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Thursday's commuting conundrum calls for smarter timing

Traffic congestion on Mission Street on the day transbay BART service was mostly unavailable, June 14, 2012.
Traffic congestion on Mission Street on the day transbay BART service was mostly unavailable, June 14, 2012.
Jamie Whitaker

The BART transbay service interruption on Thursday, June 14, 2012 made for an awful after work commute experience for everyone regardless of your chosen mode of transportation.

  • For folks who chose to drive into downtown San Francisco that day and attempted to exit downtown between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., it meant wasting an hour or more getting onto the Bay Bridge.
  • For bus riders leaving the Transbay Temporary Terminal at Main Street and Howard Street, it meant sitting on a MUNI bus stuck in the traffic mess for very long periods of time or waiting extended periods to get on a very packed AC Transit bus.
  • For bicyclists and pedestrians, the common dangers on our streets were increased by an even greater number than usual of impatient drivers who do stupid things that endanger the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • For downtown residents in Rincon Hill, Yerba Buena, and other SoMa neighborhoods, there is a legitimate concern about the effects of traffic congestion on the abilities of ambulances, fire department, and police response vehicles to reach the residents if an emergency occurs.

The SFPD has proven over time that it chooses which laws it enforces, and traffic laws are not among those that our police force chooses to enforce in South of Market. While it is an unusual sight in many cities, it is quite common for intersections, especially pedestrian crosswalks, to be blocked by motor vehicles.

A similar story plays out every weekday evening in downtown San Francisco, but not to the same extent that folks' lives were affected on June 14th.

If you drive around downtown San Francisco on the weekends during the same evening hours, the bus and car traffic are light and moving at or near the posted speed limit. Why can't it be like this on weekday evenings?

It really comes down to the volume of road users who choose to exit the city during a very concentrated period of time. How can we help incentivize folks to spread out the time they choose to exit downtown San Francisco in a more even fashion?

While it would be very helpful if major employers in downtown San Francisco would coordinate their workforce schedules, the supply of parking in downtown San Francisco may influence people to come to work earlier than scheduled regardless of a later 10 a.m. or Noon start time.

The best solution at the present time to help mitigate the spike in the volume of drivers attempting to leave downtown San Francisco around the same time of day is congestion pricing. Luckily, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority has already been looking at congestion pricing in downtown San Francisco as part of its Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study.

While even a pilot of congestion pricing will take a herculean information effort to show drivers why it makes sense to charge $6 for privately operated automobiles to exit the northeastern quartile of downtown San Francisco, the benefits of getting people to choose to leave earlier or later in the day in their car than the majority of weekday commuters is undeniable.

Just the fact that 2-3 pedestrians are injured or killed in San Francisco, primarily by motor vehicle drivers, should make reducing the types and frequencies of unsafe situations for pedestrians a high priority for everyone. Add in the benefits of reduced carbon dioxide when cars are not sitting idling in traffic for as long, the ability of ambulances and other emergency response vehicles to reach people in need of help, increased travel speeds for our transit system resources, increased travel speeds for the privately operated automobile drivers, and the revenue that could be generated to help improve MUNI and other transbay transit system, and it seems incredibly worthwhile. Businesses may also benefit by providing something for weekday commuters to do with their time while they choose to wait until after 7 p.m. (or whenever the end time of the congestion pricing is scheduled) to leave downtown San Francisco.

Read the SFCTA fact sheet and give it some serious thought. Doing nothing is not an option, especially with the prospect of a Warriors Arena getting built on Piers 30-32 beside the Bay Bridge to add another 20,000 or more people to the transportation puzzle of downtown San Francisco up to 365 days per year.


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