Bicycles, Muni / SFMTA, Pedestrian Experience, San Francisco, Streetscape

Reclaiming Market Street

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.



27 thoughts on “Reclaiming Market Street

  1. Who the heck drives down Market Street anyway? My guess is out of towners who don’t know how to drive in the city making it more dangerous anyway. I’ve never driven down Market on a weekday or before midnight on a weekend

    Posted by The Overhead Wire | 28 July 2008, 1:43 am
  2. It’s a bullshit , feel good proposal, with no real backing to make it work. They’ll frakk up the roads frakk up the transit, and they’ll have no plan to integrate it into that bloody TEP they keep touting. Either integrate it into TEP and make it really sing, or Chris should just go back to bullying people for petty political crap like he usually does.

    Posted by njudah | 28 July 2008, 2:26 am
  3. Overhead Wire: yeah, most locals will definitely avoid it. And really, most of the time there aren’t that many cars on Market, except taxis, because locals know better. But the ones that are there seem to be just enough to get in the way.

    N-Judah: It may well be the case that Chris hadn’t integrated this with TEP in his mind when proposing it, but the opportunity for connecting them is pretty obvious. Anyway, you always do such a good job of grounding us in reality, every once in awhile I find the need to take the idealist route =)

    Posted by Eric | 28 July 2008, 7:13 am
  4. I’m a little perplexed why Daly picked Octavia as the cut-off point…it seems overly ambitious, and more likely to doom the project to failure (but then, it wouldn’t be a Daly idea otherwise). Why not just start with the Embarcadero to 5th section, which is unquestionably vibrant enough to survive without cars, and see how that goes? I’m not really sure what would happen to the Civic Center/Van Ness area if you took the cars out at this point, but increased vitalization and pedestrian usage hardly seems like a sure thing. Oh yeah, and I think a lot of locals *do* use Market at least long enough to make the left onto Franklin, so that at the very least seems like a more sensible point to start.

    Posted by Wes M | 28 July 2008, 10:25 am
  5. Eric,

    Thanks for framing this in terms of a “conversation.” It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing debate. And on that point, thanks for bringing up the idea of forced right turns at 8th. I would suggest, if folks would like to learn more about the range of possible solutions, that they check out examples of transit-oriented streets that retain auto access but reduce congestion by forcing right turns at corners (the Portland Transit Mall and Seattle’s 3rd Avenue spring to mind).

    It’s like Jane Jacobs said: Cars aren’t the problem; too many cars are the problem. On Market, there are just enough cars to cause problems. Or it may be that there are just enough motorists behaving badly to cause problems, and low-impact (design or enforcement) solutions might be available to improve behavior. In any case, we shouldn’t simply assume that what’s there now is the best possible design for all users, or that what’s there now is so f-ed that we have to take radical action.

    Posted by Steve Boland | 28 July 2008, 10:28 am
  6. It’s like Jane Jacobs said: Cars aren’t the problem; too many cars are the problem.

    It’s funny, that was the exact line I had in mind while writing this. The goal should be to improve on what we have, not to dogmatically insist on all-cars or no-cars. It’s that sort of extremes-only debate that leads to stalemate and inaction. Thanks for raising the Portland and Seattle examples.

    I started to write this post on Friday night, and a short while after closing it, coincidentally, I came uncomfortably close to a car that sped (particularly egregiously) through a red light on Market that I was sure it had to stop at, because of the wide intersection … but, I guess not. Had to cool off a bit after that incident before resuming writing about this. :)

    Posted by Eric | 28 July 2008, 11:19 am
  7. A reader just forwarded me this new post on one of the Examiner blogs about Market Street, pedestrian malls, and so forth:

    Examiner link

    It appears to claim that pedestrianization was the direct cause of State Street’s decline, which wasn’t really the case, although pedestrianization didn’t help. It also implies that Market Street has no residential population living near it, and has only tourists — which isn’t the case even now, but will be even less the case when mid-Market residential developments are completed. The Examiner post strikes me as more than a bit misleading.

