The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors voted 5-2 on Tuesday to approve a suite of revisions to the Better Market Street project, largely aimed at curbing the behavior of taxis and commercial vehicles.
Changes include reducing the speed limit to 20 miles per hour between Franklin Street and Steuart Street, creating a center Muni-only lane and implementing numerous traffic calming measures including required right turns, loading zone regulations and the addition of speed tables.
Together, the SFMTA says these modifications will limit speeding, minimize the potential for conflicts between vehicles and people and make the corridor a safe, accessible passageway for all travelers.
“It includes a lot of really important things that have to happen now and can’t wait to go back to the drawing board,” SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director Tom Maguire said of the changes.
In a hearing that ran for nearly five hours, dozens of public commenters that spanned nearly every kind of Market Street user — cyclist, pedestrian, taxi cab driver, individuals with disabilities and more — expressed their displeasure with the design changes to the project made in October that included the removal of the originally-planned sidewalk-level bikeway.
Better Market Street was approved by SFMTA in October 2019 after nearly a decade. The project was envisioned as a transformation of San Francisco’s 2.2-mile premiere downtown corridor that would expedite transit, attract visitors and increase safety.
Private vehicles were banned from much of Market Street in January 2020. Bike ridership increased by 25 percent and transit efficiency increased by as much as 12 percent, according to data collected by SFMTA. Both are primary objectives of the entire $600 million initiative.
But SFMTA board members and advocates were stunned in October when staff unveiled a dramatically scaled-back version of the project that nixed hallmark safety improvements in an effort to cut costs, respond to a changing downtown and help local businesses suffering during the pandemic.
Tuesday’s vote was not to sign off on the new design — SFMTA and the Department of Public Works technically have the legislative authority to move forward with those changes — but rather to secure traffic calming measures and infrastructure upgrades that mitigate safety risks.
Sidewalk-level bikeway cut, Muni-only lane created
The revision announced in October struck from the blueprint an up-to-8-foot-wide sidewalk-level bikeway between Fifth to Eighth streets, designed to create physical separation between cyclists and motor vehicles in a corridor known for having four of The City’s 10 most dangerous intersections.
Under the new plan, cyclists will share an 11-foot curb lane with taxis and commercial vehicles. Painted buffers will create a visual barrier, complemented by other traffic calming measures, but there will be no formidable separation between bikes and moving vehicles.
The change rendered plans to replace all the brick along Market Street’s sidewalks unnecessary for at least the next 10 years, saving tens of millions of dollars but also causing advocates for individuals with disabilities to raise red flags about navigability.
Under the new plan, Muni will travel in a bus-only lane between Fifth and Eighth streets, rather than along the curb. Taxis and commercial vehicles in the curb lane will be subject to loading zones regulations and required right-turns to control the flow of vehicles.
Paratransit vehicles can travel in Muni’s center lane.
SFMTA engineer Britt Tanner acknowledged frustration from cab drivers that they’d have to take different routes to destinations on Market Street, but said the new plan “maintains their access and allows us to achieve the safety goals.”
According to SFMTA estimates, these traffic safety features will mean 75 percent fewer vehicles in the curb lane that could potentially interact with cyclists.
However, that result is contingent upon enforcement of vehicle behavior, for which some board members said they wanted to see more concrete guidelines in the legislation.
Fiscal reality requires hard choices
Costs for the work between Fifth and Eighth streets are now expected to total $123.8 million. That’s roughly $67.2 million less than this first phase’s original projected expenditure approved in 2019, with most savings stemming from avoiding the utility overhauls required for sidewalk replacement.
Much of the money spent on these three blocks will go toward critical infrastructure repairs such as road repaving, replacing aging traffic signals and resizing boarding islands to make them larger and accessible.
Advocates fear if The City starts down this path now, there won’t be an appetite for real transformation later.
Directors pushed for clarity on why the board had to vote now rather than wait for recovery and the potential of additional federal funding.
“We urgently want to move forward today on this portion of the project because the street is literally falling apart,” SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said, describing six-inch gaps in the street between the crosswalk and pavement, pavement crumbling and flooding. “We want to fix that infrastructure so the street doesn’t fall apart.”
He emphasized Tuesday’s vote included “no decision about overall design of the project,” and pointed to the failure of the original 2019 design to account for the massive surge in cyclists when Market Street went car-free coupled with its rush to unify stakeholders and emphasize the easiest places to create the cycletrack as opposed to the most difficult.
“I assure you, we have exhausted all potential solutions,” Tumlin said when board members spitballed alternatives.
Directors Manny Yekutiel and Amanda Eaken voted against the package.
Phase One of the Better Market Street project is expected to break ground in mid-2021 with a transit-only lane between Fifth to Eighth, but staff and directors alike emphasized this is not the end of the ambitious plan to transform San Francisco’s premiere corridor nor is the design settled.