The Hopes and Challenges for Remaking San Francisco’s Market Street

Empty_Market_Street.gifTrial traffic diversions on Market Street. Photo: sfbike

With six months of hindsight since San Francisco began trial traffic diversions and art in shuttered storefronts on Market Street, city leaders are taking stock of what has been successful and what has been less so. Within weeks, they expect to complete a scoping document and put out bids for a three-year design and transportation plan that will remake the most iconic street in San Francisco.

With repaving scheduled in late 2013 or early 2014, planners hope to maximize efficiency between the many agencies responsible for the street, the sidewalks, transit operations, and public space improvements, what could be the most important example of the city delivering on its Complete Streets policy obligations.

"I think it’s a synergy of a lot of things," said Kris Opbroek, Better Market Street project manager from the Department of Public Works (DPW). "With coordination, you get a better, more beautiful, more complete street that serves all the users, not just one, and that really is the goal."

The budget for the planning process will likely be between one and two million dollars, depending on the success of several grant applications. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA), the county congestion management agency with the power to dispense sales-tax revenue to transportation projects, has an available pool of $750,000 in Proposition K funds that the Board of Supervisors (acting as the TA’s Board of Directors) could release for the project. The MTA has $200,000 of Safe Routes to Transit money that has already been awarded for Market Street planning. The city team has also applied for a $250,000 Caltrans Transit Planning Studies Grant and might seek federal EPA grants if those are applicable.

Though the scope of work for the project has yet to be finalized, planners expect to choose a consultant team to begin public outreach and planning by this summer. From there, they will work with the community and business stakeholders along the corridor to develop a vision for remaking the street. Planning is expected to take one year, followed by one-to-two years for environmental review.

While no decisions have been taken for what the finished product for Market Street will look like, several principles will guide the team of consultants that will be chosen to spearhead transportation and design changes.

Planners said they would focus on prioritizing the needs of pedestrians, transit riders, and cyclists, while allowing for necessary vehicular traffic, such as deliveries.   

"We want to increase transit performance and make bicycling comfortable for the 8 to 80 group," said Timothy Papandreou, Assistant Deputy Director for Planning and Better Market Street project manager for the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). Papandreou’s reference to the "8 to 80 group" alludes to former Mayor af Bogotá, Colombia, and livable city luminary Enrique Peñalosa’s refrain that a city must design its bicycle network so an 8-year old child or an 80-year old senior would feel safe riding through it.

Though it would be premature to speculate whether cars would eventually be banned on Market Street or whether bus and transit lines would be moved to neighboring streets, Papandreou said the city team was looking at best practice examples from around the world, including Melbourne, Australia, where Swanston Street was recently re-designed as a transit and pedestrian thoroughfare without private cars or taxis. He also pointed closer to home and said they had been monitoring the success of similar experiments in Portland and Seattle.

Papandreou noted that one quarter of all transit trips in San Francisco either happen on Market Street or traverse Market Street, so the importance of the project from a transit perspective couldn’t be underscored enough.

"Market Street really is the main everything," he said. "Whatever we do [there] is going to impact the whole transportation system. "

Another guiding principle will be improving the pedestrian experience and enhancing destinations along the corridor. As with the transportation trials, the public space interventions will inform the public realm changes that will be part of the long-term vision.

In addition to the Art in Storefronts initiative, the city has experimented with trial Green Pods, where tables and chairs have been set up on sidewalks surrounded by plants, and small open-air concerts Through the People in Plazas program.

"It’s not just about curb to curb," said Astrid Haryati, Mayor Newsom’s Director of Greening, in reference to the repaving of the street between curbs. "We’re looking into the kind of consultant that would work with us comprehensively, not just mobility but all aspects of placemaking."

Mural_and_peds.gifArt on Market Street Mural. Photo: Matthew Roth

Addressing Systemic Challenges on Market Street

Of course, the sum total of trials won’t add up to an improved street and public realm without addressing vital questions about economic development and the negative public perception of the Mid-Market portion of the street between Van Ness and 5th Street.

