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Did car-free Market Street kill San Francisco’s most important boulevard?

Market Street is quiet on Monday. City officials banned private vehicles on the boulevard nearly four years ago, but since that time, the thoroughfare has languished. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard
Politics & Policy

Did car-free Market Street kill San Francisco’s most important boulevard?

Almost every major city in the world can be identified by a signature stretch of road. New York City has Fifth Avenue. Chicago has Michigan Avenue. Paris has the Champs-Élysées. Each iconic thoroughfare has historic structures, luxury shops and restaurants, cafes and bars that draw millions of visitors.

Another thing they have in common: cars.

But in an unprecedented move four years ago, San Francisco made a stunning decision to distinguish its most famous corridor. For the first time in roughly 120 years, the city banned private vehicles from the eastern span of Market Street as part of an ambitious effort to improve public safety and transform San Francisco’s most important traffic artery. 

A $600 million capital project called Better Market Street promised to create a futuristic boulevard that would safely buffer bicycles and scooters on elevated sidewalk lanes, separating the little wheels from rapid bus lines, vintage streetcars and pedestrians. Beneath the surface, underground BART trains would continue to shuttle passengers around the city and across the bay. 

A rendering of a populated street and sidewalk.
A rendering of the Better Market Street project, which proposed separated lanes to buffer bicycles and scooters on elevated sidewalk lanes. | Source: Courtesy SFMTA

The new vision for Market Street, advocates said, would create a safer, more vibrant multimodal avenue for the hundreds of thousands of residents, commuters and tourists who daily traverse the 2.2-mile stretch from the Castro District to the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.

More than a decade of planning went into alterations of Market Street, which were billed as a face-lift befitting the epicenter of innovation. San Francisco was experiencing boom times in 2019, as the cash-flush tech sector sent Downtown commercial rents soaring.

“It was very bullish,” said Oz Erickson, chair of the San Francisco-based development firm Emerald Fund, who noted that some of the city’s best buildings were renting space for as much as $100 per square foot. “The whole economy was booming.”

Today, the scene on the ground is almost unrecognizable compared to San Francisco’s grand promises. Yes, cars are gone from Market Street. But so are people.

Just six weeks after “quick build” projects began in early 2020, the pandemic shut down San Francisco. The rest of the world would soon follow. Better Market Street went on hiatus before plans were significantly scaled back in October 2020.

Mayor London Breed appointed Jeffrey Tumlin as the city’s new director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) just four weeks after Better Market Street received final approval, and in private conversations, Tumlin scoffed at the bloated budget. 

A person waits for the bus on Market St. in San Francisco.
A person waits for the bus on Market Street and Fourth Street as another Muni bus drives by in San Francisco on Nov. 21. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“I remember Jeff telling me in my first meeting after he took over MTA, ‘You can’t just staple together everyone’s wish list and just call it a project,’” said Rick Laubscher, president and CEO of the Market Street Railway nonprofit and chair of Better Market Street’s citizen advisory committee.

The project had been envisioned in three phases. But funds for anything beyond modest improvements along a three-block stretch of Market Street between Fifth and Eighth streets—expected to be finished next summer—have evaporated. City departments are now passing the responsibility of explaining what went wrong with the project like a hot potato.

More than a few people in and around City Hall quietly acknowledge that Better Market Street no longer makes sense in a post-pandemic world, as the shift to remote work has slashed weekly office attendance in San Francisco by 44%. Others are questioning whether going “car-free” on the city’s most important street was a mistake that has stymied the city’s economic recovery.

Without a dramatic injection of leadership, some say, Market Street could turn into the great yellow brick road to nowhere.

“We have no money and no motivation to do anything,” said Jim Haas, a retired attorney who has served on Market Street citizen advisory committees going back almost two decades. “I would say that’s a scandal.”

