Bicycles, Pedestrian Experience, San Francisco, Streetscape

Market Street: Learning to Share

Arguing about how to solve the Market Street problem — usually via some sort of ban on automobiles — is a San Francisco pastime, given how often the topic resurfaces. So it should come as no surprise that although we discussed Market Street on this blog one full year ago, we are discussing it again now. And we will likely continue to discuss it in the future, as is fitting for what is (or at least should be) one of California’s premier urban spaces. Some of that talk might even translate into action.

A transit boarding island on Market Street.

The current design of Market Street is suboptimal for all modes. Throngs of buses and F-Market historic streetcars crawl at a snail’s pace, delayed by motorist queues that block bus and streetcar access to boarding islands. Surface transit riders exiting Muni vehicles fight their way onto the crowded, narrow boarding islands. The unfortunately-named “safety zones,” located between the sidewalk and the islands, commonly see collisions; legitimately “calming” the safety zones is critical to improving safety on Market Street, but previous attempts to do so have fallen flat. Meanwhile, there is no space marked for transit or bicycles for the full length of the street, even though bicycles and transit riders together comprise 55-70% of east-west trips. Market Street, particularly below Van Ness, is primarily a transit and pedestrian street. But the street’s diagonal sweep through central San Francisco, and its high concentration of destination points, has made it an increasingly attractive bicycle corridor. Automobiles contribute about 20% (or less) of east-west trips — but there are enough of them to contribute more than 20% of the problem.

What’s clear is that there is significant room for improvement. Perhaps less clear is what the best solution is. Too often the Market Street problem has been phrased as an “all or nothing” ultimatum: either automobiles are entirely eliminated from the full length of the street, or no movement at all is made toward progress. Should we insist that cars be banned entirely, so that other modes would enjoy dedicated lanes in which to move freely, and then redesign the streetscape to accomplish that goal? Or might imposing that level of orderly efficiency sanitize what one expects to be an inherently messy, chaotic urban space? Should all modes instead just take a chill pill, share the space, and acknowledge the need to coexist with others? Can’t we just all get along?

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority is hoping that we can — provided that we implement some traffic restrictions that even merchants are supporting.  The TA previously released a Strategic Analysis Report (SAR), the latest in the series of reports that investigate “Transportation Options for a Better Market Street.” The TA Board has now just adopted the final SAR (link to 5 MB externally-hosted PDF), approving the SAR’s recommendations for how to fix Market Street. Those recommendations, in a nutshell? Incremental improvements that do not strictly divide street space into modes, but rather, aim to manage shared space.

The overall flavor of the plan is not to ban automobiles completely, but to engineer traffic flow in a way that reduces motorists’ ability to use Market Street as a long-distance corridor. The plan would remove cars off of Market; but notably, it would not divert much new traffic to Mission Street, which is itself an important transit street served by regional bus routes and the suite of 14-Mission services. Instead, the TA’s preliminary studies suggest that traffic restrictions on Market would emphasize that Howard and Folsom are more appropriate as long-distance driving routes, and traffic on those streets might increase 6-10%.  Traffic restrictions forcing cars off of Market Street would be coupled with traffic calming, and improved transit and bicycle facilities. The changes would be phased in over the course of the next decade.

In the near future, within 9-18 months, the SAR recommends that a few relatively inexpensive changes (costing less than $1 million) be piloted at the intersection of 8th Street, Hyde, Grove, and Market. In addition to a potential pedestrian bulbout, drivers headed inbound on Market would be forced to turn right onto 8th, and southbound drivers on Hyde would be restricted from turning left onto Market. This would reduce traffic volumes near Union Square by about 20%-30%. It would also create an auto-free zone immediately east of 8th Street, permitting an extension of the bicycle lane.

Additional improvements would be timed with the resurfacing of Market Street planned for the year 2013, and further long-term changes could be implemented between 2013 and 2018. The long-term changes include additional traffic restrictions on lower Market, which would solidify Battery/1st, Montgomery/New Montgomery, and Kearny/3rd as straight cross-through points. The SAR also identifies a handful of more construction-intensive recommendations that carry a rough cost estimate of $150-200 million, including: painted bike lanes at intersection approaches that would allow bicyclists to move safely to the front of the intersection; midblock boarding islands, widened by at least two feet to be ADA-compliant; and improved transit and bicycle facilities extending at least as far east as 4th Street.



