Study: Banning cars on Market had minimal effect on side streets

A traffic nightmare. Congestions madness. Carmageddon.

A traffic nightmare. Congestions madness. Carmageddon.

Those were the fears voiced by naysayers when San Francisco moved to ban private vehicles from Market Street on January 29 this year. Now, newly released traffic analyses may run over those concerns.

Inrix, an analytics firm that specializes in traffic, revealed data Wednesday that shows those worries were “overblown,” the firm said.

And, in a coincidence of timing, transit advocate Chris Arvin also released data to the San Francisco Examiner this week showing that bus and streetcar travel has become far more dependably speedy on Market Street since the new car-free rules were implemented.

Taken together, the data shows the changes to Market Street have had a small impact on traffic speeds but have also made buses more reliable.

“Overall, the closure had a benign impact on travel speeds,” an Inrix spokesperson wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

The $603.7 million Better Market Street Project will take years to fully implement, and will eventually see bike lanes, transit traffic islands and sidewalks reworked to make Market Street a transit-oriented corridor. The first construction phase for the project is scheduled to stretch until at least 2022, according to the project’s website.

But before any of those major street transformations are set to start, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency implemented a “quick-build” change to Market, essentially adding new signage to ban most private vehicles.

To assess the impact, Inrix measured traffic speeds both before and after on Howard Street, Folsom Street, Mission Street southbound, and Mission Street northbound, during morning and evening peak commute times at regular, hourly intervals. They studied the streets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from Jan. 12 to 25 and from Feb. 1 to 22.

Seen in a Tweet above, many people voiced concern on social media that car-free Market Street would create traffic problems.

On Howard and Folsom streets, traffic speeds actually marginally increased in some cases. But, as some critics predicted, congestion did lead to a slowdown on Mission Street after the car-free rules were implemented on Market Street. The two neighboring streets run parallel to one another.

Perhaps the biggest speed hit was to southbound traffic on Mission Street in the morning and evening commutes, which slowed from 9.7 MPH traffic to 9.1 MPH traffic at about 9 a.m., and from 8.2 MPH to 7.7 MPH at 5 p.m., according to Inrix’s data.

Speeds slowed on Mission by about 4 percent overall, but outside of those peak times listed above, the slowdown was slight.

For instance, travel times on southbound Mission Street at 7 a.m. decreased from 10.7 MPH to 10.4 MPH.

“The decline in performance on Mission Street indicates traffic displaced by the closure of Market has led to an increase of congestion, albeit marginally,” an Inrix spokesperson wrote in a company blog.

By contrast, data compiled by Arvin, a transit-enthusiast who serves on the board of the Market Street Railway nonprofit and museum, shows the reliability of Muni buses rolling downtown rose considerably.

Muni bus route reliability on the 6, 7, 9 and 9R (Graph courtesy Chris Arvin)

Muni bus route reliability on the 6, 7, 9 and 9R (Graph courtesy Chris Arvin)

Arvin crunched public data to see how often the 6-Haight/Parnassus, 7-Haight/Noriega, 9-San Bruno, 9R-San Bruno Rapid bus routes and the F-Market &Wharves streetcar route, were able to roll down Market Street between First and Ninth streets in under 15 minutes.

The data shows those routes became much more reliable — making trips under 15 minutes across Market Street — after car-free Market was implemented.

The 6, 7, 9 and 9R (excluding the F streetcar) went from 50 percent of outbound trips at 9 a.m. in under 15 minutes to 60 percent of trips in under 15 minutes after car-free Market was implemented. At the same time, traveling inbound, trips taking under 15 minutes jumped from 41 percent to 56 percent.

SEE RELATED: Bike ridership up 20 percent on first day of car-free Market Street

“Look at transit trips going inbound during the morning commute,” Arvin told the Examiner. “Before the car ban, the majority of those trips would take you over 14 minutes to get down Market Street from Ninth to First. Now, most of those trips – over 66 percent of them – have been sped up to be under 14 minutes.”

For the F streetcar, in particular, the impacts are “really noticeable,” Arvin said. Most morning commute streetcar trip from Ninth and Market streets to First and Market streets took more than 15 minutes. Since the car ban, about 65 percent of those trips are now under 15 minutes, according to data he compiled.

All of those Muni routes collectively serve 59,300 transit riders daily.

SFMTA did not have detailed data to share, but spokesperson Erica Kato said that on average, some Muni routes are seeing time savings of up to 6 percent, and some routes saw time savings up to 12 percent.

Notably, the routes Arvin analyzed travel the longest length of Market Street, but many more bus routes serving tens of thousands of riders use smaller portions of Market before branching off across San Francisco.

F-Market & Wharves streetcar reliability (Graph courtesy Chris Arvin)

F-Market & Wharves streetcar reliability (Graph courtesy Chris Arvin)

SFMTA Board of Directors member Cheryl Brinkman said the two batches of data, collectively, dispelled worries some San Franciscans voiced before the Better Market Street program launched.

“It’s important because so many times the voices that we hear are not the voices of the transit riders, the tens of thousands of transit riders. It tends to be the loud voices of opposition,” Brinkman said. “It’s easy to be frightened of something you haven’t seen before.”

San Francisco’s effort to make streets car-free won’t end with Market Street. Already, transit officials have started looking at making Valencia Street car-free, and members of the Board of Supervisors has said they want to make car-free streets in the Tenderloin and the Haight.

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