San Francisco’s Municipal Railway may install cameras on its buses to automate enforcement of laws against driving in transit-only lanes and double-parking. A move at the state level to clear a legal path for the city to start the program is now before the governor.
The idea is for cameras to be mounted on the front of buses to take photos of the license plates of cars that are in designated transit lanes. The registered owners of offending vehicles then get a ticket in the mail.
As a benefit for improving the speed and efficiency of surface transit vehicles, this sounds great. Advocates frequently cite a 92 percent reduction in transit-lane violations following a similar program put in place in London a decade ago, though I don’t recall ever seeing a solid, written source for that statistic. Unimpeded pathways are necessary for mass transit to function well, clogged streets are a huge problem for Muni and current enforcement of the law is lax.
But there’s just something wrong with automated law enforcement. Laws exist to serve the public, and human judgment must be an integral component of enforcing those laws. Just as overly rigid sentencing guidelines degrade our legal system by shrinking the ability of judges to consider the context and circumstances under which crimes are committed, so too does automated enforcement go against the principles of our system of justice by removing the ability of police officers to judge when to cite or arrest someone and when to tell them to move along before they get into trouble. People, not machines, should enforce the law.