Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
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 directors 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 SFMTA’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.
Better Market Street’s success this week is a testament to a number of factors. One is the work of advocacy groups such as Walk S.F., the S.F. Bike Coalition, and the S.F. Municipal Transformation Agency, which has staged “human bike lanes” around the city for years. The fight for safer streets has moved further into the mainstream in large part because of their insistent attention-calling, which also helped push the SFMTA to make incremental changes that laid the groundwork for this plan. Waves of turn restrictions on Market Street probably made this total car ban go down easier, and it also provided proof of how much faster buses can travel when not impeded by traffic.
It also can’t be overlooked that San Francisco has some heavyweight car-free peers. Once, pedestrianized urban cores were largely the domain of enlightened mid-sized cities in northern Europe. But now Paris and Barcelona have expanded the concept, and Toronto is mulling a car blockade for multiple downtown corridors. London charges a pricy fee for vehicles entering its busy streets, and New York City will follow with its own congestion pricing scheme in 2021.
That city is also currently marveling at the immediate effects of its first car-free artery—a quieter 14th street, “massive” time savings for bus riders, and a doomsday for drivers that never materialized. Rather than flood adjacent streets, vehicle traffic seems to have dissipated overall, just as traffic experts predicted. Those are the kind of results that San Francisco can look forward to experiencing first-hand in the coming years: The first phase of Market Street’s car-free transformation is set to kick off in 2020.
The support and passage for the Market Street plan is also a sign that local transportation leaders have grown more emboldened in the face of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles have already overtaken other sectors of the U.S. economy. Yet even in hyper-liberal cities like San Francisco that have invested in walking, biking, and transit infrastructure, driving has gone up, not down. According to an analysis by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, total vehicle miles traveled in the city grew 13 percent between 2010 and 2016. And this week, the thick smoke plumes and hazardous chemicals filling the air from an ethanol tank fire on the other side of the Bay served as a powerful reminder of the cost of oil dependency, something to which even this progressive region is tightly tethered.
Local leaders have laid much of the blame for increased driving at the feet of ride-hailing companies. But population growth and high housing costs also mean that more commuters are driving into the city from farther away. Reserving Market Street for everything but cars should make transit, biking, and walking more attractive ways to get around. It is also a declaration of how the urban future will need to look. “This is about the kind of city we want to be,” tweeted Amanda Eaken, one of the SFMTA’s directors. “Let’s make sure this is just the beginning of creating more car-free spaces in San Francisco.”
And it is: Already, the SFMTA is developing an experiment to remove cars from parts of the nearby Tenderloin, the city’s skid row. There, as on Market Street, many people live outdoors and congregate on the narrow sidewalks. The streets are at maximum capacity. Now, what’s giving way are the cars.