In San Francisco, the Transportation Authority and SFMTA are moving forward to recommend a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for bus rapid transit on Van Ness Avenue, signaling that a long planning process will be drawing to a close later this year. This critical north-south corridor between Mission and Lombard is served by Muni’s 47 and 49 routes, as well as Golden Gate Transit, and offers transfers to many east-west Muni services to downtown and the west side of the city. Although the 47 and 49 offer frequent service on paper, actual headways do not reflect these theoretical combined headways. Buses bunch frequently, and the mix of 40-foot and articulated buses operating on the corridor can create a mismatch between the size of the crowd standing at the stop and the capacity of the vehicle that arrives to pick up that crowd.
Although not a cure-all because of the considerable portions of both routes that will operate outside of the Van Ness facility, the package of amenities offered by BRT — particularly dedicated lanes, signal priority, and more widely spaced stops — will help improve these conditions. Toward this end, the TA and Muni are recommending a real BRT alternative, with dedicated transit lanes in the center of Van Ness and stations placed to allow for transfers to intersecting routes. The stations will allow boarding on the right, avoiding the need to procure special vehicles opening on both sides, although lanes will weave slightly around parts of the existing median. The recommended LPA also promises to improve transit performance further by eliminating nearly all left turn opportunities for automobiles in the corridor.
One reason why it is particularly gratifying that Muni and the TA are endorsing a center-running LPA is that, until the announcement this week, it was not necessarily clear that a center-running design would be recommended over the inferior side-running alternative.
From the perspective of improving transit performance, building dedicated bus-only lanes in the center of Van Ness (as depicted above in the sample schematic for the recommended alternative) is unquestionably the winning formula. While the side-running design would benefit from improvements to stops, it would also allow motorists to enter the marked transit lane for the (officially stated) purposes of parallel parking and right turns, and thus would practically be only marginally better than the so-called “transit only” lanes already in place in certain corridors. On the other hand, buses operating in a dedicated space free of traffic, vehicle turning movements, and parking maneuvers will perform better even than buses relieved of a subset of those conditions. By 2015, bus speeds would increase on average from the current 5 miles per hour to 7 mph, but only 6 mph for side-running. Center-running transit travel times in the corridor would decrease 33 percent with limited left turns, but just 19 percent for side-running. Center-running also performs better on reliability, increasing ridership, and reducing operating costs (or, alternatively, allowing service to be increased at no additional cost). 
Originally, an LPA for Van Ness was supposed to be announced a couple months ago, but it was not actually announced until this week. A reason for the delay was a disagreement between Muni and the TA regarding which alternative should be moved forward as the preferred alternative. Although not aired and debated in a public forum, this disagreement centered on misgivings expressed by Muni about adopting a superior center-running alternative. This was not the word of the agency, as the MTA Board has yet to weigh in on the LPA, but rather, misgivings expressed by certain individuals at Muni.
It may seem counterintuitive that a transit operator would be reluctant to endorse an alternative that offers the best opportunity to improve reliability and transit travel time on one of its most important corridors, reduce operating costs, and increase ridership. On the other hand, basically any time I had occasion to discuss Van Ness with TA staffers on an individual basis throughout the study process, they came as close to favoring a centered transitway as one could reasonably expect from individuals working for an agency that has not yet completed its review or taken an official position on the issue. Once it was confirmed that a disagreement requiring resolution explained the delay in selecting the LPA, it was not all that surprising that Muni was at the root of the discord. Less clear is why. Innate distrust of buses with doors that open on the left? Pressure to institute impromptu stops between branded, more widely spaced “rapid” transit stops? Paralysis by fear of the unknown? Simple agency inertia? A fear that transit speeds might actually catch up to those of a century ago?
It is an unfortunate reality that, among the modes that might be considered for a transit upgrade, BRT is particularly susceptible to dilution in the face of political weakness. Even for Van Ness — a critical transit link, where the City is taking advantage of the street overhaul to complete other public works improvements in the corridor, including resurfacing — the urge to dilute and reluctance to commit can come into play. It is therefore encouraging to see the two agencies arrive at mutual agreement to do what’s best for transit riders.
The LPA for Van Ness BRT will be considered by other boards and commissions throughout May, including the Planning Commission on May 10, the MTA on May 15, the TA’s P&P committee also on May 15, and the TA on May 22, with the latter three presumably voting on the recommended alternative. With Muni and the TA uniting to endorse a center-running project, the essential features of this recommended alternative have a good chance of moving through the approval process unscathed, thereafter to be analyzed in the final environmental document and hopefully officially approved later this year. San Francisco is ready to put transit-first into action, by reallocating street real estate for exclusive use by transit riders and committing to build real BRT on this important corridor.
 Measuring reliability as the probability of encountering an “unexpected” stop (i.e., a stop forced by traffic conditions or traffic signals, rather than to drop off and pick up passengers), the TA estimates that buses have a 30 percent chance of encountering an unexpected stop on each block for center-running BRT with limited left turns, compared to a 50 percent chance for side-running. The TA also estimates a 37 percent increase in ridership on routes using the BRT facility for center-running (compared to 29 percent for side-running).