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San Francisco rarely enforces illegal parking in bike lanes. Why?

A car double parks in the bike lane on Folsom Street in the Mission District of San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

The Standard's Julie Zigoris looks into illegal parking in bike lanes in this installment of Ask The Standard.

Anyone who cycles through San Francisco knows the dicey situation: the dodge and weave around a seemingly constant stream of vehicles blocking the city’s bike lanes.

A stylized graphic with the phrase "Ask the Standard" in the shape of a text box.

“It’s a big problem, and it’s dangerous,” said Kelsey Simerly, a Mission cyclist. “We get pretty riled up about it.”

RELATED: No Salvaging New Center-Striped Bike Lane on Valencia Street, San Francisco Cyclists Say

During a five-minute period on a recent Friday afternoon, four cars double-parked in the bike lane on Folsom Street near 24th Street.

The California Vehicle Code’s Rules of the Road prohibit any stopping in bikeways that “impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of any bicyclist.” Only a few exceptions are made: public utility vehicles, newspaper deliveries and active tow trucks.

“It is an ongoing and dangerous issue for people biking,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Janelle Wong said. “[San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] does need to do something to address it.”

So why are these violations seemingly so sparsely enforced?

A box truck makes a turn through the center bike lane on Valencia Street in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy Luke Bornheimer/Better Valenica

According to Stephen Chun, deputy spokesperson for the SFMTA, the rules are enforced but the violations are not trackable because they’re often brief. 

Yet transit advocates who have actively monitored bikeway violations for years tell a different story: The agency has intentionally de-prioritized ticketing such offenses. 

“The leadership of the SFMTA believe that time doing parking enforcement is best spent on where they know people will be breaking the law, so they can quickly consume as much money as possible while expending the least amount of effort,” said Stephen Braitsch, an engineer, transit advocate and former member of the San Francisco Bike Coalition.

He claims the transit agency prioritizes street cleaning and residential parking permits as sources of passive income instead of enforcing illegal parking in bikeways—an allegation that Chun denies. 

Yet there’s an important, underlying reason why tickets are infrequently issued for bikeway parking violations: the threat they pose for the parking control officers trying to enforce them. 

“Parking control officers face some of the highest levels of harassment of any city worker,” Luke Bornheimer, a sustainable transportation advocate. 

They encounter verbal and physical threats and have even been assaulted with guns—with the potential for a vehicle itself to be wielded as a weapon. According to Braitsch, some parking officers will not conduct enforcement in the Tenderloin unless they are accompanied by San Francisco police; others have said they have deliberately not written up violations because of a fear of being assaulted.  

A line of parking control officers, also known colloquially as "meter maids," who are responsible for parking enforcement throughout the city, wait at a stoplight at Brannan Street in the SoMa neighborhood in San Francisco. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

After four years of creating digital products to try to mitigate the problem and many years in advocacy, Braitsch now believes the best solution is changing the streetscape itself. 

“The reality is the money and the time should be better spent on redesigning the streets and putting in infrastructure that doesn’t allow people to park in the first place,” Braitsch said. 

Bornheimer agrees, saying the best solution is to install fully protected and separated bike lanes. He points to the success of the Valencia Street bike lane between Market and 15th streets, which has curbside-protected bike lanes that virtually eliminated the issue of parking in bikeways. 

Yet the center bikeway elsewhere on Valencia Street is a different story, which Bornheimer argues is worse than the original painted lanes, with more accidents occurring from the data he has personally collected from injury reports.

Braitsch noted the project is a pilot and is waiting until the first round of data is released by SFMTA to make any official assessment—yet he was critical of the bikeway’s design. 

“The problem with the vulnerability center bikeway is that it’s not fortified and doesn’t prevent vehicles from entering it,” Braitsch said. “It gives a false sense of safety.”

Braitsch asserts that such protected lanes need to be created from more durable materials than plastic straws and rubber curbs. Yet Chun, the transit agency spokesperson, believes the new center bikeway is working. 

“The situation on Valencia is already way better than it was before,” he said. “Does that mean cars aren’t still sneaking into the bike lane when a car blocks the traffic lane? No. But this is happening a lot less than it was before. And it’s a lot better than having double-parked cars on every block forcing cyclists into traffic.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to note that Stephen Braitsch is a former, not active, member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com