City OK’s plan for private vehicles to use red lanes

by Thomas K. Pendergast

Many people at the board of directors meeting of the SF Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) on Aug. 21 did not get what they wanted when the board unanimously passed the first phase of the #38-Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan. The SFMTA runs the Muni transportation system.

Recently it came to light that non-transit vehicles would be allowed in the “transit only” lanes proposed for Geary Boulevard, between Gough and Stanyan streets. The added vehicles including Chariot shuttles; buses transporting tech workers and casino patrons; hospital and nonprofit centers, including the V.A. and Kaiser hospitals and the Institute on Aging. If a vehicle seats 10 or more people, it is a transit vehicle, according to the California Vehicle Code.

SueVaughnBRT copy

 Susan Vaughan, a Richmond District resident and transit advocate, wants to ban non-Muni vehicles in transit lanes. Photo: Thomas K. Pendergast

Another concern included eliminating the #38-Geary rapid bus stops at Geary and Spruce Street, and moving the bus stop at Geary and Star King Way to Geary and Franklin, in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral. While the rapid bus stops at Spruce were eliminated in both directions, they will still have regular service. Meanwhile, after public outcry the SFMTA decided against moving the Star King Way stop.

At the SFMTA meeting, some transit advocates and transportation watchdogs showed up to voice their concerns about the policy.

With an estimated 54,000 riders using the #38-Geary Muni line each day, it is one of the most heavily ridden city bus lines in the country.

Geary BRT Project Manager Liz Brisson says the biggest complaints about the line are it is unreliable, crowded and has a lot of “bus bunching,” that is when two or three buses of the same line all show up at once or within just a few minutes of each other.

“What we’re trying to do through the project is give the bus transit priority infrastructure, such as bus lanes and bulb-outs, which makes it less likely for the bunching to occur,” Brisson told the board.

The SFMTA will be extending the existing transit-only lanes from where they now end at Gough Street westward to Stanyan Street. Planners hope the transit-only lanes will help reduce unpredictable delays for buses that do not have to pull out of traffic.

Between Gough and Scott streets, the SFMTA will be removing a lane in each direction, going from four to three lanes in each direction, with two regular traffic lanes and one “transit only,” or “red carpet” lane going each way.

One of those who questioned the plan was Angelina Yu, a legislative aide for District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, when she read a prepared statement from Fewer.

“Muni is currently grappling with transit reliability as the City is becoming increasingly congested, and it’s already fighting with TNCs (transportation network companies) and many other private vehicles in traffic,” Yu said.

“So, for the board to consider a red lane, this really is not the space for Muni to have to jostle and fight with tour buses, casino buses, other charter shuttles, medical shuttles and other emerging types of vehicles that have yet to become a big thing in the City. The reliability for the red carpets is critical and is a big part of what’s being considered today. We feel there shouldn’t be any interference from private vehicles in the red carpet space. We can’t underestimate the actual impact that shuttle buses and private transit vehicles, such as Chariot, would have.”

Through Yu, Fewer called for a study of the possible effects on traffic and commuter times that the additional vehicles might have before approving the plan.

On the other hand, Winston Parsons, a former member of the Geary-BRT Citizen Advisory Committee, urged the board to pass the plan right away.

“The project drastically improves reliability of transit along the corridor,” Parsons said. “That’s the key issue for many people … if they can trust it will show up reliably. I understand their concerns about what vehicles can go in the transit only lanes; I’m not personally a big fan of Chariot and I think this agency should look at charging them and other charter buses far more and other solutions, but I don’t think that’s a reason to preclude this project from going forward in its current form.”

That buses not serving Muni or Golden Gate Transit would be able to take advantage of red carpet lanes only recently came to light (after 15 years of study and debate), when Susan Vaughan, a member of the SF Municipal Transit Agency’s Citizen Advisory Committee, asked Brisson about it.

“It has been the understanding of the public for 15 years that we’ve been discussing Geary BRT that dedicated lanes would be for public transit only and not private, for-profit buses,” Vaughan told the board. “The EIR (Environmental Impact Report) itself never addresses the impact of private buses on the flow of Muni or Golden Gate Transit in the red lanes.

“There are no limits on the number of these private buses that can be in operation in San Francisco. This is a real concern,” she said.

Sunset District resident Paula Katz agreed.

“The red transit lanes should belong only to public buses, as you’ve told the Geary community for years,” Katz said.

Jean Barish, a Richmond District resident and board member of the Planning Association for the Richmond (PAR), also thinks use of the red carpet lanes should be restricted.

“Suddenly, we learn that they’re going to be used by profit vehicles … that those of us who have been involved in the Geary-BRT project for years had no idea was happening,” Barish said. “We’re very concerned that this bait and switch approach is unacceptable.”

She asked the directors to defer making a decision on the Geary-BRT Phase 1 plan until they had more time to study the impact of these vehicles. She was also concerned about the loss of the Geary and Spruce rapid bus stops.

“It is going to have a significant impact on seniors, disabled people and people with children. There’s no need to rush to judgment about this decision,” Barish said.

Rachel Hyden, executive director of San Francisco Transit Riders, had concerns about letting non-transit buses use the red lanes, and said removal of the Spruce stops are a “violation of Transit First Policy.”

“Normally, as an organization, we don’t typically weigh in on specific stop removals, but we have heard an overwhelming amount of feedback from riders,” Hyden said. “It’s not really about speeding up the bus or making it more reliable. It’s about saving a couple of parking spaces due to pushback from merchants.”

Vice chairman of the Muni board Malcolm Heinicke summed up his view before directors took the vote.

“Rather than postponing all of this to do more studies with paper and computers … my personal view is that Muni gets top priority. But my other personal view is that people who are using private transit systems are not driving cars,” Heinicke said.

The SFMTA’s board of directors voted unanimously to approve the Geary-BRT Phase 1 plan as recommended by staff. The plan allows vehicles with 10 or more passengers to use Muni transit lanes and eliminates the #38-Geary Rapid stops in both directions at Geary and Spruce.

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