A Plan Without a Piggy Bank

The cost of Better Market Street, which soared above a billion dollars before being reined in to a still-staggering $604 million, is almost double the amount spent on the tormented Van Ness Avenue redesign. No one disputes the project was damaged by the pandemic. Inflation and construction delays have ballooned costs, and a loss in tax revenue has the transit agency teetering on a fiscal cliff that is threatening the loss of bus lines.

But even before all of these hurdles, the financial underpinnings of the Market Street project were shaky. Commissioners for the SFMTA passed the plan in October 2019 while noting a funding gap of $460 million. The agency’s board of directors, rather than the overarching Board of Supervisors, had the final say on the project because it was a capital project exceeding $600 million. 

San Francisco Muni buses and streetcars on Market St. in San Francisco with the Golden Gate Theatre in the background.
San Francisco buses and streetcars pass along Market Street in San Francisco on Nov. 21. In early 2020, San Francisco officials closed down Market Street to private vehicles. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

The fact that unelected transportation commissioners have the power to sign off on such a monumental project may seem shortsighted, but all parties in the city understood that a bond measure would need to be passed to complete Phases 2 and 3 of the project. Phase 2 would complete the redesign of the F line streetcar track, while Phase 3 would focus on improvements of Market between Second and Fifth streets.

A poison pill for the project arrived last summer, when voters rejected Measure A, a $400 million bond measure that fell just short of the two-thirds threshold for passage.

Trying to get a firm answer on who is in charge of the Better Market Street project is like a reboot of the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?”

The Standard’s inquiry about the project to the SFMTA was initially redirected to the Department of Public Works, which is overseeing Phase 1 of the project. But after questions were submitted to that agency, a Public Works spokesperson suggested that questions would be better directed to the transit agency, as officials for this department are overseeing Phases 2 and 3.

Several stakeholders who have been working on Better Market Street were surprised to learn SFMTA has sole authority over the latter stages of the project when contacted by The Standard, as no outreach meetings have been held since February.

Specific questions about Phases 2 and 3 were met with rhetorical questions from an SFMTA spokesperson.

“We admit that there will be changes compared to original pre-pandemic iterations and plans for Market Street,” agency spokesperson Stephen Chun wrote in an email. “We’re thinking hard about what to do with very limited resources—what can we do to fix failing infrastructure? How can we make Market Street completely accessible for those in wheelchairs for the first time in its history? How do we deliver pedestrian improvements and make it a safer and more delightful corridor for people biking?”

If only there were someone in San Francisco who knew the answers.

Jeffrey Tumlin the San Francisco Director of Transportation raises his arm while giving a presentation with mayor london breed in the background.
Jeffrey Tumlin, San Francisco's director of transportation, speaks during the official opening of the new Bus Rapid Transit corridor on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on April 1, 2022. | Source: Nick Otto

City officials enraged safe streets advocates when they announced in late 2020 that the elevated bike lanes on sidewalks would be scrapped. Reasons ranged from the excessive cost to projections that the lanes wouldn’t provide enough space to accommodate the expected uptick in cyclists. Tumlin, the city’s transportation director, declined multiple interview requests, citing his busy schedule in text messages.

The work of Phase 1 isn’t sexy, but the $60 million project will update an important section of Market Street between the Powell BART Station and Civic Center. Improvements between Fifth and Eighth streets include traffic signal upgrades, repaving intersections, constructing Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant curb ramps and streetscape improvements such as new trees, benches and bicycle racks.

That’s a far cry from the ambitions city officials were championing at the end of 2019.  Former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, who is now in prison on corruption charges, called the project’s approval a “major milestone” in bringing the city’s premiere boulevard into the 21st century. Interim transportation director Tom Maguire, who has since left the city for a job with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, described Better Market Street as a “truly transformational project.”

“It’s sad, really,” Laubscher said. “If this had been planned properly and realistically from the get-go, we would be enjoying a much better Market Street.”

