intersection. As it is, it’s sitting on one edge of the crossroads.


These circles mark the locations of giant water cisterns beneath the streets. As history goes, the 1906 earthquake was so destructive because broken water lines and rubble in the streets hindered the fire department’s ability to fight the fires effectively. Fires burned out of control for days after the earthquake, leading to unprecedented damage. In its aftermath, citizens came up with a new plan to fight fires in the case of another large earthquake. One part of the plan was to have giant reserves of water throughout the city. These became the cisterns.

And what of the brick squares? If you’re on the outer reaches of the city, you’ll see these more than the circles. Well, they’re also cisterns. The reason as to why there are two shapes for one purpose? It is just another of the city’s mysteries.

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