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Red transit-only lanes have no use in West Portal

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The SFMTA plans to replicate its red transit-only lanes, which currently exist in the Mission (pictured), on 50 streets across The City, including West Portal Avenue. (Emma Chiang/2016 Special to S.F. Examiner)


One size doesn’t always fit all. Most of us know that, but the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has yet to learn that lesson.

The SFMTA recently received federal approval to expand red transit-only lanes to 50 streets throughout The City. While most are in the highly congested downtown and South of Market areas, others are not.

West Portal Avenue is one of the shortest streets included in the expansion. Two Muni light-rail trains and two bus lines travel at least one block on the street.

I go to West Portal nearly every day to shop, eat or meet friends. I see lots of trains and buses, but I rarely see one stuck behind a line of cars slowing it down. The trains move easily — sometimes, too fast — down the street. So, why does the SFMTA want to put red lanes there?

The Federal Highway Administration considers red transit-only lanes — like those painted on Mission Street — to be an “experiment” in speeding up mass transit. Indeed, the proposed expansion is also considered an experiment.

A few months ago, the SFMTA released a study of red lanes on three streets in The City’s northeast section and declared them a grand success. According to its blog, the SFMTA considers red transit-only lanes to be the “new standard” for city streets.

But this new standard may not be a good fit for West Portal.

Only three blocks long on The City’s west side, the street doesn’t carry heavy rush-hour traffic. It’s not highly congested. So it’s unlikely the red lanes would significantly speed up the trains. Indeed, what slows them down is when they have to wait for pedestrians to cross the street. Red lanes won’t change that at all.

In addition, most streets with red lanes have stoplights at intersections, which speeds up the movement of cars in the single remaining lane. But one of the two intersections on West Portal is a four-way stop. I can only imagine the long line of cars that will be waiting to cross the intersection in the one remaining lane if this plan goes through.

During the day, nearly all available parking spaces on the street are in use. With only one lane available, anyone waiting for another car to back out of a parking spot, so they can pull in, will block the rest of the car traffic. Now, imagine this happening over and over, up and down the street, and it seems a recipe for congestion where there currently is none.

On West Portal, the light-rail tracks are located in the left lanes. Thus, red lanes would likely require “No Left Turn” signs on the street. This will be problematic for all the people who drive north onto West Portal, from Junipero Serra or Sloat boulevards, to get to their homes, nearly all of which are to the left of the street.

The SFMTA might have realized this if they had talked to anyone familiar with West Portal. But there was no outreach done to any residents or businesses before SFMTA staff added the street to the expansion request they submitted to the federal government.

Merchants on Mission Street reported a significant drop in visits from drivers after red lanes were painted there. Many, if not most, people who shop or eat on West Portal drive there from nearby neighborhoods. Because of the surrounding hills, walking or biking isn’t always a viable option to get there. A significant drop in business from drivers would be devastating to the merchants and restaurants on West Portal.

While red transit-only lanes may make sense on longer, highly congested streets — especially those with large increases in traffic during rush hours — they don’t make sense on a short, non-congested, non-rush-hour-heavy street like West Portal. There’s no reason to apply a downtown solution to a neighborhood shopping village.

You might say, the red lanes are just an “experiment.” In San Francisco, however, “experiments” and “pilot projects,” once started, are rarely undone.

Is the SFMTA “experimenting” with red transit-only lanes on inappropriate streets just to see what happens? Residents, merchants and their customers will have to stand up and tell the SFMTA that red lanes won’t look good on West Portal.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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