Ch. 14—Building a Better Market Street: The “Transit Mall” Proposal in San Francisco, CA

You may be forgiven, while walking towards Market Street from the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco, for thinking that you’re about to enter one of the nation’s grand boulevards. San Francisco after all is one of the most charming big cities in the U.S.–“The Paris of the West”—and Market Street is its main street. It is one of the widest and most heavily used in the city, is central to its finance and retail, and cuts through it diagonally, dividing two parts of the grid. But when I walked down Market from the terminal one brisk August afternoon, I found that rather than being an iconic public space, the street sent mixed signals, often by the block, about the city’s identity. Like State Street in Chicago and Broadway in New York, certain parts of Market were nicer than others. But the browbeaten parts, especially downtown, were worse than in these cities, and the better ones not as nice as they could be.

This began with the layout, which I noticed the first few blocks into the financial district. The assets here were the same as on many main streets: the retail butted up at ground level, creating cohesive sightlines. The sidewalks were wide and friendly, lined with trees and layered with bricks. And the blocks themselves were packed, mostly with businesspeople.

After a half mile Market became a retail area, and even more of a gathering spot, from the infusion of tourists. Along with upscale chains and an indoor mall, it had live street performances, which bounced a wave of sound off the buildings and down the sidewalks. These included drummers who banged on everything from sheetrock buckets and frying pans, to glass jars, and the very concrete below. Elsewhere young men in tank tops breakdanced in front of crowds while their friends cupped their hands over their mouths, providing beats. And mimes painted in silver displayed their curious talent for actually convincing strangers to give them money for standing on a pedestal. Mixed into this was a rush of other sounds and smells common to vibrant urban areas–roasting coffee, grilled meat, and the whistling of historic trolleys. All of this led to the Powell Street intersection, where a cable car connects to Fisherman’s Wharf. This spot, which had crowds that nearly overflowed from the sidewalks, was also Market Street’s climax—the part that marks page one of so many San Francisco guidebooks.

But after that Market Street changed, fittingly enough with a Payless Shoes, whose sign fronted the street from the other end of the block. This portion, known as “Mid-Market”, is bordered to the north by the Tenderloin—the city’s skid row—and by SoMa (“South of Market”), which is an emerging area, but similar to “the ‘Loin”. Like elsewhere, the people here use Market as their main retail corridor, so past the Payless was a slew of check-cashing shops, liquor stores, strip clubs, and bodegas which, according to one local, double as drug dealerships. Along with public chess boards, the sidewalks also accommodated drug sales—“Hey brother! Weed, Coke, Pills!”—widespread lounging by the leisurely class, and a public loo that concealed rampant prostitution.

Indeed it’s hard to exaggerate just how great an imprint the Tenderloin had on this part of Market. During a random sampling, it seemed nearly half the people who passed by suffered, when not overt mental illnesses, at least the trappings of a down-and-out existence. They crowded not only on sidewalks, but public plazas, and the lawn of the majestic Civic Center, just blocks away. Their presence was intensified by the fact that they seemed not to follow, while on the street, even basic standards of behavior. This was evident to me not only that day, but over my four months here, during morning walks down Market from my hostel to the library. Along the way I’d get hit up for money and drugs, step past pit bulls and public inebriates, see arguments and mental breakdowns, and watch men and women use the sidewalks as personal toilets. While crossing 7th street that day for example, I saw an old man in a wheelchair with his pants down around his ankles, masturbating in broad daylight, to the astonishment of passersby.

After the library, Market became quiet before reaching the end of downtown. It wasn’t until walking this stretch that I began noticing the flaws, mentioned before, of the street’s layout, which weren’t as visible in crowded areas. These flaws, like its social flaws, all but destroyed its potential as this grand boulevard. For example the road itself, rather than divided by a decorative median, was a 4-lane swath of grey, filled with cracks and potholes. Although it had a streetcar, this competed with automobiles, which minimized its charm. Because of the road’s width, pedestrians would sprint across to avoid cars, but coming up short, would hop onto the slender waiting stations built into the road, and designed for bus riders. These stations, also meant to delineate the bike lanes, were not visually distinct either, and didn’t really protect bikers anyway.

