(Cindy Chew/2010 S.F. Examiner)

(Cindy Chew/2010 S.F. Examiner)

Despite efforts, Golden Gate Bridge traffic may be unsolvable

Despite recent efforts like the installation of a movable median barrier, the Golden Gate Bridge’s epic traffic problems may never improve.

That’s the conclusion of Kary Witt, deputy general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, who presented on the status of bridge traffic during weekday commutes and weekend excursions to the Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors on Friday.

Witt cautioned the board there is no “magic bullet” to solving traffic jams on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“This is not a problem that will be completely solved,” he said.


For weekday traffic, the problem lies in simple capacity, according to Witt.

While morning traffic has been somewhat tempered, the biggest problem lies in the evenings.

The Golden Gate Bridge’s six lanes can handle 9,000 vehicles per hour, according to a Golden Gate District staff report. When the lanes are configured to run three lanes northbound, and three lanes southbound, the bridge handles 4,500 vehicles per hour in each direction. “More than this and we start to see slowdowns and backups,” reads the district report on bridge traffic.

That’s exactly what’s happening now.

“Bottom line is, the bridge can handle 9,000 vehicles per hour and in the afternoon we have the demand of 11,000 vehicles per hour,” Witt said. “There are going to be delays.”

And though the bridge district previously used its movable barrier machine, known as the “zipper,” to ease traffic by adding more lanes either southbound or northbound, this has become less useful because of a shift in traffic patterns, Witt said.

Now the number of vehicles heading south and north is fairly even, he said, and shifting lanes no longer helps.

Weekends and Holidays

The problem with weekend traffic may be simpler. “Over the last two summers we’ve experienced some of the heaviest traffic we’ve had in our history,” Witt said.

Some of those weekends exceed 142,000 vehicles crossing the bridge in a day, he said, more than any employee had on record or institutional memory.

That’s made worse, he said, due to the Golden Gate Bridge’s biggest weekend choking point: Vista Point.

When motorists, who are mostly tourists, line up to claim parking spots at Vista Point the line reaches into a traffic lane, Witt said. That effectively “takes one of our lanes out of service.”

“That has resulted in congestion I know a lot of you in San Francisco hear about,” Witt said, “that extends all the way to San Francisco State and [also] to Lombard and Van Ness pretty routinely.”

The district wants to simply close the lot to vehicles, but it’s not within its jurisdiction to do so. The parking lot on the north end of the bridge, Vista Point, is technically a “State Roadside Rest Area” and under the jurisdiction of Caltrans, according to a district report.

But the bridge district did engage many stakeholders, from the National Park Service to the California Highway Patrol to Caltrans, to close Vista Point on weekends throughout the summer to test how the closure impacts traffic.

“We did dramatically improve the flow of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge,” Witt said.

Denis Mulligan, general manager of the bridge district, said the permanent closure wouldn’t shake things up too much –– most tourists arrive by tour bus and public transit anyhow. Golden Gate BridgetrafficTransitVista Point

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