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

  • Joe

    In London, the buses have cameras that photograph cars that are illegally in the bus lane. I believe they are an effective deterrent.

  • Cars can legally use the bus lane when making right turn. It is not clear at all in the second picture that there is a violation. That’s while enforcement is difficult. And it is also hard for driver to comply.

    I remember see a very good study a while back on the design of downtown bus lane. It compare things like putting the bus lane on the center v.s. right lane. Whether bus stop should be before of after stop light (the answer is afteras I remember). The one recommendation I remember is there should be a standard design as oppose to the ad-doc design we current have. I hope someone can point out the study here.

  • It really is amazing how well-paid our government employees are, yet whenever they’re asked to do their jobs, there’s a lot of head shaking, talks of “Stakeholders” and a need for a “study” and so on.

    News flash: if you punish people hard for infractions of the law, and do so often enough, they’ll get the message. When I was a driver and was speeding and got hit with a rather tough fine and traffic school and what not, it made me think twice about driving 110 mph on the freeway.

    Funny how that works. But I guess in San Francisco, we have to pay all these people big pay and pensions for them to just sit there and hassle kids for taking pictures or something.

  • Sasha

    Also, let’s be clear: not all of the bus-only lanes are 24/7. I bike on Mission several mornings a week from 8th St to 12th St, westbound. The far right lane is painted “BUS ONLY” the entire way, but signs along the road made it clear the lane is restricted only Monday through Friday, 4-6pm.
    I’m all for increasing transit’s ability to deliver in SF. I think we’re going to do better by designing for it, than putting up mixed messages that drivers have to decode on the fly. There was an article in the last couple days pointing out how drivers in the unrestricted section of Market commonly weave between lanes because they’re not sure if they’re allowed to drive on the tracks or not.

  • fogcity

    This entire series of article calling for increased enforcement is wrong headed. Share the roads. It is the philosphy of the great Jane Jacobs and all enlightened people that the public streets are for all modes of transportation to share. Problem is in our society everyone is upset that the “other” had more, has more or is getting more.
    We are still finding out how roads work. Wide streets lead to speeding, signs distract, painted lanes imply safety and also increase speed and inattention.
    Common courtesy is what is lacking. I’m hearing more and more complaining from everyone. Bikes riding people down in crosswalks, speeding, cars and bikes not giving the right of way to each other or any other mode of transport for that matter. Everyone is asking for enforcement.

  • Alan McMillan

    30 Muni busses have cameras that photograph “Bus Lane” violators. These busses are used on the 14 Mission and the 38 Geary, but have limited effectivness because of staffing shortages of employees to view the video and tag the violation.

    Besides, which Parking officers would support a bus automatically doing what a person could be hired to do at greater cost?

  • Heather

    I find these bus- and taxi-only lanes very confusing. I don’t have a car, but I’m always finding myself in one inadvertently on my scooter. Presumably there has got to be a better strategy to give preference to public transit?

  • shalako

    in Munich public transit (trains and buses) operate in central lanes which are physically seperated (curbs and raised lanes) from other lanes. it’s very clear that you shouldn’t drive there. works very well. they also have bike lanes seperated from foot traffic on all the sidewalks. again, works very well.

  • Aaron B.

    Well, I guess Rob Anderson would still have it that bikes are banned or something, and this is just fine.

    How bout let’s look into physical separation or something? It’s feasible on Market St., with its no left turns, right?

  • Here’a good read:
    “Effective bus only lanes”
    by local transportation planners Michael Kiesling and Matthew Ridgway: (I hope that URL comes out — otherwise, find it on

    Well-written, clear, and presents the blindingly obvious solutions to the blindingly obvious problems with local transit lanes in such a way that even somebody from SFMTA might be able to understand them.

  • Thank you. This is the study I’ve mentioned.


    The engineering and technology exist to improve the efficiency of bus-only lanes. San Francisco should standardize the hours of operation, signage and markings for its busonly lanes to improve bus service while decreasing operating costs. California has carefully studied the implementation of photo-enforcement of red lights; the use of photo enforcement for bus-only lanes is a natural extension of the technology. Traffic and civil engineering solutions can further improve the efficiency of bus-only lanes.

  • ZA

    I can’t help wondering how much better road rules would be observed if we didn’t replace traffic cops with impersonal lights.