    Posted by Eric | 28 July 2008, 12:16 pm
  8. Wes:

    I think the intent of Octavia is that it provides a clear path from Embarcadero to Valencia, another major bike artery for Mission. Also, since Octavia is the dumping point for the highway, it would require them to go straight North or turn Left– that makes perfect sense to me. And for your other implication on Daly plan being more than ‘reasonable’– have you ever negotiated before? You always go bigger than you expect to get and settle on a compromise… but Octavia sounds right for me (a Mission resident cyclist).

    Posted by mcas | 28 July 2008, 12:25 pm
  9. Meh. I guess I would care if I thought that this might speed up transit on Market Street, but I’ve been stuck for long periods of time on Muni in the freakin’ TUNNEL with no cars in sight too many times.

    Why can’t we be talking about widening sidewalks and taking out parking lanes on Stockton, or hell, how about making Powell no cars for another couple of blocks (to Union Square)?

    Sure, I’ve almost been run down by a car a couple times on Market too – but I’ve been almost nailed by a trolleybus at least as often. Most of the worst crazy drivers on Market seem to be cabs, but I think it would be a mistake to take cabs off of Market. Personal cars? As I said before, meh…

    Posted by Chris | 28 July 2008, 2:03 pm
  10. Eric, I don’t normally disagree with you much if at all, but I think this idea stinks. Market Street between Octavia and Golden Gate is already an uninviting wasteland: banning cars from it (or even substantially decreasing their numbers) is only going to make it more deserted.

    Good for you for at least acknowledging that State Street happened. I’ll add another datapoint: Chestnut Street, in downtown Philadelphia, was also car-free or car-restricted during business hours for much of the 80s and 90s. But rather than turning into the pretty pedestrian mall that its implementors undoubtedly intended, it ended up as the dirtiest and least-used of Philly’s major downtown retail streets, comprised mostly of seedy discount stores and crumbling movie theaters, while just 2 blocks away Walnut and Sansom Streets were thriving, cars and all.

    If you want to improve Market Street west of Powell, some aggressive enforcement of anti-panhandling laws combined with actual reform of the city’s homeless shelter systems might be a good start.

    Posted by Doctor Memory | 29 July 2008, 8:53 am
  11. Doctor Memory, thanks for writing in. If you read my post carefully (and and the comments following), you’ll see that while I do believe a car-free Market Street would resonate well goals we have to improve the transit / bike-ped experience, what I am actually interested in is … improving the transit / bike-ped experience, rather than eliminating all cars, just to eliminate the cars. There certainly need to be fewer cars on Market. A solution that removes some of them so that transit can work would also be a good solution towards achieving that end. One such solution is to force right turns off of Market at certain points (as mentioned in the post).

    I’m actually far from convinced that car-free for over two miles is a good idea. If we do block off cars, it would probably be most effective in smaller sections. But the issue isn’t necessarily going to go away. Planners are already looking at a block-long transit/pedestrian mall for right in front of the new Transbay Transit Center.

    What I like more is the fact that we are talking about the issue, and that improving San Francisco’s main street remains in our minds. That is what the last line “Rock on, Chris, rock on” is referring to — not that I wholeheartedly support the plan.

    Hopefully that clarifies my position on this issue.

    Posted by Eric | 29 July 2008, 9:12 am
  12. Oh, and to add — if you gave me a choice of where in SF I would restrict car access, Market Street would not be at the top of the list. Some other options would probably be those couple of blocks of lower Powell that Chris already mentioned, and parts of Chinatown.

    Posted by Eric | 29 July 2008, 9:20 am
  13. Great post Eric,

    A few comments back, Chris mentioned the Market Street Tunnel and it me curious about what transit service was like (if at all) on State Street in Chicago and the other example of Chestnut in Philadelphia that Doctor Memory brought up. Not that I support a closure, but this is a difference that should probably be explicitly stated.

    Even if Market is closed to private cars there would still be the tens of thousands of pedestrians exiting Muni and BART onto Market no different than today.

    Posted by Jamison Wieser | 29 July 2008, 11:00 am
  14. Thanks, Jamison. This is a very good question. State Street is served by the Red Line subway. I’m not sure what surface transit was like on State Street during the years of closure, but thanks to Google Transit, we can quickly determine that State Street is now served by several bus lines. Comparable to Market Street, it seems, though I don’t know anything about the headways on those lines. I imagine that it was probably a similar level of service then, but I don’t know for sure.

