SFMTA Proposes a Car-Free Powell Street in Union Square

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SFMTA has proposed making crowded, traffic-clogged Powell Street in Union Square a car-free street on a trial basis. Removing cars from the equation would make the street function better for pedestrians and cable cars on the blocks between Ellis and Geary Streets.

As we wrote last year, it makes little sense to have cars on Powell, which is seen as San Francisco’s gateway for visitors. On this two-block stretch, private car drivers routinely block bustling crosswalks, create stop-and-go traffic that damages Muni’s world-famous cable cars, and obstruct intersections in the path of the 38-Geary, Muni’s busiest bus line.

The car-free trial has already been delayed due to the Union Square Business Improvement District’s resistance to what it calls a “rushed” timeline and insistence on delivery vehicle access throughout the day.

The SFMTA’s goal “is to have these changes in place before the 2015 holiday shopping season,” with signs and paint installed in November, according to an agency flyer [PDF]. An engineering hearing is tentatively scheduled for October 2, and an SFMTA Board vote on October 20, but agency staff said the dates aren’t confirmed.

The car-free trial was originally listed on an engineering hearing for August 14 but got tabled before the hearing was held.

Union Square BID Executive Director Karin Flood told Hoodline that “the group was concerned about the SFMTA ‘fast-tracking’ the changes without taking into account stakeholder concerns.”

“We are open to the concept of making the area more pedestrian friendly but need to ensure that merchant loading/unloading needs are accommodated and that the timing is right,” Flood wrote in an email to Streetsblog.

Under the proposal, during a 12-18 month trial phase, cars and delivery vehicles would not be allowed on Powell except between midnight and 5 a.m., when cable cars don’t operate. This aligns with how “most business who responded” to an SFMTA survey already handle their deliveries. According to the SFMTA flyer, these businesses “indicated that they conduct their loading on a side street or during late night hours when the cable cars are not running.”

Image: SFMTA [PDF]
In 2011, all car parking was removed from Powell south of Geary, with the installation of the Powell Street Promenade (also known as a “mega parklet”). The temporary installation has provided more room for people to sit or stand out of the way of foot traffic, though it didn’t expand all of Powell’s curb due to loading zones carved out at several spots. Private car drivers continue to park illegally in the loading zones, with little enforcement.

Powell’s mega parklet is set to be removed next July with the expiration of a five-year contract with Audi, which funded and maintains it.

“So the city is exploring a permanent car-free design,” said SFMTA spokesperson Robert Lyles. “This public space design would be both aesthetically appealing while balancing the needs of its primary users. SFMTA is acting first to improve safety while public funding can be identified or another private sponsor for improvements on one of San Francisco’s most iconic streets can be found.”

If all of Powell’s curb is eventually expanded, as the SFMTA envisions, the only place for delivery vehicles to park would be on the cable car tracks. But at the BID’s insistence, the agency is considering 24-hour delivery vehicle access, not just during the hours when cable cars don’t operate, said Lyles.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

While cars consume a lot of space on Powell and clog the roadway, there aren’t actually very many of them. “Peak traffic volumes on these two blocks of Powell are around 175 to 200 vehicles per hour, which is low even for urban streets,” according to the SFMTA flyer. At the same time, more than “4,000 people per hour walk on Powell Street during the peak period, often overflowing into the street.”

“All three intersections in the project area” have high rates of pedestrian injuries, Lyles noted, “with the most common issue being vehicles turning onto or off of Powell into pedestrians crossing the street.”

“Anyone who walks along Powell knows that it’s crowded, noisy, and could be a whole lot better,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara. The organization “fully supports a pedestrian/transit only street in the heart of San Francisco’s tourism and commercial district. Not only is it better for business, it’s better for people’s safety, health and livability.”

Adding to the urgency of making Powell car-free is the wear and tear on cable car infrastructure. According to the flyer, getting cars off Powell “decreases the chance that a runaway cable car will injure people and cause damage.”

Photo: Aaron Bialick

In 2012, cars were diverted from nearby Stockton Street (which is also ripe to become car-free) for construction of a Central Subway station. Even though Powell makes little sense as a detour route, many drivers use it, creating stop-and-go movements for cable cars.

“The SFMTA is experiencing a nearly 50 percent increase in cable strand breaks since 2000, with half of that increase occurring in the past five years,” said Lyles. “This accelerated wear on the cable has serious safety implications.”

Merchants are expected to see sales boosts from a more inviting street for walking, replicating the results that businesses around the city have seen when pedestrian space is improved. Most recently, business boomed in Fisherman’s Wharf after parking was removed and to make a more pedestrian-friendly street.

Still, many merchants resist such street changes based on the mistaken belief that most customers arrive by car. An SF Chronicle column from C.W. Nevius fed right into that perception today, with anecdotes from a few Union Square merchants who say the Central Subway construction has hurt business. But other merchants over the years have said they’ve benefited from the reduced car traffic.

Fortunately, the SFMTA seems more emboldened to move forward with ideas like the Powell Street project since Tom Maguire became the director of Sustainable Street last October. The Powell proposal would complement turn restrictions that were recently enacted on most of lower Market Street, moving SF’s downtown shopping hub closer to a car-free zone.

  • Gezellig


    Also, someone with mad Photoshop skillz (and time) should localize for Powell by making the upper panel Cable Cars and no autos:


  • Sounds great! This will actually be doing a kindness to the confused souls who currently try to drive these blocks.

    It’s remarkable that in the face of evidence (4000 pedestrians per hour versus 200 vehicles per hour) merchants cling to the notion that streets that prioritize cars serve their businesses better than streets that prioritize pedestrians.

