Searching for Market Street’s True Identity

Photo: ## Hollero/Orange Photography##

San Franciscans are dreaming big as Market Street’s transformation approaches in 2015, when the city’s most important street is scheduled to be redesigned and repaved. City planners are engaging with citizens to answer a century-old question: How can we make Market Street the glorious thoroughfare that it needs to be?

Better Market Street, a collaborative project of five city agencies, has held public meetings and webinars the past two weeks to field input from people who walk, bike, ride transit, and even drive along the street. The effort is being informed by a large swath of research brought to the table by city staffers, which is now available on the Better Market Street website.

“Market Street is San Francisco’s civic backbone, connecting water to hills, businesses to neighborhoods, cultural centers to recreational opportunities,” the site’s about page states. “The movement of people and goods, from the very earliest times, has dominated its design and use. But Market Street needs to be more than a transportation route. It needs to be the city’s most vibrant public space and many San Franciscans feel it falls far short of this ideal.”

Block-by-block, hour-by-hour data documenting the urban environment were collected by researchers to help inform input from attendees at recent workshops. Researchers note everything from fluctuations in pedestrian and bicycle traffic along the street, to the conditions plaguing its extremely high volume of transit trips, to the placement of trees and how the usage of plazas is impacted by the sun and wind. Comparisons and best practices from major streets abroad help put it all in perspective.

Pedestrian activity on Market Street is most highly concentrated in the retail districts during the weekend. Photo: ## Hollero/Orange Photography##

“The BMS Project is expected, at a minimum, to result in a major revitalization effort, with plans for a number of strategic and significant public space improvements,” the project materials explain. “These improvements will be supported by sustainable urban design and mobility principles that facilitate promenading opportunities and an enlivened sidewalk life; reliable and efficient transit service; and a safe, comfortable and appealing bicycle facility along its entire length.”

The project is an effort led by the Department of Public Works along with the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, the Planning Department, and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, among others.

One of its highest priorities is to make Lower Market more inviting to people who will want to spend more time along all of the street throughout the entire day.

Walking is already the predominant use of the street, making up nearly half of all trips, according to the research. But pedestrian volumes were found to vary drastically throughout different areas, different times of day, and for different seasons. While the mornings and afternoons see commuters fill sidewalks in the Financial District and weekend shoppers swarm the retail district, they stay relatively empty west of Seventh Street.

That low level of activity can inhibit a sense of “urbanity” and contribute to a feeling of insecurity, researchers found. Most people who do walk or linger on Market are just passing through or waiting for a bus.

The public spaces along Market lack certain features needed to promote healthy pedestrian activity, and “gathering spaces and edges that activate the street” such as cafes, public seating, and storefronts within a comfortable distance of pedestrians, are key to reaching that goal, say researchers.

In many of the open space destinations along Market, lingering is limited to weekends and events, according to the research, and Market Street is the city’s regularly chosen stage for civic parades and celebrations. But on most days, many of its public plazas suffer from design flaws such as a “lack of differentiation from the street” and “visual and physical barriers to the majority of the occupiable space”.

Much of the pedestrian activity that does happen seems to be connected with transit use. Of all transit boardings in San Francisco, Market Street hosts nearly a quarter, carrying one-third of all Muni lines and most BART lines for a total of 250,000 daily boardings. On the surface of the street, buses and streetcars pass at an average of every 40 seconds at peak times, yet they travel “relatively slowly” at 4 to 8 mph despite the traffic lights being timed for an optimal 11 mph.

The thoroughfare has seen a sharp growth in bike usage over the past few years, notes the research, with bikes outnumbering cars three to one at rush hour. But project members say they would like to see that ridership grow beyond the predominantly male, commute-based traffic.

The growth seems to have partly resulted from a “safety in numbers” snowball effect, although separated green bike lanes west of Eighth Street seem to help. But hazards like neglected pavement, turning motor traffic and incomplete bike lanes are well-documented deterrents, and a continuous separated bikeway was a markedly high priority in workshop attendee responses.

