Lea Troeh holds a sign at a rally in favor of the Better Market Street plan ahead of a vote at the SFMTA Board of Directors meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF approves plans for a car-free Market Street

San Francisco will soon kick cars off one of its busiest thoroughfares when Market Street goes car-free in January 2020.

That’s after a vote by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors on Tuesday, which approved the Better Market Street plan to transform the downtown street into a pedestrian boulevard and free up traffic to let buses flow more quickly.

“It is bold, it is transformative,” SFMTA board director Amanda Eaken told the public at City Hall shortly before the vote.

Malcolm Heinicke, SFMTA board chair, said he has remained on the board for eight years in order to see this project to fruition.

“This will not just be a better Market Street, this will be a magnificent Market Street,” Heinicke told the public. “We will have the above-ground subway for our bus lines. We will have a similar priority for our bikes and our taxis.”

Supporters rallied outside City Hall in favor of the Better Market Street plan ahead of a vote at the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The future was on everyone’s lips at the Market Street hearing at City Hall.

More than 60 people spoke, nearly every one of them in support of the project. That included entities and people who usually oppose transit projects: the business community, city leaders, and more.

Even Mayor London Breed lent her support to Better Market Street, and in a letter to the SFMTA board wrote, “I urge your approval of this project so we can transform Market Street to be safer, more reliable for transit, and more inviting for anyone enjoying our city.”

Applause broke out after the SFMTA board unanimously approved the project.

This is a “once in a generation” effort, said Viktoriya Wise, acting director of sustainable streets at SFMTA.

The $603.7 million Better Market Street Project has been more than a decade in the making. Under Mayor Gavin Newsom, SFMTA briefly piloted a car-free Market Street, and Third through Eighth streets now have turn restrictions that nudge many vehicles off Market.

John McBirney holds a sign along the edge of Polk Street before a rally in favor of the Better Market Street plan at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

But this time will be different, advocates said.

Market Street’s sidewalks will be widened to make the street safer for its 500,000 daily walkers to cross, with more street furniture installed to make Market resemble a public plaza. Bike lanes will be protected from traffic to keep more than 4,000 daily cyclists safe. And the 200 buses that run down Market Street every hour will move faster, delivering more reliable transit for Muni riders across The City.

Indeed, transit could move 25 percent faster for 75,000 daily riders, Cristina Olea, the project lead for Better Market Street, told the SFMTA Board of Directors.

Muni-only lanes on Market Street will speed up the F-Market & Wharves streetcar line, the 5-Fulton, 5R-Fulton Rapid, 9-San Bruno and 9R-San Bruno Rapid buses, according to SFMTA planners.

Other bus providers will use curbside lanes that are also used by taxis. Uber and Lyft vehicles are also subject to the car ban.

Better Market Street’s car ban will be implemented in a “quick-build” fashion — meaning with temporary signage and fixtures as The City awaits more permanent designs — including turn restriction signs that will make Market Street car-free from Steuart Street to Van Ness Boulevard in the westbound direction, and from Main Street to Tenth Street in the eastbound direction, Olea said.

Other quick-build elements include temporary sidewalk extensions to make walking safer for pedestrians, more than a hundred loading zones for businesses, and extending the “red carpet” Muni-only lanes from Third Street to Main Street.

“We have safety challenges for all modes” now, Olea added.

The street is currently among San Francisco’s most dangerous for people to walk, bike, or drive on, SFMTA data shows.

There are roughly 100 injuries due to traffic collisions annually on Market Street along the project’s length, according to city data. People walking or on bicycles make up roughly three-quarters of those injured in collisions.

Paul Valdez bicycles Market Street daily. During public comment, he told the SFMTA board he often fears for his life because Market Street does not have protective barriers now to protect bicyclists.

“I used to have a silent mantra that said ‘Market Street will be the end of me,’” he said.

From left: Lea Troeh, Liz Tarchi and Aly Geller hold signs in favor of the Better Market Street plan. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Advocacy groups Walk SF, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and the San Francisco Transit Riders were all in support of the project. However, the bike coalition wanted to see protected bike lanes extended a few blocks to Octavia Boulevard, and the transit group was concerned the placement of bus stops may lead riders to unsafely cross bike lanes.

Better Market Street will be implemented in three phases: Market from Fifth to Eighth streets is phase 1, Market from Fifth to Second streets is phase 2, and Market from Van Ness to Octavia Boulevard will comprise phase 3.

The phased approach will ease the construction burden on businesses, Olea said.

The second phase will also include the construction of a loop in the Financial District for the F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar, so it can be turned back toward Fisherman’s Wharf when additional service is needed, instead of running all the way to the Castro neighborhood first.

Phase 1 is scheduled to stretch at least until 2022, according to the project’s website. The construction of the streetcar loop is expected in 2023, and future phases of the project are dependent on identifying funding, Olea said.

While support for Better Market Street was strong, director Heinicke told staff the construction timeline is too slow.

He tasked staff to identify more funding and creative solutions to speed things up.

In the future, Heinicke said, if staff brings projects to the SFMTA board for approval, “I’m going to ask you the question: can we spend this on Market Street instead and speed this up?”


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(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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