“Box Blocking” Enforcement is Overdue, But SF’s Traffic Woes Run Deeper

A typical scene at Main and Harrison Streets. Image: KRON 4

For a mystifying exhibit of irrational and antisocial behavior, just watch the rush-hour race to nowhere as drivers attempt to beat one another through a gridlocked San Francisco intersection.

The question, “Do I have room to make it across?,” apparently does not factor into the decision of many drivers who accede to the beckoning green light — only to end up sitting astride a crosswalk, in the path of a Muni bus packed with 70 people, or dozens of other commuters trying to bike or drive through on the cross-street.

This needlessly disruptive traffic dysfunction can perhaps be chalked up to the wishful thinking of impatient automobile drivers. Sitting on one side of the intersection, instead of the other, doesn’t tend to afford a lot of actual progress — but maybe it helps “box blockers” feel like they’re getting somewhere.

Often, the space trampled under their wheels is part of the crosswalk — the scarce designated place where people can cross on foot, theoretically free of cars. Instead, pedestrian crossings are dangerous and downright undignified.

“It’s scary,” said Jamie Whitaker, who lives near the Bay Bridge in SoMa, where drivers trying to cram on to the on-ramps “predictably” block crosswalks and compete with one another to get through. “You just don’t know if someone is gonna shove down their gas to speed up and get around other cars, and not realize someone’s in the crosswalk.”

“I fear for my life every time I leave work,” Christine Queen told ABC 7 at car-clogged Second and Bryant Streets in a report earlier this month. “Seriously, I’ll tell you, it’s like no one’s even walking.”

A handful of drivers block one of the busiest bus lines on the west coast, Muni’s 38-Geary, along with the crosswalks at Powell and O’Farrell Streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Jason Henderson, author of Street Fight, said he regularly sees “box blocking” on streets that lead to Octavia Boulevard and the Central Freeway. He thinks drivers just don’t feel the same pressure to avoid blocking pedestrians, such as a mother with a stroller, as they do mothers in automobiles.

“Drivers get that they don’t want to block each other, and they also honk at each other and get aggressive,” he said. “When they get in the crosswalk, they’re not faced with the same hostility. Most pedestrians just go around and the drivers just shrug… I’d say it’s often [drivers] who know what they’re doing — they can see that they can get into that platoon [of traffic] before the light changes downstream.”

It’s a mystery as to why the SFMTA and SFPD don’t routinely ticket drivers for blocking intersections, but the SFMTA is at last looking to launch an targeted enforcement campaign next month.

The SFMTA recently completed a three-month enforcement pilot at two of the worst intersections in SoMa: Harrison and Main Streets, and Second and Bryant. The study confirmed what was basically already known: When there’s enforcement, drivers tend to behave. At a supervisors hearing earlier this month, the agency said intersection blocking went down by as much as 82 percent at Main and Harrison in the presence of parking control officers. Drivers stopped in an intersection can be cited for a $103 parking violation, or $110 if turning was involved.

“If people think that the worst thing that’s going to happen is someone’s going to tell them to move along, that’s not a disincentive,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener at the hearing. “We have to have consistent and focused enforcement on blocking the box and double parking.”

In the late 1980s, the now-defunct Department of Parking and Traffic launched a similar campaign, but as the SF Chronicle wrote in September, “It’s not easy to find any public record, or memory, of when or why the campaign ended.” Like that campaign, the SFMTA plans to stripe “cross-hatch” markings and post “Don’t Block the Box” signs at chronically-blocked intersections like Market and Third Streets.

At the supervisors hearing, about a dozen SoMa residents spoke in support for the campaign’s revival. Jan Duffy said she “can’t schedule appointments after about 3:00” at her business in Rincon Hill, because the blockages make arrivals difficult regardless of the mode of transport.

Cameron Samii, the SFMTA’s enforcement manger, said the six PCOs he plans to devote to box-blocking would take from enforcement resources in other areas, but he feels confident about being able to balance it out.

Image: KRON 4

D6 Supervisor Jane Kim said she’d like to see the SFMTA’s PCO staff devote “the same level of responsiveness around this important issue” as they do to for expired parking meter violations. “I think it’s really hard for a lot of our residents to accept the fact that this is a real capacity issue,” she said. “I imagine PCO operators will be so much more popular if they’re giving out these tickets, versus the other ones.”

