Eyes on the Street: West Portal Transit-Only Lane Pilot

It's early, but so far it's hard to believe city is really trying to make this work, given the meager implementation and total lack of enforcement

West Portal's new part-time transit (and taxi)-only lane. All pics Streetsblog/Rudick
West Portal's new part-time transit (and taxi)-only lane. All pics Streetsblog/Rudick

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Motorists are now banned from a one-block stretch of the train tracks on West Portal Avenue, on the inbound side only, from Vicente to Ulloa Streets, between 6 and 10 a.m. The restrictions were put in last week as part of an SFMTA pilot to look for ways to reduce transit delays caused by cars blocking trains as they enter the Twin Peaks tunnel. Other changes include turning restrictions and tweaking the route of the 48 bus.

But, so far, it doesn’t appear the data from the pilot is going to be of much use.

Enforcement officers were present, but did zip to enforce the new turning restrictions (and indeed often seemed to encourage the turns)
Enforcement officers were present, but did zip to enforce the new turning restrictions (and indeed often seemed to encourage the turns)

Streetsblog went down to an unusually hot West Portal this Monday morning to see how the pilot was going. The stretch of tracks are now marked “MUNI TAXI ONLY” where cars aren’t supposed to drive (see lead photo), although the street lacks the usual “Red Carpet” treatment that makes it clear the street is off-limits to private cars. Other signs were small and easy to miss (see photo a few images down). So it’s perhaps no surprise that private motorists continued to drive down the banned section of street during the morning restriction period. In addition to left turns, which are illegal from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., they also made U-turns, which are illegal at any time.

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Car after car violated the turning restrictions on West Portal Avenue, with either total disinterest or, often,  encouragement from SFMTA enforcement personnel.

SFMTA had two traffic enforcement officers assigned to the intersection, but–amazingly–they waved cars on to complete their illegal U-turns and left turns. Not once over the 25 minutes or so that Streetsblog watched did they warn a motorist that what they were doing was illegal or direct them not to make the turn.

In order for the pilot to work, it’s essential that the new rules be enforced. “It’s also about education,” said the San Francisco Transit Riders Rachel Hyden, in a phone interview with Streetsblog. “You have to teach people that there are no turns here–it’s really frustrating to hear the traffic control officers are just waving them on.”

Even when this disabled woman was crossing the street, this motorist was unchallenged when making a left turn and blocking the crosswalk (right in front of SFMTA officers).
Even when this disabled woman was crossing the street, this motorist went unchallenged when making an illegal left turn and blocking the crosswalk (right in front of SFMTA officers).

Moreover, when a man who was visually impaired tried to cross the street, I stopped what I was doing and helped him across–while the traffic officers continued to chit-chat. I took the shot below only after he was safe from any errant motorists (at least any coming up West Portal Avenue, which he was traversing).

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I stopped and helped this man with a cane and dark sunglasses cross (he appeared visually impaired) while the enforcement officers chit-chatted with each other

Given the political pushback from merchants and Supervisor Norman Yee on doing this pilot in the first place, so far it almost looks as if the agency is engineering this to fail. After all, it’s obviously not going to improve transit reliability if SFMTA adds some white markings but looks the other way–or encourages–bad motorist behavior. Hyden told Streetsblog the proper way to do this is to paint both track lanes red and restrict traffic at all times. “Nothing will come of it if they don’t try a little harder,” she added.

In the defense of motorists, this sign is pretty hard to spot
In defense of motorists, this sign is pretty easy to miss (this is zoomed in all the way, but from street level it’s pretty small and hard to see).

“I don’t think people driving really look at just white striping on the transit only lane; it’s really hard to see it,” added Hyden. “But I’m sure SFMTA doesn’t want to go full-on red because it’s a pilot.”

She also said she’s hopeful the city will get more serious about enforcement in time. “I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. It takes a while for behavior to change.” However, Hyden added that if the city really followed the city’s ‘Transit First’ mandate “there would never be a car driving on the tracks where the light rail goes.”

