After a successful pilot program, the entire fleet will soon be equipped with cameras to ticket cars that block transit-only traffic.

For transit-only lanes to operate effectively within a city, they must remain clear for the next transit vehicle. But many drivers, frustrated with the crowding of the car lanes, drift into a roomy transit one out of either ignorance or contempt. The problem requires a lot of manpower to enforce, and therefore often goes unenforced.

The result is lost time and money for the transit agency, which in turn can lead to service cuts or higher fares and less confidence in public transit.

San Francisco, with its long-running (if imperfect) "transit-first" policy, has come up with a way to address all these problems at once. By early next year the city's entire fleet of 819 buses will be equipped with forward-facing cameras that take pictures of cars traveling or parked in the bus and transit-only lanes. A city employee then reviews the video to determine whether or not a violation has occurred — there are, of course, legitimate reasons a car might have to occupy a bus lane for a moment — and if so the fines range from $60 for moving vehicles to more than $100 for parked cars.

The new transit-lane enforcement law [PDF] extends through 2015 a successful pilot program that started in 2008. Presently, as part of that effort, about 30 city buses are equipped with cameras, covering about 19 routes, mostly in the Financial District and Chinatown. San Francisco only has about 15 miles of transit-only lanes in all, but it intends to expand that reach in the near future, according to an update on the initiative presented earlier this month [PDF].

City officials consider the pilot program a success. "Schedule adherence" has improved, according to that update, as has general safety, since access to proper bus-stop curbs is impeded less often. In addition, the number of citations issued has risen over the past three years — from 1,311 in 2009 to 2,102 in 2010 and 3,052 last year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

More important than the number of citations is a noticeable change in driver behavior. From 2009 to 2010 there was a 47 percent drop in bus lane violations and a 44 percent dip in transit-lane parking violation. That's because, after the first year, cars began "moving as they saw buses approaching to avoid risking a citation," according to an official report quoted during a legislative debate on the new law. (The rise in total citations, despite the drop in bus and transit lane violations, is from an increase in tickets issued for parking in tow-away zones that are supposed to remain clear for transit use only during peak hours.)

A few years ago, during the pilot program, Streetsblog San Francisco illustrated the need to keep the city's transit lanes clear:

The lights on Market are timed so that Muni's buses and streetcars stop at red lights, load and unload passengers, and move on when the light turns green. But when cars stop in front of them on a red light, buses can't pull up to the island, and must wait until the light turns green to pull into the transit island. By the time they've finished loading and unloading passengers, the light is red again.

That interruption may seem like a small one to drivers, but to city buses it means a great deal. Right now San Francisco's fleet averages only about 8 miles per hour across the city and just 5 mph downtown — figures that led the New York Times to call it "among the slowest in the nation" recently. But if the city raised speeds just a single mile per hour it would save $76 million a year in operating costs (e.g. fewer buses and drivers per shift), the Chronicle reports. Its on-time performance, recently estimated at 73 percent, would also climb toward the 85 percent mark mandated by city law.

At the root of the problem is a disconnect between the automobile and transit worldviews, transit planner Jarrett Walker explains in his excellent new book, Human Transit. (More on this in the coming days.) While an empty bus lane is actually a functional bus lane, an empty car lane is a wasted car lane, so drivers are quick to capitalize on what they view as a transportation inefficiency. Walker explains:

Motorists who see that often decide that the bus lane isn't working. Surely, if it were working right, you'd see buses in it most of the time, wouldn't you? Wrong. Fast-moving buses are a quick blur to the stopped motorist. Only a blocked or failing bus lane appears to be full of buses. … 

In most cities, the motorist's perception is so dominant that their confusions can become political imperatives. Wherever transit lanes operate, elected officials get angry letters about how empty they are, as though this implies that they are wasting space. Planning studies for transit lanes sometimes refer to "empty lane syndrome," as though this common fallacy in the motorist's perception is an objective technical problem. It is certainly a political problem, but it's one rooted in ignorance, and only information will combat it.

Information as well as video cameras. Equipping the buses will reportedly cost the city about $800,000, but nearly that much money has been issued in related fines over the past three years. So ultimately the city will either recoup its investment through citations, or, even better, correct a transportation problem that is as serious to transit riders as it seems frivolous to drivers.

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