Haryati said the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development was talking with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency about revisiting a redevelopment plan for the area, which would allow for increased bonding to spur development. Despite the difficult history and politics of redevelopment on this portion of Market, Haryati struck an optimistic tone, referring to the street and public space changes as a complement to "impactful development in the area."

Balancing development, streetscape beautification and transportation improvement with social issues like homelessness will likely be one of the more difficult challenges the planning team faces.

Dina Hilliard, Associate District Manager of the North of Tenderloin Community Benefit District (CBD), said that while she was encouraged by the Art in Storefronts pilots and the three People in Plazas jazz concerts the CBD funded, improving the lives of homeless people was a "root issue" that would be much more difficult to address.

"It is a balance and that’s why we’re saying let’s deal with the root problems," said Hilliard. "You can’t just put up a chair and a table and the issue is fixed."

Kit Hodge, Director of the San Francisco Great Streets Project, said the city was aware of the bigger challenges and would focus on them while making infrastructure changes.

"The city recognizes that this is a street with a lot of discussion about improvements," she said. The city is focusing "on the bones of the street, to some extent the blood, but recognizing that this project can’t solve all the issues with the street."

The Promise of the Public Space and Traffic Trials

Though none of the planners said the process would be easy, they have taken heart with the general acceptance of the trial automobile diversions.

The Union Square Business Improvement District (BID), one of the groups wary of the traffic diversions last summer, was pleased that the changes hadn’t hurt business.

"Our organization was concerned about what the diversion of automobiles off of Market Street might mean," said Linda Mjellum, Executive Director of the BID. Mjellum said her businesses hadn’t noticed any negative impacts as a result. "We had no complaints," she said. "Zero."

Several interview subjects mentioned possible further additions to the traffic
diversion trials, such as replacing the Parking Control
Officers who have been directing private vehicles off the street at 10th
Street with self-enforcing engineering changes that would further
solidify the driving restrictions, though when that will happen is uncertain.

Mjellum noted that the merchants along Powell Street were also enthusiastic about the pilot that expanded pedestrian space, which is sorely needed, especially on weekends.

"I think the businesses on Powell Street are wide open to doing something more extensive," said Mjellum. "They would like to see the sidewalks widened on Powell, assuming we could accommodate passenger drop-offs."

Cyclists were also quite happy with the traffic diversions, which have made the experience of riding less stressful, according to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC).

"For a street as important and iconic for bicycles as Market Street we’re encouraged to see the city planning ahead for such a large project. This is the most important street in San Francisco," said SFBC community organizer Neal Patel,

In the end, the DPW will still repave Market Street in three years, regardless of the politics that help or hinder the design and implementation of the larger vision.

TA Deputy Director for Planning Tilly Chang said the weight of the decisions being made for the next few decades on San Francisco’s most iconic street were not lost on anyone involved.

"We all know the expectation of the public, the advocates, the Board, the Mayor, is that we have to make the most of this opportunity," she said.

  • missionpotrero

    physically separated bike lanes and signal priority for transit, please.

  • JohnB

    There are a couple of structural problems here.

    First, Market Street bisects downtown and needs to be crossed by all traffic heading from the main shopping and financial districts TO the Bay Bridge and freeways.

    So even if you ban all vehicular traffic from going along Market, you still have massive traffic flows across Market at most intersections. Realistically, that can’t be changed.

    Second, the budget for this project is pitifully small, probably only enough to repave, re-align and re-sign the lanes. So this isn’t a re-development of Mid-Market so much as a redesign of the traffic along a few blocks.

    Which is fine but those blocks will remain down-at-heel and windswept unless some major capital expenditure and investment is made. And I see nobody suggesting that. A Times Square type transition seems as far away as ever.

    Market Street is a disgrace, west of Westfield. It’s not going to turn into a leafy Copenhagen-type streetscape with sidewalk cafes and a vibrant streetlife just by dinking around with bike lanes and traffic lights, but leaving the surrounding ghetto intact.

