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.