Momentum Grows to End Mid-Market Car Ban

by on February 5, 2024

Photo shows Rooftop bar at Mid-Market's LINE Hotel
Rooftop bar at Mid-Market's LINE Hotel

An Essential Boost for San Francisco

Since writing about the rideshare ban in San Francisco’s beleaguered Mid-Market (“Should Uber, Lyft be Allowed in Mid-Market,” January 22, 2024), I’ve heard from many Mid-Market and Tenderloin stakeholders. There is universal support for ending the ban. Because rideshare vehicles cannot readily be distinguished from private cars it has also become clear that the entire car ban must be terminated at least on a pilot basis.

I implore those across the city to look at what’s happening in Mid-Market. Then ask yourself why the city still makes it more difficult to get to that area compared to virtually anywhere else in San Francisco.

Steve Gibson, Executive Director of the Mid-Market Business Association, explained why his group supports repealing the car ban:

“Every time we have a community meeting or meet in person with a business on Market Street the question is always asked ‘When can we get cars back on Market’. In 2023 we engaged a national expert on retail real-estate to develop a strategy to fill the 40% storefront vacancy on Mid-Market. Through his discussions with businesses and retail brokers he identified one of the primary barriers to attracting business was the lack of cars on Market Street. The lack of ride share, the lack of on street parking and the lack of food delivery pickups have had a very negative effect on the businesses in Mid-Market.”

Mid-Market Has Changed Since 2015

In my recent story I acknowledged that in 2015 I backed the decision to ban private cars. I actually wrote a  June 2015 story urging SFMTA to ban cars in Mid-Market (See “SFMTA to Decide Mid-Market’s Future”).

My vision for Mid-Market at the time describes a radically changed neighborhood from today.

I saw the car ban as encouraging sidewalk dining. Over eight years later there is no sidewalk dining anywhere in Mid-Market. Nobody would even contemplate investing in such a plan.

In 2015 I noted that because the ambitious Better Market Street plan had been pushed back to 2017  it was imperative to impose the car ban before then. Today, a significantly scaled back Better Markets Streets plan still hasn’t happened.

I wrote in June 2015, “We all saw the possible future for Mid-Market last April during the Market Street Prototyping Festival in the area. It confirmed that people will flock to the neighborhood’s sidewalks if they offer a positive environment.”

People are not “flocking” to Mid-Market sidewalks. More people are flocking away from the area. Mid-Market is like a ghost town.

The :wildly popular Equator Coffee in the ground floor of the Warfield Building” I wrote about in connection to the car ban closed years ago. It and neighboring retail could not survive the lost business from the vacated 6th and Market highrise that once housed WeWork.

It’s been over eight years. The car ban has failed to boost Mid-Market. It was the right decision at the time but its the wrong policy for today. San Francisco should not be sticking with decisions made during an entirely different economic environment that are damaging the city today.

How Car Ban Hurts Hotels, Businesses

Do you ever wonder why newly renovated or constructed upscale Mid-Market hotels like the Proper and the LINE do not have their entrances on Market Street? People arrive on McAllister for the former and Turk Street for the latter.

The reason? The car ban. The ban removes all hotel guest foot traffic from Market Street. It’s akin to New York City barring cars from 5th Avenue so guests would enter hotels from a side street.

The car ban kills the street level activation that the city claims to support in Mid-Market. It’s at cross purposes with City Hall’s agenda for the area.

The LINE drop off is across from Turk Street liquor stores. Many associate these stores with illegal activities. The street sends a troubling message to guests arriving from the airport on rideshare.

The Proper’s McAllister entrance is also near areas long frequented by drug dealers; the hotel’s highly visible Market Street frontage is bypassed due to the car ban.

People can use rideshare to reach IKEA by getting off at Mason and Turk. But that block of Mason has often had tents and drug users; it’s not an environment many potential customers will feel comfortable in.

New businesses are not going to open in Mid-Market so long as it’s virtually the only neighborhood in the city to ban cars. The huge number of retail vacancies in the area confirm this.

A Backlash Against Bike Lanes?

San Francisco needs dozens more protected bike lanes. Let’s push for them to be built. But Mid-Market in 2024 can accommodate both cars and bike lanes. Cars do not prevent protected bike lanes down Market.

The current bike lanes that are justified for banning cars in the area are not promoting the sidewalk cafes and dining spots that we thought in 2015 would be in Mid-Market’s future. We can’t act like we are reviving Mid-Market when everyone involved in the area sees the car ban as blocking revitalization.

The Mayor and Board of Supervisors should support returning cars to Mid-Market for at least the next 3-5 years to see if it boosts the neighborhood’s economy. Most believe it will. That means more revenue for the city and improved public perceptions of Mid-Market. It even could mean that Mid-Market could come closer to resembling the café-dominated European boulevards that many foresaw when the car ban was enacted in 2015.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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