"Half of those riding along Market Street do so because other people on bikes use the same route." Photo: ## Goebel##

The disproportionate impact of private autos on all uses of Market Street has been a concern shared by many, but the data makes a strong case for doing away with cars on Lower Market altogether.

Up to 85 percent of the car traffic at intersections is crossing Market Street, rather than traveling along it, according to the research. The majority of the relatively few cars that do use Market are traveling only two blocks “circling around looking for parking.” Meanwhile, the 30,000 spots provided to store automobiles in garages and parking lots within one-quarter of a mile of the street sit underused: city-owned garages average 45 to 73 percent of their capacity.

Going car-free could be crucial in designing a truly unique grand boulevard for the city that invites people from all over to experience it every day.

The Better Market Street Project is accepting community input via a survey on its website. Two more workshops are expected to be held in September and November 2011.

Project timeline. Click to enlarge.
  • Bob Davis

    Some segments of Market Street would be “Better” if the City could round up all the “winos and weirdos” and find some place to house them far from downtown. (full disclosure, I’m not a resident of SF) Also, it seems that “vibrant” has become the buzzword antonym for “dullsville”; maybe it’s time for commentators on urban scenes to give it a rest.

  • guest

    Um, yes, the whole point of the article is that the BMS project would help improve the streetscape and make this major thoroughfare inviting for all. And “for all” would imply “vibrant.” 

    As for your useful windshield perspective on our city, thanks, but no pogroms are needed here. You’d get plenty of people on SFGate thumbs-upping your useless comment, though.

    One question: Why the quote marks around winos and weirdos? Perhaps you’re  self-parodying and I didn’t get the joke?

  • EL

    I hope the BMS project includes wider boarding islands for Muni stops.  They easily get overcrowded with waiting passengers and pedestrians are routinely forced to jaywalk.  While it’s nice to have wider sidewalks, public seating, etc. on the sides of Market Street, I don’t think it should come at the expense of transit islands/passengers in what is supposed to be a “transit first” city.

  • Foo

    I do get tired of running the gantlet of bums at the Powell Street BART elevator rattling their paper cups and asking for “Spare change or a smile?” without faking the slightest intention that they want a smile.

  • Looking forward to a Market with wider bus islands (as along the Embarcadero by ferry building) and more ‘active edges’ like nyc/tokyo

  • OctaviusIII

    Star Trek San Francisco, here we come!

    (Yes, I’m a geek; and in the SF of the 24th Century, Market is a pedestrian boulevard its whole length with benches and planters down the median.)

  • I am a resident, and I agree that the SFPD needs to seriously crack down on quality of life crimes. It is embarrassing that what should be a crown jewel of downtown, Hallidie Plaza, is rife with trouble makers.

  • guest

    I was recently walking in the area, in the early afternoon, and I was panhandled aggressively several times. One panhandler, when I refused to give him anything, told me “You should give me something or I’ll rob you.” 

    I’d like a Market Street where I’m not afraid to walk alone. 

  • Foo

    While we’re at it, let’s get some better musicians..getting so sick of the crappy sax player playing the SAME 5 motown hits every single day.

  • Bob Davis

    “Winos and weirdos” is a quote from a Santa Fe Railway official back in the 1970’s.  The railway was moving its Los Angeles offices from 6th & Main (across the street from the Pacific Electric building) to a building near their yard in City of Commerce.  According to one story, the Mayor of LA came to ask why the company was moving out to the industrial area southeast of central LA.  Reportedly, he said something like “My employees are tire of being hassled by all the winos and weirdos that infest this part of town.”   The term “pogrom” is  not appropriate–it implies rounding up people because of their ethnic background, not because of their actions.
     And my view of San Francisco is usually not through a windshield.  I either come into The City by bus or train, or park my car at an outlying motel and take Muni until it’s time to leave.  One several occasions, people have asked me for directions because I don’t look like a tourist.    

