What Happened After Market Street Went Car-Free

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Less than two months after San Francisco’s Market Street went mostly car-free, the central downtown artery is palpably calmer. While freight deliveries, fire trucks, buses and streetcars are still trundling along the vehicle lanes, navigating by bike, scooter or foot feels far less death-defying now that clots of private autos and ride-hailing vehicles are no longer allowed to vie for space among them.

And commuters are responding accordingly. For example, the average number of dockless scooter trips provided by one company, Spin, shot up by 30 percent after the car ban went into effect, according to an analysis by Populus, a mobility data startup that works with the company.

“Street design changes, big and small, can have a huge impact on what mode of transportation a person chooses and even what routes they decide to take,” Kay Cheng, director of infrastructure initiatives at Spin, said in a statement.

Some of that shift is likely attributable to seasonal effects, said Regina Clewlow, the CEO and co-founder of Populus; other cities saw a scooter ridership increase of just 10% between January and February.

These sorts of findings have been trickling in since the second day of  the “Better Market Street” plan, which will eventually involve a years-long reconstruction of the corridor east of 10th Street, in order to improve traffic safety, increase transit speeds and reduce vehicle congestion and pollution. After just one day of the new vehicle access rules — a preamble to the $603.7 million overhaul, slated to begin in 2021 — the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency reported that bike ridership has jumped by 20%. By the end of February, that increase was up to 25%. Bus speeds were also running 6% faster on average, according to the SFMTA, with some Muni lines reducing travel time by as much as 12%.

Critics of the project warned that the car ban would boost vehicle congestion on surrounding streets, but Inrix, a global traffic analytics company, found only a minor uptick. “Overall, the cumulative time savings experienced by the more than 75,000 daily public transit users on Market Street greatly exceed the marginal increase in travel times experienced by car users in the closure’s vicinity,” wrote Trevor Reed, an analyst at Inrix, in a blog post. Reed compared the effects to those seen along the 14th Street Busway in Manhattan, where private vehicle traffic likewise did not create a surge in surrounding congestion, as foes of the project had predicted.

Apart from being useful fodder for car-free advocates, these data points seem to reveal what actually helps facilitate the shift in transportation choices that those advocates call for. When dockless e-scooters first hit U.S. cities two years ago, riders quickly followed, with the number of trips that Americans took on micromobility devices — including dockless bikes, scooters, and traditional bikeshare systems — more than doubling between 2017 and 2018. Scooters seemed to widen the pool of people interested in using their feet to move. Yet the overall share of people opting out of vehicles has barely budged: Three-quarters of all U.S. commuters still drive alone to work.

That’s why many policymakers are turning to traffic-taming infrastructure projects like Better Market Street, the 14th Street Busway, or the car-free zones featured by a growing number of European capitals. Besides improving transit reliability and protections for cyclists and pedestrians, these interventions also seem to make those modes more appealing by simultaneously making it harder to drive.

Logical? Yes. Politically simple? Not at all. But results like this could make it easier.

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