Whatever you might happen to think about San Francisco’s District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly, we should at least thank him for reigniting the conversation about closing off Market Street to cars, specifically the over two mile stretch between The Embarcadero and Octavia Boulevard in Hayes Valley. This comes fast on the heels of plans to close off car access to several miles of The Embarcadero for two weekends later this summer (one of which is Labor Day), plans that have prompted protests by angry Fisherman’s Wharf merchants. Yes, the discussion of car-free Market Street does resurface from time to time, and “Da Mayor” Willie Brown’s former proposal of such a policy was unsuccessful — but it is nonetheless encouraging to see that the conversation continues. Merchants, of course, will always raise hell protesting any proposal that involves limiting vehicular access to their stores, but anyone in San Francisco who is in the know and who drives a car (or is that an oxymoron?) already tries to avoid Market Street, except to cross it. We should be careful when applying the usual merchant complaints (usually raised in the context of neighborhood commercial districts) to a discussion of Market Street, which is a special case that deserves a special conversation — and which is a natural location to experiment with the creation of livable urban spaces. Market Street is not a place to “score a parking spot,” and essentially any location from the Ferry Building to the Castro District is a short stroll from a subway station, to say nothing of the plethora of bus stops lining the street from end to end.
|Market Street, as it once was:
The Bay Area gets no more transit-rich than Market Street. Besides frequent local and regional underground rail service, the surface of San Francisco’s main boulevard features a lively and hectic mix of historic streetcars, bus lines converging from neighborhoods all across the City, and bus stops both on the curbs and island platforms — complete with constant pedestrian flow and people jumping across the so-called “safety zone,” which is the lane that separates bus boarding islands from the sidewalk. In some sense, Market Street has not changed all that much from what it must have been like in the early 20th century. The automobile has replaced horse and carriage, and there is only one pair of surface streetcar tracks used by the F-Market & Wharves line, instead of the two pairs we once had (the other pair was rebuilt below ground). Rather than being inundated by streetcars, as in the image at right, the Market Street of today is inundated largely by buses, punctuated by the occasional splash of color from an F-Market historic streetcar. But what has not changed is that fundamentally, Market Street is still best suited to pedestrians and transit riders; dense transit and pedestrian traffic, combined with highly restricted automobile turns, make Market Street a taxing experience for drivers. But really, San Francisco’s main boulevard could be made a more successful place for everyone, no matter what their mode of transportation is. Current conditions are not especially friendly for cyclists, though that would certainly improve if only we could free up pavement now used by automobiles. Market Street is transit-rich, but congestion prevents transit from being truly functional, at least at peak travel times. And although pedestrians enjoy generously wide sidewalks, auto-pedestrian collisions, most of which occur in the unaptly-named “safety zone,” suggest that we must go further to maximize pedestrian safety.
In the image directly at left, the backed up lane to the right of the streetcar boarding island (the “safety zone”) is also the bicycle lane between 4th and 5th Streets — a lane that cyclists happen to share with cars and buses. Space is at a premium, so the trade-off for wide sidewalks and boarding islands (which are needed to allow for two lanes with transit activity) is a narrower bicycle lane. The space freed by banning cars could be used for a permanent, well-marked bicycle lane. And how about transit? A primary pillar of the SFMTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project, which is currently preparing for the environmental review phase, is that key corridors should be given transit preferential treatment. But what corridor in San Francisco is more key than Market Street? It is hard to envision a greater commitment to transit preferential treatment than banning private vehicles. Over a dozen Muni routes travel along the surface of Market Street — some for only a few blocks, but many for much longer than that — and it is precisely these routes that begin their runs on or very close to Market. Traffic delays get buses off their schedule right from the get-go (yes, we’re told that Muni actually does keep a schedule hidden away at headquarters), and the delays then propagate throughout the whole length of the run. This harms reliability and on-time performance rates, causes buses to arrive in bunches, and annoys riders in the process. Giving transit space to breathe on Market Street will not only keep buses throughout the City on schedule; it will also create an environment that could support more frequent service on primary routes, which is another pillar of the Transit Effectiveness Project.
