By Sam Sklar
A recent scan from San Francisco’s Police Department found that Uber and Lyft drivers were responsible for nearly 65 percent of traffic infractions in bike- and transit-only lanes. The overwhelming majority of these tickets, for all vehicles and for Uber and Lyft vehicles, cited San Francisco Code 7.2.72 TC (see below), “Driving in a Transit Lane,” which comes with a $69 fine. There were also three felony and 29 misdemeanor arrests associated with this traffic report, indicating more serious incidents
San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin said that these infractions could be dire enough to warrant a lawsuit. During a Board of Supervisors committee hearing, Peskin asked, “What you’re telling me is [ride-hail] drivers violate the law more flagrantly than non-[ride-hail] drivers.” Robert O’Sullivan, the department’s commander of municipal transportation, answered that for the “snapshot of time” in which the data was taken, “Yes.”
The report resulted from O’Sullivan hearing anecdotes about the prevalence of TNC violations, so he asked his officers to keep track of whether vehicles issued citations either displayed a TNC sticker or the driver self-identified.
However, the study, conducted in three downtown neighborhoods on 12 targeted days over three months in spring 2017, is a just a snapshot. Three months is not a long period to test a theory. It could be that this particular area was prone to traffic infractions or that the months when the data were gathered happened to be worse than other time periods. It could also be that a driver was not actually working when the violation occurred, but just happened to have an Uber or Lyft sticker prominently displayed on the car, and the officer counted it.
To Supervisor Peskin’s point, this raises several questions. First, are the data and observations enough to warrant tougher traffic laws to punish Uber and Lyft drivers for violations? Second, do Uber and Lyft drivers consider themselves to be transit or transit-supporting, and therefore are allowed to use the transit-only lane? Notable is the fact that taxis bearing city-issued medallions may use these lanes, but Lyft and Uber drivers cannot. Third, how can the city work with Uber and Lyft to be more supportive of mobility and safety goals to ease conflicts that lead to the companies being overly represented in violation reports?
Highlighting that blocking exclusive-use lanes is not the only problem, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Director Brian Wiedenmeier noted, “[d]angerous or reckless” driving behavior from Uber and Lyft vehicles is “the number one thing we hear from our members.”
Lyft responded in a statement that it is “supportive of holistic efforts to address congestion and have been in conversations with city officials for months to engage collaboratively on a pilot program to do just that.” What Lyft means by a “holistic effort” is unclear from that statement.
Uber’s statement reads, “Every day in San Francisco, thousands of people use Uber in ways that complement rather than compete with public transit, bicycling and walking. Our aim is to continue contributing to a robust, multi-modal transportation network that works well for everyone.”
Both Uber and Lyft feel that they are contributing to transportation choice and supporting a multimodal system, and residents of San Francisco have clearly made the choice to use the services. However, there is some evidence that the increase in ridesharing use is actually making congestion worse. In addition to blocking transit lanes, TNCs account for 15 percent of vehicular trips into San Francisco on a typical workday. A study in New York found that TNCs are both cannibalizing transit ridership and contributing to congestion. The same results are being reported in other cities as well.
The question for San Francisco is whether the prevalence of traffic violations by TNCs is worth the convenience of the services and whether there are tweaks to regulations that can avoid the problems brought by increases in TNC vehicles on the streets.
Sam Sklar is a Program Associate at SSTI.
By Sam Sklar