  • I thought this recent article on mid-market development was really thoughtful and informative:

  • John

    Yes, very good piece in SF Appeal, diagramming a long and perfect storm of blunders, circumstances, and the danger of depending on real estate speculation to “save” neighborhoods. It is plenty odd, riding down Market every day, where I walked wide eyed through the crowds as a kid in the 50’s, to WW2 submarine triple features at the glorious Fox, past the mysterious Fascination parlors, Foot Long Hot Dogs, joke and magic shops, and sidewalk vendors hawking Glass-o-Matics.

  • patrick

    Yes, Mid-Market’s problems are a completely separate issue that a redisign of Market st. can’t hope to address, this is really about the flow of traffic on Market. I can’t imagine anybody would propose blocking the cross Market traffic, that would be impossible, but making Market a better & safer place is still worthwhile, and as the recent experiment has shown, can be done without any major problems for automobile traffic.

  • Nick

    From today’s SF Examiner:

    “San Francisco’s latest draft plan outlines 10 years of spending on major capital projects… it also illuminates important projects that must be delayed at least 10 years such as the renovation of Market Street.”

    Can we get some verification on the validity of this point? Are we still looking at Market being repaved in 2013 with the same layout? Will there be a redesign completed by 2025? Is the City’s unwritten policy to stall and delay progress akin to fake environmental lawsuits?

  • Nick, the redesign is the whole point of raising the $1-2M mentioned in the article. They don’t want to repave it with the same configuration at all, but get the public to help with a redesign over the next year.

  • Driving down Market Street is such a miserable business, we’d be doing cars a favor to direct them to better routes. (My favorites are Howard and Folsom to the south or Bush and Pine to the north.) To be sure cars will still cross Market Street at intersections, but leaving the mid-blocks to bicycles and transit will increase transit speed and make bicycling safer and more pleasant. Making the street more pedestrian-friendly by widening sidewalks and creating public plazas may actually draw more people downtown to shop. Of course, even the best designed street in the world is not going to solve mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction. If we really want to solve those problems, we’ll have to use other means.

  • Nick

    Thanks Matthew. The SF examiner article is a little confusing. It said the “Market Street Renovation” would cost $235 million and was being deferred.

    The reason it gave for needing to be renovated was that “the critical thoroughfare, last upgraded in 1987, lacks dedicated bicycle lanes and can be confusing for motorists and pedestrians.”

  • Nick, I’m not positive, but I would presume that the $235M is the price tag for actually repaving and renovating the street. I assume a number of sewer lines will need work/replacement, as well as any other structural issues that arise. I think the reason the planners and designers want to get in while the street is getting its scheduled fix-up is so they can synchronize any innovations while the street is being torn up. Incidentally, the same thing motivated the Times Square Alliance and other NYC planners to think big about Times Square. The scheduled repair there is coming up next year, I believe.

  • lance

    Why do we have to wait till 2013 or 2014 for Market to be repaved??? Apparently the world ends in 2012…sorry bad joke…the pavement really sux though…
    I think a realistic future Market Street should be open to public transport, deliveries vechicles and bikes only…also it would be rad if ALL buses and trains had their own separate designated lane(s)…I’m sick of battling with the 5 everyday…

  • Chris

    I would love to see all of the bus stops located on the islands at the center lanes. As you get further east along market, some buses stop at the islands and some stop along the sidewalk just before the island. These buses that use the outer lanes (I don’t know if the 5 is one of them) are what I think create the biggest conflict with cyclists and the few other cars along Market. The buses often pull out fairly quickly from their stops (trapping cyclists between the central tracks and the bus) and then between stops, these buses speed up to try to get around the cyclists only to cut back across the bicycle lane to pull over at the next stop. Cars also seem to get impatient sitting behind the buses and sometimes pass unsafely to try to get around them.

    There also is a bit of a back-up at First St (I think its first) where a some of the buses turn right (going to the transbay terminal maybe?). Its a really tight lane for bikes and buses, and I’ve seen a few close calls with cyclists trying to pass buses on the right when they swing wide to make the turn. I really don’t know how you would fix this though.

