San Francisco’s Busiest Street Is Going Car-Free - CityLab
A just-approved plan will redesign Market Street to favor bikes, pedestrians, and public transit vehicles. But the vote to ban private cars didn’t happen overnight.
A weekday bike commute on Market Street is like running an obstacle course for your life. For the unprotected 1.5 miles between Eighth Street and the Embarcadero, cyclists must swerve around streetcar tracks and bus platforms, negotiate with clots of crossing pedestrians, and dodge cars, delivery trucks, and buses weaving in and out of lanes. Little wonder that Market is part of San Francisco’s “High Injury Corridor,” the 13 percent of streets that make up 75 percent of the city’s severe and fatal collisions.
Prepare for some big, structural change. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of supervisors approved the Better Market Street project, a $600-million plan to kick out cars and make space for people. When the work is complete, center lanes will be the sole province of Muni’s historic streetcars and rapid buses. Cyclists will enjoy a continuous bike lane, separated from the much-widened pedestrian sidewalk by benches, bike racks, planters, and railings. Taxis will be allowed, but Uber and Lyft vehicles will have to use dedicated loading zones on side-streets. No personal vehicles will be allowed, at all.
In the U.S., these kinds of downtown automotive blockades can be among the most controversial moves a city government can make. Just look at New York City’s brand-new 14th Street busway, which survived two lawsuits and a court injunction. But not only did San Francisco’s board of directors approve the Market Street plan unanimously, endorsements for it also came from the mayor, several city agencies, elected officials, business owners, and the very ride-hailing companies that would be affected. “We support the Better Market Street project because it is deeply aligned with Lyft’s vision: reorienting our cities around people, not cars,” a transportation policy manager at Lyft wrote in a Medium post this year. Uber was also on board.
Even Aaron Peskin, a San Francisco supervisor who had previously criticized the cost of the project and leads the county’s transportation authority, ultimately supported the plan. There was virtually no opposition this time around.
How is that possible? It helps that this is San Francisco, one of the most socially progressive cities in the United States. But the city isn’t exactly a blueprint for brilliant urbanism—look no further than its struggles to build adequate housing. And the vote on the Market Street plan had been pushed back for years by bureaucratic delays since its inception nearly 10 years ago, when a pilot project by then-mayor Gavin Newsom gave rise to the idea of prohibiting car traffic entirely. At that time, the radical-seeming idea put off plenty of residents. “[A] dead city center affects the entire region, including encouraging sprawl, a sluggish economy, poverty and crime,” warned one San Francisco Chronicle reader in 2012. In the late 1990s, under Mayor Willy Brown, local headlines about a Critical Mass ride that got ugly (“S.F. Bike Chaos—250 Arrests”) painted a picture of the kind of cyclist-driver antipathy that’s so familiar in other cities.