Adding a transit-only lane to West Portal could be disastrous for the small businesses struggling to survive there. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Like it or not, transit-only lane coming to West Portal

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency wants to put a transit-only lane on one block of West Portal to speed up Muni trains.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency wants to put a transit-only lane on one block of West Portal to speed up Muni trains. The idea has not been popular with many merchants and neighbors. It will go to a vote before the SFMTA Board on May 21.

The agency says buses and trains often get stuck behind cars, and, therefore, banning cars from the lanes used by Muni will speed up the routes. Mission Street, for example, has nearly two miles of red transit-only lanes. Buses using those lanes do indeed move faster now.

But West Portal is only four blocks – not miles – long, and the idea that you can speed up Muni trains substantially by banning cars from one lane for one block seems unlikely. Especially when you consider that what’s really slowing the trains down are all the stop signs and car traffic on the miles of surface streets on which the trains travel before they reach West Portal and the entrance to the underground Tunnel.

I walk on West Portal nearly every day, and I rarely see trains stuck behind long lines of cars. I do see trains waiting for pedestrians to cross or stopped, idling, while waiting for permission to enter the tunnel, e.g., for a train currently at the station platform to leave. Transit-only lanes won’t affect either of those slowdowns.

But they could hurt the merchants on West Portal, especially those in the first block of the street, just outside the tunnel entrance, the block where SFMTA wants to put the transit-only lane. Last summer, the agency closed that same block to all traffic for two months to stage equipment while the tunnel was renovated. Most of the stores and restaurants on that block have still not recovered financially from the loss of business during the closure.

Now the merchants are worried they’ll lose even more money because of the SFMTA plan. They wonder how they’ll get deliveries, and fear that if it becomes harder to find parking on the block, customers will stop coming.

They’re right to be concerned. The Mission Merchants Association polled businesses along Mission Street. Of the 350 contacted, 301 reported a loss of revenue that they attributed to the transit-only lanes, noting how much harder the lanes made it for customers to find parking near the stores. Fourteen businesses closed after the red lanes were painted. Three dozen employees were laid off. Nearly all the store vacancies on the street are on the side with the red lanes.

SFMTA says not to worry, that the West Portal transit-only lane is “just” a pilot project. Some of the original plans kicked around by agency staff called for a red transit-only lane that would be in effect all day and night. But, partly in response to merchants’ concerns, during the pilot program, the transit-only lane will only be in effect during the morning rush hour, from 6 am to 10 am. The rest of the day cars can use the lane.

For six months during the pilot, SFMTA will monitor train delays, traffic at nearby intersections, and whether usage of parking spaces changes. But agency staff can’t define what their metric for success in the pilot program is. They say they’ll need to look at all the data collected first. That concerns some people who worry that, with no clear objectives in place beforehand, staff will change the metrics until they find ones that declare the transit-only lane a success.

It’s not clear what happens if the pilot program is “successful.” SFMTA staff won’t rule out expanding it to more hours of the day or even to all day and night like the red transit-only lanes on Mission. That would be a big mistake, and could seriously damage the otherwise vibrant neighborhood commercial street.

SFMTA staff admit they’re essentially experimenting with San Francisco’s streets. But transit doesn’t happen in a vacuum. While the agency does appear to finally be listening to some of the merchants’ concerns, a failed experiment — or expanding the pilot too much — could be disastrous for the small businesses struggling to survive on West Portal. Unfortunately, only time will tell, time — and money — the merchants may not have.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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