In fact the road along Market was not only congested, but little pleasing aesthetically. Even things meant to enhance the street, I began to notice, like its brick sidewalks, had a Spartan and dated look. Unlike Portland, where such sidewalks are washed frequently, the ones here had accumulated gobs of spittle and vomit, smears of excrement, and gum wads that had been smashed, like miniature black pancakes, into the ground. It wasn’t any better that these sidewalks often wafted up with the stench of urine, human or otherwise. While subway entrances on similar corridors tend to double as public spaces, the ones here were rather basic, and caked in dust and grime. Even the trees, because they got so little sun, seemed to wilt towards the ground.

The otherwise wide and inviting sidewalks along Market Street turn quickly from assets into liabilities for the city, depending on the location.

The otherwise wide and inviting sidewalks along Market Street turn quickly from assets into liabilities for the city, depending on the location.

With all this said, I don’t want to too greatly belittle Market Street as a public space. While some parts of it were seedy, the ones flanking them were attractive, often luxurious. And even the seedy blocks didn’t lack points of interest, or the ability to draw crowds. That these crowds represented, along with tourists, a crosshatch of the region’s citizens, was notable also in a city where property values increasingly dictate who goes where.

But I still got the sense, when walking down Market Street, that it was not the space it could be. And in sensing this I shared something in common with others who used it.

For example ask any tourist, like I often did at the hostel, what is San Francisco’s biggest problem and they will answer almost to a man that it is homelessness. This is a problem moreover that they attach to Market Street, which they tend not to view holistically, but for its middle portion, where the homeless are most visible.

“Me and my friends don’t go to Market,” said Sophie Jackson, who had moved from her hometown outside London. “And when we do we just keep our heads down.”

“Why would I go to Market Street?” blurted a guy visiting with his friends from Milan. “What, so I can talk with all the bums?”

Another woman, who was from Australia but had trotted much of the globe, saw Market as a rather abnormal exhibition of urban poverty for a main city corridor.

“San Francisco…has a huge problem with homelessness,” she said. “And I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as bad, anytime, anywhere, as I’ve seen it on Market.”

This was put more diplomatically by Dan Goldes of the visitor’s bureau: “Visitors have this romantic notion of San Francisco.” They come “expecting to see this golden city. And probably of all the places in the city, Market Street is one of those places that doesn’t quite live up to that image.”

For locals who bristle at the idea that tourists should be the manufacturers of opinion on Market, it’s worth noting some of their disgruntlements also.

“Market Street isn’t what it can be,” said Chris Berggren, a painter who was raised in the city and lives downtown. “It could be like Broadway of New York’s Upper West Side. What I think it is now is extremely dysfunctional…The homeless basically own the street.”

This was echoed by merchants there, who have had problems with theft and safety; and by locals otherwise sympathetic to Market Street culture, like John Maodonado. A 23-year-old who grew up in SoMa, he said that Market is like a second home to him, but that over time it has seen increased homelessness, and that this has hurt the street’s ability to produce tax revenue.

“As a young man who would like to open a future business of my own,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to open a business in a highly-populated homeless area,” before claiming that this was the case on some parts of Market.


But Market Street does not have to be like this. Imagine instead that it was a tasteful public space the whole way through downtown, filled with cafes and bars, rather than the scourge many consider it to be now. Suddenly San Francisco would have a new, very important asset—and one made possible by a few simple improvements.

The first would be for Market to have better policing. The extension of a skid row onto a main city corridor is not further incentive for suspending the law there, but precisely the reason for enforcing it. Having officers on Market who do not tolerate hustling and prostitution would discourage those on the street now prone to this.

But mainly the city could enhance Market by redesigning it. It could do this on one hand by adding a series of garnishments—from refurbished plazas to decorative medians—that are being applied to greying strips in other cities. But if it wanted to go a step further it could do all this, while also closing Market to private automobiles.

This counterintuitive act of closing off a main street has been tried elsewhere. In smaller cities it has inspired a number of pedestrian malls. But in bigger ones, where such malls are impractical, a “transit mall” hybrid has emerged mixing nicer walking spaces with lanes meant solely for public transit. The idea of making Market into such a mall dates back several decades.

