By Thomas K. Pendergast
Motorists traveling through the Richmond District and Golden Gate Park along California State Route 1 can expect some road-sharing changes soon.
North- and south-bound traffic on Park Presidio Boulevard, Park Presidio Bypass and Crossover Drive from Lake Street to Lincoln Way in the Sunset District will see the outside lanes (right-hand lanes) reserved for cars with two or more occupants and public transportation vehicles because of a new but temporary program.
In a 5-1 vote, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) Board of Directors approved a pilot program that will designate High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes which will exclude single-occupant cars in favor of car pools of two or more people (HOV-2). Director Steve Heminger cast the lone dissenting vote.
“We believe this is the first example of surface-street HOV lanes in the State of California and could serve as an example for other cities,” an SFMTA transportation planner, Steve Boland, told the directors. “The HOV lanes could be extended down 19th Avenue in the future, where this project would be made permanent. The rationale is that temporary transit lanes can help us maintain service even as traffic increases.”
For now, the outer lanes will only be HOV lanes from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays.
The temporary arrangement will require painting and signage, but would not include additional construction.
“If the lanes work well enough to remain in place longer term, then we can explore making them permanent,” Boland said. “That would require a full public process and another MTA Board hearing. The legislation that we’ve drafted includes a provision for changing the designation of the lanes from HOV-2, that’s two or more occupants, to HOV-3, that’s three or more occupants, if warranted by conditions and if mutually agreed upon by the parties, including the SFMTA and Caltrans.”
During public comment, some criticized the plan. Some claimed that it will merely drive single-occupancy cars onto side streets to avoid traffic congestion on what is part of a main north-south traffic artery for the west side of the City. They speculated that the number of cars on the road will remain the same, but there will be more congestion on nearby roadways.
Others, however, criticized the plan for not reserving the outside lanes for HOV-3 traffic instead of HOV-2.
“The two-plus is not enough, and we should make it a three-plus HOV lane because it basically is a giveaway to ride-hails as a two-plus,” said Cat Carter of San Francisco Transit Riders, a public transportation advocacy group.
Still others, including members of the Board, wondered why they do not just reserve the outside lanes for public transportation vehicles, like shuttles and buses, while banning cars entirely from the outside lanes.
“I think we want to start off with HOV-2 and see how it goes,” Boland replied. “We wanted to start off with something that wasn’t too radical of a change and see how it goes and we can take it from there.”
SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin explained the agency’s thinking further.
“Our objective is to maximize the number of people that the streets can move,” Tumlin said. “If we used an HOV restriction, we could still make sure that buses were not stuck in congestion, while at the same time moving more people because there’s no reason not to fill in that additional capacity with carpools, vanpools and other kinds of transit.
“I think we’ll learn from this experiment to see if it works,” Tumlin continued. “The bus is only running every 15 minutes. You can fill the extra capacity, moving a lot more people, without congesting up the lane. So our goal is to not have that lane be strangled in congestion.”
But Director Steve Heminger also questioned why they were only stopping at HOV-2 and not starting with HOV-3.
“We are taking a conservative approach for this one in part because of our conservative partner, with Caltrans, but also because we want it to be successful,” Tumlin responded. “We don’t want to push too far and fail. We want to test it and adjust until we get it right. This is genuinely a temporary pilot. We know it’s going to need adjustments.”
But Heminger was not persuaded.
“I think we’re sort of leading off with our left foot by putting out an alternative that is unlikely to be very successful,” Heminger said. “And then we’re left with trying to make the case about why making it worse for everybody else is going to be better.”
“Steve you just made an argument against your own argument,” Tumlin said. “The fact that motorists do tend to avoid the curb lane when there’s buses there actually helps our case that the curb lane will be flowing smoothly because we wouldn’t expect 100% of two-person car pools to be in that curb lane.”
“Then they’re going to be crowding up the rest of the road,” Heminger said.
“That’s true,” Tumlin said. “We can go and do a ton of very fancy analyses for you that will still be inconclusive because what we’re looking at is human behavior in a novel setting. I would argue the only way that we’re going to get good data about whether this is going to work or not is by actually trying it.”
Eventually Board Chair Gwyneth Borden intervened.
“This is temporary though, right? This is the one that has to come back if we want to make it permanent anyway,” Borden said. “This one ends at 90 days after the end of the state-of-emergency. So, we probably would gather enough data and information. If it works out or doesn’t work out, we can make the next choices then.”
No start date was given for the program.