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Study shows Mission red lanes improve street safety, signal citywide implications

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A Muni bus drives in the red bus and taxi only lane at 16th and Mission streets Thursday, May 5, 2016.(Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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A red-hot debate over “red carpet” bus-only lanes in the Mission District has pitted neighborhood advocates against the transit officials behind the project.

Now, an independent study shows myriad safety benefits to the Muni-only red lanes and demonstrates drivers behaving with more precaution on the road since the lanes were painted.

Supporters of the red lanes say the findings by local tech company Zendrive may be applicable across numerous transit projects in The City, many of which mirror the Mission red lanes not only in benefits but in rebuke from the community.

That includes the hotly debated Geary Bus Rapid Transit project, which would see transit-only lanes span Geary Boulevard from the Richmond District to the Tenderloin.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency painted the controversial bus- and taxi-only lanes along Mission Street from 14th to 30th streets in February last year. The changes were packaged with a number of turn restrictions that have frustrated drivers and store owners, who complained of a drop in business after the lane installation.

Released in mid-March, the Zendrive study showed the red lanes not only benefited the 67,000 daily riders of the 14-Mission and 49-Van Ness buses that utilize the lanes, but also private autos and pedestrians.

The company collected data on 7,500 drivers, 100,000 trips and 1.1 million miles driven — between Jan. 1, 2016, and Oct. 31, 2016 — to measure driving behaviors on Mission Street. After the Mission red lanes were installed, Zendrive found a 16 percent reduction in “risky events” per 1,000 trips on Mission Street.

Excessive speeding on Mission Street was reduced by 36 percent, aggressive acceleration reduced by 30 percent, hard braking by 21 percent and “risky phone use” by 8 percent, according to the study.

The findings, Zendrive wrote, “represent a promising sign for the continued decline of crashes” along Mission Street.

Cellphone use was not impacted by the Mission red lanes project, according to the study, but was a metric used to compare against the change in other behaviors.

But not everyone saw the study with rose-colored glasses.

Gabriel Medina, policy manager at the Mission Economic Development Agency, is one of the neighborhood voices who have long opposed the Mission red lanes. He said the study only presented some of the relevant numbers and left out important information.

“Ultimately, what the results of that study really demonstrates, and is misleading about SFMTA’s current data, is there are less cars on Mission Street,” he said, and that has led to a drop in business for many surrounding merchants. “It’s so hard to even drive on Mission Street.”

The SFMTA was unable to provide data on how many private cars drove along the corridor before and after the project.

The SFMTA did show goodwill, Medina said, by paying for advertisements to entice Latinos, who are often displaced into other neighborhoods, back to the Mission District.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Mission, was unavailable to comment on the Mission red lanes Thursday.

The Mission isn’t the only neighborhood to decry the transit-only lanes. Merchant groups on Taraval Street and Geary Boulevard pushed back against projects with transit-only lanes, too. But unlike the Mission red carpet lanes, which are complete, some changes on Taraval are still in the pilot phase, and Geary BRT awaits numerous approvals from the SFMTA Board of Directors — meaning, aspects of those projects may still change.

The Geary BRT project, which would see transit-only lanes paired with train-like boarding islands for buses, drew not only ire from merchants but a lawsuit.

Peter Gallotta, a former member of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s Citizen Advisory Committee for Geary BRT, said the Zendrive study highlighted the project’s potential benefits to Geary Boulevard merchants and neighbors alike.

“As the evidence suggests here, and the Transportation Authority has shown data on, these improvements to our streets do result in traffic calming,” Gallotta said. “They do result in faster travel times for our buses, better experiences, safer experiences for pedestrians.”

Supervisor Sandra Fewer has frequently voiced criticism of Geary BRT. When shown the new Mission red lane study by Zendrive, her position remained unchanged.

“I think my concerns still remain the same — how is the Geary BRT part of a larger transit plan for the district and how does it connect the Richmond to the rest of San Francisco,” Fewer told the San Francisco Examiner in a statement.

Fewer added, “My concern with the Geary BRT was not about the red carpeting but rather how this it fits in with a larger transit plan.”

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