Before then Market served various roles as the city’s main thoroughfare. It was first laid out in 1847 by surveyor Jasper O’Farrell, who wanted a main road to accommodate San Francisco’s new immigrants. Inspired by Philadelphia’s own Market Street, O’Farrell wanted this one even grander, and made it 120 feet wide all the way to Twin Peaks, the most striking landmark to the west. From then the evolution of Market reflected that of transportation in general. After first housing horse carriages it accommodated cable cars, and around the turn of the century, electrical streetcars. In the early 1960s a bond issue was approved that funded construction of a subway below Market, thereby reducing the need for street-level rail. So several years later taxpayers funded a plan that would adapt Market to the modern era. It called for several plazas, and for sidewalks to be widened and layered with brick, reducing the lanes on the road from six to four. While the plan flirted with making Market exclusive to automobiles, streetcars were ultimately returned to the middle lanes, thus mixing the two transportation modes.

This mixture became over the years one of danger and congestion. The automobiles would weave around the streetcars, compromising safety for those boarding on and off. The buses, especially on outside lanes, were constantly being slowed by drivers turning right, who themselves had to endure pedestrians crossing the street. And pedestrians now sprinted across as cars blew past at speeds well above what any streetcar would go.

By the early 1990s the city was already experimenting with removing cars from parts of Market, and several years later a report was issued exploring this option comprehensively. The idea was championed by Mayor Willie Brown, and later by Mayor Gavin Newsom. Under Newsom the city temporarily closed a crowded block of Market that runs past the Castro; and permanent signs were placed downtown that directed drivers to turn off certain parts of Market before getting back on. But the road is still basically the same as in previous decades. Along most of it there are four lanes, two going each way, which are open to private autos most of the time. The two inside lanes also accommodate streetcars and express buses, and the outer two local buses; while the bike lanes at the edge are irregular, separated from vehicular traffic at some points, and at others perilously mixed in.

The present mix of transporation modes is little different from how Market Street has been the previous few decades. It's particularly dangerous for bicyclists, who must not only avoid automobiles, but the streetcar tracks, which are wide enough for tires to get stuck in, and have sent many a rider onto the asphalt.

The present mix of transporation modes is little different from how Market Street has been the previous few decades. It’s particularly dangerous for bicyclists, who must not only avoid automobiles, but the streetcar tracks, which are wide enough for tires to get stuck in, and have sent many a rider onto the asphalt.

But in 2011 San Francisco got serious about remaking Market, when it founded Better Market Street. A consortium of public agencies, the organization was formed for the $250 million repaving scheduled for 2015. The city will use this repaving not only as a chance to repair infrastructure belowground, but to make aesthetic improvements at street level. Ensuring that these improvements satisfy various interest groups is the role of the organization.

While, according to its director Kris Opbroek, no improvements have yet been chosen officially, she claimed they would likely mirror ones being made elsewhere. The organization would like cleaner sidewalks, shorter crossings, improved plazas, and more “street furnishings”, i.e. benches and trash cans. It would like to see “continuous bike facilities” that extend fully down Market, and that are elevated from cars. And it would like to add “parklets”, a public space pioneered in San Francisco where small seating areas are built either into parking spaces or atop sidewalks.

And of course the agency is also considering, again quite tentatively, whether to close Market to automobiles. As of now it has isolated two options for this. The first would be to close the part that’s now most crowded, what Opbroek called Market’s “key opportunity and the key constraint”—the touristy part between 3rd and 5th streets. This would produce less of a “mall” than a large plaza that is similar to what’s been done in Times Square.

The other option, far more ambitious, is to close the portion between the Ferry Terminal and Hayes Valley, a trendy neighborhood beyond downtown. This would extend the mall over two miles, and according to Opbroek, would divert traffic well before it can consolidate downtown. The makeup along the mall would be similar to now, with express buses and streetcars on the inside and local buses on the outside. But without private automobiles this transit would move faster, and because of revamped waiting areas, be more convenient; while the atmosphere on the street would be safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

This latter option, which is preferred by planning and environmental groups, would make Market the nation’s longest transit mall. And according to Tom Radulovich of the local non-profit Livable Cities, it could be amongst the many steps taken that make it a great public space.

