Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles The 2020 pandemic has changed life in the city pretty dramatically. In the height of citywide lockdowns it can be very eerie to look out at a street and see no people and no traffic. Traffic in urban centers has been a constant, but under the threat of coronavirus, many have been experiencing what life could be like without it. A little after 6:30 and we're looking at the West LA area. What is different in this picture? Well how about this, it's probably about 10% of the cars that are usually out here. Traffic in the United States has been a growing problem over the last decade. Especially in San Francisco where each commuter spends 103 hours waiting in traffic every year. And the cost of congestion totaled over $5 billion in 2017. And while it may seem like the natural solution to pave more roads and increase freeway space, the city's actually taking the opposite approach. Like many European cities, it's removing cars from its downtown. And if it works, it might just help spread this idea of building cities around people, not cars. Now since I live in Brooklyn and likely am not traveling to San Francisco anytime soon, I'm recruiting the help of my colleague Laura Bliss. Not only because she lives in the Bay Area, but because she's been reporting on car-free streets for years. The amount of congestion on the streets that's grown in recent years is really striking. Texas A&M University has published a study which says traffic here in California, and especially here in the Bay Area, is bad. Just since 2010, the number of vehicles entering the city on a daily basis has grown by 27%. This growth has been driven by cheap gas prices, but also the rise of ride-handling apps like Uber and Lyft. And in San Francisco, the tech boom has meant more people are coming to the city every day. There's also a really sharp uptick in pedestrian fatalities that the city has seen in recent years. And this is an issue that all of the United States has been experiencing over the last decade. So the city has done a number of things over the years to try to address its traffic problem. Most recently, the city is launching the Better Market Street Plan. Well another plan is in the works to transform San Francisco's Market Street. It sure looks great on paper. A mega makeover of San Francisco's Mid-Market Street. What you will not be seeing? Cars. All the way back to the dawn of automobiles, Market Street has struggled with a diverse amount of transportation needs. From pedestrians to cyclists, cars and public transportation, and even back in 1906 it could get a little hairy. One of the most iconic things about Market Street is that it's really just kinda almost a free for all. It's about 9 AM. Just at the end of rush hour. And we're gonna ride all the way down to the Ferry Building. And experience Market Street firsthand. And all of its problems. You've got Ubers, you've got private cars, you've got delivery trucks, you've got buses. Pepsi truck just blocking the way. What is he doing? You've also go a historic street car. That's just kinda throttling along. And even though Market Street has dedicated bike lanes, when cars need to turn right off the road, those bike lanes kinda disappear and cyclists end up weaving in and out of traffic. Everybody's really happy this morning as you can hear. At best, this can lead to increased congestion. And at worst, it could lead to an accident. The city's Better Market Street Plan aims to fix this by removing private cars from entering the road, allowing dedicated lanes for trams, buses, and cyclists to run unimpeded for the two mile stretch. As well as a large renovation project to the pedestrian walkway. And while construction will take years to complete, the first step, removing cars, is already in effect. Three! Two! One! Cutting that ribbon took well over a decade of debate, environmental review, and design planning. They've been talking about limiting cars on Market Street almost since cars were invented. Or at least since BART was invented. By November of 2019 the San Francisco Transportation Administrators voted unanimously to approve of Better Market Street Plan. Generally speaking, these kinds of projects do not go down without a massive fight. Whose streets? Our streets! One of the most explosive fights in recent years that's gotten a lot of attention here in the United States was the 14th Street Busway Plan in New York City. It's not going to be your mother's 14th Street anymore. From 3rd to 9th Avenues it will morph into something city officials call a TTP. It means private cars can pretty much forget about it. Similar to the Market Street Project, the 14th Street Busway was a plan to remove private cars from entering the road. The intention here was to improve bus service, but some New Yorkers didn't like it. That's probably gonna just make the traffic a lot worse. That don't seem good. It's a bad thing. I am furious. We are furious. And generally speaking, people oppose pedestrian