Pandemic experiments morph into long-term solutions for SF transit agency

The streets of San Francisco became real-time laboratories for The City’s public transit agency during the pandemic. Slow streets. Transit-only...

The streets of San Francisco became real-time laboratories for The City’s public transit agency during the pandemic. Slow streets. Transit-only lanes. Curb management.

The SFMTA tried a little bit of everything, experimenting with novel solutions to quickly address COVID-era problems while avoiding bureaucracy and a typically slow approval process.

Now, it appears some of these temporary measures will become permanent solutions.

Just last week, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency voted to formalize the first of these pandemic-era trials — those transit-only lanes put in on Mission Street, between First and 11th streets.

Rolled out as a temporary solution in June 2020, the transit-only lanes reduced travel times on the 14-Mission and 14R-Mission Rapid between 18 and 20 percent, according to SFMTA staff. The new lanes require the removal of approximately 175 parking spots on one side of Mission Street.

In the “Before Times,” this trade-off might have been a death wish for the project. But not now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way SFMTA will approach its work on city streets, according to the transit agency’s director Jeffrey Tumlin, upping its willingness to take bold steps and collaborate with other agencies to address persistent problems facing the public.

“The future SFMTA will be much more innovative in our approach to meet peoples’ needs in real time,” he told The Examiner.

More than a dozen total miles of transit-only lanes were implemented citywide over the last year. They are just one example of how SFMTA has pulled off projects that might have otherwise taken months, if not longer, to approve and implement prior to the pandemic.

Using authority granted to it under The City’s public health declaration, the SFMTA rolled out a slew of changes intended to mitigate the public health emergency. Many of the new ideas have become commonplace over the last year, such as Slow Streets, changes to curbside loading zones and the creation of new or modified Muni routes to support different traffic patterns.

The 15-Bayview Hunters Point Express is a good example: residents of the southeastern neighborhoods, many of whom were essential workers and couldn’t do their jobs from home, reported overcrowding and unreliability on existing Muni lines, so SFMTA created a bus route to serve them.

“During COVID, we broke down lots of silos, working collaboratively within the agency, other departments and with the community,” said SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato. “We will continue to meet people where they are.”

SFMTA has collected data and reports of user experiences that it says will inform whether it brings proposals to the agency’s board of directors for potential permanence.

Some will make the cut — transit-only lanes and a number of Slow Streets, for example — while others will be ditched or rendered irrelevant once the pandemic has passed.

Whatever the outcome, the decisions are made easier by testing projects on the streets and seeing how they work in a real-life context. Doing so helps SFMTA “make the hard choices” and allows them to make adjustments if something isn’t working, transit officials say.

This concept of “pilot as outreach” has long been supported by transit advocates on the premise that it allows SFMTA to use easily reversible and lower-cost tools to understand potential impacts of a more permanent proposal while still providing benefits to the public in the interim.

“Too many improvements get delayed because they get wrapped up into a larger project that can take years to develop, then get input on, then present to the public, then get more input on,” said Cat Carter, spokesperson for the San Francisco Transit Riders. “In the meantime, riders are still stuck with slow, unreliable service.”

SFMTA emphasizes that this pilot-first approach doesn’t intend to exclude public input. Rather, it just aims to allow the public to respond to a potential project’s actual consequences, not an abstract rendering of them.

“It confirms everything we did during COVID and confirms our strategic vision,” Tumlin said, of results released earlier this month from an SFMTA survey that found 69 percent of respondents approve of the job being done by the transit agency.

Fast-paced change hasn’t been embraced by all.

The partial closure of the Great Highway and Golden Gate Park’s John F. Kennedy Drive to vehicles has resulted in significant backlash against what some perceive to be a lack of public input when making major changes to city streets.

“This was a poor plan implemented too quickly without enough alternatives,” said one speaker during public comment at Tuesday’s County Transportation Authority meeting.

With this newly articulated vision for the future of San Francisco’s transit agency comes the natural question: What’s next?

SFMTA plans to bring a proposal to the Board of Directors on July 20 to recommend a set of permanent Slow Streets. It has already announced that Sanchez, Page and Shotwell streets will be first to go down the path to permanence.

The SFMTA survey also found most respondents wanted to see plans to bring back increased service as soon as possible, with a preference for frequent, reliable service over proximity to a person’s home.

Carter said that could look like connecting every neighborhood with end-to-end service in 30 minutes by 2030: “That’s the level of service that could provide equitable access and mobility for all San Franciscans, and allow a lot more people to leave their cars behind.”

Still, some longtime transit advocates remain skeptical of how serious SFMTA is about its commitment to The City’s nearly 50-year-old transit-first policy and its climate change agenda.

They point to a rich history of projects that go from comprehensive to piecemeal, transformative to compromised. Most recently, plans for the temporary transit-only lane to serve the 1-California bus line, in neighborhoods known to be particularly transit-dependent including the Financial District, Chinatown and Nob Hill, were modified to accommodate demands from car owners.

All told, the temporary project impacts 218 parking spaces across the three neighborhoods, but that number would have been higher if not for concerns from residents. Their push-back prompted SFMTA to nix two blocks of transit-only lanes on the corridor and limit operating hours on others.

“Time after time these projects get watered down and pander to car parking, but dozens of us have commented that it violates transit-first, so, seriously, please answer, how do we actually enforce transit-first,” Robin Kutner said during public comment at the April 20 meeting. “Our planet is on fire. Forget parking. Speed up buses.”

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