The Evolution of Market Street

No street in the city tells the history of San Francisco as completely as Market Street. The street—first surveyed in 1847 by Jasper O’Farrell, who would later have his own namesake street in the city—became a demarcation line between the north and south of San Francisco’s famous diagonal grid.

An archival photos of Market Street from an aerial position.
Businesses flank Market Street in San Francisco in 1850, just three years after it was first designed. | Source: Library of Congress

Running northeast from Twin Peaks to the city’s port, Market Street quickly became a hub to conduct business and a gathering point, most notably by Lotta’s Fountain after the 1906 earthquake and fire turned the city to rubble and ash. Cable car and horse car lines dominated the boulevard up until the quake, but San Francisco officials quickly went to work by installing electrical streetcars after the disaster. Ten years later, a 1½-mile stretch of Market Street was illuminated by streetlights for the first time.

Skyscrapers soon followed, and by the 1930s, four tracks of streetcars were shuttling people back and forth across the city on Market. Theaters, restaurants and shops popped up, and San Francisco had the cachet one would expect from a world-class city that had a little bit of glitz and glam before becoming the counterculture capital and getting weird. Market Street also has been the site of countless mass protests and parades.

The largest disruption Market Street experienced in the last century took place in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when construction of the underground BART line gashed the street like a carving knife. Once the avenue was stitched back together, Market Street—now replete with a subway below and buses and taxis on top—became the most trafficked block in the Bay Area, even after San Jose overtook San Francisco as the largest city in the Bay Area in 1989.

A archival photo of a screets scene on Market Street that includes cars from the 1950s and the SF Ferry Building
Cars, streetcars and pedestrians travel along Market Street in front of the Ferry Building in San Francisco in 1951. | Courtesy OpenSFHistory | Source: Courtesy OpenSFHistory

Prior to the pandemic, Market Street was a bustling hub of activity at nearly all hours. More than 500,000 people walked along the thoroughfare on a given day. But it was also the city’s most dangerous street for traffic accidents. As of 2019, Market Street was averaging more than 100 collisions per year—a rate four times higher than nearby Mission Street—and it had four of the top 10 intersections for pedestrian- and bicycle-involved collisions in the preceding five years.

Better Market Street intended to fix this as part of the city’s Vision Zero program, which aims to eliminate all traffic-related fatalities. 

The outreach effort that started in 2011 was unprecedented. Over the following eight years, five major rounds of stakeholder engagement were held. On the lone issue of putting bike lanes on sidewalks—an aspect that was scrapped after Tumlin’s arrival—a work group met regularly for two years to reach consensus on a design.

In October of last year, city officials announced they would need to return a $15 million federal grant because they couldn’t meet a deadline for Phase 2 of the project, which would create a roundabout for the F Line streetcar to stop short of the Castro and turn around to more quickly deliver passengers to the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf. This admission came after the city expended considerable time conducting an environmental impact report that included a “noise and vibration study.”

On the question of whether eliminating cars made Market Street safer, the data is ambiguous. Since the beginning of 2020, the city reported a 40% drop in collisions, but it’s unclear how much of that can be attributed to a broader decline in traffic in the area. The Standard could not identify data for this year on the number of people using Market Street.

Bicyclists and scooter riders make their way down Market St.
Bicyclists and scooter riders make their way down Market Street with buses in the background on Nov. 21. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“Talking to our members, there is an overall perception of improved safety [on Market Street], while keeping in mind there’s still so much more to be done,” said Rachel Clyde, the westside community organizer for the SF Bicycle Coalition.

As far as commute times go, the removal of private vehicles from Market Street—taxis are still allowed, while Uber and Lyft are banned—has reduced transit travel times by up to four minutes. The street’s bus lines have seen a stronger return in ridership compared with pre-pandemic levels (79%) than the systemwide rate (69%), according to the SFMTA.

