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.

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
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

  • MichaelSF

    Market Street erodes and tanks as the Mayor’s office blows off one rather large group of stakeholders: cyclists, pedestrians, drivers, merchants, residents. Where’d that home base go on the way to Sacramento? Do we need to Facebook the Mayor to really get his attention?

    Props to DPW director Reisken for taking on the role of instigator with a larger vision of what’s possible.

  • Peter

    minus the elephant, that’s a pretty cool-looking Market Street!

  • Not to pile on the poor SFMTA, but it’s important to point out that their enforcement arm (remember DPT?) hasn’t been employed with much focus or benefit on the Market St corridor, for the sake of MTA’s Muni and bicycle networks, clearing the right-of-way for bike and transit traffic. It’s always an eye-roller when we hear excuses about how hard it is for City agencies to work together, but why can’t MTA’s enforcement division work to keep MTA’s top transit and bike corridor moving efficiently? Show us how MTA manages right-of-way for priority modes on Market St and perhaps (in addition to making Market St work better) they’d buy some cred on proposals to dedicate further right of way to Muni (e.g. Van Ness & Geary BRT) . . .

  • Andy, the SFBC has 10,000 members.

    The ED of the SFBC sat on the MTA Board, actually resigned at Newsom’s behest when she did not have to, and spearheaded what initiatives again during her tenure on the governance body of the MTA to change departmental policy in ways would have made this project easier?

    If you all cannot leverage that kind of strength into political power to move your agenda after all of these years, after we elect a majority of progressive, bike-friendly supervisors to office over and again…then seriously, dude!

    The strength to weight ratio here is practically imperceptible, heavyweights unable to take or throw a punch but always willing to blame others for their failures.

    Market Street has been in the study cooker for 8 years now, it is not anything new. What did we drop $100,000K on back in the day if not to study this? It is not like the SFBC has been occupied over the past five years advocating for bike lane approval or anything that would distract efforts on Market Street that they did not have time to work on this since 2005 when the Bike Plan was first restrained.

    It is always someone else’s fault, isn’t it?

    But, no, let’s focus on approving all 56 bike lanes in the Bike Plan first because there are no other priorities such as Market Street, and the MTA has infinite capacity.


  • Mayor Newsom should do himself a favor and resign so he can concentrate on his run for Governor.

  • “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.”

    If someone can translate that for me into English, I’d appreciate it. Personally whenever I hear a buzzword like “stakeholders” that almost ensures we’re going down a path that will end with no one happy…it’s a meaningless word that is only used by government bureaucrats.

    Besides, the mayor is busy driving an SUV around the state running for Governor…if you’re expecting The Mayor to lead on this, good luck with that.

    I, however will wait until I see something real about what changes to Market St. would be like. A vague, fuzzy sense of “get rid of cars” isn’t enough. There are benefits to changing Market St (do we not recall that at one point virtually no cars ran on this street back in the day?) that would benefit everyone, but vague policy talk isn’t enough just yet.

  • Donovan b

    Why is mayoral support crucial? Because without it, without Newsom (or whoever is next) saying, “Market Street will be redesigned and it will be built,” the naysayers will know they have the opportunity to turn the whole thing sour, just like they are able to do with plans and projects all across the city. The political process – that means both the Board and the Mayor – keeps itself open to last minute deals with special interests that undermine the entire public outreach effort and threaten, at the very least, the integrity of the plan. This is the nature of SF politics – always open to influence by special interests, right up to the very last moment. A definitive statement and a real show of leadership from the Mayor would go a long way at shutting this carnival down and change the tone of the discussion. Is Newsom or any “progressive” Supe up to the task? Doubt it.

  • As soon as you say car-free anything you’re spoiling for a fight, maybe a lawsuit and a swarm of angry merchants claiming it will put them out of business. I can see this turn into a decade long fight which just puts off any short term improvements that could be made.

    There’s some things that could be done right now (by “now” I mean as soon as the injunction is lifted) such as the the striping and sign improvements that (as marcos pointed out) the TA already studied and wrote up recommendations. Along with clearly marked bike and transit lanes in their own color, adding a couple forced right turns for auto traffic will shift traffic away from Market Street so in the future it will be easier to make an outright ban since no one will be left driving it from one end to the other.

  • those dudes

    Got to agree with marcos on this one. The SFBC’s advocacy has been too disjointed – they can’t seem to decide what their priorities are, and as a consequence have never developed a coherent (and feasible) vision for what they want Market Street to look like, which is a critical step to getting “stakeholders” on board – which in the case of Market Street is probably a combo of commuters, residents, and downtown interests, especially those that believe (wrong or right) that they depend on Market Street auto access to suceed.

  • Jeff

    What a grand street market used to be I remember my parents telling me when they lived and played there back in the 1920’s and 30’s, my father sold news papers out in front of the Crystal Palace market and my mom wore her skates and would skate down Market with friends. The Elephant in the picture represents to me our city right now under Newsom, marching along like a wounded elephant waiting for it’s rebirth into a rich historic city once again when the elephant in the picture will march happy down the street.


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