Red Transit Lanes on Church Have Made Muni Faster and More Reliable

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Photos: Aaron Bialick

Seven weeks after the SF Municipal Transportation Agency painted red transit-only lanes on several blocks of Church Street, Muni reports that the J-Church and 22-Fillmore lines are moving faster and more reliably. On the stretch between Duboce Avenue and 16th Street, travel times on the two lines have dropped by 5 percent, and the buses and trains are 20 percent more reliable, arriving closer to their scheduled arrival times.

Before the transit lanes went in, Muni riders were routinely delayed by private automobile drivers blocking boarding islands and waiting to make left turns. “We were losing a lot of time there,” said Sean Kennedy, planning manager for the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project. ”This is the slowest section for both the 22 and the J on their entire stretch, and one of the slowest sections in the whole transit system.”

The Church transit-only lanes are a pilot project of the TEP that allows the SFMTA to measure the effect on transit and traffic, helping to inform plans to use them on other streets.

Sean Kennedy (left), the SFMTA's TEP planning manager, and Camron Samii, SFMTA enforcement director.

SFPD and SFMTA parking enforcement officers have handed out 26 citations to drivers so far for violating the transit lanes, according to the SFMTA. (The SFPD enforces moving violations, while SFMTA can only enforce parking violations.)

While it’s still easy to spot drivers disobeying the new rules, it appears that violators are less likely to enter the lanes in front a Muni vehicle, where they might cause delays. That seems to indicate that even if drivers know they’re driving in the lanes illegally, many seem to know better than to delay Muni vehicles.

“They know,” said Camron Samii, the SFMTA’s enforcement director. On the city’s other 15 miles of transit-only lanes (which, other than Third Street’s light-rail lanes, aren’t colored), Samii said it’s typical to see drivers pick up on patterns and only violate the lanes when there are fewer transit vehicles and enforcement officers are around. The agency tries to mix up where and when enforcement happens, he said.

At Church and Duboce, a scofflaw driver enjoys a cleared-out transit-only lane while buses load at the sidewalk in the mixed traffic lane.

Transit planners and advocates had hoped to see the northbound 22 bus stop at Church and Duboce Avenue moved from the skinny sidewalk to the center boarding island to take full advantage of the exclusive lanes. The SFMTA did make that happen around Easter, said Kennedy, but after a week, a complication in the adjusted overhead wires lead to a meltdown after a Muni driver drove too quickly through the intersection. The overhead wires were torn down, holding up the J, the 22, and the N-Judah for four hours.

Kennedy said that incident occurred because the agency didn’t have enough funds to do a proper re-wiring, so planners used the cheaper method of adjusting the 22′s wires towards the center lanes just enough for the buses’ catenary poles to reach. It would have worked, he said, as long as 22 bus drivers eased through the intersection slowly enough — which Muni managers instructed them to do. However, a new bus driver apparently didn’t get the memo, and the poles on his or her bus damaged the wires enough for the next J train to tear them down.

“We can’t have that happen a lot,” said Kennedy, so the 22 will continue using the sidewalk stop in the curbside lane with mixed traffic until Muni embarks on a separate project to re-wire the system properly, which would require no small amount of funding, he said.

Another measure the SFMTA has taken to reduce blockages is to move loading zones where large trucks had previously blocked the mixed traffic lanes, leading drivers to get around by entering the transit-only lanes.

Whether bright red paint and the plethora of signage on Church will be enough to get drivers to obey the rules remains to be seen. Despite numerous signs announcing prohibited left turns at Church and 15th Street from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., I witnessed two scofflaw drivers in the red lanes pausing to make a left today as a J train approached from behind. They moved along after several announcements from the train operator via the train’s speaker system shouting “No left turns!”

SFMTA staff will continue studying the impacts of the transit lanes, and issue 6-month and 12-month reports on it. For its next red paint projects, the agency is looking to add the treatment to existing transit-only lanes on the 8X-Bayshore and N-Judah lines.

22-Fillmore buses on Church cross 15th Street.