Dare to share: Thoughts on Market Street

The City of San Francisco is currently undertaking a substantial planning process for improvements on Market Street. Market Street the city's iconic boulevard that has historically been the center of activity and remains so today. Market Street has gone through many transformations during the last century and the current issues concerning traffic, safety, street design, and vacancies in the Mid-Market area have been discussed for many years. After a thorough analysis and extensive public and stakeholder input, the plan accumulated design ideas into three options, all of which would significantly improve the usability and identity of Market Street. However, all options suggest an incremental approach with fairly traditional street designs, which made me think of other examples of similar streets and why their design as a shared streets make them great streets. I use Market Street almost every day and studied it in one of my film projects, so I wonder if a shared street concept could also work for Market Street.

Market Street, San Francisco: Everyone competing for space

Some years back, I enjoyed a street scene in Istanbul that went like this: Stepping out one morning in Sultanahmet (the oldest district in this metropolis of about 12 million people, with buildings dating back to the early 500s and under siege by tourists), the cobblestone street in front of my hotel had been magically transformed into a race course for colorful, two-wheeled machines.

Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul

I found myself in a version of the Tour de France, complete with media helicopters and motorcycle camera teams closely following a peloton. This being Istanbul, the next outdoor café was only steps away. The most logical thing to do was sit down, have a çay, and watch sportsmen from all over the world work hard for their money. Between the puffing, spinning, and amplified voice of a muezzin nearby, I noticed two small kids enter the scene. They played between my coffee table and the metal barriers placed along the street.

What I found remarkable was how much was happening simultaneously: bike race, tea-drinking tourists, observers, waiting car drivers having a chat, vendors pushing small carts filled with pastries, local kids looked after from a distance. Everyone equally owned and appropriated the street. I was witnessing an unplanned street with no sidewalks, no striping, and no curbs. The street transformed every day depending on the time and people who happened to use it. In the morning the street became a parking lot for tourist buses, by midday small tables were set up for games and çay shared by drivers and residents. In the afternoon flocks of tourists strolled the street to explore the kitschy carpet and souvenir shops. All this while accommodating car, motorcycle and bicycle traffic. Occasionally, you would see someone jumping out of the way of a speeding taxi. It was all about negotiation.

A similar situation can be found on Istiklal Avenue, one of Istanbul's popular shopping streets, where pedestrians, streetcars, and occasional cars share the street, mostly without incident.

Darmstadt in Germany has successfully implemented the “confusion concept”
 around its main square
Coming home to San Francisco, I tried to imagine a street where the same mix of activities could occur without requiring a permit to completely block off the streets. The only streets that came to mind were located in designated entertainment districts which are not part of the regular urban environment. In terms of sidewalk users, I hardly ever see children or seniors. The only kids I see in the city are in cars, on buses accompanied by an adult, or confined in fenced-in “play” areas that dictate the exact games that can be played. Could this have to do with the thorough separation of motorized and non-motorized traffic, with motorized traffic taking up most of the street? Urban fabric, density and people are all there. But with four-lane, one-way traffic speeding through South of Market for example, there is not much room for play and contemplation on the sidewalks. After all, this traffic needs to keep moving regardless of the quality of life for residents. Interestingly, ensuring smooth traffic flows seem to be a favored measure in traffic planning to reduce overall vehicle emissions.

On Market Street, everyone is competing for the limited amount of space: cyclists get stuck between curbs and buses trying to avoid slippery tracks, subway vents and potholes; cars drive on lanes designated for transit, while delivery trucks block the only remaining free lane; when buses and trolleys pile up at stations located in the center of the street, pedestrians are forced to exit on to 3-feet wide platforms that are crowded with waiting passengers. On top of that, most street trees are in a rather sad state of existence or are already dead The new painted and separated bike lanes between 8th and 10th Street are a good start, and so is the directing of eastbound traffic away from Market Street at 8th Street.

The Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich, the main shopping street in downtown
 is a shared street
Why not try the shared street concept for Market Street that has been so successful in other places of the world? Studies conducted in the Netherlands, Scandinavia and most recently the UK, found that an informal mix of traffic achieved by a combination of design and imposed speed limits of less than 20 mph, makes a street much safer. No one can rely on a designated lane or right of way and therefore must pay more attention at a much slower speed. In Germany, some cities came to the same positive conclusion by experimenting with the elimination of traffic signs while reducing speed limits altogether. This “concept of confusion” or “naked street” as it is called in the UK, does not favor one user over the other and forces everyone to learn the art of negotiation. An exception is made for buses, light rail and trolleys which naturally have a harder time to swerve. 

The solution may be simple: give public transit the right of way. Think of it as the rules of the Bay Waters brought to Market Street. To make this concept work, only a few ingredients would be necessary: (1) a textured pavement throughout Market Street similar to a wall-to-wall carpet, with curbs and bollards only where necessary; (2) large and attractive bus shelters; (3) delivery access limited to off-peak times; (4) no parking except for bikes; (5) plenty of space for street trees, outdoor cafes, temporary vendor stands, benches; and yes (6), pedestrians allowed to crisscross the street wherever they please and whenever they judge the situation as safe. Cars and bikes can obviously only move very slowly in this scenario, which in fact is necessary to make shared streets work.

One may argue that this shared street design is difficult to realize, there is a lack of successful examples and available data in the U.S. as well as regulations like ADA. Or it may only be applicable to residential streets where speeds are already supposed to be low. However, I believe the role model for Market Street could be the very same “shared” Market Street of 1905. An impressive film shot in 1905 from a trolley car going down Market Street depicts the hustle and bustle in those days, and is available for download from the Prelinger Archive.

It was not the number of accidents that led to the redesign of Market Street we know today but the automobile-centric planning that came with the growing popularity of the car. You can see there was significant traffic in those days too, and that harmony relied on negotiation – I can’t help thinking Market Street was a much livelier street back then. One that was enjoyed by everyone…including horses.

For my film "A Trip Down Market Street (1905, 1906, and 2004)", I combined archival footage from 1905 and 1906, and shot the current condition while riding a street car. All together, it reads like a continuous journey along Market Street and aside from realizing the vast extent of destruction that the fire after the 1906 earthquake caused, I found the level of activity and chaos at the beginning of the last century stunning. And it worked.


For more historic footage, visit the Prelinger Archive 

Image Sources: 
1. Benjamin Dumas/Flickr 
2. Robin Robohow/Flickr 
3. Joadin Ruell/Flickr 
4. Kaefeden6/Flickr 
5. Prelinger Archives/Heidi Sokolowsky