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What would it take to make a car-free Valencia Street happen?

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Urban designers say Market Street-style closure is possible and could be positive for the neighborhood

People walk past a public parklet where a street musician performs on Valencia street at dusk. Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

With most of Market Street closed downtown to private auto traffic and the initial effects on the area appearing positive, it doesn’t take long for eyes to wander to other popular but persistently gridlocked streets and wonder if it’s time to do the same there.

At least a few decision-makers at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFTMA) recently pondered a car-free Valencia Street, hoping to revitalize the Mission District’s critical yet sometimes struggling retail and cultural corridor.

But Valencia is an entirely different species of street than Market: narrower, more human-scale, and dominated mostly by small businesses. And unlike Market Street, Valencia isn’t a critical lifeline for Muni, which runs almost all of its north-south Mission District traffic on Mission Street itself.

To get an idea of what a hypothetical car-free Valencia Street might look like, Curbed SF asked Geeti Silwal, one of the principals at Perkins and Will, an urban design firm that worked with the city on the Market Street closure, and Luca Giaramidaro, a Perkins and Will designer who is also a Valencia Street resident.

Curbed SF: If the city were to close Valencia Street, say from 15th to 26th, how long would that take?

Luca Giaramidaro: Hard to say. Support from local businesses and local residents is fundamental, [and] that will take time and a lot of political effort. Market Street took nearly a decade. That said, examples such as Broadway Boulevard in New York City have shown that you can go a long way with a bucket of paint.

What would be the biggest obstacles?

Geeti Silwal: These projects require input and guidance from several city agencies. On Market we worked with San Francisco Public Works, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco Planning Department, San Francisco County Transportation Authority, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Finding consensus is a challenge, but now that it has been done at least there is a road map—so to speak. In a tight neighborhood with small businesses like Valencia, the public involvement would likely be more intensive than we encountered with Market Street.

Also, there will be a cultural shift. Streets need to be primarily conceived as public realm. This concept has a long history in Europe, and it is time for the U.S. to shift gears on this (no pun intended).

How would a closure like this affect the neighborhood and/or retail—which is already struggling?

[Valencia Street] would become a place that people come to as a destination to socialize, linger, enjoy street life and interact with public art, nature, and each other. Streets were never meant to be just streams of vehicles but somewhere down the line, unfortunately, streets became synonymous with cars.

Market Street’s new image will be instrumental in inspiring other cities and streets globally to do the right thing [and prioritize] low-carbon modes of mobility: walking, biking, skating. It is not just the right thing to do to combat climate change, but it is also the right thing to do to address social equity. Access to employment, education, social well-being opportunities for community members of all age and income groups is possible when we make space for an efficient, dignified transit system.

One of the common obstacles of such changes is the local business opposition. Quite honestly, research has shown that local businesses thrive from improved pedestrian and bicycle access. Retail not associated with customer experience is dying in the U.S. (i.e., the Amazon effect.) Ground floor retail, food and beverage will benefit from the improvement of pedestrian and bicycle experience, especially on Valencia, which is already a destination for many weekend strollers.

Would you personally like to see Valencia Street (or any other SF street) closed to private vehicle traffic?

Yes, just like the Market Street project. Prioritizing and structuring streets for people and public life over movement of private vehicles is a fundamental goal that the entire team got behind.

[It’s] an intriguing idea, maybe 16th to 18th, where it is the busiest? Valencia Street has been already going through positive changes with improved/protected bicycle lanes and controlled TNC pickup and drop off zones (Lyft pilot project). Streets are not the same as they used to be, and we need to carefully craft a tailored strategy that responds to unique conditions. It would be very interesting to see this improvement advance towards a complete street environment. I’m thrilled to see this happening. One step closer to healthy and equitable mobility solutions for all.

There are a lot of factors that need to be considered before vacating a street. A healthy street grid provides good connectivity and democratizes a place by giving people options to navigate a city, irrespective of the mode. It is important not to impede the connectivity of a healthy city grid.

However, fewer and narrower travel lanes slow vehicles down, which in turn calms the experience of the street and makes it much more pleasant, safe and inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists. Prioritizing and structuring the street for people and public life over movement of private vehicles should be a fundamental principle for all streets. Streets need to be primarily conceived as livable public spaces.

Which means the hierarchy of mobility modes needs to put “people first.” Pedestrians and public life on streets come first, bikes next, transit third, and ultimately private vehicles.