photo: a car-free stretch of Market Street in San Francisco
Drivers not wanted. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The plan to ban private cars from Market Street—one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous downtown thoroughfares—enjoys a remarkable level of local support.

In a city known for stunning vistas, San Francisco’s Market Street offers a notoriously ugly tangle of traffic. Cars and delivery trucks vie with bikes and pedestrians along this downtown corridor, as buses and a historic streetcar clatter through the mix. Dedicated lanes for transit and bikes end abruptly several blocks from the street’s terminus at the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

But the vehicular frenzy is ending, in part: Starting Wednesday, private vehicles—meaning both passenger automobiles and for-hire ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft—may no longer drive down Market, east of 10th Street. Only buses, streetcars, traditional taxis, ambulances, and freight drop-offs are still allowed. The closure to private vehicle traffic heralds the start of a new era for the city’s central spine, and perhaps for San Francisco at large, as it joins cities around the world that are restricting cars from downtown centers.

“We need to do better than use Market as a queuing place for the Bay Bridge,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, the newly arrived executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “Today represents the way the world is finally changing how it thinks about the role of transportation in cities.”

After decades of debate, the vision for a car-free Market Street has arrived at a remarkable level of support among activists, politicians, planners, and businesses. (Especially compared to the rancor and legal challenges that greeted New York City’s long-delayed effort to create a car-free busway along 14th Street in Manhattan.) In October, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors voted unanimously in support of a $600 million “Better Market Street” capital construction plan. Ground is set to break on construction for a protected bikeway, repaved sidewalk, fresh streetscaping, and updated streetcar infrastructure by the start of 2021.

“Market Street is the heart of San Francisco’s transportation network, and I’m incredibly excited that it is finally being returned to pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “San Francisco continues to grow and our streets need to reflect what it means to be a world-class city that prioritizes our transit-first policy, our climate action goals, and our commitment to ensuring that everyone can travel safely and reliably.”

The city is kicking off this infrastructural transformation with the private car ban, with the aim to reduce crashes amid a “Vision Zero” traffic safety push. Market Street sees about 100 injury collisions per year; traffic fatalities spiked to 29 citywide in 2019. Now, new signage and traffic enforcement will alert drivers of turn and parking restrictions, while bus-only lanes will be extended further east.

Buses, streetcars, bikes, and scooters reclaim Market Street. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

“This should make our intersections run better and safer,” said Cristina Olea, an engineer with San Francisco Public Works and the project manager of Better Market Street. “Transit will be more reliable, it’ll run smoother. There will be less friction.”

San Francisco’s car-free move is part of a wave of cities around the globe pedestrianizing their downtown cores and corridors, from New York City to Madrid to Birmingham. And there are signs that SF’s effort will not end at Market Street: Local officials in the city are calling to remove cars from other sections of the city.

Bay Area transportation leaders are also considering adopting congestion pricing, in which fees for driving into busy parts of San Francisco would be used to fund transit, biking, and other car-free modes. Cheap gas, the tech boom, and the rise of ride-hailing have meant the amount of traffic entering San Francisco has grown by 27 percent since 2010. Not only is that making congestion increasingly miserable, with average travel speeds on corridors like Market Street dropping nearly 20 percent, it’s also foiling this famously progressive city’s efforts to meet its climate goals. Already, greenhouse gases from transportation make up almost half of San Francisco’s overall emissions. As its population grows, leaders say that the Bay Area must find ways to help more people move along the same amount of street space, and with a lower environmental impact.

“For most of the 20th century, there was a belief that the primary function of our transportation infrastructure was reducing congestion. Most people would agree that those efforts failed,” said Tumlin. “If we want cities to exist, we have to to use our abilities to cut emissions through transportation.”

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