  • Anonymous

    Market needs to be a pedestrian thoroughfare with tamed bikes and lots of buses.  There should not be sidewalks.  The whole street should be a sidewalk.  “Mall” type developments (like Nordstroms and Bloomingdale’s) suck life from the street and should be un-zoned.  Market needs retail, restaurants, cafes, and unique-to-SF experiences.  The cross streets need to be converted from traffic sewers to urban byways.  Yes, I’m talking to you, Kearny, 3rd, 4th, 7th, 8th, etc.  In the downtown area only 2nd Street is anywhere close to human scaled.   The sidewalks on Stockton and Grant are at capacity in some spots and need a road diet.  Especially Stockton. 
    I guess my point is that Market is the spine of a network of streets, and all of them need to be considered for any Market Street plan to be successful. 

  • Anonymous

    While we’re at it, can we re-design the Market/Embarcadero fiasco? 
    Market Street, our “Grand thoroughfare” end with a whimper as it
    dog-legs to the right and points users to another dead zone of office

    Where’s our grandly scaled plaza with visual cues from the Ferry
    Building to Market?  What numskull designed that island in the middle of
    the Embarcadero that forces pedestrians to cross the street twice?  Why
    couldn’t we have incorporated all that wasted space into JHP or Ferry
    Plaza.  And those big but inconsequential brutalist light fixtures that
    were supposed to mean something and are now just white elephants.  What a

    Entering Market should be an exciting experience, not a slog across a poorly-designed wasteland, then have to run the gauntlet of cheap-looking tourist “art” kiosks that block pedestrians’ visual access to the expanse of the plaza. 
    So much potential there is squelched by it’s poor design.

  • Sounds good to me.  Do we have to wait for the 24th century though?

  • When my group, Market Street Railway, was advocating for the F-line, we fought hard for exactly what you describe. We were slammed by city officials because Justin Herman Plaza was classified as “parkland” with federal regulations invoked to preclude the tracks from continuing to the foot of Market.  This, even though the historic right-of-way of that first block of Market was still clearly delineated and — oh yes — completely paved!  Now that they’re planning to repave (and partly redesign) Market Street itself four years from now, it’s time to rethink this connection as well.

  • Gryphonisle

    While my interest is in the problems plaguing Mid-market, lower Market is about as starved for energy and just as resistant to improvement.  I agree, the new Ferry Plaza and the horrid Justin Herman Plaza are entirely to blame.  The “F” line dogleg is an “only in San Francisco” moment that mocks the city with every streetcar that passes.  Prior to the renovation of the FB, NYE was the big event, where thousands gathered at the foot of Market to face the giant clock and do the countdown, and then watch the fireworks stream off the tower as “I left my heart in San Francisco” and “San Francisco” wafted about, sung by etherial voices from beyond the pale.  After the renovation, with the Embarcadero safe and secured, the focus inexplicably switched east of the clock tower to a fireworks show with no clock, on the waterfront beyond the Ferry Building, and nothing else ever happens, even the massive light pilons rarely light, at Ferry Building Plaza, so why did we waste the money, the effort, and kill the energy?

    I’m not for endless park space.  We live in a city. If you want grass, move to Walnut Creek or Palm Springs.  I’d like to have a nice, low building that echoes the Hyatt Regency where JH Plaza is now, one that has good street energy, and to see Market street finish at the Embarcadero (along side it), with right angle turns for the “F” cars to make as they transition from one to the other.  SInce pipe organs need an enclosed space and don’t stay tuned if left out of doors, I’m also not a supporter of the idiocy that thinks the Civic Center Auditorium Pipe Organ can be moved to the grass along the Embarcadero, south of the foot of Market, and that should also be developed as a more suitable building—put a park on the roof if you need more trees.

    Justin Hermann was our Robert Moses.  He had his say, and his legacy cuts across the City like the scars from cancer.  He deserves a monument, but he’s had a park, a fittingly ugly park, for too long.  I suggest a nice bronze statue—perhaps with iron arm pits and a plaster crotch, with pigeon bait affixed to his shoulders–and let nature take care of the rest.


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