It’s time for private transit to get out of Muni’s way.
That’s the message from Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who on Monday announced her intention to legally bar private transit vehicles, like tech-industry commuter shuttles, from red transit-only lanes meant to speed public buses.
Fewer’s announcement that she would ask the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to help her craft legislation limiting private access to the transit lanes came at the tail-end of a City Hall hearing where San Franciscans from all corners of The City said they were seeing red over the city policy allowing it.
“The goal should be that public transit is the main mode of the people in San Francisco,” Fewer told the public Tuesday.
Fewer said she wanted to craft legislation to ensure only Muni buses, SFMTA-regulated taxis and paratransit for people with disabilities could use transit-only lanes, which are often called “red carpet” lanes. The hearing was co-sponsored by Supervisor Hillary Ronen.
Transit-only lanes have stretched across San Francisco since the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the SFMTA decided to paint them red in 2016 that they became especially effective at speeding public buses. The change cut the number of violators using the lanes in half, according to SFMTA staffer Sean Kennedy.
Numerous studies over the years have found such lanes are a boon to transit, speeding up slow buses and trains during commute hours.
However controversy arose in August when SFMTA Citizen Advisory Council member Sue Vaughan discovered the agency planned to allow private transit vehicles use of the soon-to-come Geary Rapid Project red carpet lanes. The discovery has drawn protests from activists and organizations across The City.
The South of Market Community Action Network, United to Save the Mission, Chinatown Community Development Center, Chinatown TRIP, Inner Sunset Action Community, Senior Disability Action, San Francisco Transit Riders and other advocacy groups spoke out Monday against private use of public Muni-only lanes.
Fran Taylor, an advocate with Senior Disability Action, said she’s broken bones frequently enough to repeatedly need to visit Kaiser hospital via Muni. When on crutches and using a cast, she said, it is even more vital Muni buses are reliable and speedy, so she can get a seat. Private transit flies in the face of that, she said.
“As a transit rider I can say I love the red lanes,” she said, but doesn’t want to see them used for commuter shuttles. “I call them ‘gated communities on wheels.’”
At Monday’s hearing,Sean Kennedy, head of the Muni Forward program at SFMTA, downplayed the impact of private transit vehicles in red carpet lanes. “They haven’t been shown to be a major impediment to travel time,” Kennedy said. Many of the shuttles using the red lanes don’t make stops along them, he said, and are “just continuing down the lane and not getting in our way.”
SFMTA transportation analyst Alex Jonlin estimated that there are some 100 Chariot private buses in San Francisco, and roughly 1,000 commuter shuttles, with about 400 on the road on “any given day.” But there are still many vehicles in private transit lanes SFMTA has not measured nor accounted for — from hospital shuttles operated by Kaiser and UCSF, educational shuttles for Academy of Art University, casino buses and tour buses.
Fewer was livid at the analysis provided despite a “concerning” lack of data.
“We don’t have any data on these buses, hundreds and hundreds of buses, on whether it slows down transit times?” she asked the planners.
They answered “no,” as those shuttles are mostly regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Monday’s hearing also marked an apparent shift in public attitude toward the red carpet lanes. Previously, homeowners and merchants have criticized the lanes for making traveling by car more difficult, potentially driving away customers from mom and pop shops. On Monday, however, while many public speakers echoed those concerns, they also expressed frustration with seeing tech shuttles and “Google buses” infringe on their public right of way.
At the meeting, even those who once rode private transit modes stumped against their use of red carpet lanes.
Peter Hosey, a four-year long rider of those gleaming commuter shuttles, told the supervisors “I’m a former tech worker and I can tell you they should not be on public transit lanes.”