A decade in the making, car-free Market Street faces final approval

From Main Street near the Embarcadero to Van Ness Boulevard, cars will not be allowed to run the length of Market.

Market Street is on the cusp of becoming car-free.

Three major milestones in October will result in the final city approval needed to break ground on the Better Market Street project, which will transform Market Street with wider sidewalks, pedestrian plazas, revitalize transit stops, and — perhaps most controversially — ban private vehicles from driving Market Street downtown.

Cars, banished, will make way for more free-flowing Muni service to every neighborhood in San Francisco.

From Main Street near the Embarcadero to Van Ness Avenue, cars will not be allowed to run the length of Market. They can cross north to south, and vice versa, but Market Street would become solely the domain of Muni buses, bikes, taxis and walkers.

And that car ban, while often described as beginning in early 2020 with later completion, has been accelerated to a quick-style build to see early implementation in January.

The $603.7 million Better Market Street project will reinvent 2.2 miles of Market Street from Octavia Boulevard to Steuart Street. In addition to speeding up Muni, the plan will see wider sidewalks to revitalize Market Street as a plaza for pedestrians, and bike lanes buffered by curbside Muni stops — wholly separate from cars.

San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency Acting Director Tom Maguire announced in an SFMTA Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday that a “quick-build” treatment of Market Street to make it car-free may be implemented in January, pending city approvals.

Those quick-build elements are a relatively new effort by The City to implement parts of a street project that are easier to do, sooner, so some of the benefits can be seen before a project is fully complete.

Maguire said “one thing I know is very important to people on this board,” is being in a position to “quick-build a ban on private cars on Market Street.”

Better Market Street’s quick-build elements include turn restriction signs that will make Market Street car-free from Steuart Street to Van Ness Boulevard westbound, and from Main Street to Tenth Street eastbound, said Cristina Olea, project manager for Better Market Street. They also 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.

“This is a once in a generation project,” Olea said. “We’re trying to be as forward-thinking as possible.”

On the road to its approval, Better Market Street’s key October milestones include certification by the Planning Commission on October 10, a Public Works hearing on October 11, and final approval by the SFMTA Board of Directors on October 15.

SFMTA Board Chair Malcolm Heinicke has long been a proponent of Better Market Street, which he hailed as necessary to curb traffic injuries and fatalities along the corridor and to see improved service for 75,000 daily Muni riders.

“I’m very confident that Market Street will be a success,” Heinicke told the Examiner in a September interview, perhaps signaling the project will sail to smooth approvals in October.

About 500,000 people walk on Market Street daily, 200 buses run through it an hour during peak times, and 4,000 people commute by bike daily on the corridor.

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 collision injuries.

While the project has been in the works for the better part of a decade — Muni launched a pilot program on banning cars on Market Street in 2009 as part of the project’s planning process — there are still kinks to work out.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier said his organization hopes the car-free portion of Market Street, once it is built in its more permanent capacity, to stretch farther than it is currently planned.

“We’re on the brink of a historic vote. We have one chance to get Market Street right for generations to come,” Wiedenmeier said, in a statement. “Our members want a car-free Market Street from Main Street to Gough by the end of 2019, and construction of protected bike lanes to break ground by the end of 2020.”

Likewise, some merchants fear a repeat of Van Ness Boulevard’s woes on Market Street. Merchants there have complained that Van Ness Improvement Project construction — a combined effort to transform Muni lines, public sewers, and street lights — have made it difficult for merchants to maintain their customer base, who have been frightened off by ever-increasing construction.

Maryo Mogannam, president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations, said SFMTA, Public Works and the Planning Department have discussed mitigation measures like advertising and direct funding to help Market Street merchants, but he fears it isn’t enough.

“Everyone keeps saying mitigation,” Mogannam said. “Mitigation is like putting a small bandaid on an arterial cut. We’re hemorrhaging.”

Still, “we’re receptive,” he added. “Anything big is always scary and concerning.”

Olea said The City has learned its lessons from more controversial street projects. Better Market Street will be implemented in sections: 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.

“We’re doing that intentionally and deliberately to try to minimize the impact to businesses,” she said.

Those construction phases will take years, with phase 1 scheduled to stretch at least until 2022, according to the project’s website.

Still, even the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, a sometime-critic of SFMTA and various city agencies when businesses are impacted, sang praises for the Better Market Street project.

“I think our perspective, businesses perspective, is that these transformations are important in the long term,” said Jay Cheng, a spokesperson for the chamber. They will continue to work with public agencies to ensure construction mitigation helps businesses, he added.

But in the end, he said, “Better transportation infrastructure is good for business, and an activated street front is good for business.”


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