Celebrating Better Market Street — And the People Who Made It Happen

Better Market Street campaign event photo

Activists gather on the steps of City Hall in October ahead of the unanimous vote by the supervisors to prohibit cars on Market. Photo by Roger Rudick from his coverage on Streetsblog.

In January, for the first time in decades, people rolled, walked, and took the bus down a two mile stretch of San Francisco’s Market Street without having to compete for space with drivers of private cars.

Better Market Street, the culmination of years of grassroots advocacy and incremental improvements, promises to make one of San Francisco’s most traveled streets safer, more efficient and effective as a thoroughfare, and a more inviting and sustainable place to be and move through. The prohibition of private cars, while momentous, is actually just another step in a long series of incremental steps that activists have pushed for along the road to a safer Market Street. The next steps include building out safe infrastructure, like physically protected bike lanes.

We at Spin are particularly excited to see this transformation: it is in our backyard and will have a very positive impact for our riders in San Francisco.

A Decades-Old Idea

January 29’s grand opening of Better Market Street was as much a celebration of the street itself as it was a testament to the transformative power of grassroots activism and the cumulative impact incremental changes can have. Official plans to get private cars off of Market go back to at least the mid-1960s. And while the idea took time to get traction, in the intervening decades there were Critical Mass rides, organized advocacy efforts by organizations like the SF Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, Ride of Silence, and neighborhood groups, and lobbying and data collection efforts to make the case to planners and politicians that getting cars off of Market Street was the right thing to do. The SF Chronicle has a couple of good looks at the history behind the movement for Better Market Street.

“It was not that long ago that it still felt like a pipe dream. Even though it seemed like a no-brainer,” Walk SF’s communications director Marta Lindsey told Spin. “This used to be viewed as a crazy idea.”

“This is an incredibly exciting and hard fought win,” said Melissa Lewis, communications and marketing director for the SF Bicycle Coalition. She called Better Market Street part of a “sea of change” that’s leading to safer streets that prioritize people and transit over cars, like the recent prohibition of private cars from 14th Street in New York. The rising awareness of just how dangerous cars are, especially in dense urban environments, and the need for dramatic action to prevent the root causes of climate change are making decisions, that at one time seemed politically impossible, more and more urgent.

“Over the years, organizations like the SF Bicycle Coalition, Walk SF, and their partners have been meeting with city planners, pulling their staff and volunteers into design meetings, making sure we advocate, making sure that we are updating our members about progress and how they are involved,” Lewis said.

“There is a lot of resilience within people who walk and bike on Market Street. People could have given up and accepted the status quo,” she said. Instead, they chipped away at, what at one time seemed, an intractable problem.

From Repaving to Redesigning the Street

While momentum for safer streets in San Francisco had been building for a while — one only has to look at the impact and evolution of Critical Mass to see that — the beginning of the tipping point for the current iteration of Better Market Street started, in part, with potholes. Jodie Medeiros, director of Walk SF and former director of development for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition remembered when the Department of Public Works deputized volunteers from the SF Bicycle Coalition ranks to help with plans to repave Market Street back in about 2008. Their task: spray paint stencils around potholes to mark them for filling in.

But the project inspired a larger question: Why would we just repave the street if the way the street is currently designed doesn’t work for everybody?

A quick look at the numbers makes it abundantly clear that the status quo was not tenable:

“Market Street is San Francisco’s busiest pedestrian street, with half a million people walking there every day. At the same time, with the highest per-mile crash rate of all streets in San Francisco, it’s one of our most dangerous places to walk especially at many of the cross streets,” according to Walk SF’s website.

One of the first steps was a temporary trial of turn restrictions at two intersections on Market Street — 6th and 10th — designed to divert cars off Market and reduce conflicts between drivers, transit, and other people using the street. It was 2009, Gavin Newsom was mayor, and this was a foot in the door.

The director of the SF Bicycle Coalition’s Great Streets Project, Kit Hodge, told Streetsblog that year: “What galvanized the stakeholders is the trial approach and the placemaking approach, which reflects multiple looks on Market Street, not just transportation, but seeing the street as a place. There are a number of other things happening beyond traffic changes, including ad hoc plazas on the sidewalks, art in buildings, music along the street.”

That Streetsblog article also notes that the idea of getting cars completely off of Market was already being considered as an option, albeit a remote one, and would be studied ahead of the planned 2013 repaving.

A Safer Street Evolves

Fast-forward two years and the once-temporary pilot, after turning out to be wildly successful, was made permanent with a bright green bike lane added. And it provided activists and city officials an opportunity to collect data on the impact of the changes. Transit speeds increased, meaning more reliable service for people taking MUNI, and bike ridership went up and riders reported feeling more comfortable.

