That seems to be the real question in the debate over the future of Market Street.
And evidently, it's a question that we'll all have a chance to ponder for the rest of the decade; it was announced earlier this month that the project to rip up San Francisco's most important thoroughfare and put it back together again (but better) won't get going for another four years -- and will then require another two years to finish.
So rephrasing the question to take into account the extended schedule: what kind of city do we want ... no sooner than 2019?
Whatever the time frame, the answer isn't going to be reached without a fight. As it was announcing the delay, the Department of Public Works doubled-down on pissing off vast swaths of the city strategy by releasing three distinct policy visions for the Better Market Street project -- two of which do not include the construction of separated bike lanes on Market.
To summarize the three proposals solely as they apply to cyclists and cycling (you can read the full summary [pdf] yourself), you have:
The inclusion of that curveball (the third option) has so far received a resounding thumbs-down from the cycling peanut gallery. Immediately after the release of the proposal, the Bicycle Coalition launched a letter writing campaign to the mayor and called upon the city not to "throw its hands up and give up on finding the best possible solution for biking on Market Street."
Echoing that same frustration, Aaron Bialick at Streetsblog lambasted the Mission proposal for "go[ing] against a primary principle of bike planning: Improving the most direct routes, which people are naturally drawn to use."
Market Street, in other words, is already the path of choice for San Francisco cyclists -- and for good reason. The city's spine that bisects downtown, Market is often the straightest, if not always the safest, line between point A and point B.
But the logic of Market is also the predictable result of years of deliberate city planning. Steadily over the years, we've seen the partial implementation of separated lanes, the introduction of mandatory right turns, and the installation of the city's first bike bay and one of its few bike traffic lights. After investing all that money and effort to make Market "the most bicycled street west of the Mississippi," according to Supervisor John Avalos, what an odd decision it would be then to just call a mulligan and shunt bike traffic a block south.
I still have to admit to a certain level agnosticism on this debate. At the very least, as someone who usually avoids Market during rush hour anyhow (I'm a Howard and Folsom man), the pluses of a bike-prioritized Mission Street are substantial. Consider this: On Mission, there are no oddly angled intersections, no BART grates, and no streetcar tracks. And without the need to expedite Muni traffic, green waves could be timed to bike-speed, à la Valencia.
But if the choice between a bike thoroughfare on Market or Mission is presented as an either/or (which it certainly shouldn't be), I probably count myself among the pro-Market contingent.
Back in the spring of 2010, SPUR ran a blog post, an early response to the Better Market Street project called "Creating Our Own Champs-Elysées." In it, the writer, Elizabeth Holden, asks how Market Street might ever become "an avenue of constant activity" -- a place where a confluence of public art, commerce, open space, and transit thoroughfares make the street a place to stop and gather and hangout.
Assuming the project isn't delayed indefinitely and we eventually do see a Market Street with larger open plazas, wider sidewalks, and more green space, we will have a boulevard that doesn't just run beside the Castro, the Mission, the Tenderloin, downtown, and SOMA, but connects them. And if San Francisco is going to have its own Champs-Elysées -- one that reflects all the people and happenings of this city -- cyclists need to be a part of that.
Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.