The other day I took a big dose of skepticism for a walk down the newly car-less Market Street to see what all the fuss was about. I came away a changed man. The Market Street of old — chaotic, dangerous, downright stressful for all who came within its orbit — was gone. Buses and trains glided freely past. People jaywalked without worry. And the sound, well, there was no sound, or at least less sound. My skepticism vanished.
But I’m not here to sell you a car-free utopia on Market Street. We’ve still got a long way to go, but this is a good start. The skepticism I packed with me that day wasn’t about traffic, it was about housing. Market Street is far from being a litmus test for vehicle-free living, because outside of a few high-rise pied-a-terre buildings, nobody lives there. People do live on Valencia Street, though, and the word is that anti-car advocates (and The City) have turned their eyes toward Mission Dolores’ hippest street for its next conquest.
So I walked down Valencia and imagined: What if you lived here but couldn’t drive to your house? What would that do to your lifestyle — and your property values?
Within the real estate world, “walkability” has been a key buzzword for many years. It represents a long (and, in my opinion, long overdue) attempt at reversing the mindset that led to 20th-century suburban sprawl, returning people to a pedestrian-focused lifestyle that, according to a 2009 study completed by the think tank CEOs for Cities, gives homes in walkable neighborhoods “a premium of $4,000 to $34,000 in value over homes with below-average walkability.” While San Francisco’s walkability is built-in, almost all of our surrounding suburbs have spent the past 25 years trying to implement downtown core plans aimed at bringing people closer to transit, shopping and dining. “WalkScore” is a thing.
But transit-friendly and pedestrian-centric are different from “transit-dependent” and “pedestrian-only.” There are nine driveways on Valencia between 22nd and 23rd Streets. Nothing I’ve read about the Market Street plan allows for residents’ vehicles, and I’ve yet to see someone demonstrate an effective way to carry six grocery bags while riding a Lime scooter.
This is where the pushback has come from so far: business owners convinced they’ll lose customers along with cars. In fact, the opposite might turn out to be true, per a study completed in 2006 and cited in a paper published by the Victoria (Canada) Transport Policy Institute. Only 20 percent of San Franciscans, it reported, use their cars to go downtown; 60 percent take transit, 20 percent walk or ride bikes. “In several case studies,” the report continues, “reducing vehicle traffic speeds and improving walking conditions…significantly increased retail sales and property values.”
But this isn’t a data issue; it’s a perception issue. It’s pretty easy to find written and quantitative evidence that creating car-free neighborhoods is a win for everyone (except General Motors). I’m just not sure how you sell this to citizens who’ve been trained to be car-dependent. San Francisco’s solution so far has been to punish people for driving (“Oh, so you think traffic is bad on Masonic Street? How about we take away a lane? Muni’s looking pretty good now, isn’t it?”). But while that method may ultimately get people out of their cars and, grumbling, into buses, it won’t change the perception that having no vehicle access to your home is the ultimate hassle. Someday, I wonder, will boasting “car-free address!” on the MLS be the same kind of kryptonite that “easy street parking” is today?
Eventually, I’d hope people would adjust to this new reality, because early returns on Market Street seem positive, enough to suggest that a car-free Valencia would be a vibrant, exciting place to live once residents got used to carting their stuff around in wheelie bags like they’ve been doing in Europe (most of the studies of successful pedestrian-only downtown experiments cite cities like Barcelona and Oslo) for decades.
It will be a hard sell, though. Any proposal to shed mixed-use neighborhood streets like Valencia of private vehicles will have to come with a comprehensive and realistic plan for residents, some of whom will still have cars (limited access hours, developments with underground garages accessible by side streets). After that, frankly, it’ll be up to Realtors to find a way to change the perception of people who’ve always depended on their cars. A few Realtors I talked to were optimistic. “Impact will be neutral, or even positive,” one told me, “once hipsters get used to walking an extra block for their Ubers.”
If there’s a dark horse in this race it’s those hipsters, San Francisco’s youthful professionals. They’re famously not buying houses now but someday, when they do, they may be the ones to embrace car-free living and scoff at the idea that there was once a time when houses had big rooms attached to them just so people would have a place to store their cars.
The Market Musings real estate column appears every other Wednesday. Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster and recovering former Realtor. He is a guest columnist and his viewpoint is not necessarily that of the Examiner.