11 thoughts on “Market Street: Learning to Share

  1. This is a great summary of the recent history and current proposal.

    In the interests of injecting opinion and taking one side over the other, I’d like to say that a straight-down-the-middle compromise like the TA plan will leave us with sub-optimal, as you put it, Market Street for a decade or more.

    Arguments that have resulted in watered-down auto restrictions were based on fears that banning cars would dampen economic activity. Fears which ware not based on fact, but given weight as if they were for no good reason.

    The TA’s own study showed that auto trips generated a tiny fraction of sales receipts in the Union Square area. Pedestrians and transit riders, however, contributed an overwhelming supermajority. These shoppers will continue to face obstacles when trying to use Market Street because the TA is ignoring its own evidence and continuing to allow cars to spoil the street for everyone else.

    Posted by Josh | 29 July 2009, 1:40 pm
  2. Hi Josh, thanks for writing in with your thoughts.

    I think that your assessment of the TA’s proposal as “straight down the middle” might actually be generous, because this plan is so thoroughly incremental. The proposal basically consists of a few traffic changes, plus elements we have now, but shifted around a bit. Those changes can make a noticeable difference, but I wonder if it goes far enough toward good place-making on Market.

    An earlier TA study on Market Street contemplated forcing cars to turn south off of Market at a couple points, e.g. at 8th and at 4th, whereas this proposal does that in the short-term only at 8th. Adding in another forced right turn would be interesting, though. It opens up the possibility for a truly auto-restricted zone in an area with heavy pedestrian activity, somewhere near Union Square (maybe 3rd or O’Farrell-5th, or 4th-5th, depending where the second turn is placed).

    Posted by Eric | 29 July 2009, 1:51 pm
  3. Arguments that have resulted in watered-down auto restrictions were based on fears that banning cars would dampen economic activity. Fears which ware not based on fact, but given weight as if they were for no good reason.

    It’s true, merchants have not usually been good judges of what drives traffic toward or away from their stores. The discourse has been guided by false gut instincts, rather than concrete facts. Hopefully that will change, as we accumulate more case studies like Broadway in NYC, Sunday Streets in SF, and so forth.

    Posted by Eric | 29 July 2009, 2:01 pm
  4. “Hopefully that will change, as we accumulate more case studies like Broadway in NYC, Sunday Streets in SF, and so forth.”

    I share your hope (I hope!) but I fear that no amount of studies will be enough/ If the TA can release a study it conducted itself ( clearly showing that cars don’t contribute to the downtown economy, then turn right around and say we can’t ban cars from Market Street for economic reasons, I’m skeptical anything can get through to them :-/

    Posted by Josh | 29 July 2009, 3:29 pm
  5. Well, by “case studies,” I meant concrete, real-life applications that you can easily point to at community meetings, etc., as successful examples of how auto restrictions can actually increase business — as opposed to studies/reports that are written up and then stuck on the shelf to gather dust. It would seem that the latter should be more powerful advocacy tool than the former, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. But yeah, point taken. That was, after all, the TA’s own study.

    Posted by Eric | 29 July 2009, 3:37 pm
  6. As a cyclist I’d just like to add that Market is not very good for cycling, given the awful pavement quality and potential peril of using the center lanes (trolley tracks I can handle, but those ventilation grates are deadly). I tended to prefer Mission or even Howard. Anyhow, getting cars off Market is a great idea, and the improvements they propose are useful, but I doubt the enforceability of “Bus/Taxi Only” restrictions, as they don’t seem to be working very well on the existing center lanes of Market.

    Posted by anonymouse | 29 July 2009, 6:34 pm
  7. Is it just me, or would a mandatory turn lane at 8th St. just create a huge hazard for cyclists? Yes it would limit cars below 8th St., but it would be very difficult to get around all the cars turning left at once.

    Posted by Daniel | 29 July 2009, 10:03 pm
  8. I don’t know why anybody would want to drive on market anyways. Whenever I drive downtown I cross market on 8th street and then take folsom to my destination. Parking is much easier there, and it’s usually only a couple blocks extra walk. Sometimes I take Mission, but never Market.

    Posted by lyqwyd | 17 August 2009, 4:54 pm


  1. Pingback: Streetsblog San Francisco » Today’s Headlines - 29 July 2009

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