    In the case of Stockton St, let’s be clear, a street closed for major construction is not a street dedicated to a pleasant pedestrian experience.

  • Seeing as how the sidewalks on Powell are continuously jammed — even with the parklets — this change is long overdue.

  • gb52

    This is another long overdue change. The merits and the design had been introduced a few years back, and the same dialog persists… merchants, cars, parking. It’ll be a bit sad to see the mega parklet removed. Perhaps they can renew the contract and fill in the gaps too while the city or rather the business district funds a more permanent expansion.

    Cable cars need their own lanes, and they deserve them too. Also, what would really help to remind people that there are no turns would be to use a straight arrow instead of a green ball for the traffic signals. It makes a difference since there are lots of signs around and often times you can miss one if you’re unfamiliar with the area.

  • njudah

    lol there’s that phony baloney buzzword “stakeholders”

  • The actual glaciers are melting faster than such sensible things get done in San Francisco, so we’re going to have to find a new metaphor.

  • Surprised we haven’t done this yet. Do drivers knowingly go through here even??

  • Typical San Francisco Bureaucratic foot dragging. NObody wants to step up and make the call to have simply awful Powell Street free of cars. A few merchants kvetch about the loss of business and San Francisco politicians are rendered comatose. For the life of my I can’t understand why anyone thinks this is such a great City. It’s a political overcrowded overpriced nightmare.

  • Fultonian

    More information from Market Street Railway:


  • During the 12-18 month trial, the City should rethink the entire Powell corridor from Market to Sutter. (The cable cars already have exclusive lanes from Sutter to California, and they work well.) There’s been serious talk of filling in Hallidie Plaza at Powell and Market as part of the Better Market Street project. That project tentatively does away with the current Market Street brick sidewalks in favor of more maintainable concrete. That will make the first block of Powell, closed to autos since 1973 and paved in brick, an anomaly that is not true to the historic context of this famous street anyway. We currently have an opportunity to provide more badly needed pedestrian space on Powell while unifying the look and feel of one of our most iconic streets. And because it is our prime tourist venue, the City should consider financing it with a tiny, temporary increase in the hotel tax.

  • Justin

    Seriously SFMTA should already have implemented this easy to do improvement, but like anything else they lack the courage to do so in a timely manner. It seems like the main concern from that draggy cumbersome business district is that they want delivery vehicles to be allowed 24/7, to me the plan SFMTA had to restrict ALL vehicles from 5AM to midnight on Powell St is a very RATIONAL PLAN. This agency should just say it and do it how it is. In an area that is often packed with people especially with tourist, especially on Powell St it’s dumb to be doing deliveries at the busiest times of the day. Businesses should be doing deliveries between the hours of midnight and 5AM, by doing so, there is little to no traffic and it would be less chaotic and more efficient. This business district should just give it a try. I know for sure that these vehicle restrictions on the first three blocks of Powell St will NOT be detrimental to businesses, either it will be no impact or it will be better and it will reduce congestion for the Powell St Cable Cars and improve pedestrian safety, this is a win-win. SFMTA is right to move quickly on this because this is a problem that needs an URGENT fix. Time for this agency to STEP UP to the plate and MOVE forward and NOT delay any further!!!!!!!!

  • Mario Tanev

    Glad to see the city finally acting one one of the three most brain-dead obvious projects in San Francisco:
    1. Car-free Powell (with legal ability for pedestrians to cross at any point as long as there is no cable car).
    2. Fully pedestrian Grant St in Chinatown (or potentially to Market St).
    3. Bus-only Stockton

    With all three San Francisco has a chance at pretending to be a world class city. Market St is more complicated because there are plenty of dead spots and too many bus lines. A pedestrian Stockton (as in Winter promenade) would be wonderful, but it’s a major transit corridor. Jefferson St makes sense as well, but nobody cares, it’s a trap. But there are really no good arguments against the three above.

  • Filamino

    Closing off Stockton Street permanently, the main and most direct route out of Chinatown, would have major impacts on the future of Chinatown. This is the designated detour route out of Chinatown after the Embarcadero Freeway was removed and continues to be the main route. The impacts are already being felt with businesses struggling and most notably, the traffic congestion getting out of Chinatown in conjunction with the Market Street turn restrictions. It’s great that we are getting a subway and understand the inconvenience the closure, but there are still many families who drive to Chinatown to meet with friends and family. They are not coming as often now, but hopefully when Stockton Street reopens, more families will come back to visit more often than they are now.. Transit is not convenient for families.

    Permanently closing down Stockton Street is the most brain-dead worst project.

  • NoeValleyJim

    My family rides Muni all the time.

  • Gezellig

    Not to mention the reality that often the perceived “convenience” of driving comes with just as many or more delays/inconveniences compared to taking transit.

  • Mountain Viewer

    Flyer says “The Powell Street Pilot project would prohibit all vehicles except Muni “. So the proposal is broader than a car-free street. Would this also mean a bike-free street?

  • Jon T

    It’d be pretty dangerous for bikes, given two lanes with rails for cable cars.

  • Gezellig

    That can be a little tricky but at least personally (would be curious as to others’ experiences here) I’ve found the width between the rails and roadside–even in the narrowest stretches of Powell–sufficient for biking. It’s equivalent to a standard bike lane width. Though of course if a cable car were ahead of you you’d need to pedal at its speed as there’s no room for passing. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s too bad:

  • Much can still change regarding the Better Market Street Project streetscape details, but the strong feeling among city staff is that bricks are really expensive to maintain and the plethora of mortar joints pose a bigger trip/liability hazard than other forms of paving.


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