Market Street: Now’s the Time to Dream Big

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of our quarterly magazine, the Tube Times. This article has been subsequently updated to accurately reflect the history of bike lanes on Market Street.


Market Street is on the verge of a long-overdue renaissance.

Dreams of a modern, vibrant, accessible and safe Market Street have tantalized San Franciscans for over 100 years. Still today, a bold swath of our city dreams of a boulevard from the Castro to the Ferry Building where people of every age can enjoy Market Street without risking their lives. What distinguishes today’s dreams from those of the past are the lessons and data from a century of experimentation.

A (Very) Brief History

1906: After the earthquake, much of San Francisco burned to the ground, including most of Market Street from Van Ness to the Embarcadero. From the ashes of horse-drawn buggies arose the hum of electric streetcars, democratizing people’s ability to move faster than they could walk or bike.

1910s – 1940s: Market was a grand, internationally-renowned avenue connecting the mismatched grids of the Financial District and SoMa, then “South of the Slot.”

1950s – early-1960s: Auto-centric planning was not kind to Market Street, plunging the corridor into a smog-choked era, with six lanes of autos bordered on either side by another lane of combustion engines at rest. Pedestrians dodged traffic as they spilled over the curb. Cars and streetcars clogged the roadway, with bicycles out of favor as a popular way to get around San Francisco.

Late-1960s – early-1970s: New visions for Market Street gained popularity, with an underground BART system and wider sidewalks winning the day. BART was built beneath Market Street, requiring six years of construction on and beneath the street surface before Market was recreated in more or less the design seen today.

1989: Eighty-three years after Market Street’s first overhaul, tectonic shifts once again played a role in the street’s redesign. The Loma Prieta earthquake spurred a reimagination of Market Street’s northeast terminus. The Embarcadero Freeway’s demolition opened up the possibility of the public plaza that residents and visitors enjoy today.

2000s: Only the most recent decade provided people on bikes with increasing comfort and safety on Market. Even 10 years ago, riding one’s bike on Market was a feat performed primarily by bike messengers and the adventurous. Greater separation from traffic, green paint and bike boxes all contributed to a friendlier street. Now boasting 60,000 to 100,000 people on bikes every month, Market Street continues to grow in popularity and transform for the better.

A Proving Ground for Good Design

Only recently have City leaders come to appreciate people’s growing appetites for bicycling down Market Street. Since 2009, Market has served as the proving ground for new on-street bicycle facilities and infrastructure, like protected bike lanes, bike counters and traffic reduction measures.

Market Street’s first green bike lanes, between Van Ness Avenue and Eighth Street, were striped in 2010. Around the same time, right-turn restrictions for private autos were mandated at 10th and Sixth Streets. These fast, cheap improvements helped grow biking on Market by over 115 percent between 2009 and 2014, more than the increase in people biking citywide over that same period.

In 2011, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA) further modernized Market Street by dramatically improving Muni speed and reliability. They also reduced hazards for all who travel on Market by making private auto restrictions permanent.

Whereas private automobiles were the norm on Market Street 40 years ago, bikes now make up the majority of vehicles. San Francisco’s first bicycle counter, installed by the SFMTA just before Bike to Work Day 2013, tallies the number of people on Market every day. Even to those who entertained a hunch that bicycles represented the majority of Market Street traffic, the results were striking. Over 3,500 people on bikes pass by the counter on an average weekday – and that is just eastbound traffic. Safety advocates eagerly await the day when the millionth person bikes past the counter in a single year, a milestone that may be reached in 2015.

While the promise of safer travel along Market Street is enticing, getting to and from the corridor remains challenging for some. The SFMTA and Department of Public Works addressed this for many in 2014, cutting the ribbon on the award-winning Polk Street protected bike lane. The “contraflow” design there protects people on bikes from head-on auto traffic, separating them with a concrete curb outlining a bed of succulents.

New designs on Market and nearby streets continue to grow our network of protected bike lanes. In some sections, Market Street is now a leading example of modern urban design. In others, work remains.

Market Street Today

Market Street remains the heart of San Francisco. It is the city’s busiest thoroughfare for people who bike and among the most-pedaled routes in the United States. On an average day, bikes account for 67 percent of all vehicles on Market Street, and they accounted for a whopping 76 percent on Bike to Work Day. Additionally, Market remains an outdoor living room, a bustling social space and a hub for San Francisco’s booming economy.

Despite the tremendous growth in the number of people biking on Market, parts of the corridor continue to be dangerous for people biking and walking. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is dedicated to winning protected bike lanes from the Castro to the waterfront, to increase safety, reduce congestion and benefit everyone who travels Market.

With more victories for a safer Market Street on the horizon, San Francisco is within reach of a bold new future – one where people need not fear for the worst, whether they walk, bike, drive or take transit. The key to realizing the potential of Market Street remains, as it ever was, a united and vocal populace dedicated to making San Francisco safer and more comfortable for everyone.

A safer Market Street will not be possible without your help. Sign up for the latest news, and find out how you can make your voice heard and help shape the future of Market Street at sfbike.org/market. And catch up on our latest win for safety improvements along Market Street, driven by the voices of our members.

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