The 19 Polk line is one of four that will get temporary transit lanes added to keep bus travel times down. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA approves temporary transit-only lanes to counter rising congestion

Agency expects car use, traffic to increase as residents return to work

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors greenlit a program Tuesday that will create temporary transit-only lanes reserved for buses, taxis and emergency vehicles.

The four initial routes selected — the 14 Mission, the 19 Polk, the 44 O’Shaughnessy and the 43 Masonic — largely serve riders who rely on public transportation for mobility and focus on areas of The City especially vulnerable to increased traffic as people opt for car travel instead of buses or trains.

The temporary lanes are intended to prevent bus delays, congestion and overcrowding while encouraging people to re-engage with economic and social opportunities as they re-emerge. They are also intended to provide equal opportunity to the many San Franciscans who don’t own a car by providing an efficient means of mobility.

Emergency vehicles and taxis will also be able to use the lanes, and, in some cases, they’ll be bike-accessible, too.

Rider demand and car traffic both plummeted when a shelter-in-place order was issued in March. Muni lines subsequently reported an average of 15% reduction in travel time as the roads emptied out, according to the staff report.

Though car use has started to tick upwards again, Muni ridership hasn’t kept pace, and the months of decline precipitated a massive drop in revenue. Along with reduced capacity requirements to maintain distance between passengers, the drop necessitated a 30% reduction in SFMTA’s service hours and routes as part of the department’s broader Transportation Recovery Plan.

Service reductions would worsen without these emergency transit-only lanes, the staff report asserts, estimating it could cause up to an additional 10% reduction in service and threaten the already reduced revenue stream generated by fares.

“If the proposed changes are not implemented, increasing congestion will lead to reduced transit service frequency and increased crowding on Muni. This would put riders at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 and would slow down The City’s economic recovery by failing to provide adequate service, leading to increased congestion and gridlock on The City’s streets,” the staff report reads.

Transit officials fear cars will become the mode of choice for many who once relied on public transit, but they hope to build on the efficiency of travel time decreases during shelter-in-place, making it easier for riders to access businesses, workplaces and essential destinations.

Nearly 20% of individuals who regularly used buses, subways or trains before the pandemic no longer will, even as businesses and workplaces reopen, according to a nationwide survey of 25,000 people from the IBM Institute for Business Value. Another 28% said they’d use public transit less often.

But essential workers make up the bulk of many public transportation riders. Many are people of color, often low-income, and they’re likely to have no other option. Officials want to ensure their travel isn’t compromised by the impending logjam of highly trafficked corridors as well as guarantee they can travel without threatening their health.

SFMTA’s most recently revised budget for fiscal year 2020-21 includes wide-ranging budget cuts that limit the service the agency can provide, and it projects an eventual return to 70% ridership. Officials note moving even the reduced number of people requires more or quicker buses to accommodate the current six-foot social distancing guidelines.

By avoiding traffic, the limited number of vehicles funded by budget cuts will run uninterrupted and carry the most passengers possible while still keeping them safe.

“In short, any service reductions would restrict the number of potential riders, which would ultimately impact revenue,” the staff report says.

Of the nearly 30 people who called during public comment, most spoke in support of the program, advocated for its expansion and applauded its equity emphasis. The handful who weren’t in support cited concerns that lanes would shift traffic to nearby streets and said some of the selected streets aren’t busy enough to warrant the change, for example.

The initial phase of the program will cost approximately $250,000, according to the staff report. Money will come from the Transit Reliability Spot Improvement fund, since the project would transport emergency services personnel in addition to essential workers, and The City also plans to apply for federal and state reimbursement since the lanes are considered part of its COVID-19 response.

Fashioning the lanes will require changing parking regulations, converting existing curbside travel, adjusting right-turn only and left-turn regulations and making existing lanes wider.

Implementation will start in early August, with the goal of having the lanes fully functional after six to eight weeks. The agency will also develop proposals for additional lanes for consideration and conduct a widespread outreach campaign.

Additionally, the motion included giving the City Traffic Engineer authority to approve new temporary emergency transit lanes after a public hearing if the corridors meet the following set of conditions: They create a 12% time savings or more during emergency; the agency must be planning to bring back Muni service within 45 days of approval; and they do not remove more than one lane per direction and preserve at least one lane per direction.

Staff did commit to bringing regular updates on planned expansions and relevant data to the board, starting with the July 21 meeting.

Transit lanes will expire 120 days after the local emergency order is lifted, unless the Board of Directors makes some or all of them permanent before the order sunsets.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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