Someone is no doubt ready to cry out in retort: traffic congestion is just part of city life, right? What city’s main downtown thoroughfares aren’t clogged at rush hour? Don’t cars add to some of the noise and chaos that makes the big city, well … the big city? In calming and civilizing Market Street, might we inadvertently destroy its heart and soul? There is actually a very fair point lurking behind these retorts. Some experiments with creating car-free zones have been quite successful: Copenhagen’s Strøget is a famous example. Others, particularly those in the United States, have become unsuccessful “dead zones.” In the less successful cases, cities have terminated the experiment, permitting the return of automobiles. Many of these car-free zones were quite small and not particularly ambitious; Market Street is distinguishable from these examples in many ways: including its size, its transit, and its already established importance as a major employment and retail center for the City and the Bay Area.
|State Street in Chicago.
Courtesy Flickr user mss2400.
But we would be remiss not to mention State Street in Chicago (pictured at right), which, like Market, is a major downtown transit street. State Street’s once-bustling retail district lay at the heart of downtown Chicago, but like so many other urban centers, State Street experienced decline in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the advent of suburban shopping malls. It was partially in response to this decline that State Street was pedestrianized in 1979, in an attempt to create a distinctive district that would draw shoppers back to the urban center. But the once-lively boulevard only sank further into neglect. The experiment with a car-free State Street failed, and in 1996, the street was redesigned to accommodate four lanes of vehicle traffic. The formerly wide sidewalks were kept purposely narrow to help reduce the feeling of emptiness on the street. There are obvious parallels between Market Street and State Street, but does the failure of an auto-free zone in 1979 Chicago automatically imply the failure of a similar experiment in 2008 San Francisco? In 2008, while plenty of people still seek the American dream of raising a family in a suburban house with a yard and a car, there has been a resurgence of interest in urban centers and an increased appreciation for the convenience of a city lifestyle. But in the 1970’s, the American dream was alive and well; urban centers all around the country, including State Street before it was pedestrianized, were decaying. And unlike the expensive shops lining nearby North Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, State Street featured the type of mid-level retail that became increasingly prominent in suburban malls, which meant that State Street lacked a unique experience to draw suburbanites to the city center. Despite the apparent similarities between State Street and Market Street, the differing contexts suggest that there is still reason to believe that the car-free experiment could be more successful in San Francisco than it was in Chicago.
Even if cars are banned from Market Street, drivers would still be able to cross the street at each intersection, and Market Street itself would still be open for all transit vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians; very likely also commercial deliveries and taxicabs. It is really these users that give Market Street most of its activity and energy, so banning cars may just remove congestion without removing street energy. Moreover, the major parking garages around downtown and Civic Center are located off of Market Street itself, so the experience of parking an automobile downtown would not change appreciably. This suggests that the merchants of a car-free Market Street would not suffer from decreased visitors and pedestrian traffic. (Remark: Personally, I would like the parking experience downtown to change appreciably, by becoming more difficult. But the point here is that the commonly raised parking excuse loses credibility in this instance.)
If private cars are not ultimately banned, there are still ways to make Market Street safer and more successful through better enforcement of double parking and smart street design (traffic calming, transit preferential treatment). Restricting through-traffic, by forcing all vehicles to turn off of Market at certain points, is another promising method, although it does impact pedestrians and bicyclists. A 2004 SFCTA study found that forcing all eastbound vehicles to turn right at 8th Street would decrease traffic volume at 4th Street by 35%; similarly, forcing eastbound vehicles to turn right at 4th Street would decrease traffic volume at 1st Street by 30%. Forced right turns would at least reduce traffic volume and would discourage motorists from using Market as a long-distance through traffic corridor. Long distance drivers would instead be encouraged to use Mission, Howard, or another parallel street. Still another course of action might be to ban autos, as an experiment, from smaller segments of concentrated activity, like 1st through 5th Streets, rather than the entire length from The Embarcadero to Octavia, as was proposed by Supervisor Daly. Implementing these sorts of solutions, while not as “pure” as a completely auto-free Market Street, can still go a long way toward improving both transit flow and safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
The real point here is that Market Street is a special place that deserves careful thought and attention. Even if private cars have not yet been banned, it is good that the City continues to have this conversation in search of a solution to the Market Street puzzle. And while we do not necessarily want to get into the habit of quoting Supervisor Daly, he does have a good point that when discussing San Francisco’s main boulevard, we should “go for the gold” — because even if we do not get the gold, we might at least get silver or bronze. Rock on, Chris, rock on.