By Thomas K. Pendergast
Hoping to make Muni’s 28-19th Avenue bus run faster, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) installed “temporary” high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes through Golden Gate Park and the Richmond District, starting at Crossover Drive and along Park Presidio Bypass, then north up Park Presidio Boulevard.
Because they are also state highways, so-called “diamond” or HOV lanes can be installed that will allow private vehicles with two or more occupants to use them, as well as private and public transit.
The SFMTA claims that as post-pandemic traffic congestion returns, the HOV lanes will allow Muni and regional transit vehicles to move more quickly to provide more frequent service. The agency says that if just a fraction of people riding transit before the pandemic start driving alone, traffic congestion will “paralyze the City’s economic recovery.”
Furthermore, they say, longer travel times on buses increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19 on slower, more crowded buses.
“We know that congestion remains below pre-pandemic levels because many people continue to work from home,” said Stephen Chun, an SFMTA spokesperson. “We also know that Muni ridership continues to remain well below pre-pandemic levels. However, if the workers that return to office choose to drive rather than take Muni, we would indeed have an overwhelmingly increased amount of traffic congestion, and as a result, slower and more crowded buses, which in turn impacts the local economy.
“And even when strict pandemic measures emphasizing isolation were lifted and there was a very quick spike in traffic, there was a slower return to transit,” Chun explained. “This decrease caused a nationwide concern for the public transportation sector and brings us back to how fewer riders on Muni could very well mean more cars and congestion on the roadway.”
The HOV lanes are in effect 5 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, going north starting where Crossover Drive merges with Park Presidio Bypass, and then onto Park Presidio Boulevard and up to Lake Street, with one HOV lane in each direction using the existing curb lanes.
These lanes will “automatically be removed within 120 days after the City’s emergency order is lifted, unless there is a public process to make the temporary emergency HOV lanes permanent,” the agency says.
John Zwolinski describes himself as a 58-year-old schoolteacher and a “happy motorist” who drives Park Presidio Boulevard several times a week, partly because he lives in the Outer Sunset and his mother-in-law lives in the Marina.
“I have come around to the position that optimizing and prioritizing every street in our transportation infrastructure for private motor vehicle use shuts out other legitimate users of said infrastructure and encourages motor vehicle use, leading inevitably to more traffic congestion,” Zwolinski said. “So, if SFMTA wants to trial bus/HOV lanes on Park Presidio to try to increase the number and timeliness of the 28 … if it works, more folks who can may be persuaded to leave the car at home and take the bus instead, with the result that there are fewer cars on the road. I’m inclined to see how it works out.”
But some motorists are more skeptical than happy; wondering if this will deliver the promised results.
“I’m kind of torn with HOV lanes,” said Michael Bolling. “They do have flaws and I think those flaws are magnified when used in a city setting.
“You see it everywhere; they exist on the freeways. The traffic tends to get backed up right before they start because you’re funneling four lanes of traffic into three and then when they end you also see more traffic as that very slow traffic squeezes over and it takes some time before it gets back up to speed,” Bolling said. “So, in a way, they make traffic worse unless they’re very long.
“Plus, there’s always the fear that you’ll be driving along at normal speed and someone sneaks over into your lane and you can’t stop in time, especially when the HOV lane is the right hand lane where cars will be merging over in order to turn,” he elaborated.
“Personally I don’t think they belong in a city, because you typically don’t have that far to go to be of that much benefit or there’s not very many lanes of traffic, unlike a freeway, so it will end up causing a lot more congestion as people typically do not change their ways that much. It really seems like the SFMTA’s main goal is to make traffic worse for drivers all in the hope that some will give up and find alternate methods. But the vast majority of people don’t, so their plans just end up making it worse for all drivers.”
John Higgins lives in the Outer Sunset with his wife, and while they do occasionally drive, more often they take the 28-line bus when traveling between Judah Street and Geary Boulevard.
“We’re thrilled that the bus rides on the 28 will be speeded up in that area,” Higgins said. “Maybe even the 29 southbound will improve if the HOV is extended from Crossover south to Lincoln.
“The change will mean we might move slower those times that we’re single driving on the route, but it’s well worth it for faster Muni service and … it might encourage even one less single-driver car off the road. It is so annoying to sit in traffic on the 28 or 29; it should be faster. I’m glad the SFMTA is testing out the HOV system.”
But he does have a caveat.
“San Francisco loves to implement new projects like this, but then doesn’t follow up with enforcement. If there’s no enforcement of the HOV rules, this will fail like so many other great ideas.”
Stefan Adler drives through the park along Crossover about five times a week. He said he is willing to see how the test program works before making a final judgment. His wife is a Realtor and he does property management and facilities maintenance.
“I have to go check on properties and do work on them and stuff like that,” Adler said. “We’ve got a couple of kids and I do grocery shopping over in the Richmond and the kids have some sports over in the Richmond. So, we’re just a pretty active, mobile San Francisco family.
“I usually can avoid morning commute hours, but the afternoon commute hours are a pretty regular drive time for me.
“The payoff to all of us is, if I’m a solo driver, it gets some cars off the road by encouraging people to carpool. If you save enough time and it’s a regular commute five days a week,” he said. “I can’t do it, but plenty of other people, if they’re working nine-to-five, they’ll figure out how to set up a carpool. But they have to save enough time for that headache.
“And so I can see situations where … all of us lost a lane and we didn’t get enough cars off the road for there to be a time savings for anybody. Did the HOV lanes save time without causing big problems for the people who can’t use it?”