  • AW

    Using a camera to enforce the transit only lanes is not necessarily “a natural extension of the technology” from a political point of view. Red light cameras continue to exist only because the safety benefit of them (when selectively and properly installed) is clearly documented. In the transit lane example, the delay to transit does not necessarily create an immediate safety hazard to overcome “big brother” arguments. Even a valid and well documented safety hazard alone is not enough. For example, look into the history of Fiona Ma’s proposed camera enforcement of illegal right-turns at Market/Octavia.

  • “When I was a driver and was speeding and got hit with a rather tough fine and traffic school and what not, it made me think twice about driving 110 mph on the freeway.”

    If you’re serious, the fact that you ever thought it was okay to drive 110 MPH on the freeway is insane. You should have had your license taken away.

    Maybe that’s the problem. It’s kind of hard to lose your license.

  • Philip

    Since buses don’t use stop lights or bus stops, what’s the point?

  • soylatte

    Greg: “News flash: if you punish people hard for infractions of the law, and do so often enough, they’ll get the message. When I was a driver and was speeding and got hit with a rather tough fine and traffic school and what not, it made me think twice about driving 110 mph on the freeway.”

    It would be much better and cheaper to build roadways in a way that discourage speeding and other dangerous forms of driving, instead of a way that encourages it, which is what we are doing currently.

  • Jen

    Legitimate question: What are bikes supposed to do in the bus-only lanes? (Question coming from a cyclist that doesn’t own a car and doesn’t take public transit but maybe once a month on those days that the hills are just too much and I’m cranky.)

    I was riding in the bus-only lane on Mission a few nights back and got honked at, repeatedly, by a bus. My other option was riding in the left lane the whole way, and I was going pretty far. I was going to piss somebody off, obviously. Bikes will naturally stay out of the lane on Market (everyone who’s gotten themselves caught in the tracks, stand up), but how about when the right lane is bus-only? I see the comment above stating that the one on Mission is 4-6 (have been riding it regularly for over a year and never knew), but what about everywhere else, and what about even Mission in the prohibited times? Legally, logically and/or safely, what’s our best choice?

  • A few years ago I was driving with a guy who actually got pulled over for this and ticketed on Mission Street just past the Metreon.

    When the officer came back he asked him if there was anything he could have said to get out of the ticket and the officer said “yes.” When he asked him what the officer said “I’m not going to tell you.”

    I’ve always assumed that if one ever got pulled over in one of these lanes you’d just say that you were going to turn right at the next possible RT and that you were just getting in the lane to do that. I’d have a hard time seeing how they could give you a ticket then.

  • Obama

    The rules for these lanes are so unclear – buses don’t run 24-7 (i) so what is the clear rule after peak or non-bus service hours? (ii) why is the lane called bus-only when taxi drivers are pulling in and out of these lanes at will. (iii) how are you supposed to make a right turn?
    The worst traffic violators in the city are taxi-drivers. I understand they have to make a living but man these guys drive like lunatics.

  • M. Roger Smith

    Maybe people drive in the bus only lane is because it is very difficult to determine what lane you are supposed to be driving in, especially if you have never driven on Market St. before. When I first moved to SF I would find myself in the bus only lane because the only thing that made it clear that the lane was for buses only was the markings on the street, which are not visible if there is traffic in front of you. Plus, if you need to turn right, you are allowed to get in the bus only lane to turn.

    So maybe you should calm down and stop making strident demands for everyone to be ticketed for making a mistake because bus riders will be delayed a few minutes when the bus misses a light. It’s really not a big deal. After all, it is a public roadway that’s intended to be used by the general public to get around the city.

    You know what’s worse than blocking the bus lane? A bunch of whining, politically correct, self-righteous cranks who cry out for the police to dole out more punishment.  

  • mikesonn

    “After all, it is a public roadway that’s intended to be used by the general public to get around the city.”

    Thanks for the morning laugh.

  • Translation: I just got a ticket, and googled around the web to complain.

  • us

    Silly Americans, think that they’re entitled to everything. “Hey! Stop parking in front of my house! ITS MINE MINE MINEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” USA! USA! USA!

  • us

    everyone should just walk. or use horses. done.

  • Disabled Guy

    I’m handicap and have one good working leg. Its always a hassle to get around places because of that and I wanna get drop off close to my destination cause its hard for my driver to find parking anywhere close by. This way the driver can look for a space while I wait for him/her at the place. So does that mean I should walk 1-5 blocks, cross the street several times, get tired, sweaty, sore, and then repeat that after I’m done doing what I came for?

  • Yoyo

    BS why are buses and taxis in the car lane then?

  • Carlos Emilio Prado

    is a point on your license for driving on a transit red line?


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