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.

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