Violations in SF’s Transit-Only Lanes Rampant and Rarely Enforced

IMG_4230_1.jpgA driver on Mission Street in SoMa uses the transit-only lane to zoom past other cars, and faces little risk of being ticketed. Photo: Michael Rhodes
It doesn't take much for a car illegally driving in Market Street's transit-only lanes to set Muni vehicles back by an entire stoplight cycle. In fact, it happens all the time, and despite the delay and frustration it causes transit riders and operators, motorists face little risk of getting a ticket.

The lights on Market are timed so that Muni's buses and streetcars stop at red lights, load and unload passengers, and move on when the light turns green. But when cars stop in front of them on a red light, buses can't pull up to the island, and must wait until the light turns green to pull into the transit island. By the time they've finished loading and unloading passengers, the light is red again.

Such violations are rampant in San Francisco, based on interviews with Muni bus and streetcar operators, who insisted on anonymity, and observations by Streetsblog San Francisco.

Driving in a transit-only lane is an offense subject to a $60 fine, according to the city's traffic code. But ask a Muni driver whether they ever see cars in the city's 17 miles of transit-only lanes, and you'll likely hear an unequivocal response: "Oh yeah, all the time." That, more or less, is what nearly every Muni driver surveyed for this story said when asked whether private automobiles get in their way on stretches of streets like Market and Mission that have transit-only lanes. "That's the norm," said one operator.

Cars are in the transit-only lanes on "every run," said another Muni operator, who drives the 71-Haight and uses the transit-only lanes on Market Street. "People want to go on time. How we going to be on time? How can you be on time when all these people are in the bus lane?"

Many of the drivers attributed the rampant violations to a lack of enforcement. "There's no police around. They're supposed to be taking care of that, especially the motorcycle police," said one bus operator.

The San Francisco Police Department's Traffic Company and Muni Response Team are in fact responsible for enforcing transit-only lane violations by moving vehicles.

IMG_4222.JPGA bus trails a driver on Mission Street who has ignored the transit-only sign.

Muni operators we spoke to are split on whether they've ever actually seen a motorist ticketed or warned for driving in transit-only lanes. Many F-line historic streetcar operators said they had witnessed occasional stings on Market Street. Nearly all Market Street and Mission Street bus drivers said they had not witnessed officers giving tickets for such violations.

The SFPD does conduct "focused enforcement" operations "several times per year," in areas that receive the most complaints, said Sgt. Wilfred Williams, a police department spokesperson.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, said Muni is dependent on the SFPD to enforce cars driving in the transit-only lanes. "Those are moving violations, and we don't know how big a priority the police make of enforcing those lanes."

The Municipal Transportation Agency, Muni's parent agency, is not authorized to ticket moving vehicles, but it has taken steps to crack down on vehicles parked in transit-only lanes. In January 2008, it began a pilot program that allows Muni to place forward-facing cameras on the fronts of its buses to detect parking violations in transit-only lanes, and issue $250 parking citations based on video evidence.

"The authority of the pilot is granted only until January 1, 2012 and requires that the City and County of San Francisco present an evaluation to the transportation committees of the Legislature on or before March 1, 2011," MTA spokesperson Judson True explained in an email to Streetsblog. As of June, 636 citations had been issued.

The MTA could not provide statistics on transit-only lane enforcement or violations, but former SPUR transportation director Dave Snyder said it isn't hard to see there's a problem. "Just based on what I see out there, I think it matters a lot on the street, like enforcing transit lanes on Market Street, where you can sit there and watch buses not get a chance to pull into the bus stop because there's cars illegally in the transit lane. That's obviously a problem."

In 2004, as part of its Market Street Action Plan, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) recommended the bus-mounted camera pilot program, which is now underway, as well as transferring responsibility for transit-lane moving violation enforcement directly to the MTA by February 2006. That would require legislative action, and has yet to happen.

The good news for enforcement is that, as Streetsblog reported recently, the MTA and the SFPD recently came to an agreement giving the MTA more control over the SFPD's Traffic Company, meaning the MTA could prioritize transit lane enforcement, though it still cannot enforce moving violations directly.

188454800_14167f9817.jpgWill transit-only lane enforcement become a genuine priority for the SFPD's Traffic Company? Flickr photo: Thomas Hawk

Tony Parra, the SFPD Deputy Chief and director of Security and Enforcement for the MTA, said he's given instructions to the SFPD's Traffic Company to regularly enforce transit-only lanes. "I have given direction to [Traffic Company Commanding Officer] Captain Gregory Corrales, that our officers, throughout their daily patrol and when traveling to their assignments, are to keep the transit-only lanes open for Muni, and to enforce it as often as possible."

"What I'm trying to achieve here is regular maintenance. So not just the focused, or a canvassing of certain areas one time a year. I would like this year-round type of coverage. This should be a regular portion of the traffic enforcement's duties, and not just some type of enforcement blitz, and then we lax up on it in between."

Parra said he hopes to improve the Traffic Company's record-keeping on transit-only lane enforcement. "I oversee the Traffic Company as of July 1st this year, so we're just starting this, and their statistical personnel are looking at some of the specific requests I've made and I'm waiting to do some comparisons, 30, 60, 90 day comparisons, prior to my taking over the unit."

Though transit-only lane violations clearly remain widespread, Parra said he's received some positive feedback. "I have heard some compliments from some of the bus operators that they have noticed a difference."

As a model for enforcement, San Francisco might look to the East Bay. The Alameda County Sheriff's AC Transit division has gotten attention lately for aggressively enforcing no parking rules along AC Transit routes, and issued over $2 million in tickets last year.

For now, bus drivers are not optimistic that cars will be consistently kept out of the transit-only lanes any time soon. Asked whether more consistent enforcement might keep the transit lanes clear, a 14-Mission driver on his break near the Ferry Building laughed and patted the reporter on the shoulder. "That will be the day," he said.

Yesterday: San Francisco's transit-only lane network is an incomplete vision