Do We Have to Wait for the Next Mayor for a Car-free Market Street?

Mona_Market_St._Mural.jpgMona Caron's interpretation of a 21st Century Market Street
How hard is it to fix the most important street in San Francisco, one that is vital to transit, that is the spine of the bicycle network, and that could be the crowning jewel of the city, a Champs d'Elysee or a newly pedestrianized Broadway?  Without Mayor Gavin Newsom spearheading the process, it doesn't bode well.

In an interview, Wade Crowfoot, the Mayor's Director of Climate Initiatives, insisted "coordination and leadership will come from our office, but we need to take it out of the politics of city hall and engage the key stakeholders.  The time is ripe for a broader conversation."

It is clear from interviews, however, that the needed leadership is not coming from the Mayor, and the vacuum from the Mayor's office means that many agencies are moving forward without him and without much coordination.  From a positive standpoint, if the Mayor were to sit down at the table, he'd find it's already been set.

"There was no plan that I know of a year ago," said Ed Reiskin, Director of the Department of Public Works (DPW).  He explained he first had a conversation about a big vision for Market Street improvements with SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum when they discussed the regularly scheduled repaving of Market Street.  "If we're going to invest all this money and create all this disruption, we have a great opportunity.  We can rip up the street and pave it exactly as it is, or we can come up with something much better."

Reiskin said the DPW had budgeted a small amount of planning and design money this year, and put out a call to all the agencies that have infrastructure along the street.  He has also been working with the Planning Department to develop a procedural document that will focus on how the agencies should coordinate their efforts.

"I'm trying to be the instigator of this process," said Reiskin.  "Ultimately, DPW will lead the implementation of the capital project, wherever that will be.  We're looking for guidance from the Planning Department and the others we meet with monthly to get it right." 

Independently of DPW's work, the Board of Supervisors several weeks ago directed the SFCTA to complete a Strategic Analysis Report (SAR) to study automobile restrictions on Market Street.  Though the impression one received from reading the newspaper was that we would soon see a car-free Market Street, the SAR is only an advisory document needed before a study can be completed. 

When pressed, Tilly Chang, the TA's Deputy Director for Planning, admitted that a real study of Market Street would take six months or more after the SAR is completed, and that even then there would need to be a commitment from the MTA and other agencies to adopt the study's recommendations (SAR Scope, PDF).

MTA spokesperson Judson True said that the Market Street process posed an "incredible opportunity to make what is already a key street for sustainable transportation even better.  The TEP sees Market Street as the future of Muni, with improved boarding, better transit priority, etc.  We’re also committed to working with all the partner agencies to make sure it is one of the most visually impressive urban streets in the U.S."

The TEP is still a couple years out, particularly projects that are not revenue neutral, so expecting MTA to move quickly could prove difficult. 

Andy Thornley, the SFBC's Program Director, said he believes the main obstacle to improving Market Street is the MTA.  Even without the MTA purposefully slowing down improvements, circumstantially, they are acting as an impediment to progress.  "At this moment, MTA is not acting on their main charge of providing safe, convenient trips for everybody and wonderful streetscapes."

Given that the timeline for repaving the street realistically looks like 2013-14, San Francisco won't see any changes while the current Mayor is in office, unless he gives the agencies political capital to implement trials analogous to those completed by NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

"We’re having a lot of discussion on what kind of quick hits can be implemented," said MTA Spokesman True. "We have to find ways to provide for local access, even as we try to make sure that Market Street is not a through street for vehicle traffic.

The DPW's Reiskin also expressed support for short-term improvements.

Once we have a design concept, I would love to do any kind of pilots and short-term projects that we can.  Frankly it's not something that I've discussed with other agencies, but once we're emboldened with Janette Sadik-Khan-style projects elsewhere, we can identify things that we can test in a real way on Market.  I guess if you can do Broadway in New York, you can do almost anything.

Though the SFBC's Thornley said the TA’s SAR has been greeted with some cynicism, he's optimistic that it is meant to be an organizing framework and "punchlist" to make the agencies come together and be held accountable.  But he's not convinced it will work without the Mayor gathering everyone together:

Without engagement from the Mayor, it won’t matter if we have an organizing document and an action plan. If there is a leadership vacuum, we’ll continue to drift along with a Market Street that functions very poorly for transit—perhaps the biggest bottleneck for Muni citywide; it will continue to be a very poor route for cyclists, even though it may be the most important bicycle network west of the Mississippi; and we’ll see a business and economic climate that is dark and depressed--we'll continue to have a Market street that repels tourists.

You have a Mayor who’s trying to convince the rest of the state that he wants to be governor—it seems important to show that you can straighten out one street before you go on to govern the state.

Mona Caron mural photo: Michael Rauner Photography