“Making Market Street a better street is a question about land use, it’s a question about urban design, it’s a question about programming and activation, policing, cleanliness…”

And if removing automobiles “does increase the number of transit trips,” he concluded, then this too could “make it more of a destination.”


Of course the removal of private automobiles on any street—much less one already as congested as Market—raises logistical concerns.

The most obvious is what will happen to the traffic that gets pushed off. The answer by Opbroek is that it will be directed south of Market, into “SoMa”. The problem though is that much of it already goes there now. The mandatory turns off of Market spill traffic there, as do the nearby freeways. Many drivers traveling from north to south to get to the Bay Bridge also go through SoMa, particularly during rush hour, when its streets are clogged.

Right now the neighborhood is equipped for this, not only since it is less crowded, but since its industrial character makes it less impacted by automobiles. And yet SoMa is changing too. Recently some of its lots were rezoned for massive redevelopment, and the conversion of warehouses into lofts has occurred for decades. These and a new baseball park have caused it to generate traffic of its own, and if more is added, it could produce quality-of-life issues.

Another concern, voiced by the Chamber of Commerce and the Market Street Association, is the effect that closing Market to cars will have on the street’s merchants. The alliance, led by Carolyn Diamond, has argued that doing so will hurt their competitiveness, since many of their customers drive, using the street as a shortcut to drop people off and enter nearby garages.

Diamond also explained that cars now play an essential role in public safety. She said the unsavory atmosphere that exists along Mid-Market has been disastrous for economic development. The police, she said, are unequipped to address it, since their resources are divided, oftentimes further into the Tenderloin. But existing automobiles now provide added “eyes on the street”, especially at night when they are most needed.

This theme of Market’s unsavoriness also contributed to her broader concerns about making it a public space. She believed doing so could have the unintended consequence of attracting yet more loiterers. Something like a parklet, she explained, would be great until “the guy who sits next to you hasn’t had a shower in two days…and starts talking to his tuna sandwich.” It wasn’t by accident after all that benches once installed on the street were torn out, since people just slept on them. It was yet another example of how measures that often seem theoretically right for cities don’t work in reality, given the social pressures many of them face.


Luckily for San Francisco, there is a bit of experience to work from, based on the successes and failures of other cities which have tried such malls. In America they date to 1959, when Victor Gruen—who ironically had designed the first indoor mall just years before—closed several blocks of downtown Kalamazoo, MI, for an outdoor one with trees and pockets of grass. The idea was soon imitated in various American cities, and within decades the number of pedestrian or transit malls had reached 200. Some notable successes included the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach and the Nicolet Mall in Minneapolis, both of which are still vibrant today.

But with the proliferation of these malls also came failure—and quite a lot of it. For every one like Nicollet, there were several that either hurt marginally successful streets, or further worsened dying ones. This was the case for the malls in Washington and Philadelphia, which were eventually reopened to automobiles; and in Buffalo, where this process is underway.

The most notorious example was Chicago’s closure of State Street in 1979. Soon after the department stores suffered huge drops in business, some eventually left the city, and the street was finally changed back in 1996. This overt case of failure, on such a famous street, cast an indictment on the whole concept of pedestrian malls, and perhaps for good reason: of the original 200, only 30 remain.

The reasons why so many failed were the same ones echoed by Carolyn Diamond in her concerns about Market. Not only did the malls not have nearby parking, but were inaccessible to vehicles altogether. They were unpleasant on bad weather days, and sometimes on good ones, given their ability to attract vagrants. And the stores they accommodated were often small and quaint, out of touch with the consumer preferences of Middle America. But according to Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, these malls mainly failed because they were built in the 1960s and 1970s, when Americans were increasingly moving to suburbs. While the malls had been seen as a way to lure people back, he said, most just became for their downtowns the “final bullet through their head”, since they further isolated streets that people weren’t visiting anyway.

