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Amid SF Market Street struggles, some propose reversing ban on private vehicles

Reopening Market Street to private vehicles floated as idea to revitalize corridor
Reopening Market Street to private vehicles floated as idea to revitalize corridor 03:05

With Market Street struggling, some are proposing to reverse the ban on private vehicles on the corridor. But SFMTA officials are concerned a change would make the street more dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians.

When Mohammad Zughaiyer walks down Market Street, it's still hard for him to see the transformation of a once bustling area of San Francisco.

"It's empty. It's like abandoned. If you compare from before, it's like nobody is in town," said Zughaiyer.

A decade-long planning effort banned privately-owned cars from traveling on the corridor two months before the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

Buses, bicycles, taxis, and commercial trucks now have the green light.

"Before it was live, you saw a lot of traffic, you see activity in the city. You felt like you were in New York," said Zughaiyer. 

The effort to revitalize downtown San Francisco has garnered a wide range of ideas from politicians, to residents, and retailers.

For lease signs and empty storefronts abound. Some banners even solicit ideas to reshape the city. 

Some, including Zughaiyer, are calling for Market Street to reopen to cars, arguing it would bring the corridor back to life.

Zughaiyer opened Oasis Grill's Market Street location in 2014 and has several years left on his lease. The owner says his restaurant is ringing up only 30% of the revenue it used to generate.

He believes reopening Market to all vehicles is an initial step to bring in more people.

"The more visibility for your business. When people drive around, they will see you more," said Zughaiyer. 

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency executive director Jeffrey Tumlin has concerns about a push to reopen Market Street to private cars.

"The current configuration of Market Street is extremely beneficial for safety and for people walking and biking," said Tumlin.

SFMTA data shows since closing Market in January 2020, collisions have dropped by 40%, while travel times on public transportation along the route were reduced by 14%.

"Economic recovery requires bringing people to the downtown. That's what's really needed.  The challenge with putting cars back on Market Street is it displaces some of the people who are already there," said Tumlin. 

Like Fernando Gambaroni, who now cycles to work along the stretch.

He also believes investments besides reopening the thoroughfare, can be made to attract more people to the area.

"We have seen that when we allow people to walk and make it walkable those areas do very well.  I think it's about investing in that and not necessarily allowing cars in," said Gambaroni. 

SFMTA says it has added more than 100 loading zones on cross streets to facilitate getting people close to Market Street.

Despite the ongoing struggle to fill seats and tables, Zughaiyer remains hopeful for a revitalization.

"We don't know when but I'm sure, 100%, it's coming back," said Zughaiyer. 

But it's unclear how long Oasis Grill can keep its doors open.

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