by Thomas K. Pendergast
Muni’s “red carpet” bus lanes might get pulled out from under the wheels of private transportation buses if District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer gets her way, as she moves to change legislation governing the transit lanes.
Although the red-painted “transit only” lanes for Muni buses and private taxis have been around since the ’70s, the last couple of years have seen a major expansion of them throughout the City, including in the Mission and on Geary Boulevard as part of the Geary Bus Rapid Transit (GearyBRT) program. Some of the Geary lanes have been marked but not yet painted red.
Last August, Susan Vaughan, a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) Citizens’ Advisory Committee, discovered the SFMTA had accepted the code governing the use of the lanes to include private transit buses, like Chariot shuttles, buses transporting tech workers and casino patrons, airport shuttles and other private buses for institutions like medical and education centers. A vehicle seating 10 or more people is considered a “bus” by the California Vehicle Code (CVC).
In 2008, the SF Board of Supervisors made operating any vehicle not a Muni bus or taxicab in the red lanes an infraction, but left defining where these lanes are located up to the SFMTA’s board of directors. In March 2014, however, the SFMTA added “buses” into the language of defining what is and is not allowed in the lanes, Vaughan said, without specifying whether they be private or public.
Furthermore, the CVC defines “transit buses” as any bus owned or operated by a publicly owned transit system, or contracted to a public transportation system. It specifically states that a “general public paratransit vehicle is not a transit bus.”
“The (SFMTA) board of directors is being really sneaky,” Vaughan said. “They don’t have the power to contradict something that the SF Board of Supervisors passed in 2008, nor do they have the power to contradict state law.”
Fewer would like to make changes to the law.
“I think that it’s time to rewrite the code to really define what those transit lanes are all about and to declare that it should be public transit, it should be taxis and it should also be paratransit,” Fewer said. “I’m going to investigate how we can change the policy so that it only allows public transportation, because we have to give some of these to our taxi drivers, and also to transport many of our handicapped folks.”
She has at least one ally already, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen.
“There’s a confusing mix of red-lane designations and we need to get a handle on it,” Ronen said. “I and my colleagues on the board have been hamstrung by our limited role in regulating how private transportation companies operate in San Francisco. Most of that oversight is held by the state legislature and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). What we do have under local control is our streets, and we should not be granting resources to private companies without their commitment to operate under our regulations and to pay their true fair share.”
At a meeting of the supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee on Dec. 3, Alex Jonlin, an SFMTA transportation analyst, said there are 1,000 permitted vehicles they regulate which can use the red lanes and an average of about 500 of those are on the city streets any given day. The true number, however, is unknown because most of the buses and shuttles are regulated by the CPUC so the City is not keeping track of them.
Fewer expressed concern about what impact all of the other buses have on travel times while using the dedicated traffic lanes and confirmed that there is not enough data to make any estimates of what the impact might actually be right now.
“We don’t have any data which shows us what level we could allow or not allow (other mass transit vehicles) because we don’t have the data to show it,” Fewer said.
Renee Curran is a 25-year resident of San Francisco who lives in the Inner Sunset.
“People say the private sector is better because public transportation is too slow and unreliable, so obviously the transit-only lanes would be a resolution to this. To allow private companies now to interfere with that is kind of gaming the system, in my opinion,” Curran said. “As far as needing more data to show whether hundreds of extra vehicles using those lanes is going to slow down transit, it is like saying that I need data to show whether one more beer is going to make me a little more drunk.”
Carlos Bocanegra of United to Save the Mission also expressed his resentment.
“The people who use transit, such as the Google buses, are receiving a free commute to their work, a subsidized transit to and from their homes. Yet, working class citizens in our community are forced to pay for transit,” Bocanegra said. “In this day and age where we have one of the richest cities in the world it makes no sense to me that we’re going to subsidize privileged people who don’t really need the benefit of having free transit. Then, on top of that allow the buses that are carrying them to ride for free down our red lanes, down our public infrastructure, with absolutely no value recapture.”
Lori Liederman, a San Francisco resident, said construction work to speed up Muni is occurring all over the City.
“Small businesses have been shuttered due to the destruction caused by this infrastructure build out. Neighbor hoods have been disrupted for months and years in order to speed up Muni. Allowing the use of red lanes by private companies that are patronized by people not using public transit is a quintessential bait and switch. The public sphere needs to be protected, not whittled away,” Liederman said.
Mary Claire Amable told the committee she is a member of the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN), student at SF State University and a native San Franciscan.
“In my lifetime, which isn’t very long, I went from paying 35 cents for the bus to $2.75. That doesn’t seem like much but in the last two years the adult Muni-only pass has jumped from $68 to $78, while the BART and Muni pass increased to $94,” Amable said.
Cynthia Fong of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco mentioned that the previous year Muni fares went up twice, from $2.25 to $2.75.
“There were two fare hikes in 2017, there was one in January and one in July,” Fong said. “We believe that riders of Muni are paying for these red carpet lanes so they should be used for the public instead of privatized services, like these tech shuttle buses and Chariot.”
Community activist Kevin Oritz agrees.
“The red lanes are emblematic of what the problems are that exist within the current SFMTA and policies that they’re creating; the disinvestment of public infrastructure and the reprioritizing of people who take public transit every day,” said Oritz, a member of United to Save the Mission. “We are ceding the public infrastructure to private companies. The SFMTA is abdicating its responsibility for creating safe, reliable, accessible and equitable transit for public citizens to private corporations that only care about their profits.”