Meanwhile, the freefall in commuters and loss of foot traffic has led to a dramatic loss of business in and around the Union Square area bordered by Market. Major retailers on the boulevard like Nordstrom and Old Navy both shuttered this year while a new Whole Foods down the block closed its doors in less than a year. In June, the Westfield company announced it was giving up management of Downtown’s premier shopping mall on Market Street.

Many of these fleeing businesses cited issues around public safety and San Francisco’s drug crisis for their closures, but local entrepreneurs have also said the move to “car-free” Market Street has severely harmed their businesses.

Jeannie Kim, owner of SAMS American Eatery, said her 16-year-old restaurant near the corner of Eighth Street is doing about half of the business it was before the pandemic. She said the ban on cars in the area has made the surrounding blocks less safe for people at night. 

“I have everyone telling me, ‘Why don’t you just give it up? Why don’t you leave the area?’” Kim said. “But I have hope that, one day, it will come back to life.”

Yeo’s Electric Chicken and Rice, which is located near Second Street, recently announced its closure after just 11 months in business, and the owner partly blamed car-free Market Street.

“Food delivery couldn’t work, so we were dependent on people walking in only,” owner Chris Yeo said. “It’s cheaper to close than stay open.”

Karin Flood, president of the Flood Corporation, which is located by the foot of the Powell Street Cable Car line, adamantly opposed the city’s move to a “car-free” Market Street back in 2019. She said the harm to businesses on the boulevard proves the city needs to rethink its strategy. 

“At the very least, they should allow the Ubers and Lyfts to come back,” Flood said. “SFMTA may have a grand plan about how they want to move people around the city, but it’s not always good for business. A little congestion is actually good for vibrancy.”

Jeff Heller, an architect and urban designer who is the principal of Heller Manus Architects, suggested that the city kowtowed to bike advocates and the near-extinct taxi industry by removing private vehicles from Market Street.

“Frankly, I am personally convinced that the lack of accessibility accelerated the demise of the Westfield mall, along with all the other terrible things of crime and the pandemic,” Heller said. “You could shoot a cannon down Market Street, and there is nothing there.”

An empty mall with Bloomingdale's in the background.
Business is sparse in the San Francisco Centre, formerly known as Westfield mall, on Nov. 21. Located on Market Street, the mall has been losing customers since the pandemic. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

He added, “Everything they talk about—the fixing, the paving, doing the [sidewalk] bricks—all of that has nothing to do with anything. It is the famous lipstick-on-a-pig story. They need to bring vehicles back on Market Street. Downtown will get revitalized in a dramatic way.”

Reversing the decision would be a divisive undertaking for city officials, as safe streets advocates and the SF Bicycle Coalition are major political players in San Francisco. But the massive investment of time, money and energy to create Better Market Street wasn’t about creating a faster bus lane and moderately improved bike lanes for fewer people.

Beyond the issue of cars, many stakeholders in the city believe San Francisco needs to at least go back to the drawing board when it comes to creating a more vibrant thoroughfare worthy of a world-class city.

“I personally feel like right now, if you’re on Market Street, you feel a bit lonely,” said Lydia So, an architect who currently serves on the SFMTA board. 

“We should probably hit the refresh button and think about what we are doing right now,” she added. “If we don’t rethink what we’re doing, this idealistic project will be living on paper.”

The End of the Road

As the future of Better Market Street hangs in limbo and the reality on the ground post-pandemic comes into clearer view, many are wondering if any pursuit of Phases 2 and 3 is worth the effort. Perhaps that time would be better spent reimagining what San Francisco should be hoping to achieve when reactivating a more vibrant Downtown core.

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, said that funding will be the deciding factor on Better Market Street, but there is nothing else stopping the city from moving forward.

“Any decisions on what to do next will be made by our office in partnership with the departments and district supervisors,” Cretan said. “No decisions have been made on what to do next.”

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, suggested he would oppose any attempts to advance Better Market Street under the current plans.

