The San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency is beginning to prepare for traffic returning to Bay Area roads as quarantine restrictions are relaxed. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF braces for traffic as shelter-in-place orders ease

City looking at ways to reduce impact of increased congestion before it returns

San Francisco only has a matter of months to prepare for an anticipated surge in auto traffic that threatens to “gum up” economic recovery efforts as shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, The City’s top transit official said Tuesday.

Even a small shift from people taking public transit to driving cars alone could “completely gridlock the entire transportation system,” San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency Director Jeffrey Tumlin said at a Board of Directors meeting.

“We believe we have a very narrow window of time in order to set the transportation system up so that The City’s economy is not strangled in traffic congestion,” Tumlin said at the meeting. “We have got to make a lot of tough choices.”

Tumlin said The City has between now and August to make those decisions. He was presenting an early version of a plan that calls for responding to the crisis by encouraging bicycling, walking and other modes of transportation that take up the least space.

Already, Tumlin said San Francisco has seen rising driving rates. And cities in Asia that are further along on the road to recovery have seen traffic congestion surpass levels from before the crisis.

Tumlin called for investing in measures such as protected bike lanes, transit-only lanes and closing certain streets to most vehicle traffic through the Slow Streets program.

He argued that the transit lanes would speed up bus travel times and increase social distancing for riders. He also pushed for a faster approval process for smaller projects such as bike lanes.

As for Slow Streets, Tumlin said The City has thus far opened up 15 miles of streets to bicyclists and pedestrians in areas like the Sunset and is expected to add at least another 35 miles.

“We need to be doing this quickly and on an experimental and trial basis, learning from our mistakes and successes, while making sure to respond to customer feedback,” Tumlin said.

Members of the Board of Directors were receptive to the plan.

Director Amanda Eaken urged the SFMTA to press ahead with transit-only lanes and to create a network of bike lanes.

“If we are serious about encouraging people to bike, we need to give people that continuous low-stress network all over The City, not just on a couple streets,” Eaken said.

Director Cheryl Brinkman suggested congestion pricing, or charging drivers to enter busy areas, as a solution.

“If there is a way to get the congestion or decongestion charging more quickly that is going to be key in our ability to control traffic congestion and keep our transit moving,” Brinkman said.

Tumlin said introducing congestion pricing downtown would take legislative changes and not be a short-term fix, but there is an argument that rolling out such variable pricing would “forestall the real crisis of congestion that will forestall economic recovery.”

He proposed experimenting with decongestion pricing on the Bay Bridge.


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