The SFMTA Board of Directors is set to vote on a new chair and vice chair next week. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Private transit access to red bus lanes angers advocates

Those red transit-only lanes whisking buses across The City apparently aren’t just for Muni.

Private commuter shuttles for the tech industry, hospital shuttles, casino buses and — potentially — even the private transit company Chariot may all use some of the soon-to-come red lanes on Geary Boulevard, a public records request by transit advocates has revealed.

That revelation is drawing public criticism of the newest red lanes up for approval at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors Tuesday meeting, when the directors may approve parking changes to allow the Geary Rapid project, formerly known as Geary BRT, to move forward.

That $35 million project will see red transit-only lanes stretch down Geary Boulevard to allow the 38-Geary and 38R-Geary Rapid buses to shoot down the street separately from car traffic, speeding up the nearly 54,000 daily trips on those lines. The 38-Geary is the most trafficked bus line in the United States west of the Mississippi, according to the agency, with daily ridership nearly that of the entire Caltrain system.

The SFMTA board is set to vote Tuesday on one phase of the Geary Rapid project, which will see red lanes stripe the side of Geary Boulevard from Market to Stanyan Street.

But public records requests conducted by SFMTA Citizen Advisory Council member Sue Vaughan revealed those lanes may be used for private transit, which the SFMTA confirmed Friday. And it turns out that applies to red lanes citywide.

“We want to highlight that this is a citywide policy, and does not apply only to Geary,” wrote Erica Kato, an SFMTA spokesperson, in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner.

That means the red lanes splashing their way across San Francisco — from Mission Street to downtown — can potentially be used by all manner of private transit systems, as long as they meet the state vehicle code definition of a bus. That code also defines for-profit buses or nonprofit organization buses as legally designated buses. There are only a few exceptions to this rule, like the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit red lanes, which are Muni and Golden Gate Transit-only, or the Haight contra-flow transit-only lane.

“The public has been misled” about red transit-only lanes, Vaughan alleged.

SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said private vehicles shouldn’t interfere greatly with Muni.

“Given the relatively small numbers of these vehicles on the corridor, we don’t expect them to pose delays or operational challenges for Muni service,” Kato wrote in a statement. “From a policy perspective, these lanes function like ‘super carpool’ lanes, giving priority to vehicles moving people more space efficiently than single-occupancy cars.”

One Chariot route runs along Geary Boulevard now, as well as tour buses, buses bound for Graton Casino, paratransit shuttles for the Institute on Aging, Kaiser medical shuttles and more use the corridor, according to SFMTA.

Despite the agency’s assurances that everything will run smoothly, records obtained by Vaughan show the SFMTA may only have recently realized the Geary Rapid project would see private transit in red lanes, despite years of planning.

Vaughan said in meeting after meeting, SFMTA billed the red transit-only lanes as needed to speed up Muni buses. Private transit? Never mentioned, she alleged.

“For 15 years we thought this would be for public transportation,” Vaughan said. “It’s a corporate giveaway.”

Emails obtained by Vaughan reveal that Liz Brisson, an SFMTA Major Corridors Planning Manager who is heading the Geary Rapid project, was seemingly unaware private transit could run on Geary at all, and only considered the question after Vaughan requested the information as a member of the CAC.

In a July email Brisson sent to her colleagues, which was obtained by Vaughan, Brisson wrote “This might be a dumb question, but I wasn’t certain so I didn’t answer at the meeting. I have a recollection from Ian that transit is defined by # of seats in the vehicle. But in Section 7.2.72 of the Transportation Code, it specifically mentions “public transit vehicles” … Do you know? Thanks, Liz.”

Indeed, Vaughan’s inquiry even prompted a meeting between a bevy of SFMTA planners, including Muni Forward program manager Sean Kennedy and Brisson.

That reason for that meeting was laid out in a memo for the planners, which read, “Prompted by a question at SFMTA CAC about whether Chariot and Tech Shuttles could use the transit only lanes, the purpose of this meeting is to discuss whether we might legislate as Muni/(Golden Gate Transit)/Taxi Only Lanes.”

Vaughan said she was particularly troubled the planners were unclear over whether private transit vehicles should use the red lanes, as the Geary Rapid project has been studied and planned for more than a decade. She wasn’t the only one concerned.

“Given the amount of buses that run on Geary, Muni deserves its own lane without any other conflicts,” said Rachel Hyden, executive director of the transit riders group.

Whether or not that’s the case could be determined Tuesday.


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