Private transit does not belong in dedicated bus lanes

Ever since 2003, when voters passed the Proposition K transportation sales tax, San Franciscans have been preparing for the creation of dedicated bus rapid transit lanes, called the Geary BRT, to improve travel times for the 38 bus. The plans have been contentious: while environmentalists have celebrated BRT’s potential to reduce carbon emissions, others have warned of parking losses and impacts to businesses, and seniors and the disabled have agonized over lost bus stops.

But never in all of these years of arguing has any member of the public imagined that the dedicated bus lanes themselves would only be “dedicated” in the broadest sense of the word. Now, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) staff, transit-only lanes planned for Geary Boulevard between Gough and Stanyan will be open to any vehicle that meets the California Vehicle Code (CVC) definition of a bus – any vehicle that transports more than 10 people. That means casino buses, tour buses, Chariots, and tech shuttle buses and others would all be able to compete with Muni for lane space.

This is absolutely contrary to the public’s longstanding understanding of how Geary BRT (bus rapid transit) would work.

Yet in response to a July SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council question, staff has written, “Most of the new transit-only lanes within the Geary Rapid Project” could be used by vehicles that meet the California Vehicle Code (CVC) bus definition, so “commuter shuttles or private transit vehicles such as Chariot would be allowed to use the lanes.”

However, the environmental impact report for Geary BRT, certified on January 5, 2017, only briefly and obliquely mentioned the sharing of dedicated lanes with private, for-profit transportation vehicles – not just tech shuttle buses and Chariots, but casino buses, tour buses, Academy of Art University buses and all other manner of buses – let alone assessed the environmental impact of such competition on Muni.

These plans have also been the recipient of at least $16.5 million in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grants. Did the bureaucrats and officials who allocated these funds know that the SFMTA planned to open dedicated lanes to all manner of private, for-profit vehicles?

Moreover, state law defines “transit vehicles” as those operated by or for public transportation agencies.

The SFMTA’s own public documents on plans for Geary are replete with references to “transit lanes.” For example, Geary Rapid Project documents (Phase 1, Gough to Stanyan streets) highlight “Red, dedicated transit lanes to reduce unpredictable delays.” Transit Effectiveness Project/Muni Forward documents also state “A transit-only lane is a travel lane dedicated for the exclusive use of transit vehicles,” with exceptions for emergency vehicles, taxis, and vehicles turning or pulling into and out of curbs. Additionally, artist renderings of the future Geary Boulevard lanes have never once depicted a shiny, double decker Google bus or a casino bus in the lanes.

In exchange for this planned giveaway of public infrastructure, staff is not even proposing that the agency charge private, for-profit vehicles for access to dedicated lanes – the way it once charged $250,000 per taxi medallion before Uber and Lyft.

The SFMTA has divided Geary plans into two parts – Phase One, the Geary Rapid Project from Gough to Stanyan, and Phase Two, Geary BRT from Stanyan to 28th Avenue. Legislating the Geary Rapid Project lanes is Item 11 on the Tuesday, August 21, 2018 agenda for the SFMTA Board of Directors. San Franciscans should email the directors at MTABoard@sfmta.com and urge the directors to vote against the Geary Rapid Project and demand that staff go back to the original, public understanding of Geary BRT – lanes dedicated to public transit. The health of Muni – which has plans to go all electric in coming years – the economic health of The City, and the health of the planet depend on rejecting such plans. If we are serious about fighting climate change, we have to get this right and make sure this public lanes can accommodate an expanded Muni fleet in the future.

Susan Vaughan is a public transit user and advocate, and member of the MTA CAC.

Sue Vaughan
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