But Henderson and city planners emphasized that SF’s car congestion woes go far deeper than a lack of box-blocking enforcement, and that broader efforts are needed (and underway) to reduce the amount of driving in the city. Recent traffic counts have indicated that these efforts may be working: traffic has dropped in the downtown area. (Henderson has personal doubts that traffic has dropped near the Central Freeway).

“They’re trying to stop the bleeding, but long-term, after they’ve stitched that wound back up,” broader measures are needed, said Henderson. He suggested using synchronized signal timing to stop car traffic further upstream from the bottlenecks, and that electronic traffic signs planned under SFGo should be used to tell drivers on “arterials” to take alternate routes. He said those measures are used in Zurich, and that Caltrans already uses the same concept on freeways that have ramp meters.

“If you let too many cars in, it just jams up,” said Henderson.

Liz Brisson, a transportation planner at the SF County Transportation Authority, said at the hearing that efforts to encourage walking, biking, and transit are needed to reduce car traffic, and that local and regional plans are underway to address SoMa’s gridlock. Peter Albert of the SFMTA emphasized the need to expand Transportation Demand Management programs, including employer incentives that encourage workers to commute by modes other than driving. Down the line, congestion pricing could be one piece of the puzzle agencies are considering.

“I don’t think there’s any silver bullet,” said Brisson. “I think we need to work at all of these.”

In the meantime, Whitaker pointed out to Streetsblog, the enforcement campaign will help everyone — even drivers, “because it’ll create a more fair flow of traffic.” The impact of reducing blockages also “echoes out on other streets.”

“It is a service to car drivers,” said Henderson. “They’re also frustrated.”

  • jd_x

    And it’s amazing that people put themselves through this every day. I’ll never understand it.

    Get out of the car, people. What does it take to realize that this mode of travel will never be efficient, safe, or relaxing in a dense urban environment like SF? If you live too far from work and/or for whatever legitimate reason you can’t take public transit, bike, or walk, then it’s time to consider a move, either your job or your home.

    I don’t know why people subject themselves to this nonsense, but that’s their business. However, subjecting everybody else to it, especially those trying to move through the city using public transit, bicycling, and walking, is unacceptable. I can’t wait until the paradigm shift comes where cities realize that we need to stop encouraging the private car as a form of transit.

  • jd_x

    It’s not about the number of wheels, but whether you are self-powered or not.

    I gotta say, it’s pretty obnoxious when scooters take the bike lane. They spew their exhaust all over me and often come zipping up and by way too fast. it’s illegal for a reason. And it’s amazing how bicycle lanes get absolutely no respect by anybody; it’s insane how they are considered just the bottom of the bucket, the users of the road who nobody designs for (except as an after-thought, i.e. your traditional bike lane squeezed between parked cars and moving cars) and nobody cars about. This has got to change.

  • Dave Moore

    While I can understand your frustration, I don’t get how “it’s amazing how bicycle lanes get absolutely no respect by anybody; it’s insane how they are considered just the bottom of the bucket, the users of the road who nobody designs for (except as an after-thought)”.

    The roads *were* designed for cars. You might not like it, but it’s a fact. Cyclists *are* a small percentage of road users. Again, you might not like it, but it’s a fact. You’re asking for space to be taken from the majority and given to the minority. You might find justifications:
    – cyclists have N% of trips but only M% of space
    – with more space there will be more cyclists
    – cyclists don’t pollute
    – cyclists take cars off the street

    I could argue with each of these, but it’s beside the point. You are asking people to give something up. You can be mad that they won’t, but amazed?

  • jd_x

    “The roads *were* designed for cars.”

    Yep, nobody disagrees with this. But that doesn’t mean it’s right, especially moving forward. Just because something isn’t the status quo doesn’t mean it is wrong.

    And cyclists are small percentage exactly *because* we designed our roads for cars at their (and pedestrians’ and public transit users’) expense. So it’s absurd to claim that this is a popularity contest when the current paradigm has tremendously biased the system to favor one mode.

