Market Street goes car-free Wednesday — but can the new law be enforced?

Officials say simple rule will keep autos off SF’s main artery

A century and some change ago, San Francisco’s perhaps most-famous short film “A Trip Down Market Street” let viewers trail a horse-and-buggy as it leisurely trotted down Market Street toward the Ferry Building, just four days before The City’s devastating earthquake and fire.

In that 1906 film, cars zoom left and right and swing into U-turns over streetcar tracks that still line Market today.

For a hundred years, unchanged by earthquakes, the tearing down of two nearby freeways, and technological revolutions like electric-motorized scooters, Market Street has remained much like that classic black-and-white cinema treasure (save for the lack of horses-and-buggies).

Now, all that will change. Market Street’s car-free future is here.

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, cars will no longer be allowed to sputter down Market from Steuart Street to Van Ness Avenue westbound, and from Main Street to Tenth Street eastbound, as the first implementation of the multi-year Better Market Street project.

This is a “quick-build” phase of the project, a $3.5 million portion of the overall $603.7 million project that ultimately will transform Market Street with wider sidewalks for its 500,000 daily pedestrians, new streetside furniture, a new turnaround for the F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar, and extend the car-free portion past Van Ness Avenue.

The next phase in the project is set to stretch until at least 2022.

But for now, one key factor in keeping Market Street newly car-free will be enforcement.

No barriers will stop banned private cars — including Uber and Lyft vehicles — from turning onto Market Street in the Better Market Street project. Only paint, signs, and a driver’s choice to obey the law will keep Market Street free of cars, and turn it into the bike and pedestrian-haven that city staff are aiming for.

A car-free Market is particularly key to helping the 650 bicyclists riding Market every hour in peak times, and 200 Muni buses an hour that drive down Market Street move even quicker. Much like a transit heart, Market Street pumps out buses across the arteries of The City to bring Muni commuters to-and-from San Francisco neighborhoods every day.

So, can the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and San Francisco Police Department keep motorists off Market?

SFMTA and the SFPD are planning enforcement operations to do exactly that.

However, data reviewed by the San Francisco Examiner show police even now are struggling to ticket drivers, and data provided by car insurer Metro Mile shows drivers even now are rolling down portions of Market Street that feature turn restrictions to keep them off, though there are some legal ways to drive along it.

“You can see the paint and sign crews getting ready like crazy for next Wednesday,” SFMTA Director of Sustainable Streets Tom Maguire told the Examiner. “The goal is no cars on Market Street.”

That goal may prove elusive.

Tickets tumble

Over the last six years traffic tickets issued by San Francisco police have plummeted.

In 2014, tickets issued by officers reached a high of roughly 12,000 per month. But year to year, they’ve continued to drop, and by 2019 San Francisco police have issued roughly 3,000 tickets per month. Traffic enforcement is part of San Francisco’s Vision Zero goal to reduce traffic-related deaths on city streets to zero by 2024.

When the Examiner asked readers their concerns about making Better Market Street a reality, many spoke on the need for enforcement. “I work/ride in SF and enforcement will be key,” said bicyclist and Twitter user @Quan. “I’m not holding out hope for SFPD since the last time a BMW was tailgating me *in the bike lane* down Market.”

SFPD Cmdr. Daniel Perea, whose command includes MTA and Traffic divisions of the police, said the police are prepared to enforce a car-free Market Street.

“We already have a large presence on Market Street with beat officers, patrol cars,” he told the Examiner on Friday. “We have an operation plan in place where we’ll have uniformed officers from Traffic Company on Market Street. We’re going to try to focus on the largest group possible, the times when it’s used the most, the morning and the evening commute.”

He also said he’s discussed operations plans with various police districts whose jurisdictions include Market Street. But, he added, “what people need to understand is that citations are not the only measure of the effect of the presence we have out there.”

When drivers see another driver pulled over, he said, it’s a deterrent that spreads.

Maguire from SFMTA also said SFMTA is planning to majorly boost its number of parking control officers directing traffic at 11 intersections along Market Street starting next week. “A lot of the officers are doing overtime,” he said.

That extra staffing from SFMTA will be in place until the end of March.

“I think the ultimate thing for us, is enforcement is only there as a backstop,” and that driver education would prove vital to making car-free Market a reality, Maguire said.

Deja vu

In 2015, the SFMTA Board of Directors approved various turn restrictions along Market Street between Third and Eighth streets, severely curtailing access to Market. It wasn’t a full ban, however, as some entry points still exist for that portion of Market for private vehicles.

While that restriction has cut down car traffic on Market, according to the SFMTA, some 200-400 cars drive down Market daily during peak commuter hours, slowing down buses and cyclists and imperiling walkers.

Bicyclists ride up Market Street in front of automobiles near Third Street on Jan. 22, one week before the car-free Better Market Street plan is set to begin. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Bicyclists ride up Market Street in front of automobiles near Third Street on Jan. 22, one week before the car-free Better Market Street plan is set to begin. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Meanwhile, car insurance company Metro Mile provided data on Market Street car traffic to the Examiner. Metro Mile offers insurance for people who primarily take transit to commute, and drive only for, say, chores or weekend jaunts. With that in mind, it asks insurees to install trackers in their vehicles so the company can charge them by distance traveled. The trackers help provide detailed, anonymized data on movement along Market.

Every day about a hundred Metro Mile car-driving customers traverse Market Street between Third and Eighth, where cars are heavily restricted, according to Metro Mile data. Those numbers are especially pronounced during evening rush hour, starting at 2 p.m. and continuing until 8 p.m.

Maguire, from SFMTA, defended the number of cars running on Market Street despite the long-running turn restrictions.

“It’s not nothing,” he admitted, but “it is legal” to drive on Market Street still.

There will be other tools in the toolbox to keep cars off Market, he said. SFMTA reached out to Google Maps and Waze “to make sure it’s ready to go live on the 29th,” and said they’re also in talks with Uber and Lyft to ensure drivers comply with the new rules.

White and yellow passenger loading zones were created on side streets to help ride-hail drivers pick up passengers they used to grab on Market Street, Maguire said.

“There’s over a hundred new loading zones within a block of Market Street we’ve put in the last five years,” he said.

There’s also one more major difference between car-free Market Street and the turn restrictions that used to be in place: Simplicity.

”Since 2015, we’ve been putting out these targeted turn restrictions at high-crash locations,” Maguire said. “What’s changing is the rules are about to get much simpler: No cars on Market Street.”

That is, that’s the hope.

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