Bus Rapid Transit, Muni / SFMTA, San Francisco, Van Ness BRT

Van Ness BRT: Design Alternatives

Last week the SFCTA held two scoping meetings to get public input in drafting the EIS/EIR for the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. This is Part 2 of a three-post series that combines the findings from the earlier feasibility study, the discussion from the meeting, and some of my own comments on the current conception of this project:

At the meeting, rather than filling out the comment card with comments, I wrote the URL of this blog. Rachel Hiatt and other BRT team members at the SFCTA should be checking up on these posts. Since this is a public scoping period, I’m sure they would appreciate your input as well, so please leave your own comments and ideas about this project in the Comments section!

The SFCTA is currently studying a few possible designs for the Van Ness BRT project, and the purpose of this post is to provide some details about the setup, advantages, and disadvantages of each design. This discussion will be accompanied by images and diagrams. As usual, you can click through each image in this post to see full-sized images, which are hosted on my Flickr account.

Before discussing the details specific to each design, it is worth noting that certain features are central to all of the designs being considered:

  1. Dedicated bus lanes: Assuming a transit upgrade is completed, buses will travel in their own lanes. On Van Ness, both Muni and Golden Gate Transit buses would travel in these dedicated lanes. In three of the proposed designs, cars are never allowed in transit lanes. In one design, cars are allowed only for the purposes of parking and right turns.
  2. Stations: Bona fide station platforms would include shelters, extra seats, route maps, and ticket machines. Dimensions would be a minimum of 8 feet wide and 120 feet long, to accommodate two articulated buses. Platforms would also include the now-standard NextMuni screens indicating predictions of the next bus arrival times. Special landmark station designs are also being considered for the most high-traffic transfer points along the line: Geary/O’Farrell, City Hall (McAllister), Oak/Market, and Mission.
  3. POP: Since stations are planned to have ticket machines, payment on Van Ness BRT would be Proof of Payment (POP), just as on Muni Metro. This means that passengers can (legally) board the bus at all doors, thus reducing dwell times.
  4. Transit signal priority: Traffic signals will be redesigned to favor transit vehicles, so that if a bus is near an intersection, a traffic light which might have turned red in the absence of the bus would stay green longer, to allow the bus to pass through the intersection. The general idea here is that buses would only stop at stations, rather than at every traffic light. Also, queue jump signals provide special phases that allow buses entering and exiting the transit lane to pass through an intersection before cars.
  5. Additional street amenities: Although the transit upgrade is the impetus for this project, an important side benefit of BRT is improvement of pedestrian amenities and the streetscape. Every intersection would be outfitted with pedestrian countdown signals that are currently present on some, but not all, intersections. More lighting and greenery would be added, bulbs would constructed to narrow the width of exposed lane that a pedestrian must cross, and landscaping would help to buffer pedestrians from nearby automobile traffic. The City Hall Station (at McAllister) offers especially nice opportunities for a beautiful streetscape that effectively complements the grandeur of the buildings in the immediate area.

The above features would be present in any BRT design on Van Ness. The differences between the designs are concerned with the placement of the transit lanes, station platforms, and landscaped medians. There are 5 potential designs being studied and compared:

Design #1 (No Transit Project): This design is a control subject, which would feature streetscape improvements — additional landscaping in the median, upgraded traffic signals and street lights, and replacement of overhead support poles (not the wires) — but would not involve any actual transit upgrade. Muni service would remain the same, and no lanes would be exclusively dedicated to transit vehicles. Although this alternative is being compared to the others as a control, it obviously offers no improvement to transit service, so we’ll move onto the next four designs.

Design #2 (Curbside Bus Lanes): This design would assign each far right lane of Van Ness to be transit lanes, and stations would be located on the sidewalk, with bus bulbs added to allow extra pedestrian waiting area for pedestrians. Street parking would not be affected. In this design, automobiles and trucks would be restricted from driving in the bus lane but would be permitted to use the lane for parking and right turns. The image on the left is a rendering of this design (at the intersection of Union and Van Ness), and the image on the right shows two lane configurations:

tb_vn_brt_design2_union.jpg tb_vn_brt_design2_diagrams.jpg

Design #3 (Center Side, Two Medians): This design features two exclusive transit lanes in the middle of Van Ness. Stations would consist of two side platforms located to the right of each bus lane. The bus lanes themselves would be right next to each other, and landscaping would provide a buffer between car lanes and transit lanes. Here is a rendering of this design at the intersection with Union, and a diagram of lane configurations:

tb_vn_brt_design3_union.jpg tb_vn_brt_design3_diagrams.jpg

Design #4 (Center Side, One Median): This design features two dedicated transit lanes, with one side platform to serve both northbound and southbound buses. Landscaping would often be in the median, separating the two transit lanes, except at stations. Once more, here are the lane configurations and a rendering, this time at City Hall/McAllister:

tb_vn_brt_design4_cityhall.jpg tb_vn_brt_design4_diagrams.jpg

Design #5 (Center Side, Center Median): This design converts both inner (left) lanes to be dedicated transit lanes. A single, 14-foot-wide island platform in the median would serve as the waiting area for both northbound and southbound passengers. This design would require use of new buses with doors that open on both the left and right sides. Since there would be landscaping in the median, the bus lanes would be separated from each other, as in this City Hall/McAllister rendering:


My opinion is that to really do this project right, we need to move beyond so-called “bus only” lanes that can be used by cars that are turning and parking. We already have plenty of these, and they just don’t do the job properly. Unless the policy is well enforced, many cars will use the bus lane to move past congested traffic in the other lanes. Even if you assume all drivers are altruistic and would never do such a thing, visitors might be not be up to speed on bus lanes. Ideally, the design here would make it so clear which lanes are exclusively reserved for buses that there would be no room for confusion.