  • Alex


    By utilizing only half of the lanes for MUNI, you will slow the system down. By stopping at alternating blocks and utilizing both lanes, it becomes easier to ensure that buses and trains won’t get backed up waiting for passengers to board/offboard. Given that none of the fixed guideway vehicles (trolleys, streetcars) can easily pass each other, this is even more important.

  • Chris

    Alex, I guess that does make sense from a transit efficiency standpoint. thanks.

  • As Alex said, moving all Muni vehicles into the center lane would create a backup, but another option is to move some lines from Market Street onto Mission, Howard or Folsom through SOMA and Rincon Hill where much of San Francisco’s growth will be over the next couple decades.

  • patrick

    I think Chris’s idea could work very well with some tweaks. If there were islands both before and after the signal, more buses could load/unload passengers without conflicting. I’d also make a center bi-directional lane that would only be used for vehicles that need to make a left turn, or on occasion need to pass a stalled vehicle. You would give up both outside lanes, and use them to widen sidewalks and have a dedicated bike lane so there would be no conflict between bikes & buses.

  • Market Street would be an interesting place to try collaborative public participation in the overall street design using Web 2.0 applications. I describe the process for improving surface public transport operations ( the idea is extended to design of facilities at the end of the paper I wrote for the TRB annual meeting this year available at

  • In the article there is mention of the conundrum of high-volume traffic crossing Market Street. One thing to consider are the 9th and 10th one-way couplet. The opening of the Octavia Boulevard should have included a consideration of reducing the car lanes on this couplet. These couplets feed towards the Hayes-Fell-Oak ‘Z.’ At some point this city is supposed to return Hayes Street to a two-way configuration at least to Van Ness. Hopefully all the way to Market Street. This would really alter the cross-Market traffic on 9th, and with some political courage, the same treatment can be applied to Fell from Hayes Valley to Market. Doing this will make the 9th and 10th couplet less “necessary” from a car-capacity perspective. The opportunity to significantly calm 9th and 10th is great and critical to the overall future of Mid-Market.

    Meanwhile, is there any more evidence on how the trials are improving Muni travel times? A few months ago there was good news that Muni buses were saving a minute on that segment.

    As for the SF Appeal article. It rightly quotes Tom that there are very important social services concentrated in the Mid Market area. Places like the Sunset or Orinda refuse to accept these kinds of services. It is disingenuous for people to sneer at the cluster of services while excluding them where they live.

    And lastly, the core problem as I see it is that real estate speculators have sat on property and ask for high rents. What really needs to happen is real estate capitalism with much lower levels of expectation for profit. I am sure a lot of neighborhood-serving, local businesses and non-profits would happily take up those store fronts if the rents were fair. “Targetting” a mega retailer is not in the best long term interests and is a narrow vision. Why can’t we create a true neighborhood-serving retail district/ non profit office cluster here?

  • icarus12

    Whatever the final configuration of Market Street turns out to be, it should include the ability of taxis and cars to access it for at least a block at a time. That way you can let off passengers, particularly granny or others with walking problems, in front of the store, theater, etc. It would be cool to have pull-out areas painted white for that and cut into the curb so that there’s no obstructing through traffic by bikes, taxis, buses, anybody else.

  • Residential is not suitable for Mid-Market.
    The two BART stops have the potential to bring great numbers of people to the area.
    The solution: A unique Office and Entertainment District.
    Offices to bring people in during the day, Entertainment at night.
    Residential can’t provide enough people.
    The city needs the employment opportunities that only new office buildings can bring. And that requires BART.
    Mid-Market is the only area in The City with underutilized BART stations and Available land with commercial zoning.
    For more info, check out:

  • Oliver

    I don’t know what would be worse, having all the alcoholics and drug addicts or sending them to rehab centers run by religious cults and having them pass out fliers promoting them /sarcasm (a part of me would prefer the latter)


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