Car wars: The phantom menace

City plan would waste money in a 1970s retread
Rendering of the State Street Mall in Chicago illustration: UIC Digital Collections / flickr

For several years now, there has been momentum to close a large stretch of Market Street to automobile traffic. The Better Market Street organization is pushing a plan that would do just that, along with some other changes to improve street life on the City’s famed central road.

The case for removing private automobiles from the street is based on a popular misconception on top of a utopian dream. The misconception
is the belief that without cars, the street becomes more human in scale and a more pleasant place to be. The utopian dream is that a large, world-class city doesn’t need cars to make it function. Both the misconception and the dream are dangerous to our city and a waste of our tax money.

Cities large and small have been turning streets into pedestrian malls for decades. But then they started turning those streets back into regular streets because there were significant unintended consequences of a no-cars policy.

For example, when I lived in Chicago in the 1990s, the city finally decided to undo the damage done in 1979 when it banned autos from the northern end of State Street. Instead of a pedestrian utopia, it turned into a barren wasteland. Stores died. Pedestrians avoided the area. Meanwhile, nearby North Michigan avenue, whose lanes are packed with vehicles throughout much of the day, boomed and became the Magnificent Mile you just had to visit when in Chicago.

As Chicago public radio station WBEZ reported in 2011: “Saunter down the State Street corridor in Chicago’s Loop, watch throngs of tourists, college students, businessmen, shoppers, and theater-goers, and it’s hard to imagine that section of the city was ever considered a planning disaster. But it was. At least it was during the 17 years that State Street existed as a pedestrian mall closed to private
automobile traffic.”

Today, State Street is vibrant again. It anchors the city’s popular theatre district and many new retail stores.

Why did State Street fail as a pedestrian mall? As commentators and researchers pointed out in the mid-1990s, the result of removing automobile traffic is actually the opposite of what is promised and expected. Proponents say that people will feel safer and calmer along streets that aren’t filled with honking, polluting cars. But what happens is that the streets feel abandoned, less interesting, less inviting, and less safe.

People live in big cities because they want to be around other people, and in particular, when they go to dense shopping districts, they want to be around lots of other people. It’s sometimes annoying, but it’s also exciting.

This isn’t the first time San Francisco has been attracted to the pedestrianization of Market Street. It also happened in 1997, and a San Francisco Chronicle report at that time cited the Chicago experience as a warning.

Chicago’s effort “was a total flop – ‘a disaster,’ Chicago planners say – and the street was refurbished at a cost of $24 million and opened to cars again [in 1996],” wrote the Chronicle’s Carl Nolte. He quoted G. Brent Minor, vice president for business development at Chicago’s La Salle Bank, as saying, “‘We walked into it with our eyes wide open and it was just a mistake, an absolute mistake. God, don’t let them do that in San Francisco.”

Well, half-baked ideas never really
die in San Francisco. They keep coming back, proposed as if they’re new. That’s life in utopia. But in evaluating the latest iteration of this vampire-like, unkillable urban planning idea, it would help to look carefully at what it is the City wants to spend our tax money on.

The Embarcadero end of Market Street doesn’t need radical surgery. It is a bustling, safe and exciting mix of office workers, street retail and tourists. Mid-Market needs surgery, but it doesn’t need a solution that is doomed to worsen its problems. Mid-Market, into which the city is pouring a lot of time and money, is a place you don’t want to be after dark, and even during daylight it can be intimidating. Mid-Market would benefit from more people being present, but it will only achieve that long-term if those people feel safe. That means having a constant and visible police presence, which would be a far better use of City
funds than a pedestrian mall.

Now, I don’t drive my car downtown; I regularly take mass transit. But on occasion I do need to drive, and if possible I avoid going downtown because it is an expensive and confusing place to drive and park. If Better Market Street’s plans go into effect, it will be even more difficult, and I won’t be the only one looking for other places to shop or see a movie.

As Mr. Minor said about pedestrian mall madness at the end of the 1997 Chronicle article, “If it failed everywhere else, why do you think it would succeed in San Francisco?”

Why? Because of a misconception layered on top of a utopian dream.

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