With time though, adjustments were made to some that brought success. One was the rise of business alliances, where merchants pooled money to increase street cleaning and security. Another was that many were redesigned for better accessibility. This was the case in my hometown of Charlottesville, whose mall had suffered the first two decades after opening in 1976. According to current mayor Satyendra Huja, who was planning director at the time, it was surrounded then by a street grid that went one way around it, reducing the possible entry points. The mall began thriving not only when this grid was made two-way, but when crossings were built on each end, reconnecting two neighborhoods, and exposing more of the mall itself. Similar adjustments also helped revive the malls in Boulder and Santa Monica.

But the main reason some pedestrian malls improved, according to Leinberger, was because of the movement by Americans back to cities in the 1990s. He said that before officials had tried to imitate European promenades without accounting for what made them successful there, like the prevalence of nearby housing and transit. Instead they built malls downtown when there was little demand for urban living in America, and when perceptions of crime had discouraged the use of public spaces. But this return had provided a greater critical mass of users, which he claimed must exist beforehand for such malls to work.

He cited as an example Times Square, which was closed to vehicles in 2009. This was attempted after nearly two decades of revival in Manhattan, and thus within an existing network of pedestrians, who before had been crushed together on sidewalks, and had slowed down cars. In the new plan, those cars were directed around the square, while the square itself got public seating. What resulted was a more attractive space, an increase in pedestrians, less automobile-related injuries—and a better traffic flow. One year later, the change was made permanent.

The several blocks of Market Street between 3rd and 5th, where the first transit mall option is being proposed, are similar to Times Square. They are the part where the cable car turns around and where tourists spill down from Powell Street, consistently burdening the sidewalks. These blocks are already viable public spaces, and likely would be long after automobiles are gone.

The riskier option is the two mile transit mall, which could potentially revitalize much more of Market than the first—or send yet more of it into decay. The length of such a mall would make it comparable not to Times Square, but to ones like in Denver. The transit mall there, which runs over a mile through downtown, was closed to cars in 1982. The middle lanes were converted into gathering spots, while the outer two were reserved for buses, one of which carried people up and down it for free. Soon after, the mall became the heart of the city, filled not only with high-end retail, but also with street performers, who weren’t shooed away like in other cities.

The mall’s advantages, according to transit expert Christopher MacKechnie, were not only that its surrounding area had previously been vibrant, but that converting it became an act of place-making, rather than just an exercise in removing cars. This strategy was also encouraged by Leinberger, who said that building a transit mall is less important than building what he called the “complete street”, which looks nice and attracts a range of incomes. If this is not done, then transit malls become like the one in Seattle, which was closed to automobiles but not otherwise changed. This mall, he said, is a grey zone full of lumbering buses and the mostly poor people who use them; and is inhospitable to retail.

The broader goal for San Francisco’s city leaders is to indeed make Market vital by making it a “place”. And it knows this will be done in the two ways mentioned before—through good design, and by concentrating people. Recently the city changed its laws to allow smaller and denser housing units downtown, and has used tax breaks to lure tech companies there, particularly along Mid-Market. So as if the density around Market weren’t already substantial compared to other downtowns, this will add more—indeed more of the critical mass that is needed for a successful transit mall.


But while envisioning this new vibrant Market Street, that nagging question rises again: what does the city do with all the traffic? Here the situation gets more complex.

Just as my walk down Market in August had revealed the street’s aesthetic flaws, my drive down it when first entering the city a month before had shown it to be a relic of traffic engineering. After exiting the Bay Bridge, I had tried to get north from SoMa to find parking around Union Square. But instead of just crossing Market, I hung a right and drove east, figuring I’d turn left in a few blocks. This, I soon realized, was a big mistake.

Not only was I not able to legally turn left on Market, but really couldn’t turn right, given the prevalence of traffic and one-way streets. So I continued east, still unable to turn left, and within minutes was at the end of Market near the Ferry Terminal. Now further from my destination and without a clear path back, I returned to SoMa, and its bumper-to-bumper traffic.

According to Opbroek of Better Market Street, my case was not unique. She said that based on recent studies, roughly 15% of the drivers on Market are there for a reason, while the other 85% are like I was, either lost or looking for parking. Market Street is naturally where those drivers turn because it is the main one, and because crossing it is difficult. But once there drivers can’t find parking, since there’s none on the street, nor can they get off, so they just add to existing traffic. Removing them, explained Opbroek, starts with getting them into garages north and south of Market, which could be done with better signage.

