Buses on Geary Boulevard, The City’s busiest transit corridor, have remained full during shelter-in-place. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Emergency transit-only lanes on Geary could help ease crowding on buses

SFMTA proposal intended to help commuting essential workers

Faced with crowded buses, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency wants to add temporary transit-only lanes on Geary Boulevard, a move it says will spur economic recovery and support essential workers.

Geary is one of San Francisco’s busiest corridors, with a pre-pandemic daily average of 56,000 riders on its two major bus lines, the 38-Geary and 38R-Geary Rapid.

Both lines have continued to see high ridership during shelter-in-place and, at times, crowding, demonstrating their importance to essential workers and transit-dependent residents.

As car traffic ticks up, buses are getting caught in the congestion. Delays are causing overcrowding and essential workers are getting skipped by drivers heeding social distancing guidelines.

“If just a fraction of the people riding transit before the crisis begin driving alone, traffic congestion will be so severe that it could paralyze The City’s economic recovery,” the SMTA’s proposal states.

Enter transit-only lanes.

Lanes reserved for buses and taxis are proposed on segments of Geary Boulevard west of Stanyan Street in both the outbound and inbound directions: eastbound from 33rd to 28th avenues, 27th to 24th avenues and 16th Avenue to Stanyan Street; and westbound from Stanyan Street to 15th Avenue, 24th to 25th avenues, and 27th to 32nd avenues.

If approved, the transit-only lanes would replace the existing curbside lanes currently available for all vehicular travel. They would be demarcated by white paint, signage and “Bus/Taxi Only” signage and in effect 24 hours per day.

With a robust budget, perhaps SFMTA could flood the zone with more operators and buses.

But financial constraints mean the agency can only pay for so many hours of labor by drivers and cleaners, and it can’t just simply add more buses to heavily-trafficked routes.

By creating lanes exclusively for transit, SFMTA believes buses will be able to cover their entire routes more frequently within the same period of time. Doing so would mitigate delays, limit crowding and leverage limited agency resources toward transporting more passengers.

These lanes, according to SFMTA, will facilitate economic recovery by enabling essential workers to access their workplaces and bring other riders to nearby commercial corridors.

SFMTA will solicit public feedback on its plan to install emergency temporary transit-only lanes on Geary Boulevard at a virtual public hearing on Sept. 24.

Transit-only lanes aren’t a new concept, especially not on Geary Boulevard.

Plans to overhaul the street to make public transit faster and more reliable on two of The City’s busiest bus routes were responsible for a decades-long dispute between Muni and the commercial district’s merchants.

Business owners criticized the originally proposed Geary Bus Rapid Transit project, saying it would take away parking and make it harder for customers to access their storefronts. A group of Geary merchants and neighbors called San Francisco for Sensible Transit sued The City on allegations it had failed to adequately review the environmental impact of the project and had based its report on outdated information.

Eventually, the project was broken into two phases, renamed the Geary Rapid Project and the Geary Bouelvard Improvement Project and scaled down in favor of less comprehensive street changes and safety measures.

Work on the first phase, the Rapid Project began in 2018 and remains underway. It includes roughly two new miles of transit-only lanes in each direction between Stanyan and Gough streets as well as bicycle markings to help bicyclists cross Geary Boulevard at Webster, Steiner and Masonic streets.

The second phase focuses on the Richmond District, west of Stanyan Street in the same corridors where SFMTA is currently proposing temporary emergency transit-only lanes.

Currently on hold, the Improvement Project includes plans to redesign street traffic for center-running bus-only lanes, construct boarding islands in an attempt to replicate the efficiency of light-rail service, and enhance the safety of all travelers through street-level changes such as sidewalk extensions, new crosswalks and roadway repaving.

SFMTA will look at the outcome of the emergency transit-only lanes on these roadways to inform next steps.

“In both cases, the purpose is to provide faster and more reliable bus service; however in the case of the emergency transit lanes, the need to speed up buses is all the more urgent so that we can minimize crowding and protect the public health of people who are reliant on the bus to make essential trips,” an SFMTA spokesperson said.

The agency estimates the emergency transit lane project on Geary Boulevard will cost less than $500,000, with most of the funding coming from a combination of local revenue sources including general fund transfers and the transit sustainability fee paid by new developments.

It will also apply for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state reimbursement for the transit-only lanes since they’re considered a direct response to the COVID-19 emergency, an SFMTA spokesperson said.

Officials emphasized the modifications to be discussed at the Sept. 24 virtual hearing aren’t permanent. They must be removed within 120 days after the emergency order is lifted, and any efforts to extend their implementation would require formal approval from the SFMTA Board of Directors as well as extensive environmental review and public comment.

Members of the public can attend the town hall virtually at noon Sept. 24 via the SFMTA website.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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