Locomotion along downtown Market Street is chaotic, arguably to the point of dysfunctional. Buses and taxis have specially designated lanes, as do bicyclists-except no one adheres to these distinctions. Rather than overhead, traffic lights are located on the far sides of the street, on the border of a driver’s periphery vision. And droves of pedestrians, heading to or from a Muni or BART station, stream across every intersection. To make matters worse, road signs-like the very important STOP-are literally painted on the road, which is often covered by swarms of tourists or moving vehicles invariably in the wrong lane.
A short film documenting Market Street in 1906 leads me to believe that “chaotic” is historically characteristic of San Francisco’s main thoroughfare. Shot in one continuous take, from a moving cable car traveling along Market Street toward the Ferry Building, the film (aptly named “A Trip Down Market Street” ) shows multiple near-death collisions. Throughout the 12 minutes of footage, automobiles and horse-drawn carriages constantly cut off the moving cable car. Pedestrians casually walk-sometimes even run-directly into the path of oncoming traffic”¦and barely escape death by flattening. There are, of course, no traffic lights or signs to direct the urban flow. At the time of filming, the DMV was nonexistent, and there were no regulations regarding who could or could not drive an automobile.
In 1901, California state laws authorized cities and counties to license motor vehicles-running the gamut of carts and bicycles to automobiles. By 1905, the year before the motion picture was filmed, the number of registered vehicles in California totaled 17,015. (The cost of registration was $2.) David Kiehn, Bay Area historian, used details from the film, including license plates and shadows on the ground, to determine that the Miles Brothers film was shot on April 14, 1906, four days before the Great Earthquake. (Prior to Kiehn’s discovery in 2010, the film was believed to have been shot in 1905.)
Over 100 years later, cable cars, automobiles and bicycles still roll along Market Street. (The horses not so much.) And bad driving is as rampant as ever. Some things just don’t change-for better or for worse. Pedestrians, just remember to look both ways before you cross.