SF’s Transit-Only Lane Network is An Incomplete Vision

IMG_3724.jpgCars block a bus' progress on Market Street near Kearny, several blocks east of where Market's transit-only lanes end. Photo: Michael Rhodes
When transit-only lanes were first striped in San Francisco in the 1970s, they were meant to be a bold enactment of the city's brand new Transit First policy. But like the policy, the lanes have only been partially implemented and are all too often flouted. Stricter enforcement is part of the equation, but many of the lanes are marked so half-heartedly that it's hard to place the blame on drivers alone.

The Transit First policy was adopted in 1973 and the crux of it was transit lanes. When it passed, "within six months, Muni was supposed to come back to the Board of Supes with a proposal for a comprehensive set of transit lanes," said Tom Radulovich of Livable City. "So, it's an old policy in San Francisco that transit should be given priority over traffic on city streets, and that means, in many instances, dedicated lanes."

Today, there are 17.41 miles of transit-only lanes in San Francisco (see the complete list in PDF format.) About two-thirds of that lane mileage prohibits private automobiles at all times, and the rest is peak-only. The result is a patchwork that is both essential to Muni's operation, but woefully incomplete and often times confusing.

"In practice, a lot of the Muni planners have always complained that the traffic engineers will not allow them to have transit-only lanes on streets," said Radulovich. This is "out of concern of actually keeping traffic flowing."

MTA spokesperson Judson said the Transit Effectiveness Project recently completed by the MTA "recommends transit-only lanes as one technique for reducing transit travel time. TEP market research found that after reliability, Muni customers are most concerned about travel times." If the transit lanes are not available to function as intended, he said, "then Muni service cannot benefit from them."

One F-line historic streetcar driver was not afraid to offer a transit-first suggestion for how tourists who are confused by San Francisco's signs should deal: "If they're confused, then they shouldn't drive," he said.

True said the agency "recently completed an upgrade of the transit lane signs, the traffic signs that in conjunction with the street painting alert motorists to the bus only lane."

But the Municipal Transportation Agency, Muni's parent agency, admits the signs on the road aren't always clear.

0907XX_005_1.jpgNew transit-only lane signs are intended to be less confusing for motorists. Photo courtesy MTA.
The new signs are supposed to be less ambiguous, True said. "The old signs included the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) diamond symbol that had been previously used to mark the transit only lanes. State and federal regulations have changed to allow the diamond symbol to be used only for HOV lanes."

While many motorists could still be seen straying in and out of the transit lanes on a recent weekday, True said the new signs have improved the situation. "The before and after study conducted by our traffic engineering staff at four key intersections showed transit lane compliance improved at those locations on average nearly 40 percent. The intersections monitored, 1st and Mission, Post and Grant, 4th and Mission and 3rd and Folsom, were all monitored during PM Peak hours on weekdays."

Market Street's transit-only lanes may be the most troubled of all. They run in the center lanes from 12th Street to 5th Street inbound, and 8th Street to South Van Ness outbound. On a recent day, not only were many motorists in the transit-only lanes illegally: east of where the lane restrictions end, many motorists still appeared confused about whether they could drive in Market's center lanes. In the short period observed, many motorists swerved out of the center lanes soon after entering them, apparently believing it was unlawful to use them. This last minute swerving created a dangerous situation for other vehicles.

It also raised a question: Why aren't Market Street's center lanes transit-only all the way to the Embarcadero? "It might not be the obvious reason, which is because they didn't want to restrict cars, because they were being too friendly to cars," said former SPUR transportation director and Streetsblog contributor Dave Snyder. "It could be that they have a lot of buses in the right lane as well, and they thought it would be better to spread the cars more than shove them all in one lane. To my eyes it makes more sense to shove them all in the one lane, because they back up both lanes completely, so you might as well have one lane free."

IMG_3680_1.jpgEven though taxis are allowed to use transit-only lanes, and Market's transit-only lane ends several blocks west of here, this cab driver swerved out of the way at the last moment, apparently playing it safe. Photo: Michael Rhodes
Of course, for those extra miles of transit lane to be of much use, they'd need to be more clearly marked. Not just with signs, but with pavement markings or even raised surface demarcations, like those for the N-Judah on portions of Judah Street.

The MTA didn't indicate any plans to add such features to Market Street, but it noted that planned Bus Rapid Transit lines on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue will be physically segregated from lanes open to private automobile traffic.

Whether the city is successful in implementing bolder transit-only lanes will depend on political leaders' support for transit over automobiles, which has long been shaky and conditional. "It goes back to that old debate: we're a transit-first city in a policy sense, but are we a transit-first city in practice?" Said Radulovich. "And that is an open question."

Tomorrow: Drivers face little risk of getting ticketed in SF's transit-only lanes.