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Opinion

Editorial: San Francisco made one of its busiest streets car-free. L.A. can do it too

Bicycle commuters
Bicyclists during the morning commute along Market Street in San Francisco.
(Los Angeles Times)

On Wednesday, San Francisco did what once seemed unthinkable: The city permanently banned cars from a two-mile stretch of Market Street, one of its busiest thoroughfares.

From now on, the downtown portion of Market Street will be reserved for bikes, scooters, buses, pedestrians and streetcars. Emergency vehicles, vans for the disabled or elderly, taxis and commercial delivery trucks will still be allowed to use the street. But private vehicles — including Uber and Lyft cars — will have to use side streets.

It’s a remarkable conversion to see a city banish private cars from a major public street, and one that, hopefully, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles transportation planners are taking note of. Starting in the early hours of Wednesday, people began posting videos. Buses cruised along without conflicts with drivers and exuberant cyclists peddled in the middle of lanes previously clogged with cars.

Car-free Market Street is impressive for several reasons: It has strong support from politicians and businesses, two groups that are usually loath to do anything that inconveniences drivers. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved the Better Market Street project by unanimous vote in October.

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And that’s the other surprise. Yes, it took San Francisco leaders years to commit to a car-free Market Street, but once they did, they chose not to dilly-dally over the details. Instead, they got it done in three months. Mayor London Breed credited this to a new “quick-build” policy that is intended to implement simple, low-cost safety improvements quickly where they’re needed most. There is a more ambitious overhaul of the corridor’s streetscape and infrastructure in the works.

Market Street has averaged more than 100 injury-causing collisions each year, most involving pedestrians and bicyclists hit by cars. By removing private cars, Market Street should become a safer and more pleasant corridor.

San Francisco joins a growing number of major cities that have chosen to banish cars from downtown streets. Paris, Madrid, Oslo and even New York City have closed streets or neighborhoods to cars. The idea is to reclaim public space from vehicles, make it easier and safer for people to walk, bike and take transit, and dramatically cut climate-warming emissions.

Of course, not every street or neighborhood is ideal for going car-free. It helps that Market Street is a dense, walkable area with lots of public transportation options. Plus the city had previously enacted turn restrictions and other traffic-calming measures that limited vehicular travel.

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Los Angeles surely has similar corridors that could go car-free, either completely or maybe just one day a week to test it out. Broadway, for example, has already been narrowedin the downtown core to make room for outdoor plazas. CurbedLA suggested other marquee streets, like Grand Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, that could benefit from banishing cars. In his Green New Deal, in which he lays out his sustainability goals, Garcetti calls for 50% of all trips in the city by 2035 to be made by walking, biking and taking transit. But that goal will be impossible without the political will to prioritize other modes of transportation and the infrastructure and transit improvements that make it easier, safer and more pleasant for people to get around.

San Francisco and other major cities are showing the way. To fight climate change and design healthier communities, cities have to reclaim streets from cars.


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