Uber and Lyft pickups moving to side streets as Better Market Street project takes effect

Lyft and Uber are about to get kicked off Market Street.

When one of San Francisco’s most-trafficked corridors goes car-free Wednesday for the Better Market Street project, the app-based ride-hails will go while traditional taxis will stay.

Already, Lyft and Uber are preparing their apps to digitally fence-off Market Street, the companies have told the San Francisco Examiner.

Starting Wednesday, both drivers and passengers will be directed away from Market Street through the ride-hail apps themselves. That’s no small feat — public data shows Market Street to be San Francisco’s biggest hub for Lyft and Uber dropoffs, numbering in the thousands.

“We’ve been waiting for the (ride-hail) companies to do this for a long time,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of advocacy group Livable City, and a former BART Board of Directors president. While the practice of “geofencing” — digitally barring off streets or blocks within a transit app — is regular practice on some San Francisco corridors, including Valencia Street and at the Chase Center Arena, this may be the largest instance of the practice in The City.

“We’re keen to see this scaled up and see how it works,” Radulovich said.

Gameplan

The Better Market Street project will effectively ban cars — except some commercial vehicles, emergency vehicles, and taxis — from Market from Steuart Street to Van Ness Avenue westbound, and from Main Street to Tenth Street eastbound, as part of the project’s early implementation. The overall project will not be completed until at least 2022, and will feature more street transformations geared towards transit riders, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Ride-hail riders, however, will be redirected into one of more than a hundred new loading zones on side-streets off of Market, Tom Maguire, SFMTA director of sustainable streets, previously told the Examiner.

SFMTA, Lyft, and Uber are working hand-in-hand to make sure that transition is a smooth one.

“Market St. is car-free. Select a designated drop-off by using the tumbler or dragging on the map,” the Lyft app will tell any rider trying to select Market Street as a destination.

Redirecting passengers is as much a statement on the future of cities as it is a practical matter, a Lyft spokesperson wrote in a statement.

“We support the Better Market Street project because it is deeply aligned with Lyft’s vision: reorienting our cities around people, not cars,” a Lyft spokesperson wrote. “We are excited to continue to put our civic muscles to work in support of safer streets designed for everyone: wide tree-lined boulevards for strollers and people on foot, protected lanes for riding bikes and scooters, dedicated travel lanes for reliable public transit service, in close coordination with dedicated loading zones alongside streets for pick-ups and drop-offs.”

Besides the geofencing, Lyft said it would communicate directly with drivers about a car-free Market Street, and printed info from the SFMTA to make available at their Driver Hubs and Express Drive locations in The City.

Uber closed off Market Street in its internal driver app. When a driver picks up a rider, then, or has a passenger on board, Uber’s navigation will not direct them through Market Street. Uber will also send an email and in-app notifications to drivers to remind them of car-free Market Street before the changes go into effect, the company said.

Big impact

While the data is somewhat imprecise and measures some pickups and dropoffs on side streets, pickups and dropoffs along the south side of Market Street between Third and Second streets number roughly 3,000 on a typical Friday, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

That data was generated in 2016, the most recent such data available. Ride-hail use has exploded in just those four years. And, importantly, that’s just one side of one block along Market Street.

The sheer volume of traffic makes redirecting ride-hails a major feat, most transportation experts agreed.

Cat Carter, interim executive director of the San Francisco transit-riders group, was glad to see the effort, as it may greatly speed up the 200 buses running through Market hourly.

“Living with a lot of people in a dense city sometimes means you have to make compromises” on being delivered straight to your door, she said. “This is good news for people looking for a car-free Market, and of course we’re really excited.”

That effort includes, but is not limited to, a practice called “geofencing,” where app-makers create digital no-go zones. Instead, riders can be picked up or dropped off by Lyft and Uber drivers on side streets at recently created white-zone curb spaces, where newly placed digital thumbtacks will await riders.

When Valencia Street was geofenced by Lyft to stop drivers from crowding into bike lanes, sometimes that led to those Lyft vehicles instead blocking Muni buses that use sidestreets, like 18th Street, Radulovich said.

“Just moving the trips can sometimes make other problems,” he said.

SFMTA’s hundred-plus white zones may mitigate those headaches, but Radulovich said it is also an opportunity for Lyft and Uber to make their case to merchants — who can request new white zones — that giving curb space to ride-hails instead of parking would boost their bottom lines.

The last cars on Market

At least one winner in all this may be taxi drivers.

Though there are fewer taxi drivers than ride-hails, being able to drive on Market Street despite the car ban will give them an advantage over their ride-hail peers, John Lazar, the former owner of Luxor Cab Company told the Examiner.

And giving taxi drivers better access makes sense, he said, since taxis operate as part of The City’s paratransit system, ferrying motorized wheelchair users and other people with disabilities, which Uber and Lyft do not formally do.

“We’ve been the main players for the seniors, and the wheelchair accessibility,” Lazar said.

Radulovich agreed that those populations are ones that San Francisco should ensure are taken as close to their destinations as possible. “You’re going to have to accommodate paratransit trips, if not by law, at least by decency,” he said.

While cars will be banned on most of Market Street from the water to Van Ness Avenue, one small stretch of Market from Van Ness to 10th Street, eastbound, will still be fair game for Uber and Lyft vehicles to drive on.

And perhaps by sheer coincidence, one billionaire company housed on 10th Street (for now, at least), mere feet from where the car ban begins, has major skin in the game: Uber.

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