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San Francisco’s Major Thoroughfare Gets a Makeover

The city’s changes to one of its most dangerous streets follows an urban trend of making streets safer for pedestrians and bikers.

Market Street in San Francisco
Flickr/ Sergio Ruiz
In a world-class city, one might expect that the prime commercial corridor would also be a model public space. But this hasn’t been the case for the downtown stretch of Market Street at the heart of San Francisco. For decades it has doubled both as a traditional main street and an automobile thruway. This combination has harmed aesthetics and produced a dangerous clash of transportation modes. Now, the city’s transportation agency is addressing the problem.

San Francisco, after years of planning, launched this fall the Safer Market Street plan, which designates transit-only lanes, prohibits turns at certain intersections and posts better signage, among other things. The idea is to reduce automobile traffic on a street where 84 percent of the people arrive by foot, bicycle or transit.

Market Street is San Francisco’s public transportation spine, featuring Bay Area Rapid Transit subway lines below ground, and numerous buses, trolleys, cabs and paratransit at surface level. It is also the most intensive bike thoroughfare, providing a relatively flat surface across the hilly city. Add in private automobiles, and you get a recipe for conflict. The two-mile portion of Market Street within downtown had 162 reported collisions in 2012, making it one of the city’s most dangerous streets. More than three-quarters of the injuries involved pedestrians or cyclists.

The Safer Market Street plan, in many ways, is similar to New York’s efforts to make Broadway more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. In 2009, the city closed parts of Times Square to automobiles and added protected bike lanes along certain stretches of Broadway. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city is extending the traffic calming concept citywide with the Vision Zero plan to reduce automobile-related fatalities. San Francisco, too, has a stated goal of eliminating such fatalities by 2024. While other cities have not been as ambitious, they have discovered the value of improving safety on prime downtown corridors, such as Los Angeles’ “road diet” for its own Broadway.

To reach zero fatalities, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has delineated its transit-only lanes with red paint. That, barring turns and better signage are part of a larger effort to eliminate cars from most of Market Street. City planners want to get people used to not driving on the road in preparation for bigger projects set to begin in 2017 under the Better Market Street initiative. Many drivers, after all, navigate Market Street not to conduct on-street errands, but to reach peripheral destinations. They instinctively head down Market Street because it is wide and centralized. New signage, though, will direct them onto streets better designed for through traffic. The plan, says SFMTA spokesman Ben Jose, “minimizes conflicts between transit vehicles and private automobiles.”

The Better Market Street initiative, which is still in the planning stages, could also add enhanced bike lanes, sidewalks and public art. Together, this mix of safety and placemaking improvements will hopefully help San Francisco’s main street mirror the city’s collective charm. 

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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