San Francisco's Red Carpet Transit Lanes to Continue Through March Evaluation

San Francisco's red, transit-only lanes are a demonstration project. The lanes first appeared in 2013 and were supposed to last two years, with state and federal regulators to determine whether they would continue. The state evaluation began Dec. 6.
December 30, 2016, 8am PST | Irvin Dawid
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"Officials with the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency gained permission from state and federal authorities in 2012 to color some street pavement red to make transit-only lanes more visible and to try to persuade car and truck drivers to stay out of them," writes Michael Cabanatuan, transportation reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The "red carpet lanes” debuted in 2013 and have expanded since then. "In total, 17 San Francisco streets with existing transit-only lanes were approved for the red pavement test, as well as three that didn’t have reserved bus lanes," adds Cabanatuan. "Not all of the stretches have yet been covered with red."

However, the program is a pilot in MTA's Transit Effectiveness Project, and while they have proven to be effective in improving transit service, they have also proven controversial, particularly with one car wash owner although there is no red lane by his business, yet.

[T]he experiment was supposed to last just two years, and involve periodic progress reports to the California Traffic Control Devices Committee and the Federal Highway Administration. The MTA’s first written report to the state agency, however, was not presented until [Dec. 6].

With no firm deadline, the test continued mostly unnoticed, at least until it got the attention of Glenn Urban, who owns a car wash with his brother on Geary Boulevard in the Richmond District where the MTA plans to install red transit-only lanes as part of a bus rapid transit project now being designed.

Urban fears that the red lanes will impact his business by confusing drivers, although they can cross them where permitted.

When they see them, they don’t know what to do, so they stay away,” Urban said. The MTA, he added, has “done little research on what this red paint means to businesses.”

Urban is by no means alone. Mission District merchants expressed similar concerns to Cabanatuan. “There are a lot of merchants that are not happy with all the changes on Mission Street,” said Phil Lesser, head of the Mission Merchants Association.

Urban made his case to the Caltrans' California Traffic Control Devices Committee at their Dec. 6 meeting in Sacramento. See agenda [PDF] #5: "Items under Experimentation: Request to experiment with Red Colored Transit-only Lanes. SFMTA- Present Draft Evaluation report..."

Federal evaluation expected in March, with final determination thereafter

After receiving the MTA report, CTCDC "allowed the experiment to continue and ordered up a final report to the federal government due in March, said Duper Tong, chief of the Caltrans office of traffic engineering and a committee member," reports Cabanatuan.

The report, which focused on the Third, Geary and O’Farrell lanes, concluded that the colored pavement kept more cars out of the transit lanes and reduced collisions. It also slowed traffic outside the transit-only lanes but sped up buses only some of the time.

In considering whether to make the red lanes permanent, state and federal traffic officials will put an emphasis on how effective the paint is at keeping cars out, whether it reduces collisions and how much it speeds up buses, Tong said.

Should regulators determine the red lanes have not been effective, the colorful bus-only lanes will be history.

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Published on Wednesday, December 28, 2016 in San Francisco Chronicle
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