The other 15% of vehicles are a combination of service trucks, taxis, and through traffic. In the city’s tentative plan, the trucks would be allowed on Market at less crowded hours, while using back streets the rest of the time. The taxis would always be allowed, since they take people directly to their destinations. And the small bit of through traffic would be sent to parallel streets. Opbroek says this would help businesses, since the customers who reach them by taxi would have a clearer path, and those who park to reach them would know better how to do this.

But the business interests themselves think otherwise. Jim Lazarus, of the Chamber of Commerce, said that Market, while not ideal for car traffic, still plays a role in alleviating it. He said this is particularly so for downtown workers who exit on the southern freeways. Because the lead connections to these freeways are so crowded, these workers often drive through SoMa, using Market as a “safety valve” to get there. But if Market were closed, these drivers would just furhter congest other streets.

I asked Lazarus if the few cars that go there now, which alleviate traffic slightly elsewhere, were really worth the drastic slowdown they caused to Market’s public transit. He responded that cars would slow transit less if the city hired traffic controllers, who dictate when pedestrians can cross and automobiles can turn. These officers once worked there, and until San Francisco hires them again, he said, the city is “not serious about moving transit”.

The streetcars brought to Market in the 1990s were recycled versions of what had been used previously in other U.S. cities, and in ones around the world. Here one stops at a waiting station built into the street.

The streetcars brought to Market in the 1990s were recycled versions of what had been used previously in other U.S. cities, and in ones around the world. Here one stops at a waiting station built into the street.

Because Better Market Street is not now officially promoting a transit mall, it doesn’t have decisive answers to all these issues. But Opbroek said that when studying them, the organization will seek input from different stakeholders. And while this may help, it could also cause contention, since these stakeholders are not only divided about traffic flow, but ideologically, about which form of transportation should get priority in San Francisco. Lazarus scoffed at organizations like Livable Cities—the non-profit run by Tom Radulovich—as part of an unrealistic bunch who thinks that making driving inconvenient will somehow discourage it. Not only was this theory untrue, he said, but wasn’t even a desirable outcome, since car traffic was what propelled the economy. The key instead was to prevent such traffic from becoming congestion, which certainly wasn’t accomplished by closing streets.

Radulovich, meanwhile, was unapologetic about his desire to get people out of automobiles and onto mass transit. People did not come to San Francisco, he explained, because of its car-friendliness, but for its built environment, which cars actively threatened. And Market Street was one of those environments particularly unfit for them.

“Market Street is San Francisco’s most important transit street,” he said. “The few cars that we do have on Market Street are very effectively able to gum up the transit service. And each car delays thousands of riders.”


Perhaps more than traffic is the question of what kind of space should even exist on Market. While both the planning and business communities agree that it should be safe and inviting, they disagree on whether a transit mall would produce this.

Carolyn Diamond of course thought cars added safety to Market by bringing “eyes on the street”, and wasn’t convinced that removing them would be made up for with more pedestrians. Both Opbroek and Radulovich thought it would, since making a street friendly to pedestrians is supposed to attract yet more of them.

But if Market Street filled up with more pedestrians, wouldn’t many of them still just be vagrants, since those are the people there now? And might their number actually increase, in proportion with the street’s hospitality?

When I asked Obproek this, she admitted that it may be the case. But she thought the appearance of vagrancy would decrease, since a nicer space, and all those new developments, would also bring more workaday users. As an example she contrasted the area around Powell Street with Mid-Market. Both had their share of vagrants, but only Powell, because of its crowdedness, had a healthy dose of other classes. This diversity had made it one of the city’s most iconic corners, rather than just a seedy or just a touristy one.

The sidewalk commerce that now occurs on Market Street--incuding these Asian women who frequently sell scavenged goods--suggests its potential as a future cafe space.

The sidewalk commerce that now occurs on Market Street–incuding these Asian women who frequently sell scavenged goods–suggests its potential as a future cafe space.

This idea was also stated by Radulovich: “In all the places that do work…you’re gonna have panhandlers, you’re gonna have drunks…The idea is create the things that actually attract the folks that you do want…And the folks that you don’t want…won’t dominate the space.”

