Commentary: Let’s Make ‘Car Free’ Market Street Even Better
2:52 PM PDT on October 18, 2019
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The SFMTA Board unanimously approved the Better Market Street project this week, putting the city on a path towards becoming the envy of safe streets advocates across the country.
However, Better Market Street will not be our transit and safe streets panacea, as it might appear on paper. The project has many great aspects, which include banning private vehicles, extending bus-only lanes, building protected bike lanes and improving sidewalks on the street, as well as converting 243 downtown parking spaces to loading zones. But, as was pointed out at the approval meeting, the project still isn’t bold enough and its benefits will take too long to realize.
Bike Lane Widths
Just prior to Tuesday's historic vote, Director Amanda Eaken expressed concern that the bike lanes, at eight feet, aren't wide enough to fully accommodate future bike traffic.
She was right to bring this up.
Years ago, planners realized that there wouldn’t be enough room for continuous bike lanes on Market Street and suggested creating bike lanes on Mission Street instead. But to the bicycle community, the idea of a bicycle-free Market Street sounded unthinkable. The problem is BART entrances create pinch points on the street and the protected lanes will narrow to five-foot widths in these spots. Five-feet is only wide enough for single-file riding. Anyone who bikes on Market Street during peak commute hours knows this won’t be able to handle the existing volumes of bicycles, not to mention the expected increase in bicycle levels over the next 15 years. Due to congestion in the raised bike lane, people on bicycles will use the motor-vehicle lane instead. Although this lane will be free of private cars, there will still be taxis and delivery trucks, and bicycles will significantly slow down the speeds of the buses. Market Street may end up with many of the same problems it has today.
SFMTA should remove parking and install quick-build protected lanes on Mission Street, in addition to the protected lanes on Market Street. Not only would bicycle lanes on Mission Street ease congestion on Market Street, but they could likely be installed much quicker. This would allow easy bicycle detours onto Mission Street during the decade-plus construction on Market Street. Right now the Better Market Street plan proposes detours to as far south as Folsom Street - that’s three blocks out of the way in each direction.
The Better Market Street plan could also go further in improving Market Street’s intersections to reduce transit delays and increase safety for people biking and walking. As congestion increases in downtown, cross-street vehicles often run red lights and block-the-box. Today, SFMTA’s only solution to prevent blocking-the-box is to send out two to four parking control officers to each intersection to direct drivers. Better Market Street will include CCTV to help SFMTA monitor intersections, but leaves out any automated enforcement. Cities around the globe have implemented blocking-the-box automated cameras, but California would have to change state law for San Francisco to implement this automated enforcement. SFMTA could implement red light cameras on the twenty Market Street intersections, which would help decrease the likelihood of blocking-the-box. These twenty cameras would cost $6-10 million to install, which is about one percent of the $600 million project budget.
Better Market Street’s bicycle intersection designs are also woefully inadequate. The agency continues to propose two-stage left turn bike boxes - the equivalent of an intersection sharrow - instead of fully protected intersections.
Many Market Street intersections will have protected lanes on cross-streets, which would make protected intersections the natural design. However, the Better Market Street designs go to great lengths to exclude protected intersections. Also, the plan includes very few bike boxes on Market Street itself, even though additional bike boxes could help increase bicycle capacity by increasing intersection throughput on the street. An innovative design would reserve the left-side of the bike box for e-bikes, which gain speed quicker than pedal-bikes. Therefore, people on e-bikes would stop at a red light to the left of people on pedal-bikes, pass them through the intersection and continue onto the protected lane on the far side of the intersection. The current design ensures e-bike riders are stuck behind pedal-bike riders in a single-file at the protected lane pinch points at red lights.
The plan’s vehicle restrictions will be the most important part of the project, as they will speed up the buses and improve safety for people biking and walking. SFMTA’s plan to implement these restrictions as a quick-build project in January is great. However, the restrictions don’t go far enough as they provide taxis and commercial vehicles almost unfettered access to Market Street. The lack of restrictions for commercial vehicles is especially confusing since the plan goes to great lengths to restrict vehicle loading during peak commute hours. So why allow commercial vehicles, especially large trucks, to drive down Market Street during peak commute hours if these trucks won’t even be allowed to load on Market Street?
The risk of commercial vehicles and taxis using Market Street as a shortcut and thoroughfare is too great. If Better Market Street was actually prioritizing Vision Zero, the plan would include taxi and commercial vehicle restrictions, such as forced turns off Market Street. These forced turns would ensure that taxis and commercial vehicles could access businesses on Market Street, but not utilize Market Street as a thoroughfare.
Lastly, the construction timeline, as was brought up repeatedly in Tuesday's meeting, is unacceptably slow. Construction for the first phase, 5th to 8th streets, will last from 2021 to mid-2023. That’s a half mile of construction over 2.5 years. That’s the only portion of Better Market Street that will be completed before we reach Vision Zero’s 2024 deadline to eliminate traffic fatalities. The F-Line turnaround at 7th Street with take another two years to construct. Phase 2 of Better Market Street is from 2nd to 5th Streets but has no timeline to start construction.
Better Market Street could take up to 14 years to complete construction. Businesses throughout San Francisco have suffered from the City’s endless construction projects such as Van Ness Street, Polk Street and the Chinatown Subway. The City must start emphasizing speed to complete projects even if that increases construction costs. San Francisco, with its mild winters, should have a huge advantage quickly completing construction projects. Yet we measure construction timelines in decades.
I am celebrating Better Market Street’s approval this week, as it’s a crucial step in American cities breaking the grip of automobiles on our streets. However, we must acknowledge that the planning process has taken too long, the project’s benefits will take too long to realize, and the completed project will still have many flaws.
If San Francisco wants to meet its climate and Vision Zero goals, it must continue to innovate on street design and construction processes. We need to deliver more benefits more quickly and more affordably than we are on Market Street.
Streetsblog California editor Melanie Curry has been thinking about transportation, and how to improve conditions for bicyclists, since her early days commuting by bike to UCLA long ago. She was Managing Editor at the East Bay Express, and edited Access Magazine for the University of California Transportation Center. She also earned her Masters in City Planning from UC Berkeley.
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