“Market Street has seen some of the largest increase in ridership, with a 98 [percent] growth between 2006 and 2011, and 750 bike riders counted in just one hour on Market and 5th Streets on an average week day,” according to the SF Bicycle Coalition in 2013. Those counts were often performed by volunteers on the streets. But that year, a bike counter was installed on Market to provide real-time data about bike ridership, giving advocates and officials even more concrete data for making the case for infrastructure improvements.

Jason Henderson, a professor at San Francisco State University and resident who sits on the transportation subcommittee of his neighborhood council, has had his students help with mode counts over the years.

“When we go out there, we see there are disproportionately more people on bikes, on transit, than in cars,” he said.

Still, 2013 saw a slowdown in the momentum toward a safer Market Street when the repaving project stalled and, despite the success of the turn restrictions, they hadn’t been expanded to include more of the street.

The delay also came with the possibility that instead of the promised improvements to Market, people on bikes would be pushed south to Mission.

So advocates mobilized to keep plans on track and on time. Then-director of the SF Bicycle Coalition Leah Shahum authored a letter to Mayor Ed Lee on behalf of the organization’s 12,000 members.

Vision Zero and Better Market Street

In 2014, the push for Better Market Street got a major boost when the City, after much advocating by people and organizations, adopted a Vision Zero plan, which put Market front and center as one of the most dangerous and yet iconic streets in San Francisco. “Safer Market Street” was highlighted as one of 24 projects SFMTA aimed to implement in as many months.

The plan aimed to reduce conflicts between drivers and other modes by expanding the successful turn restrictions that had been piloted several years earlier to a number of other intersections along the way and by expanding the transit-only lanes to help get car traffic out of the way of buses.

Though improvements had been made, Market Street remained a dangerous place for people outside of cars. In 2016, Thu Phan, a wheelchair user, was crossing the street at 7th and Mission when a car driver, turning left, hit and killed her. It was a devastating reminder of just how dangerous Market Street remained.

“While the recent changes to Market Street are important first steps in making San Francisco’s streets safer, they do not go far enough, especially to protect people who are most at risk, including seniors and people with disabilities,” Walk SF Executive Director at the time, Nicole Ferrara, pointed out in a joint press release with Senior and Disability Action.“Thu Phan’s tragic death could have been prevented, if stronger safety measures were in place.”

Walk SF, joining forces with Senior and Disability Action, Independent Living Resource Center, and the Mayor’s Office on Disability then successfully advocated for “five-point plan” to improve safety for vulnerable road users, which included “leading pedestrian intervals” that give people walking a safe head start to cross the street before vehicles get the green light.

It remained clear, however, that for Market Street to be safe, cars needed to go. So advocates continued to organize and push for approval of a plan that would not only add separated bike lanes, safer crossings, and better sidewalks, but would also prohibit private cars altogether.

The grassroots movement that has coalesced around getting cars off Market Street was on full display last October ahead of the unanimous vote by the County Board of Supervisors to ban private cars from the street.

Even so, the removal of private cars from Market Street is just another incremental step toward improving the thoroughfare, which will get physically protected bike lanes and other infrastructure improvements in the near future.

And, now, amidst the excitement and fanfare of a car-free Market Street, there is talk about which street this once-absurd idea might come to next, such as JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park. According to the City’s Vision Zero plan, 75 percent of severe and fatal crashes occur on only 13 percent of San Francisco’s streets. And, the majority of those streets are in communities of concern where people are more likely to be dependent on non-car modes of transportation.

Supporting the Advocates Who Make This Happen

If you want to know more about the organizations fighting for safer streets in San Francisco, look at the Vision Zero coalition, which has some 40 community-based organizations, and the Vision Zero task force.

Also, don’t forget to support organizations like Walk SF and the SF Bicycle Coalition as it takes time and resources — and many volunteer hours — to advocate for safer streets for all.

While we are celebrating the hard work of the groups and the people who made Better Market Street happen, at Spin we are also thinking about how we can help advocate on the ground in other communities win their fights for safer streets in their neighborhoods. It is the people who walk, roll, or take transit on their streets that know best what needs to be done to make them safer. That’s the assumption behind our Spin Streets program in general and specifically, our Mobility Data for Safer Streets initiative: one of the best ways we can help change streets for the better is to put the tools in the hands of the people on the ground doing the work to make their communities safer and more sustainable.

That data can help move the conversation. It certainly did during the decade-long push to get cars off of Market Street. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a paradigm shift in San Francisco, one that started with the need to fill potholes on the city’s most-traveled street.

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