Utilities in the streetscape consist of utility poles and overhead wires, surface-mounted utility boxes, utility mains, laterals, vaults, and valves. They include sewer, water, gas, and telecommunications, as well as traffic signals, street lights, and Muni poles and wires.

Utility installation can occur as a new installation (on new streets or as a part of new development), retrofit or upgrade to an existing system (such as undergrounding of overhead wires or sewer upgrades), or emergency repair. Utility installations, upgrades, consolidation, rearrangements, or realignments may also occur as part of other street or sidewalk improvement projects. Utilities are a necessary and ubiquitous element of streetscape environments. Though essential, utilities often constrain the ability to locate other streetscape elements and can create a cluttered visual environment. Conversely, other streetscape elements may conflict with the ability to access and maintain utilities.

Well-organized utility design and placement can lead to:

  • minimization of streetscape clutter to achieve a cohesive streetscape design
  • maximization of space for plantings
  • improved efficiency of utilities and integrated alignment with stormwater facilities, street furnishings, and street lighting
  • reduced cutting and trenching
  • possible reduction of long-term street and sidewalk closures
  • reduced long-term maintenance conflicts and potential costs
  • improved pedestrian safety, quality of life, and right-of-way aesthetics


Locating Utilities

Utilities should be placed to minimize disruption to pedestrian through travel and potential planting and site furnishing locations while maintaining necessary access for maintenance and emergencies, per the following guidelines:

Roadway/Parking Lane: Large utility vaults such as network or transformer vaults, and conduits running the length of a city block, should be located in the roadway or parking lane where access requirements allow.

This may not be feasible on all locations. For example, in streets with large transport storage boxes or train stations covering most of the street, the utilities will need to be placed in sidewalk area.

Utility vaults located in the street must be rated to City loading standards based on expected use and vehicle type.

Edge zone: Small utility vaults such as residential water vaults, residential water meters, gas valves, gas vaults, or street lighting should be located in the edge zone wherever possible to minimize conflicts with existing or potential tree locations. Vaults should be aligned or clustered wherever possible.

Generally, utility boxes are sited in the direction of the pipe.

  • Utility boxes that are parallel with the curb should be located in the edge zone or throughway zone where possible, or between existing or potential street tree or sidewalk landscape locations.
  • Utility boxes that are perpendicular to the curb should be located between existing or potential street tree or sidewalk landscape locations, such as where pass-throughs to parked cars are placed.

Furnishings zone: Utility vaults and boxes should be located outside of the furnishings zone wherever possible to maximize the number and size of tree wells and the ability to connect tree wells into continuous strips.

Utility laterals should run adjacent to, not directly under, potential site furnishing and tree planting locations wherever possible (such as through driveways or between tree basins). Subsurface utility conduits and irrigation lines should avoid running under the length of the planting area to minimize root interference. Water meters should also be located outside this zone where possible to avoid interference from tree roots. Street trees should maintain adequate clearance from water meters to avoid damage to the meter from tree roots.

If several shallow utility laterals are unavoidable, planting areas may still be created and should utilize ground cover or low shrub plantings without the incorporation of deep-rooted trees. See Greening and Stormwater Management.

Surface-mounted utilities may be located in the furnishings zone, per DPW Director’s Order #175,566. Surface-mounted utilities such as hydrants and air valve enclosures must be set on a concrete base if located within planted areas Throughway Zone: Utility vaults and conduits running the length of the city block may be located in the throughway zone. Vaults in the throughway zone should meet DPW Director’s Order #176,112 guidelines for slip-resistant covers.

Large utility vaults should be placed at least 3 feet from building and 4 feet from curb where sidewalk widths allow.

Surface-mounted utilities should not be located in the throughway zone.

Frontage Zone: Utility vaults and valves may be placed in the frontage zone. Placement of utility structures in this zone is preferred only when incorporating utility vaults into the edge zone is not feasible.

Utility vaults in the frontage zone should not be located directly in front of building entrances.

Extension Zone: Utility vaults and valves should be minimized in curb extensions where plantings or site furnishings are desired.

Surface-mounted utilities may be located in curb extensions outside of crossings and curb ramp areas to create greater pedestrian through width.

Surface facilities such as sidewalks or medians may be located above utility mains and laterals. Projects that install surface facilities located above utilities may be required to pay for the cost of removal and reconstruction of the surface facilities associated with future sewer maintenance. Consult the SFPUC Planning and Regulatory Compliance Division regarding the design and construction of such facilities. 

With curb extensions or sidewalk widenings, utilities such as water mains and meters may remain in place as it may be cost-prohibitive to move them. Pipes between new and existing curb locations must be replaced in accordance with SFDPW Standard Plan 87,196. Side sewer vents must be relocated such that traps will be at the face of new curb, and must be kept accessible for maintenance. 

Where curb lines will be changed resulting in a smaller curb-to-curb area, or raised medians or islands will be added in the roadway, the proposed design should be reviewed by DPW Hydraulics to ensure that there is sufficient hydraulic capacity within the street cross-section. Stormwater features can help to offset reduced capacity.

Driveways: Utility laterals and vaults should be located so as to avoid potential street tree and sidewalk landscaping locations. Particularly in instances where there are frequent driveways, alternate locations for utilities should be sought so as not to take up available street tree planting locations. Utility boxes may be located in driveways if the sponsor provides a vehicle-rated box; however, this is not a preferred solution due to access difficulties.