    And let’s be clear: this isn’t about who is mad. This is about who is getting killed and injured and the incredible destruction being leveled on the environment of which excessive driving (which is what rush hour traffic in SOMA is) is one the largest contributors. Again, this cannot be a popularity contest (especially one rigged for one outcome) if we are ever going to get ourselves out f the hole we have dug by prioritizing the motor vehicle at the expense of all else.

  • SF Guest

    “It’s a mystery as to why the SFMTA and SFPD don’t routinely ticket drivers for blocking intersections, but the SFMTA is at last looking to launch an targeted enforcement campaign next month.”

    This reaffirms my belief the SFMTA is out of touch with the core values it had when it was known as the DPT and wasn’t revenue first. Back in the day DPT regularly had PCO’s direct traffic at busy intersections especially during commute hours and the holidays. With few exceptions that’s almost non-existent now.

    Safety first is a core value and that should include the PCO’s directing traffic at busy intersections the way they did it before.

    It’s all too transparent to have PCO’s merely stand at intersections without directing traffic waiting to issue citations when their primary job is to facilitate traffic at busy intersections.

    I have seen PCO’s direct traffic around accidents at least, but that doesn’t explain why they stopped this practice at busy intersections.

    If Supe. Kim would like to see the “same level of responsiveness around this important issue” then she would support my idea as well. With the passages of Props. A & B there’s no reason why the SFMTA can’t do its job it formerly did.

    [Ed Reiskin — I hope you are reading this]

  • murphstahoe

    So you’re saying, it’s ok if scooters use the bike lanes?

    The bike lane is called a “BIKE LANE”. You might not like it, but it’s a fact.

  • Dave Moore

    I said I’m amazed he’s amazed.

  • Ken Neville

    Spend a few weeks on a bicycle next to these drivers and you’ll be reaching for something a little more substantial than an air horn to arm yourself with.

    Only in the rarest of circumstances does confronting the driver result in a positive outcome, regardless of the tone taken when confronting.

  • Ken Neville

    The driver is almost always to be blamed in the situations this article is discussing, having made an intentional decision to enter an intersection that cannot accommodate them.

  • Dave Moore

    So then today this happens:

    I was at Folsom & 4th, stopped at the all ped green / all traffic red light, watching the typical swarm of pedestrians and red light running cyclists duck out of each other’s way.

    Then a motorcycle to my right goes straight through it at about 5-10mph.

    I catch up to him at the next light and ask him if he realizes what he did. He says “the walk was on” as the light changes and I figure he means he was fooled into thinking the light had changed and made a mistake going through it.

    Then I see him again at the next light and he says “it’s all walk. No cars can go”

    I tell him, “that means you too”.
    And he says “it’s the only one I do it at”.

    I take this to mean he does it every day, and figures that because no cars can go that he’s safe and it’s ok to go through the pedestrian crossing.

    It certainly doesn’t make it ok, but I wonder if he would do it if the bikes weren’t already ignoring the red. In any case it was about the biggest d*ck move I’ve seen in a while as it wasn’t just a spur of the moment thing.

  • 94110

    Quite a few people here would argue with the statement “The roads *were* designed for cars.” I’ll grant you most of the Richmond, Sunset and Parkside. The rest of San Francisco (the portions that don’t look like suburbia) were designed for transit and pedestrians. They were paved for the convenience of bicyclists (wheelmen).

    Actually, you could also argue that even the wide roads in the west weren’t designed for cars as much as they were designed to be fire breaks.

  • Dave Moore

    You have a valid point about part of the city, although I find it hard to see that to be true about much of SOMA (long blocks, wide streets). It’s clearly the case in downtown. The neighborhoods are a bit varied, probably because they came to be at various stages of automobile use. But you’re right that I’m mistaken to think of all of the city as having been designed that way initially. Certainly the bulk of street design and modification for the last many decades has been done with automobiles in mind (and I’m not saying the status quo wins, just that it is).

  • bobster855

    Not with Photoshop around, no.

  • paulc1978

    What I’d also like to see are the crosswalks in every direction to allowing walking at the same time. Too many times I’ve been waiting to make a right turn and a stream of people are walking across the parallel crosswalk to the street and then the light changes and the same stream is now blocking a turn again.

    I’d prefer that all crosswalks function at the same time and people then would be able to walk across the intersection at a diagonal as well. It may not reduce the amount of box blocking but would certainly improve pedestrian flow as well as traffic flow.

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