Bus rapid transit expert sees room for improvement on SF system

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miKE koozmin/the s.f. examiner
The Geary bus rapid transit system would see dedicated center lanes with dual medians blocking surrounding traffic in the Richmond and curbside lanes where the corridor has grade-separation at the Masonic Avenue and Fillmore Street intersections.
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Years of painstaking work and community input have moved two major San Francisco corridors toward accommodating bus rapid transit, but according to an expert on the system, the infrastructure changes may have to be more dramatic to really improve Muni's performance.

During a bus riding and walking tour Monday, Enrique Penalosa — who, during his time as mayor of Bogota, Colombia, spearheaded a bus rapid transit network — offered constructive criticism on the bus rapid transit plans for The City's Geary corridor and Van Ness Avenue. The Geary BRT, which is under environmental review, would see dedicated center lanes with dual medians blocking surrounding traffic in the Richmond and curbside lanes where the corridor has grade-separation at the Masonic Avenue and Fillmore Street intersections. Along with some on-street parking removal and left-turn restrictions at select intersections, the BRT features are expected to cut Muni's 38L-Geary Limited route time by at least 25 percent.

High cost has prevented the San Francisco County Transportation Authority from pursuing a light-rail option on the Geary corridor, which until post-World War II had streetcars. But Penalosa, 60, argued that a BRT system done correctly functions better than light rail, and at a much lower cost.

“Subways are always done very well because if not, they can crash and kill someone,” Penalosa said. “Meanwhile, BRTs are almost always not done well. People want to make shortcuts and then the BRT doesn't do well and people say, 'Look, the BRT doesn't work well.'”

Specifically, Penalosa — a champion of Ciclovia, the precursor to Sunday Streets events similar to those held in San Francisco — wondered why transit planners did not remove all on-street parking on the Geary corridor as they did with Market Street.

A principal transportation planner for the Transportation Authority, Chester Fung explained that preserving on-street parking is a “very strong concern for the community” given the Richmond's residential character.

After riding the 49-Mission-Van Ness line, Penalosa determined that the Van Ness BRT, which would only cover about two miles and is in final design, is “not a true BRT at all, but it's going to improve the flow of buses.”

Michael Schwartz, a senior transportation planner for the Transportation Authority, said the Van Ness BRT with bus lanes from Lombard to Mission streets will be a test case for the system in The City.

“It's easier to start from scratch and much harder to retrofit a route and reduce stops,” Schwartz added.

Penalosa ended his tour with transit and city officials on Market Street, where he paused to take several photos of the historic F-Market and Wharves streetcars.

Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru raised potential modifications to Market Street, including restricting cars, widening sidewalks and replacing the brick sidewalks with a smoother surface.

Penalosa, said the street has had “many wonderful improvements in general,” pointing out the red transit-only lanes. But he sees the transit system along the Geary thoroughfare having the greatest potential for changing the fabric of the area.

“The Geary corridor could be a harbinger for many future BRTs” in the state and nation, Penalosa said.

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