Proposal: Make San Francisco’s Central Business District Car-Free
With the Rise of Public Transit and Car-Free Streets, Why Do People Need to Drive to the Central Business District?
San Francisco has an interesting relationship with cars. For decades many people and politicians wanted to have freeways all over the city — case in point Interstate 480. I-480, popularly known as “The Blight by the Bay”, existed in many stages for many years, before the Loma Prieta Earthquake destroyed any hope of a fully completed Embarcadero Freeway in 1989. Why, you ask, was the freeway and the interchange with I-280 never built? Well, thanks to massive protests from residents over an obviously terrible infrastructure decision, construction was halted and the freeway will not be built unless there is a radical mindset shift among residents. Despite the lack of freeways in the city, with only Highway 101/80 actually entering and leaving the city, cars are certainly not sparse. San Francisco’s traffic — and that of the Bay Area in general — is horrendous. If you read the article I wrote previously along similar lines, you’ll remember that I pointed out that San Francisco’s design and job conglomeration in the Central Business District (CBD), the Financial District, is a major cause as to why traffic is so bad. So what does this mean? What can we do?
Ultimately, if we want to make San Francisco less reliant on cars and a better place to live, we should consider making the CBD car-free.
Due to the pandemic creating a massive spike in people getting outdoors and walking around, many places around the globe have implemented similar bans and city reconstructions this year. San Francisco, too, has experimented with variations of car-free spaces. In early 2020, even before the pandemic exploded, the city of San Francisco banned private vehicles, including rideshare, along a 2 mile section of Market Street. This was widely successful as traffic changes were not noticeable and people responded positively to the experience. What’s more, Market Street is one of the biggest corridors in the entire city, meaning that if expanded to cover the entire CBD, we can expect to see significant success.
Even in the past, the effect on small businesses and local businesses is significant and positive, and in the era of COVID consumer spending is more important than it ever has been before. Car-free zones have built and bonded communities together by intertwining and overlapping the natural world with the human sphere. Of course, the biggest benefits car free zones, particularly in Europe, provide is the better air quality. With fire season seemingly lasting longer each year in California and poor air quality for the entirety of autumn, reducing the pollution caused by cars is a reason alone to ban them.
I would obviously expect immense backlash to this proposal — city politics are a harsh sphere and proposals harming car traffic and automobiles very rarely receive a warm reception. To some degree, a few arguments may be warranted. It is true that the bulk of the jobs within San Francisco are in the CBD, meaning that many people who rely on driving to work will have their mode of transport cut off. Some auto-centric politicians may propose large parking facilities on the boundary of the car free zone to allow people to park-and-walk. This, while it may sound smart to some, would be a disastrous idea if implemented. Building more parking is one of the worst initiatives city planners can take because it not only reduces residential, business, and pedestrian space significantly, but parking projects empirically have only increased car traffic (assuming the parking isn’t exorbitantly expensive).
To resolve a lot of the short-term shock that the policy could afflict, the policy would need some transition time both to alert residents before and post-implementation. Due to the size of the CBD as a whole, the implementation process could take a long time. In the vein of a lot of the new pedestrian/cyclist streets being created in the COVID era, an ideal car-free district would be some sort of hybrid grid, with pedestrian streets, bikeways, hybrid streets for both bikes and pedestrians, and if San Francisco wanted, they could build busways. Buses, assuming they are majority electric, would be, in my opinion, a great asset for a car-free CBD because they would have much faster speeds and be able to carry a large amount of people at once.
Industry analysts also mention that the process of creating car-free zones can be successful if done very carefully. The pandemic is increasing the demand for these zones and bringing about more awareness of the benefits of getting rid of cars. One easy way to start the process using prior successful models is to build pedestrian malls. Pedestrian malls have been used in college towns and are ubiquitous in many towns in Europe, especially Germany and the Netherlands. Pedestrian malls are great because they still have to allow emergency vehicles to enter, but offer space for both pedestrians and cyclists and promote access to businesses.
Based on the precedent of test trials and existing zones across the world, a car-free CBD in San Francisco is a feasible option to reduce traffic and create a more livable city. The impacts of cars are worse than most people think — roads in general have always had negative impacts on people in poverty and people of color;the natural separation they create between individuals and the environment has had negative impacts before. Car-free zones encourage people to go outside, which creates a healthier, more productive, more livable city. San Francisco has received lots of criticism from people on the right for being dirty with a large homeless population. They’re not wrong. San Francisco can be the liberal city that people imagine it as, but if it wants to innovate and be the standard bearer for progressive politics, making a more progressive and livable Central Business District is imperative. The benefits and successes speak for themselves.