To reap the full benefits of this project, I believe we should only seriously consider one of three center-side BRT designs. Although the costs and impact of construction are least in the curbside BRT (design #2), the transit benefit gained is also least. Design #2 would improve transit times by 24%, but one of designs #3, 4, or 5 would improve transit times by 30%. In terms of actual minutes: a 19.4 minute bus trip between Mission and Lombard would reduce to 14.9 minutes with design #2 and to 13.5 minutes with designs #3, 4, or 5. In the meantime, the effect on auto travel time is miniscule: with a center-side BRT, auto travel times would increase from 11.2 to 11.5 minutes; with design #2, there would be no increase.

Choosing between designs #3, 4, and 5 comes down to flexibility of transit operations. Designs #3 and 4 require transit lanes to weave around turn lanes and station platforms, which leads to a slightly less comfortable ride. Having both transit lanes next to each other is useful in terms of having buses pass each other, but the extreme separation from car lanes makes it more difficult to remove any buses that might break down. Design #5 requires no such weaving, but if one bus needs to pass another bus that is going in the same direction, it would be necessary to merge in and out of a car lane.

What do you think about the designs? Which do you like the best? Also, coming soon: the third and last post in this initial series on Van Ness BRT.

All images and diagrams above courtesy San Francisco County Transportation Authority.



10 thoughts on “Van Ness BRT: Design Alternatives

  1. In my opinion there needs to be no cars in these lanes. The outer lane option will not be a big enough improvement. Drivers will use them to get around traffic if there isn’t a physical barrier. Half measures are just not going to work on Van Ness. This is such an important corridor and it is amazing that its taken this long to get serious about transit down Van Ness.

    Posted by Stephen Woods | 8 October 2007, 7:32 am
  2. I forsee another BRT debacle. TheBus in Honolulu got encouraged to use curbside lanes, and then the whole thing fell apart as it became obvious that “bus-only except for parking and right-turn” lanes are useless. Watch for the same dynamic here – I’d almost bet on it.

    Center lanes would be almost as expensive as just doing light rail, which, of course, is what you should be doing. You’re going to regret rolling over for Bush’s FTA guys on this one, big-time.

    Posted by M1EK | 8 October 2007, 8:29 am
  3. Stephen: I agree entirely.

    M1EK: I’m not sure about Honolulu, but in San Francisco, we already have allegedly “bus only” lanes which permit turns and parking, but which are horribly abused. These lanes, as a very immediate example, immediately cast suspicion on the curbside BRT option.

    Posted by Eric | 8 October 2007, 8:41 am
  4. M1EK, if course light rail is better. Unfortunately there is no money in the budget for the trainsets. BRT if done right is a half measure, but a good half measure. Center lanes create the right of way so that in the future, when the state decides that investing in thing like infrastructure instead of lower taxes for Orange County, building out light rail will be cheaper and easier. And in the mean time center lane BRT is way better than in-traffic buses.

    Posted by Stephen | 8 October 2007, 11:15 am
  5. If the T-Third is any example, even surface light rail is not as easy as it sounds like it should be, at least in this town. Admittedly, that project had extra engineering hurdles (i.e. the bridges) that wouldn’t be problematic on Van Ness. Still, even if a subway is preferable, the process of planning (and paying for) such a project would put Van Ness transit on hold for years and years. Meanwhile, current bus service will only worsen as congestion increases.

    Posted by Eric | 8 October 2007, 11:46 am
  6. In my opinion, the only ‘real’ option is plan 3. It physically separates auto traffic from the bus lanes and doesn’t require the purchase of new rolling stock.

    Posted by kfarr | 12 October 2007, 10:02 am
  7. That would probably be my preferred plan, assuming that no further changes are made. However, we are still a couple years away from finally settling on and approving a design.

    Posted by Eric | 12 October 2007, 10:12 am
  8. I have to agree with M1TK, BRT seems like a cheap half-solution that future generations will find vexing and ask “who the hell’s idea was it to build this thing in the first place”. Furthermore it seems like the proponents of this type of system are same of the same ilk that destroyed public transport in this country in the first place.

    Posted by John | 9 March 2008, 1:43 pm
  9. I agree with kfarr. Clearly, Design Alternative #3, center side, with two medians, is the only worthwhile plan, completely separating the transit traffic from the auto traffic with it’s own dedicated right of way. In addition, it’s the best design for future conversion to a light rail line, and makes the side streets for autos more human in scale.

    Posted by Surf | 7 May 2008, 10:11 am
  10. Extend it ALL THE WAY OUT to the Excelsior, do not make such a short-visioned step towards BRT lines and the Mission and Excelsior neighborhoods along the 49 route and 14/14L that depend on the needed improvement to access jobs, and there housing.

    Posted by Aaron Goodman | 29 November 2011, 10:55 am

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