New 311 Tool to Cite Drivers Falls Short of Expectations

Spoiler alert: It's just a data collection tool, not a method for immediate enforcement.

Cyclists navigate around a double-parked van in the Valencia Street bike lane, Aug. 4 2017 (Photo: Jessica Christian)

Ask anyone who regularly bikes down Market or Valencia streets, and they’ll tell you about one recurring annoyance: cars that park in the bike lane, blocking the way of cyclists, and forcing them to merge into fast-moving traffic in order to pass by. It’s a nuisance, dangerous, and for many who commute by bike daily, absolutely infuriating.

The city has long fielded strongly-worded requests from residents to up enforcement from parking control officers (PCOs), and last month, a new feature of the 311 app appeared to offer commuters help with just that. Starting April 9, users could file a complaint with the city directly from the app, with photos and description of the offending vehicle. Once submitted, they could track the process of their claim, until it was eventually marked “resolved.”

Cyclists on Twitter were thrilled, to say the least.

“It actually works?! So excited to be able to report parking/traffic violations now via the @SF311 app!” wrote Dale Munroe.

The surprise feature also got the blessing of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “We’ve been hearing about this from members — and relaying public frustrations to city staff — for years, and we’re grateful to see them take action,” said Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier.

But in the weeks following the app’s feature going live, users started reporting problems.

On April 28, Mary Kay Chin issued a report for a Kia blocking the bike lane outside 1629 Market St. The app later stated “Case resolved. Police officer responded to request.”

But that’s not what happened.

“I watched this car pull away shortly after submitting it. They drove away and did not interact w/ SFPD,” Chin wrote on Twitter. “This false resolution negates the point of this resource. Couple of options: 1) the officer is lying; 2) there was a second vehicle blocking the lane when the officer arrived; 3) technical glitch. All options are problematic.”

Adam Long has submitted more than a dozen requests, with only one notable success.

“I’ve made maybe 15 reports in the past couple weeks since new system came out,” he tells SF Weekly. The first few that he submitted came back marked unvalidated, which makes sense as the cars most likely left the bike lane by the time enforcement arrived. He did have one victory when he reported a truck parked on the sidewalk. Ninety minutes later, it was issued a citation.

As for the other 14 or so… they’ve been marked “resolved” without anyone showing up.

A screenshot of the app. (Image: Dale Munroe)

This has been the common complaint for almost everyone who’s used the new feature, and it’s aggravating for those who pull off to the side of the road mid-commute to file a report. The city appears to prioritize ticketing vehicles for street sweeping and residential parking permit violations, while letting drivers who park in bike lanes do so unchecked.

More than anything though, this new system has just left users confused.

“I’m glad that there’s an easier system in place to make reports,” Long says, “But we need the system to be functioning honestly. My main issue here is that they’re closing reports and saying ‘advised of violation.’ If the issue is that they’re getting so many reports that they can’t respond, then they need to realize that it’s an extreme problem that they have no possible way of tackling.”

We reached out to the SFMTA for clarification, and this is where things got interesting.

“The reports that we’re getting on 311 are to help us deploy our parking control officers where data shows the issues are rampant,” says spokesperson Ben Jose. “Realistically we’re not always going to be able to get someone out in time to catch the offending driver, but getting that data is really important to help us focus resources in the future.”

So: The app’s feature is not a call for immediate enforcement, it’s actually a data collection tool.

That’s fair, but the wording of the platform completely contradicts that intention. To state that a police officer has responded to a scene when they haven’t, or to mark an issue as “resolved” when a car is still in the bike lane, makes absolutely no sense to those using the app. And even 311 appears to be confused — on Twitter they reply to users that police officers are responding to violations, but 311’s Director Nancy Alfaro told us that reports are sent to the SFMTA.

Both Jose and Alfaro realize that this is all getting very confusing.

“Because this is so new we are looking at feedback, we are meeting with MTA regularly,” Alfaro tells SF Weekly.

“We’re focusing on better ways to use language,” Jose says. “We’re still getting kinks worked out.”

It actually makes more sense that this is all about data collection. The city has around 150 parking control officers dispatched at any given time, but flying through city streets in their little interceptors to respond to complaints as they come in is a pretty lofty expectation. It would be much better for everyone if they knew what areas to hit before rolling out of their parking lot. Jose says that the data submitted by users will start being used to deploy officers to known hot spots in the next couple weeks.

But Matt Brezina, who regularly helps organize People Protected Bike Lanes across the city, says S.F. doesn’t need more data.

“Anybody who uses who uses a bike or scooter or skateboard can tell you the bike lanes that need to be protected,” he tells SF Weekly. “We don’t need any more data on it, we need people to act. Enforcement is a short-term fix to quell the masses, but it’s just whackamole because new issues pop up.

“Am I going to spend my time filing these reports? Probably not, I’ll be busy getting people lined up to help bike lanes,” he adds.

Brezina has a point. The city’s intention to use data to up enforcement is one thing, but it may be better served to determine exactly where protected bike lanes need to be installed, so as to stop parking violations from occurring in the first place.

In the end, the response to the app is almost a more important observation than the data it seeks to collect. There is clearly a huge desire among the community to have their voices heard regarding the trials of having cars block sidewalks and bike lanes. It remains to be seen whether this data will have the effect everyone wants it to.

 

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