Market Street in San Francisco went car-free earlier this year — a much anticipated moment of truth in a ten-year-and-counting process that Gehl and many project partners helped kick off with the Better Market Street plan
To judge by social media, you might think Market Street had even bigger problems to solve or the city was about to become a pedestrian, cycling and transit nirvana. Other observers have pointed out that taking a decade to realize the modest goal of removing the last few private cars from a street that primarily serves transit is hardly worth a victory lap.
It is exciting for San Francisco to see the city’s high street finally showing new signs of change toward the Better Market Street vision, before construction begins later this year. Prioritising public transport over private, low-occupancy vehicles has always been a no-brainer from a transportation pain of view on this, San Francisco’s essential street.
But the more radical change is just around the corner. And it’s not about transportation modes.
Market Street is a mobility workhorse—but it’s also San Francisco’s largest and most important public space. The two big innovations in the Better Market Street design developed by Gehl were 1) generous, elevated, Copenhagen-style cycle tracks that are part of the pavement and 2) “street life zones” – areas of the sidewalk devoted to spending time, not just movement. So far there were prototypes of these ideas in the Living Innovation Zone which popped up at Yerba Buena Lane and the cycle track pilots tested by SFMTA three years ago.
What cities like Copenhagen understand about cycling is that it’s more like walking than driving. It is a part of the public life. Cycling contributes to the spirit of public spaces. A person on a bike can make eye contact with people around them, at human speed, stopping in an instant to have a conversation or spontaneously pulling into a shop. Cycling is more about people than it is about bikes.
The move to pull Market Street’s bike lanes up to pavement level, welcoming cyclists as full contributors to the public realm, is a big shift that drastically repositions cycling in the city. It is such a big move that requires relocating underground entrances! It leverages the cultural change underway in San Francisco where cyclists wearing business clothes and pedalling cargo bikes with child seats now seem to outnumber lycra-clad warriors. This new generation of cyclists is more diverse, more focused on utility, and an important part of the city’s public life.
Cycling on Market Street has matured as the vision for Better Market Street has taken shape. Cycling no longer has to be aggressive to survive or put on a show to catch attention (never stop wearing costumes, San Francisco). The Better Market Street vision imagines that cycling can also just be urbane, everyday life. It can be public life.
On the first day of car free Market Street, cycling was up 20%. It is safe to say public life was up just as much.