- Feb 11, 2006
Aided by video cameras mounted on buses, San Francisco has launched an initiative to punish drivers who illegally park in transit-only lanes.
The goal is to clear traffic lanes for Muni buses, which are operating at an average speed of 8 mph, making the Municipal Railway among the slowest transit agencies of any major U.S. city.
The cameras will attempt to catch motorists parked in traffic lanes reserved for buses. For now, offenders will be let off with a written warning. But starting in the next month or so, if all goes according to plan, they'll be hit with a $100 fine - one of the city's stiffest parking penalties.
The cameras, mounted behind bus windshields, will be focused on the license plates of vehicles in transit-only lanes. The images will be reviewed daily by parking-control officers, who will determine whether a violation has occurred. The registered owners of the offending vehicles will be mailed a citation. They can pay or protest the ticket.
City officials, who needed special permission from the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to emplace the cameras, hope the program will help unclog streets and improve the on-time performance of the Municipal Railway.
"This should translate to faster, more reliable bus service, and that's what will attract even more people out of their cars and onto transit," said Nathaniel Ford, executive director of the Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees both the city's transit system and parking and traffic-control operations.
That's a lofty goal for Muni, which averages nearly 700,000 boardings a day but is consistently hammered by riders for chronic unreliability. The agency has never met a 1999 voter mandate that Muni vehicles show up on schedule at least 85 percent of the time; instead, on-time performance has tiptoed around the 70 percent mark.
Mayor Gavin Newsom and city transit officials say that in order to make significant improvements, Muni would need at least $100 million more a year to pay for increased staffing and equipment upgrades - on top of the current annual budget of about $670 million. They also are calling for operational changes, such as reconfiguring routes, schedules and bus stops. Details of such changes are under review.
The onboard camera test began this week with two buses on the 14-Mission line, to be followed soon by two more buses on the 38-Geary, and it will be ramped up over the next three months, Newsom said. If successful, the program - already endorsed by the union representing Muni drivers - will be expanded to all routes that use specially marked bus lanes.
Parthex Inc., which supplies surveillance cameras on Muni vehicles, is providing the initial set of traffic cameras - worth about $30,000 each - for the trial period at no cost to the city.
The new cameras won't solve all of Muni's woes, officials concede. "But this is going to be a lot bigger than some people may think when it comes to improving on-time performance," Newsom said. "When a bus comes down the street, people are going to look at it very differently - as not just a bus but as a traffic-control vehicle, too."
Newsom and some transit advocates point to the city of London as a success story in using steep fines to alter behavior. Officials there say traffic violations in bus zones dropped 92 percent since a similar camera system was installed a decade ago.
The city's trial program, which was permitted in legislation carried by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, was pared back from one originally envisioned. Initially, city officials also wanted to place enforcement cameras on street-sweeping vehicles to cite cars parked illegally when the streets are being cleaned. But the idea was dropped over privacy concerns because many of the street-sweeping zones are in residential areas.
The privacy issue also surfaced during state Senate debate on Ma's legislation. A number of privacy safeguards were included in the final legislation. Among them: The images must be kept confidential - although the cited vehicle owners have the right to review them - and the cameras should not "unnecessarily capture identifying images of other drivers, vehicles and pedestrians."
The program is not the first time officials in San Francisco have relied on electronic eyes to aid in traffic enforcement. The city rotates cameras among 23 intersections to nab drivers who blow through red lights. Also, the Municipal Transportation Agency began a pilot program last year in which parking-control officers use license-plate scanners to find stolen vehicles or those associated with multiple parking tickets.
And under Newsom, the city has installed dozens of surveillance cameras in public areas with a high prevalence of violence, although their efficacy has been called into question. Muni buses and streetcars were fitted with cameras years ago to catch riders in illegal acts.
San Franciscans shouldn't take the expansion of electronic surveillance lightly, said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the Northern California office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The question people need to ask is, what costs are we paying and what benefits are we getting?" Ozer said.
For those intent on seeing Muni improve, the cameras zooming in on illegal transit-lane parkers have their boosters.
"They're a cost-effective way to reduce delays and improve service," said Andrew Sullivan, chairman of the riders advocacy group Rescue Muni.
If a bus driver can save even a minute by not having to maneuver out of the transit lane to get around a parked car or truck once or twice on each run, the time savings can add up over the course of the day, he said. And the faster the buses move through the streets, the more runs can be made without relying on extra vehicles and drivers to make them.