A pedestrian crosses Fourth at Market Street, left, while another pedestrian, right, walks down a virtually empty sidewalk outside Village Venue on market street.
A pedestrian crosses Fourth Street at Market Street, left, while another pedestrian walks down a virtually empty sidewalk in front of Village Venue on Market Street on Nov. 21. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“Even if the transportation bonds had passed and we were not facing a fiscal cliff, I think there would still be a real question of whether we should move forward with Better Market Street as it’s been envisioned,” Mandelman said. “We need to walk into these giant projects eyes wide open and really think through how long they’re going to take and how much they’re going to cost. I don’t think Better Market has yet met that test.”

Robin Pam, the founder of KidSafe SF, which worked to pass a ballot measure last year that kept cars off of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park after the roadway was closed to vehicle traffic during the pandemic, said the city should consider implementing even more completely walkable spaces along Market Street.

“I think one of the lessons we learned from JFK Drive is that if we’re going to do these projects, we should do them right,” Pam said. “If we just go halfway, we’re not going to make anyone happy.”

She cited the creation of a skate park pilot program at United Nations Plaza, which opened in November, as an example of the kind of new activity that should be fostered from Mid-Market all the way to the Embarcadero.

“There are so many opportunities like [the skate park] on Market Street, and right now, we’re thinking about it in a piecemeal way,” Pam said. “It’s a corridor we need to think about holistically. A vision that starts from U.N. Plaza to the Ferry Building.”

A person on a skateboard does a trick off a jump on a red brick skate park at UN Plaza with City Hall in the background on a sunny day in downtown San Francisco.
Skateboarder Matt Blanton does a rail slide in the newly unveiled skate park in United Nations Plaza on Market Street between Seventh and Eighth streets on Nov. 8, with City Hall in the background. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

The Mayor’s Office is working on other projects to bring people back to Market Street. Potential efforts include converting office towers into housing or repurposing them as dormitories and classrooms for the University of California system.

Manny Yekutiel, a former SFMTA commissioner, floated the idea of making Market Street a “real promenade” before stepping down from the board in October, and some city leaders have been looking at Downtown Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles as a model for creating a new world-class arts district in San Francisco.

Amy Campbell, an architect and studio director for San Francisco-based Gensler, the largest architecture firm in the world, said that going completely transit-free on the surface of Market Street will likely be unfeasible. But she noted how other cities have found ways to reimagine key traffic arteries into world-class thoroughfares that prioritize pedestrians and public gatherings. 

Campbell said successful examples include the long-established Third Street promenade in Santa Monica in Southern California; the modular parklet build-outs that have been constructed in Stockholm; and the 34th Avenue project in New York City, where a 1.3-mile stretch of road in Queens was closed to cars during daylight hours during the Covid pandemic to essentially create a vibrant “linear park.”

The decision to close off 34th Avenue to cars during the daylight hours initially met pushback from some Queens residents, but it has since become a success, outlasting the public health crisis. Campbell suggested the city could look at the last three blocks of Market Street before the Embarcadero as a “test case” that would still allow streetcars.

“I think that would be OK. They move pretty slow, and they have bells,” Campbell said. “It’s all about slowing down the traffic.” 

A drone view of a rainbow light show down Market Street at night.
A 4.1-mile laser art show titled “Welcome” by Illuminate beams down Market Street from the San Francisco Ferry Building during Pride week 2022. | Source: Brian Feulner for The Standard

The future of Market Street may seem bleak at this moment, but one final idea floated by So was bringing back the rainbow laser exposition that exploded out of the Ferry Building during Pride week in 2022. Rather than making it a once-a-year phenomenon, she said, a light display that illuminates the length of Market Street could be the kind of iconic symbol that brings people back to San Francisco’s most important street.

“We had this theme, a ray of light like a rainbow, coming out from the building and literally illuminating the entire structure of the street,” So said. “It was just beautiful.”

If that or many other long-promised improvements come to pass, the ill-fated yellow brick road might actually have a chance to shine.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a bond measure would have required a simple majority to pass if it had come from a voter initiative.