Motorists continued to use the transit-only pilot lane in West Portal with total impunity (at least they're not blocking the train in this instance, but they were in others)
Motorists continued to use the transit-only pilot lane in West Portal with total impunity (at least they’re not blocking the train in this instance, but they were in others)

UPDATE: Shortly after we published this piece, SFMTA’s spokesperson Paul Rose emailed Streetsblog to say that “We are still working out the kinks as we begin to implement the pilot. Now that signage and striping is in place, we aim to ramp up enforcement and have the operation smooth out in the coming days.”

Do you commute through West Portal? What are your impressions of the transit-only lane pilot? Post below.

  • gb52

    I agree with Rachel that MUNI’s pilots get watered down far too often but do not attribute it to MUNI’s vision, but rather the supervisors and the merchants. Far too often changes are deemed not business friendly or will scare away customers because red lanes and parking changes mean dont come here. But time and time again what we see on the streets is that these changes work but the illegal behaviors need to stop. Double parking on commercial corridors, parking in red zones, blocking crosswalks, making U-turns, speeding and failing to yield are such commonplace issues that do not go enforced at any time of day and that is why conditions have gotten so bad.

    Red lanes make a world of difference and should be replicated on Taraval and other LRV lines. It doesn’t scare away business, it reminds people there are laws that they are obliged to adhere to. It screams ‘hey, driving is a privilege, not a right’. Short of separating the MUNI trackway with concrete curbs, red transit lanes should be the norm. Yes a tunnel would be better but that’s a significant cost that is currently unfunded. (And likely that could further tarnish the commercial corridor by removing the visibility of thousands of potential customers for a handful of additional cars.

    And so it’s pretty obvious that the police department is understaffed to provide sufficient traffic enforcement at any time of day, let alone peak hours. Since that is the case, we need to really push for more automated enforcement to really deter these dangerous and illegal behaviors. Drivers have made walking far less safe than it was even a decade ago.

  • mx

    I agree that supervisors and merchants water down projects a lot, but some of the watering down is just straight-up an execution problem. Private autos were banned on much of EB Market years ago, yet one can stand there and watch car after car ignore the restrictions, rarely with any enforcement. Every once and a while, SFPD does a blitz where they ticket whoever they happen to catch for an hour or two, and then the Traffic Company moves on to something else and everything is back to normal. Where we do have signs that note restrictions, they’re too small, too hard to see, and way too confusing (drivers are supposed to be looking for hazards, not deciphering complex signage). Supervisors and merchants didn’t water down the policy, but nobody is fully committed to enforcing it.

    And even when new projects have great vision, the little things often lead to them being useless. Take the new protected bike lanes on Howard near Moscone: the curb next to them isn’t painted red—the universal signal we have to say “you can’t park here”—so it’s still common to see cars and trucks blocking the lanes.

    But lack of enforcement is a huge problem. DPT staff focus on parking tickets and ignore unsafe and illegal driving, which is far more important for pedestrian safety. I frequently see drivers, including taxi drivers who certainly should know better, making U-turns in the middle of Market St. If we had any semblance of traffic enforcement, drivers would have enough fear of getting an expensive ticket that they’d think twice before pulling stunts like that.

  • The city reeks of lack of enforcement of any law or policy. It’s not just motorists behaving badly, it’s cyclists riding on sidewalks, smoking/vaping at bus stops (and on trains), fare cheaters, etc. For the latter, I have seen fare cheaters at Balboa Park every single day with absolutely ZERO POP or police presence in the station. Welcome to SF.

  • Better yet…cars crossing the double yellow line to drive around Muni trains. If caught, the punishment, if any, fails to deter future behavior.

  • david vartanoff

    Indeed, the front line workers often sabotage efforts to improve Muni operations.

  • crazyvag

    I’m dreaming of enforcement via 311 app like in other cities.

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