Bicyclists ride on Market Street in San Francisco, California.
CNN  — 

Over two miles of downtown San Francisco’s Market Street, a major artery of the city and gathering place for residents and visitors alike, are now car-free as part of a movement that puts pedestrians first.

“If there was a street synonymous with San Francisco, it’s Market Street,” wrote the city’s mayor, London Breed, in a blog post. “It is the everyday backbone of the City, with hundreds of thousands of people traveling along it on foot, bike, bus or streetcar. It’s where we gather to celebrate our victories and protest injustices.”

Market Street became car-free between Main Street near the Ferry Terminal and 10th Street near Van Ness Avenue on Jan. 29. Eastbound traffic is car-free for an additional block or two on either end.

When the street was constructed in 1847, there were about 50,000 people in the city. Now, there are more than 800,000, fueling the need for safer streets, a more efficient public transit system and lowering carbon emissions from transport, she said.

Making Market Street car-free

Vehicles drive past a "Car-Free" sign displayed on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, California.

The Better Market Street Plan began as part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Quick Build Program, which accelerates the implementation of safety improvements.

The decision to close the street to private vehicle traffic was approved by the SFMTA Board of Director after a years-long process involving design, community feedback and approval between numerous city agencies.

The redesign will take time but it was kicked off on January 29. Over the next few months, the structural transformation will begin with private car restriction, new two-way streets, intersection safety improvements and extended lanes for Muni, the city’s public railway transit system. In addition to buses, Market Street is the main route for a fleet of vintage streetcars that run along its tracks.

Safety improvements to intersections include installing painted zones at eight intersections to make crossing the street safer.

Making the city safer

Passenger cars and ride-hailing services will be banned from traveling on portions of Market Street.

Half of San Francisco’s top ten intersections for injury collisions involving people walking or biking, are on Market Street, “making the transition to a car-free Market Street especially vital and urgent,” the mayor’s office said in a press release.

“For years Market Street has been far too dangerous for pedestrians, while also boasting a half million people walking on it every single day,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group.

“That’s a huge disconnect, especially since San Francisco is committed to ending severe and fatal traffic crashes by 2024. A car-free Market is an essential step toward a dramatically safer street for everyone who uses it.”

Extending existing transit-only lanes from Third to Main Street, the portion of Market with the most transit traffic, and making them Muni-only makes the transit system more reliable for San Franciscans in a city that sees upwards of 200 buses per hour during busy periods.

Additionally, the plan includes 100 new pick-up and drop-off zones which will improve loading and delivery for businesses as well. Loading will be restricted during peak hours to reduce traffic conflicts between people on bicycles and transit.

“The Market Street project helps us meet two key goals: moving more people by eliminating congestion delay on our most important transit corridor, and improving safety on the street with five of our top-ten, high-injury intersections,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, SFMTA director of transportation.

Accessibility concerns

While private cars and non-Muni buses aren’t allowed on Market Street anymore (except to cross it), paratransit vehicles and commercial taxis are still allowed for curbside service, Medeiros said.

The city’s additional 100 zones right next to Market Street on the cross streets allow for people in wheelchairs who need curbside access to businesses along Market Street.

“Walk SF leads the Vision Zero Coalition’s Senior and Disability Workgroup, and is deeply involved in advocating for a Market Street that works for everyone,” Medeiros said. “Large numbers of seniors and people with disabilities use the bus, and it’s now going to be safer getting on and off those buses.”

Moving toward a pedestrian-centered future

By making Market Street car-free, San Francisco adds itself to a list of other cities working to create spaces centered on people, including New York, Cleveland, Ohio and Oslo, Norway.

San Francisco has been lowering its carbon emissions since the early 2000s, but can reach its climate goals by a lot more people choosing sustainable ways to get around, such has walking and transit. It’s on the city to “back this goal up by making walking safer and more appealing, and speeding up bus service,” Medeiros said.

Changing Market Street isn’t the first time San Francisco has made way for car-free public spaces and safer walking and biking. In December, the city saw the completion of the Octavia “Open Street” Project, which reopened a portion of the street as public space to be enjoyed by surrounding neighborhoods and communities.

“We are actively planning for a future in which our public spaces are reclaimed for people and where streets and sidewalks are convenient, enjoyable and safe places to travel and gather,” Breed wrote.