Pedestrian Crossings and Curb Ramps: New utility structures should not be placed within street crossing and curb ramp areas wherever possible.

If existing vaults conflict with ramp areas, vaults should be moved or modified to meet accessibility requirements as feasible as part of utility upgrades.

Catch basins and surface flow lines associated with storm drainage systems should be located away from the crosswalk or between curb ramps. On new streets, catch basins should be located upstream of pedestrian pathways and crosswalks. Catch basin locations should reference DPW Standard Plans for placement location.


Utilities should be consolidated for efficiencies and to minimize disruption to the streetscape, per the following guidelines:

  • Dry utility lines and conduits (telephone, CATV, electric, and gas, etc.) should be initially aligned, rearranged or vertically stacked to minimize utility zones. Designers should refer to the Typical Distribution Trench schematic (from PG&E) for placement of joint utilities within a public utility easement.
  • Wherever possible, utility conduits, valves, and vaults (e.g. PG&E, or street lighting and traffic signals) should be consolidated if multiple lines exist within a single street or sidewalk section.
  • Dry Utilities (gas, telephone, CATV, primary and secondary electric, streetlights) should use shared vaults wherever possible. Shared vaults should be installed with predetermined color-coded conduits per predetermined city standards with a consideration for future public and private conduits. Private companies would have the option to purchase from the City or Utility any unused networks of existing conduit in-lieu of installing a new a separate conduit route along a constrained street.
  • Surface-mounted utilities should share boxes wherever possible.
  • Street lighting, traffic signal, and MUNI catenary poles should share poles wherever possible, and wherever doing so would not significantly alter the placement of these elements per the guidelines in other sections of this document. When retrofitting existing streets or creating new streets, pursue opportunities to combine these poles.

Design Guidelines

Street design and new development should consider overall pattern of plantings, lighting, and furnishings when placing new utilities in the street, and locate utility lines so as to minimize disruption to the prevailing streetscape rhythms per the following guidelines:

  • Utilities should be located underground wherever possible, as opposed to overhead or surface-mounted.
  • New utilities should use durable pipe materials that are resistant to damage by tree roots, such as ductile iron, polyethylene, or polypropylene pipes. The preferred material for water pipes is ductile iron. (Use of plastic material for sewer pipes shall be approved by the SFPUC on a case by case basis. Materials for new utilities should follow DPW Standard Specifications.)
  • New utilities should use pipes with minimal joints.
  • Utility vault covers should be made of slip resistant materials, per DPW Director’s Order #176,112.
  • The City should pursue the use of “trenchless” technologies, such as sealants, pulling cables through tunnels, etc. wherever possible, to avoid excavation and disruption of streetscape elements.
  • New infrastructure projects should use resource-efficient utility materials, such as recycled PE conduit instead of PVC conduit, as stock materials deplete.
  • Re-used or recyclable materials should be incorporated wherever possible.
  • Tree removal should be avoided and minimized during the routing of large-scale utility undergrounding projects. Tree removal is subject to DPW Bureau of Urban Forestry requirements. See Street Trees.
  • Any utility-related roadway or sidewalk work should replace paving material in-kind (e.g. brick for brick) where removed during emergency or construction per DPW Excavation Code
  • If a proposed street improvement project will affect an existing manhole, DPW Hydraulics must be consulted to assess feasibility and design options. Where landscaped medians are proposed for stormwater management, it may be possible for existing manholes to be raised (6 inches above finish grade) to form an overflow drain inlet within the depressed planted median.
  • Sewer laterals should be installed as perpendicular to the face of the curb as possible.

Access and Maintenance

Major utilities (sewers, fire hydrants, gas and water meters and mains, manholes and utility vaults, and utility poles) should be installed at least 5 feet from the edge of existing or proposed tree basins.

Minor utilities (laterals, vaults, valves, etc) should be installed at least 3 feet from the edge of new or existing tree basins.

Utility Poles should be accessible by a 3-foot path.

Refer to City and County of San Francisco Standard Plans and Excavation Code for utility installation standards.

New Development and Major Redevelopment

Within new development and major redevelopment areas:

  • New residential development areas should incorporate alleys for vehicle, utility, and service access so as to enable a more consistent streetscape and minimize aboveground utilities.
  • New development should locate new utilities to minimize disruption to streetscape elements per guidelines in this section.


Currently abandoned dry conduits should be reused or consolidated if duplication of lines are discovered during street improvement projects. Utilities should be contacted for rerouting or consolidation.

Where it is not possible to reuse abandoned mains, conduits, manholes, laterals, valves etc., they should be removed per agency recommendations when possible in order to minimize future conflicts.

Abandoned water and sewer lines may be retrofitted as dry utility conduits where available or if possible to minimize the need for future conduit installations.


Utilities should be installed during a full-street, half-street, or full or partial sidewalk improvements rather than as a separate utility cut wherever possible.

New development should submit utility plans with initial development proposals so that utilities may be sited to minimize interference with potential locations for streetscape elements.

Utility installation or repair should be conducted from the bottom up; scheduled utility installation or repair should occur prior to planned street reconstruction or major streetscape improvements. Utility relocation, spacing, and replacement should be coordinated and approved with utility owners.

The City should use major utility work as an opportunity to build streets back to desired conditions.

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