If there was something that both sides agreed on, it was that Market Street would also need better policing, which Chris Leinberger said applied to main streets nationally.

“Great places work best when they’re aggressively managed,” he said. If Market is to be successful, “it needs to have high standards of cleanliness, concierge service that helps with directions and that connect with police and encourage the homeless to seek services rather than use it as an open air homeless shelter.”

Another strategy, proposed by Diamond and being explored by Better Market, mirrors what was done for Times Square: first experiment with removing cars, and if it works, make the change permanent. On Market Street, this could mean starting with the shorter option, and then extending it; or just adding design enhancements, and if these improve it, removing automobiles later. That way the city could better reassure local businesses that are concerned about the potential negative effects of an abrupt traffic change. And it would be a way to avoid substantial upfront expenditures on a project that may not work anyhow.


Of course logistical issues like traffic and safety are only half the problem in a place like San Francisco. For this city it also comes down to culture—including the very kind of culture found on parts of Market.

Pretend for example that Market Street did become this tasteful transit mall. While such a development would be celebrated most anywhere in the U.S., it would seem bittersweet here in a city that, like a few others, prides itself on being “weird” rather than “Disneyfied”. Its hustlers and street pissers, safely confined to certain blocks, are in fitting with this tightrope walk between degeneration and “authenticity”. But such a mall, with increased security, might throw this off balance, making the problem not about too much vagrancy, but too little.

“I’m a bit torn about revitalizing Market,” said Robin Bullard. A cab driver who’d traversed the city off and on several decades, Bullard was like most everyone a bit weary of the atmosphere on the street. But he said this was also what made it interesting–something he’d heard repeated by many visitors, when talking of San Francisco generally.

“If you suddenly clean up Market, push out all the crazies, does it mean that strip becomes like every other fucking city in America, and no longer resembles who we are?”

This sentiment was repeated by others—particularly locals—to the point of creating a division between those I interviewed.

“All those homeless people in the library, and the UN Plaza, and up and down Market—they create character,” said Jess Riday, a transplant from Philadelphia. “They’re adding to the city’s diversity and its culture, and they’re not hurting anyone. So who cares?”

“And you wanna know why else they’re good?” he continued, looking at me. “Because they’re the only reason people like us can still afford to live in downtown San Francisco.”

In this respect he was alluding to another very real issue, that of displacement, not only of the homeless, but the moderate-income. Many acts of urban revitalization after all increase property values, while pushing someone out. This happened to the family of John Maodonado, the man from SoMa, who once paid reasonable rates inside a mid-rise, before developers rebuilt on the lot and jacked up the rents. Now none of his family can afford to live within city limits, much less the neighborhood where they raised him.

The issue of displacement is complex, and will appear in my later writings about affordable housing. But the threat of lost character, in this gentrifying city, is not as great to Market Street as one might think. Indeed whether or not Market ever becomes a transit mall, its cultural makeup is bound to change little. It will keep its tourists and financiers, since their needs are already met here. It will further receive tech workers because of the tax breaks. And it will also keep its homeless population, from its proximity to the Tenderloin, whose role as a vice district dates to the 1880’s, and which because of zoning restrictions and entrenched interests within the social service industry, is going nowhere. Like the cabdriver, and so many others in the city, I’m also of two minds about their presence. But given neighborhood traditions, and the culture of San Francisco, I think the city should err on the side of tolerating them.

Market Street at night. (All photo credits go to Christopher Berggren)

Market Street at night. (All photo credits go to Christopher Berggren)

This does not mean however that it should allow them, through lack of enforcement, to denigrate the street, any more than it should allow this through congestion or poor sanitation. Rather the city ought to be ambitious in its plans for Market Street. The street is already capable of becoming an iconic public space, given its location and surrounding density. Whether or not it does depends on if it’s made, in the words of Leinberger, “complete”, both through better policing and design. Gradually converting it into a transit mall, rather than the lowbrow strip it is in some parts now, likely will not accomplish all this alone. But it could be one step in a larger process that helps the street mirror nicer ones elsewhere, or given the assets of San Francisco, even surpass them.


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