San Francisco features an expansive grid of scenic rolling streets, winding roads and tree-lined avenues, but there is one thoroughfare that defines The City.
Running diagonally through the heart of San Francisco, Market Street stretches roughly 4½ miles from San Francisco Bay to the hills of Twin Peaks. Transit lines carry 100,000 riders daily along the artery, and on a typical weekday, 250,000 pedestrians walk on its streets and thousands of cyclists use its bike lanes.
“Market Street is the most important street in San Francisco and probably the entire Bay Area,” said Gabe Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a local think tank. “It is the central, ceremonial street of San Francisco, and it’s the backbone of The City’s transit system. Its significance cannot be understated.”
Although Market Street is The City’s centerpiece, the artery and its surrounding streets are plagued by vehicle congestion, slow transit service, confusing traffic patterns and patches with rundown and vacant buildings. After years of infrastructure improvement proposals, crews are scheduled to begin repaving Market Street in 2015, providing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent the sprawling boulevard.
Multiple San Francisco agencies are working together to develop transit, pedestrian, traffic and cycling plans to coincide with the streetscaping project. This week, city officials will hold the first of two meetings with the public to discuss progress on the proposal, which is called the Better Market Street plan.
So far, early initiatives include plans to consolidate transit stops, add physically separated bike lanes, improve signage for pedestrians and expand the street’s public plazas.
One other aspect of the proposal has proved controversial: limiting or banning private vehicles on large portions of Market Street.
The automobile element of the proposal has pitted transit advocates against business groups. Carolyn Diamond, executive director of the Market Street Association, a merchant organization, said the private-auto ban proposal was the chief concern of her group.
Jim Lazarus, head of public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, echoed Diamond’s consternation.
“Congestion is bad, but traffic isn’t,” Lazarus said. “Cars can enliven an area and bring more eyes on the street. They can improve public safety, which is especially important around areas near mid-Market.”
Metcalf said establishing a separated bike lane and speeding up trip times on Muni should be the top goals of the Better Market Street project. With strong bike, pedestrian and transit usage, Market Street would be an ideal spot to de-emphasize automobile traffic. That could mean removing private cars from the thoroughfare, or restricting right turns onto Market from its intersecting streets, he said.
Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City, an urban planning organization, said planners should consider changing traffic patterns on some of the one-way streets that force automobile traffic onto Market Street. Improving pedestrian and bike access on the connecting streets that run south of Market Street should also be a priority, he said.
Elizabeth Stampe, director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy organization, said Market Street is a relatively safe place to travel now, but it could be made safer by calming traffic conditions on its intersecting streets.
While the exact details of the plan are still being finalized, the Better Market Street project will likely be an expensive undertaking. The Department of Public Works, the project’s lead agency, said the infrastructure plan will cost at least $250 million, expected to come from local, state and federal sources.
Although the plan will be costly, the chance to improve Market Street in a lasting way is an opening The City shouldn’t pass up, said Leah Shahum, director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
“As the street is repaved in a few years, we have the choice of either putting it back as it is, and it’s clear that the status quo is not working well for anyone,” Shahum said. “Or we can put it back different and improved, so that Market Street lives up to its potential as a world-class corridor connecting our city in so many important ways.”