    Posted by Eric | 29 July 2008, 11:05 am
  15. This article from 1996 suggests that there were drawbacks to having mostly buses on State Street in terms of general atmosphere.

    Posted by andrew | 29 July 2008, 4:04 pm
  16. Couple other examples (admittedly not major thoroughfares like Market):
    * Downtown Crossing in Boston (Washington St) – Pedestrian, limited vehicle access
    * Hotel Street in Honolulu – Transit only corridor

    I agree with one of the above posters though — I’d rather see a pedestrian/restricted vehicle zone on Powell or in/around Union Square (oh the merchants would revolt!). But it would be hot.

    I will admit, that when I see pictures of Park Avenue from the previous century, it makes me wish for a little of what we once had (before the auto):

    Posted by Dave | 30 July 2008, 9:27 am
  17. Thanks for linking to that Park Avenue image, Dave. I think that remains one of my favorite images I’ve run across yet on the Internet.

    Posted by Eric | 30 July 2008, 9:30 am
  18. I walk down Market from Hayes Valley to Civic Center daily. I can’t imagine the stretch between Octavia and 10th without cars. Those are very sketchy blocks and I find that the street traffic makes me feel a bit safer when walking at night. Without traffic, that area would be really desolate. Embarcadero to Fifth, maybe. There is a vibrant street life there already. Mid-market is a different story entirely.

    Posted by Rose | 30 July 2008, 12:38 pm
  19. Thanks to Google Street View, we have a Then-and-Now of NYC Park Ave:

    Posted by Josh | 30 July 2008, 4:13 pm
  20. I also wish this was framed around the transit advantage and agree that the initial proposal is absurdly long especially to be framed around the idea of a ped street

    In my dream I’d love to see the J routed down this section, unimpeded with signal priority all the way using new modern light weight, low floor vehicles

    It would provide some great redundancy and take pressure off of the subway

    Maybe this could even be extended to new spurs to places like Golden gate park

    It seem our poltical enviroment doesn’t allow for anyone to have real vision

    Posted by zig | 1 August 2008, 9:45 am
  21. Oh yeh in in my dream the new and impoved J no longer stops at stop signs!

    Posted by zig | 1 August 2008, 9:46 am
  22. My thought: no cars on market from embarcadero to about 4th or 5th would probably work well.
    1. it is already a pain to drive there
    2. There isn’t really any parking there
    3. It is a pretty quick walk
    4. There are 4 million transit options between this corridor.

    Maybe closing the street in that are from 6AM to Midnight o5 1AM would do some good. Personally, I live in the Oakland. I almost never drive to SF. It is a guarantee if I am going anywhere near downtown, the financial district or SOMA. Parking would be a big hassle and really expensive and take 40 times longer than hoping on BART or a transbay bus, but for South Bay visitors it is a bit harder. We need to work on some of the supporting infrastructure to make it easy to not drive for more of us.

    Posted by Jame | 2 August 2008, 3:30 pm
  23. @Zig we’ve got the same vision for a surface J-line with modern lowfloor streetcars. It would free up room and streetcars for other lines in the tunnel and make it faster to get N-Judah trains in and out at theDuboce portal.

    I looked into getting the outbound switch put in at Church & Market as part of next year’s rebuilding of the Church & Duboce area, and while I heard it was given some consideration, it would have been too expensive. Currently streetcars can turn from Church onto the inbound Market Street track, but there is no outbound turn and so cars would need to go up to Noe, then 17th back to Church.

    Posted by Jamison Wieser | 5 August 2008, 3:17 pm
  24. Count me in as another fan of the moving the J “upstairs.” If we’re going to implement TEP recommendations that place more stress on the turnback and the tunnel — turning M trains around at State, shortening N headways etc. — it could make a great deal of sense.

    Posted by Eric | 6 August 2008, 9:20 am
  25. Starting with the first few blocks around Embarcadero, to Fifth, makes good sense!

    Putting the J on the street sounds cool too.

    One smaller, more local example of a forced-right-turns downtown is Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. You can’t go more than a few blocks without turning, especially in the core area. It seems to work pretty well. They have a good amount of residential and commercial, and the bus stations there.

    Posted by Alexandra V. | 20 August 2008, 3:26 am


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