zones or car bans for three main reasons. First, people fear that the traffic is gonna get pushed to parallel roads and that those side streets are just gonna be stuck in gridlock. Second, there's the fear of the loss of on-street parking. And finally, business owners fear that that loss of parking could mean the reduction of customers and revenue to their business. A plan to ban cars on one of the busiest cross-streets in Manhattan hits a roadblock. Arthur Schwartz represents the group that's suing the city. There's a thousand cars an hour on the side streets. That is not a good trade-off. For anybody. If anybody in their right mind thinks that there's not gonna be a major impact because of this, they're crazy. But once the car ban went into effect, the data came back and was pretty clear. There was no Side Street. Trafficopalyse. Traffic-opalypse. People love to get biblical with traffic. Carmageddon and... This is Trevor Reed, a transportation analyst at INRIX. And yes, he's also working from home. Do you play football? Does someone else play football in the family? Well I'm back at home with my parents. Nice. I did play football and that's-- Is this all your childhood stuff? Yup, yup. Pretty much. INRIX worked with a third party consulting firm, Sam Schwartz Consulting, to collect data around how the traffic changed after the 14th Street Busway. The end result of the 14th Street Busway was an absolute success. On all the parallel streets you're seeing a travel increase in travel times by about one to two minutes, which is negligible, but you're seeing a 36% improvement in bus speeds, which was 5.3 minutes faster on average, which corresponded to a 24% increase in bus riders, so over 6,000 increased riders. And you saw a spike in bicycle volumes of between 26 and 50%. But Market Street is a little different. Unlike 14th Street that's laid out in a fairly traditional grid with streets running parallel, Market Street only has one side of parallel street options, Mission that runs north and south, and Howard that only runs southbound. And while it may feel like all that displaced traffic for Market is gonna have a bigger effect on streets like Mission, the results were almost the same. In the morning, on Mission Street Northbound, we were seeing a change in the range of 30 seconds, and then in the afternoon an increase of about a minute. In the AM on Mission Street Southbound it was a negligible change. You're talking about 10 seconds or so at the 9 AM period increasing to about a 50 second increase in travel times at 10 in the morning, and your afternoon period change was again about 10 to 15 seconds during the peak period. And then overall, Howard Street was really showing no statistical change. And while there is a small uptick in traffic delay, Trevor points out that that's not looking at the whole picture. It's not just displacement of vehicles when you put in these busways, they also absorb a lot of those vehicles as new riders. It's not fate that you're gonna have 10,000 cars go into a point every day. It changes and people adapt to change. It only took one day for bike ridership to jump 20%. After a month, that number jumped to 25%. Bus speeds are running 6% faster on average up and down Market Street, and some lines have actually seen a 12% improvement. You know, when you're measuring your benefit in thousands of people, and the negative impact in a dozen cars, it's really, it's a no brainer as far as the benefit versus costs on these busways. And as for how loss of parking is gonna affect local business? Vendors think that a much higher proportion of their customers are coming via vehicle than they are. It's 240 square feet to park a personal vehicle and the odds are that's one customer. No restaurant or store can survive in an urban context just based upon people driving, parking, and going to use that service. There's actually been proven a positive economic correlation. A lot of these, in a lot of the context, following the improvement of bus or bike infrastructure because you're actually getting more people into an area than you were previously with the on-street parking. Because of the shelter in place order, it's been difficult to create any concrete economic data around the Market Street project. But around the world, evidence has been pretty strikingly positive. It used to look like this. A parking lot with 75 cars parked here. So the city council proposed to take away 60, so 15 left, and then the merchants here said no, we want them all gone. Because we're right off the pedestrianized zone where sales are better. After Central Madrid went car-free, with a pretty large swath of its downtown area now no access to cars, it's seen nearly a 10% boost to retail sales for businesses in that pedestrian zone. And it's also seen greenhouse gases drop by 32%. But not all car-free street projects are looked at as successes. In the US during the 60s and 70s cities created what were known as pedestrian malls. Streets were congested. Parking was inadequate.