Less than a year after its launch, The Better Market Street project is set to be scaled down notably in an effort to cut costs due to the pandemic budget crunch, respond to a higher-than-expected volumes of cyclists and reduce negative impacts on local businesses along the corridor.
City staff described the revision, focused on changes to Market Street between Fifth and Eighth streets, at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board meeting on Tuesday not as “a forever design” but rather as a series of “difficult” choices intended to better “reflect the current situation in The City.”
Opponents say the reduced price tag for the three-block stretch — which is still about $121 million plus an additional $7 million for costs associated with the redesign process — is way too high given the changes’ deleterious impact on the substantive safety improvements the project originally promised. Among the changes, cyclists will no longer get a planned sidewalk-level bikeway.
Years in the making, the Better Market Street project is an attempt to transform the heart of San Francisco’s downtown into a premiere pedestrian boulevard, revitalize the corridor into a destination for visitors and residents alike, and increase safety for those who travel by bike, foot, transit and alternative forms of transportation.
When it was approved last year, it was embraced by advocates as a sign that San Francisco was taking seriously its commitment to the transit-first policy set forth in the City Charter.
Those same advocates, many of whom have been key partners in the years-long effort to develop and execute the Better Market Street project, such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF and SF Transit Riders, have since fallen out of love with this revision and can no longer get behind the project.
Loss of support
“We understand the project budget must be reduced […] we are not asking for a return to the original proposal. What we are asking is for a right-sized design to deliver safety benefits and public goods that the public is on board with, and this proposal isn’t there yet,” a representative from the SF Bicycle Coalition said during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting.
Supervisor Matt Haney, who along with other members of the Board of Supervisors sits on the transportation authority board, pushed the project design team on whether it had secured the support of these stakeholders. Cristina Olea from San Francisco Public Works said they’d been able to reach “agreements on certain elements, but there are still concerns.”
“It’s a pretty big deal to go from a point where everybody is excited […] to a point now where we pretty much have them all concerned and questioning where we are,” Haney said. “I think that is not where we want to end up on what this project actually looks like.”
Separation between cyclists and vehicles was key to this transformational effort, but the design’s signature 8-foot sidewalk-level bikeway has been nixed in the latest revision. Cyclists will instead use the existing curb lane — roughly 11-feet wide — and it will be treated with painted buffers but continued to be shared with taxis, paratransit and delivery vehicles.
Staff estimates 75 percent fewer vehicles will be in the curb lane thanks to the closure of the street to private vehicles.
“This revision still costs over $100 million. Are we getting $100 million in benefits? We have perhaps the only opportunity in a generation to work on transforming Market Street,” the SF Bike Coalition said.
Under the revision, curb lanes will remain as they are and full sidewalks will not be replaced, as originally planned; however, intersections along Market Street will still receive pedestrian safety and traffic calming treatments such as traffic signal upgrades and curb ramps.
When much of Market Street downtown went car-free in January as part of a Quick-Build tied to Better Market Street, Muni lines ran as much as 12 percent faster and the volume of cyclists increased by 25 percent. Vehicle traffic congestion increased “only marginally” on nearby streets, according to a city staff report.
But now the originally planned sidewalk bikeway is too narrow to accommodate these volumes. The proposed revision is intended to create more space for the greater-than-expected number of people using micromobility for travel, while still cutting costs and implementing traffic calming measures to a greater number of blocks using money the agency does have, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Jeffrey Tumlin.
“When we design streets for slow travel for motor vehicles, motor vehicles respect that,” he said. “We can have streets accommodate a low volume of vehicles without making people feel unsafe,” he said.
Critics say the changes expose those traveling by foot or bike to collisions with vehicles and don’t achieve the desired safety outcomes. While the project team says it gives users significantly more space, “It also gives them more space to potentially be hit by cars,” said Haney.
The plan calls for one center bus-only lane in each direction for Muni with new boarding platforms installed to increase visibility of transit users as they get on and off the vehicles.
Supervisor Dean Preston raised concerns that limiting Muni activity to a single lane in each direction would create backups that would worsen transit service in the highly-trafficked area and adversely affect “getting the economy back on track.”
A less ambitious plan also minimizes construction-related impacts to businesses along the corridor that could be disadvantaged by tearing up sidewalks in an effort to install a bike lane.
“Further, while the project team was always determined to limit construction impacts to businesses prior to COVID-19, the team is even more committed to do so now,” the staff report says.
The Before Times
Better Market Street was born when San Francisco’s downtown housed many of the country’s largest, most prosperous technology companies and hosted thousands of commuters, essential workers and corporate executives on a daily basis.
It was also a time when lead agencies including Public Works and SFMTA had enough cash in their coffers to tackle ambitious capital projects in addition to maintaining basic maintenance and state-of-repair.
But that was before. Now, a $604 million total project cost isn’t nearly as feasible.
Officials say much of that cost is dedicated toward repair and infrastructure renewal work that is required even without the Better Market Street improvements. Undertakings like sewage and water lines, overhead wire replacements and other utility upgrades are still slated to occur, and they make up a sizable chunk of the new project budget.
Facing a capital budget crunch, partner agencies will no longer overhaul the system’s entire infrastructure. Instead, they will upgrade or repair it only once it reaches the end of its design life and strategically dedicate funding toward the most-needed elements.
The 2.2-mile stretch along Market Street between Steuart Street and Octavia Boulevard will undergo changes in two phases.
Phase 1, the main focus of this revised plan, will target improvements between Fifth and Eighth streets with construction starting by late 2021.
Phase 2 will implement the new surface loop for the F-Market streetcar. Existing F-Line track on Market Street between 5th and 8th streets will be replaced, with construction set to begin by 2024. The plan originally called for replacement of track along the entire line. Now, SFMTA will table that option until a “later date” once it determines whether the remaining sections need replacement.
As it stands, the project has secured enough funding through a combination of federal grants, sales tax and bond obligations and other revenue streams to complete full construction of Phase 1 with $32.8 million to apply towards future phasing.
“Identifying funding to close the funding gap for the remainder of the project beyond Phase 1 remains a significant challenge,” the staff report says.
Public outreach — or lack thereof — was a major concern to the new plan’s opponents, who say key stakeholders weren’t adequately engaged before the revision was rolled out.
According to the project design team, they alerted relevant partners such as the Board of Supervisors, a community working group, advocates and local business merchants, when the new plan was unveiled in September, and have continued to work closely with them as they made modifications.
Public outreach will continue over the course of the next month. There’s a two-week virtual open house and two online meetings scheduled.
Tuesday’s meeting was cut short due to technical difficulties. Anyone interested will have a chance to comment on the revision again at the CTA’s first meeting in November, and Haney has already publicly called on the project design team to conduct more outreach to advocates and the public in the interim.