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San Francisco is radically redesigning a major street to get rid of cars

The city just approved a plan to redesign Market Street, making it safer for pedestrians, adding protected bike lanes, and eliminating private vehicles to help speed up buses and lower the injury count on the street.

San Francisco is radically redesigning a major street to get rid of cars
[Image: courtesy San Francisco Public Works]

San Francisco’s Market Street, which leads from the city’s iconic Ferry Building through the financial district and past shops, hotels, office buildings such as Twitter’s headquarters, and the plaza in front of City Hall, can be a terrifying place to ride a bike. But the city just voted to radically transform the street’s design to make it safer, including new, fully separated bike lanes—and totally eliminating private cars on a 2.2-mile stretch of the street.

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“This is, I think, a testament to the pent-up demand that there’s been for better public space in our city,” says Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit that has been pressuring the city to redesign the street for more than a decade. The last time the city redesigned the street was when a subway and light-rail system went underground in the 1960s. But that design is outdated and unsafe for people not in cars, Wiedenmeier says. The street is what’s known as a “high-injury network” in the city—one of a small percentage of streets that are responsible for the majority of serious injuries and deaths when pedestrians and cyclists are hit by cars.

[Image: courtesy San Francisco Public Works]

Five of the city’s 10 most dangerous intersections are on Market Street.  At one intersection, the corner of Market and Fifth Street, 38 pedestrians were hit by cars between 2010 and 2016. A 79-year-old woman was struck and killed at the corner as recently as this August. The redesign will include newly painted safety zones at intersections to make it safer to cross the street. And the street is arguably even more challenging for people to navigate on bikes, and the new bike lanes—at the same height as the sidewalk—will make it more likely that commuters choose to bike in the area.

“I ride my bike on Market Street every day, and the conditions as they exist right now are really a patchwork,” Wiedenmeier says. In one stretch, there are green-painted bike lanes now, but then they suddenly disappear for the major portion of the road. At other points, the bike lane and car lane suddenly cross. “You’re shoulder to shoulder with people on buses, streetcars, taxicabs, Uber and Lyft drivers who are driving on the street, sometimes illegally, and with delivery vehicles and trucks. It’s not an experience for the faint of heart. And we know that the number one reason more people don’t bike in our city is because it doesn’t feel safe.”

In addition to changes to the street’s design, the city will ban private cars, including Lyft and Uber; new drop-off and pickup zones will be added on nearby streets. Taxis will still be allowed, but the lower volume of traffic will make the street safer. It could also help buses run faster, something that recently happened in New York City when cars were temporarily banned from one major street.

Making the area easier to navigate on foot and by bike might also bring more life to Market Street. “We’re fighting for design that puts people first,” he says. “And as a result, I think it’s going to invite more people to walk, to bike, to take transit. And when you have more people sharing public space in that way, it’s bound to feel more lively, more safe, and more like a community.”

It’s something that Wiedenmeier thinks should happen on other traffic-heavy streets in San Francisco and other cities. “I think Market Street will really be kind of the next signal victory in a campaign that I hope spreads nationwide, where we’re really looking at kind of the dual crises we’re facing on our streets,” he says. “One of safety for people walking and biking. And we have a climate crisis—and the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and certainly in California and in San Francisco is from cars and trucks.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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