New apps, new companies are bringing food to your door — but they’re also blocking the bike lanes and creating traffic nightmares
By Steven T. Jones
FEBRUARY 6, 2015 — Competition for restaurant deliveries is heating up in San Francisco, exacerbating the problem of cars double-parking or blocking bike lanes just as city officials pledge to crack down on such traffic-snarling infractions.
In my Mission District neighborhood, an increasing number of restaurants have started to display discount cards and other promotional schwag from GrubHub, the food-delivery industry leader with a Wall Street market capitalization of about $3 billion.
Apparently, the company is trying to promote deliveries and increase its market share as competitors vie for the business of San Franciscans who are too busy or lazy to cook their meals or make their way into the restaurants.
The field of food delivery companies includes Caviar (an aggressive upstart that was purchased last year by Square, the online payment company started by a Twitter founder), SpoonRocket, Seamless (a GrubHub partner), Munchery, Foodler, Postmates, the impending launch of well-financed UberFresh, and smaller competitors, not to mention some restaurants that still do their own deliveries.
That adds up to a lot of cars picking up food from restaurants along busy traffic corridors.
Yes, some deliveries do use cyclists, but private automobiles are a big and growing part of the mix, with Uber now expanding its business to allow its quasi-taxi drivers to deliver meals when they aren’t picking up passengers.
On arteries like Valencia Street, a prime route for bicyclists, the trend threatens to worsen what is already an obstacle course, particularly during evening meal times. Many of the restaurants are serial offenders that regularly leave delivery vehicles in bike lanes, slowing everyone down as cyclists are forced into the traffic lane.
At Gajalee Indian Restaurant on Valencia, drivers picking up delivery orders regularly block the bike lane. And with Gajalee’s new display of $5-off coupons for deliveries from GrubHub, it’s a problem unlikely to improve anytime soon.
“I got four or five tickets from blocking the bike lane in the last couple years,” Gajalee manager Kobi Mohan told us. “It’s a cost of doing business for us.”
San Francisco Municipal Transportion Agency spokesperson Paul Rose said the agency is aware of the problem and trying to address it: “As SFMTA is made aware of a problem area/location, SFMTA engineers are sent to the location to evaluate parking management and options such as curbside marking/signage. SFMTA Enforcement reaches out to the proprietor of a business and explains the problem and identifies workable solutions. If all avenues have been evaluated and addressed and there is no change, increased Parking Control Officer presence will occur, until compliance is achieved.”
But Mohan said he’s been told the cars he uses for deliveries and stocking his restaurant aren’t allowed to use the center lane to parking temporarily and he’s been given no legal options, so he still uses the bike lane and just hopes to avoid too many tickets.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said, explaining that he needs deliveries to make his business function.
Rose said the agency is aware that this is a problem that is getting worse as more companies get into the business of delivering meals, groceries, and a range of other products.
“With the advent of Internet shopping, etc., deliveries of products, including food deliveries, has and will continue to increase,” Rose said. “SFMTA needs to be creative in street design and management and ensure all stakeholders are included in the planning and discussion.”
While big delivery companies such as UPS, FedEx, and even many beer distributors have city permits that factor in the cost of blocked lanes and specific rules for minimizing the disruption, food delivery services mostly follow the tech industry’s disruption model of asking for forgiveness later instead of official permission up front.
We contacted GrubHub and Caviar for comment and didn’t hear back by press time.
In December, Mayor Ed Lee announced plans to crack down on drivers who block traffic, and Rose told us the effort was aimed primarily at SoMa and facilitating commuter traffic headed to the Bay Bridge, with a half-dozen additional parking control officers deployed on Thursdays and Friday to issue tickets for blocking traffic.
“The enforcement of vehicles double parking is not a new initiative. The SFMTA has a zero tolerance for passenger vehicles that double park. Enforcement has utilized several approaches in mitigating double parking, such as complaint driven incidents and continuous communication with PCOs. Double parking citations continue to increase,” Rose said. “In addition to the enhanced enforcement of double parking, Enforcement has increased its focus on bike lane violations, which have the same impact and fine amount as double parking.”
But SFMTA figures show relatively few citations for blocking bike lanes compared with double-parking, even with December’s uptick in citations for both. There were 2,391 double parking citation in December, up from 2,036 in November; and 187 citations for blocking bike lanes, up from just 132 a month earlier.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has tried to highlight the issue with its new #ParkingDirtySF campaign, urging members to send in photos and information when they see someone blocking a bike lane. It has compiled that information into a top 10 list of the worst corridors for blocked bike lanes.
Not surprising, Valencia Street tops the list, with the restaurants that line that otherwise bike-friendly corridor creating regular conflicts between cyclists and either diners or delivery drivers.
“People who double-park cars in bike lanes and crosswalks are not just causing an inconvenience, they are jeopardizing people’s safety as they bicycle and walk. Stepping up enforcement on this dangerous activity should be an easy place for the Mayor and the SF Police Department to send the message that safety is a priority on our streets and to put action behind their Vision Zero commitments,” said Leah Shahum, who is stepping down as SFBC’s executive director to go study Vision Zero in Europe on a Marshall Memorial Fellowship this spring.
As city officials try to deliver on their Vision Zero goal of eliminating all traffic deaths on the streets of San Francisco, the speed and convenience of driving may give way to safety concerns. And your order of chicken tikka masala may be slightly delayed.