Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Car-Free Streets

Can San Francisco emulate European cities that have designated auto-free zones?

This stretch of Market Street might be completely car-free in six years. Should S.F. go further? (Photo by Ida Mojadad)

Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair brought the vision of a centrally planned city of tomorrow in sharp relief. The enormous model looked like Brasília by way of the Detroit depicted in RoboCop, with a little bit of hyperreal Los Angeles, three or four widenings of I-405 from now. It popularized the concept of high-speed, limited-access freeways as a solution to city traffic — and with its poppy-seed flecks for cars and pedestrian-hostile scale, it’s horrifying to look at.

Almost 70 years later, we know for a fact that those unfortunate tracts of land between ramrod-straight expressways and their exit ramps don’t remain bucolic urban oases — and those exit ramps aren’t going to have five lanes of traffic each, either. What we also know is that this future ain’t gonna happen. San Francisco has essentially banned new freeway construction since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and while Greater Sacramento is still building at least one new highway, California is slowly redirecting its transportation spending to chip away at the primacy of the automobile. The reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and the creation of livable cities go hand-in-hand.

San Francisco has also taken steps to make its most prominent thoroughfare more bike- and transit-friendly. Inbound Market Street from Van Ness Avenue is a hodgepodge of confusing lane shifts and bus-and-taxi red-carpet lanes, with mandatory right turns for ordinary traffic at 10th and Sixth streets. The results are mixed — and temporary, as the Better Market Street project, which seeks a lofty-sounding “Champs Elysees” sometime in the next decade, is scheduled to conclude its environmental review in 2019 and begin construction a couple years later. But without adequate street-level retail and other reasons to amble along Market Street, such a project might become less of an urbanist utopia and more of a state-sanctioned dead zone.

Still, study after study (and anecdotal evidence) demonstrates that congestion is increasing — not so much citywide as Downtown and in SoMa — and rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft shoulder much of the blame. Worldwide, other cities have gone much further in seizing their central zones back from the domination of cars, notably Paris and Madrid. Spain’s new government has even proposed phasing in restrictions on cars in 138 cities, an idea that has strong popular support. Meanwhile, Transport for London charges drivers of non-electric vehicles the equivalent of $15 per day to enter a congestion zone, an idea that Stockholm adopted but which has so far eluded Manhattan. Can San Francisco be a leader in something other than being the city other cities hold up as an example of what not to do?

Its alleys notwithstanding, San Francisco is fortunate not to have grown out of medieval warrens that were never meant for mechanized transport in the first place. Yes, those crooked alleys mean charm and history, but try getting around Rome with limited mobility some time. We also have the advantage of compactness; car-free swaths of Houston or Phoenix, by contrast, would be impractical. Congestion is wasteful and frustrating no matter where you’re trapped, but simply banning cars by fiat without making other improvements is all stick and no carrot.

Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, doesn’t necessarily conceive of car-free zones as the goal. Her nonprofit wants to improve pedestrian safety and incentivize transit, and Better Market Street is simply one tool to get there.

“For San Francisco to reach our Vision Zero goals — and we do have ambitious environmental goals as well — we do need to move toward more car-free or car-light streets,” she tells SF Weekly. “Better Market Street will restrict private vehicles, which does include ride-hail vehicles as well, and we think it’s a great first start.”

It’s less about making getting around town by car more annoying than it already is and more about offering viable alternatives, she says.

“Reducing vehicle trips is one way to do that, redesigning our streets is another way to do that — and getting creative in terms of how we get people out of their cars and onto transit,” Medeiros says. “In terms of car-free streets, we don’t have a goal. We look to hopefully reduce private vehicle trips.”

This is sensible, in that San Francisco’s “center” is actually located closer to the waterfront, more like Toronto than Seville. And wholly apart from a car-free Market Street is the possibility of prohibiting through traffic on two short segments of Valencia Street, from 16th to 17th streets and 23rd to 24th streets. Subtracting those two sections, each a block from a BART station, could create a spillover effect by making driving the balance of Valencia that much less desirable to drive down.

Action is necessary. Ask any cyclist and they’ll tell you that Valencia’s bike lanes are virtually unusable in the age of Lyft, particularly at night. Even the introduction of protective bollards at certain curb bulb-outs, a signal to idling Uber drivers that this is not the place, seem to give them additional cover. At the same time, any given transit decision could be read any which way vis-a-vis the class wars: Are bike-docking stations a sign of irreversible gentrification? Do streetcar lines improve navigability or are they just prettified baubles to boost the home values of the bourgeoisie?

All of this implies that we’ll still be getting around in 2050 the same ways we do now. Probably: In spite of the exaggerated hellishness of his vision, Bel Geddes pretty much nailed it. Long-range forecasting remains a tricky business in any domain, perhaps never more so than when free, subsidized street parking — which, even in a left-leaning city, many people consider to be a God-given right — is on the line. And change is as inevitable as it is gradual. It’s entirely possible that, in 30 years, human-driven cars will be an anachronism. (To a large extent, we don’t really drive cars that much already; we mostly just aim them.) And above all else, drivers creeping along should learn to think about things differently. You’re not “in traffic.” You are traffic.

Read More from SF Weekly’s Smart Ideas Issue:

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: San Diego’s Safe Parking Program
Their system isn’t perfect — but giving vehicularly housed folks a safe space to park is a no-brainer.

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Paris’ Public Pissoirs
Would a San Francisco with Uritrottoirs smell more sweet?

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Utilities Powered by the People
State regulators are weighing a dramatic shake-up of PG&E. Could San Francisco join dozens of other jurisdictions in establishing a public utility?

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