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

Van Ness BRT: Service Plans

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 3 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!

So far, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing why transit relief on Van Ness is needed, as well as what Van Ness might look like were it to be outfitted with a BRT system. Noticeably absent from this discussion so far has been mention of the actual service itself. However, infrastructure is created as a means of a realizing the desire to provide certain types and levels of service, so there is value to thinking/speculating about this early.

The TA has outlined where 11 BRT stations would likely be located — essentially at all locations where one can transfer to one of the radial routes heading to or from downtown: Union, Broadway, Washington, California, Sutter/Post, Geary/O’Farrell, Eddy/Turk, McAllister, Hayes, Oak/Market, and Mission. The plan eliminates stops for cross streets that are not transfer opportunities, and it consolidates one-way street stops into pairs that are served by the same bus line, e.g. the transfer to the 38 is one stop between Geary and O’Farrell, rather than two stops. Under this 11-stop arrangement proposed by the TA, the average distance between bus stops would be 940 feet, as compared to the current average of 700 feet.

This is a step in the right direction, but with so many stops, you’ll lose out on what is one of the key points of this whole project: increased speed. The tendency to create too many stops is one factor that explains why the new T-Third rail line has been so sluggish. In that case, the 15 bus was eliminated; to compensate for the lack of local service, too many stations were put on the line, and I feel that the same tendency is creeping into this BRT project. Rapid transit systems all around the world have proven an important principle: the average rider is willing to walk a couple extra blocks if it means waiting little time for a bus or train that travels quickly. This idea suggests that even further consolidation of stops is advised, beyond what the TA has suggested. Ideally, I would cut this number of stops on the BRT line down even further, from 5 per mile to 2-3 per mile; for example: Union, Jackson, California, Geary/O’Farrell, McAllister, Oak/Market, Mission. This layout is still very accessible, as you would never be more than 2-3 blocks away from a stop.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with building more stops, as long as not every bus serves every stop; this is where service innovation comes into play. If the full 11 stops under discussion are constructed, a new route should be created — let’s call it the “BRT Express” — which does not stop everywhere. Several variations on the express idea could be investigated, including perhaps one that only stops at Geary/O’Farrell and Oak/Market. And let’s face it: even with the dedicated lane, there are still going to be reliability issues on the 47 and the 49, simply because these lines will still travel on large stretches with no dedicated lane. An attractive feature of a “BRT Express” type route is that it would travel entirely within the new stretch of dedicated lane — which means that it has a chance to run on a real, bona fide schedule, unlike many (or is that all?) current Muni lines.

Even more creative uses of the BRT lanes should be studied. For example, it is worth noting that the intersection of Van Ness and Grove is essentially equidistant from both the Van Ness subway station, and the Civic Center station. The difference is, of course, that Civic Center is served by all the BART lines, in addition to Muni Metro, while Van Ness station lacks the BART connection. Another service alternative that might be good to investigate is to have some buses turn left on Grove and provide direct service to BART via the station entrance at Grove/Hyde/Market. There are a couple disadvantages to this turn: (1) There would be some portion of the route where buses run in mixed flow with cars, unless you restricted cars from the easternmost portion of Grove or turned it one-way; and (2) traffic sometimes backs up on Grove, since cars there have to merge into the southbound traffic on Hyde to cross Market over to 8th Street. Still, there is something nice about a direct BART connection, as it emphasizes the importance of Van Ness as a regional corridor. Riders on the 49 line traveling between the Van Ness corridor and the Mission District could enjoy shorter travel times by using a BRT to BART transfer, rather than just riding the 49 all the way down Mission. The same would be true of those traveling in the Van Ness corridor bound for the East Bay or Peninsula. If a direct connection is made to Civic Center, the 47 and 49 routes should remain undisturbed. Rather, the “BRT Express” suggestion I mentioned above (that would run only in the dedicated portion north of Market) could at least partially serve Civic Center.

Obviously, this post has been speculative, but there are really just a few things to draw away from it. Since one of the goals of this project is to increase bus speed, express service should be investigated closely. Anecdotal evidence between friends and coworkers on BRT’s success in this regard (“Hey, guess what? It only took me 4 minutes to get from Geary to Market this morning!”) is one way to reassure people that Muni actually can do something right and, in turn, increase ridership. At the same time, discussion of service innovations should inform discussion about design choice. Introducing express buses, for example, requires that the system allow for buses to easily pass one another. Although passing might work well in design #3, where the two transit lanes are adjacent, it might be more difficult in design #5, where the passing bus would have to enter a car lane.

Generally, though, I would urge the TA to think big, be meticulously detail-oriented, and perhaps most important of all, be creative. All of the above characteristics have been largely lacking from city transit planning in recent years, and a well-designed and effective BRT system on Van Ness could be just the thing to get folks excited about transit again.




18 thoughts on “Van Ness BRT: Service Plans

  1. Eric, do you know why exactly there are so many stops on SF Muni lines? I really don’t get it. On my main bus to and from the BART (#23) there are literally stops on every block. It is clearly one of the reasons for muni delays. I assume this is something to do with SF machine politics of some kind.

    Posted by Stephen | 8 October 2007, 11:17 am
  2. It’s really a big problem. On some lines (the 1-California jumps instantly to mind), you find two stops on the same block. Increased accessibility is the main justification (adding to the figure that 90%+ of residents live within a couple blocks of a Muni stop), and I suspect that the large number of stops is the cumulative result of demands and petitions over the years. The issue, though, is that that sort of approach lacks holistic, system-wide planning. With bus stops, less is often more, and the Transit Effectiveness Project should help to identify which stops should be eliminated in order to increase efficiency.

    Posted by Eric | 8 October 2007, 11:32 am
  3. Eric, your reasoning sounds pretty good to me. I have found the “mass transit” in SF to be a joke in so many ways, I have to keep myself from thinking about it to keep from getting irritated. My suggestion would be to send anyone who has a vote to New York City for a week and make give them destinations and a schedule they have to adhere to. Then do the same here. It is painful to ride Caltrain, as I have for the past few years, to and from the peninsula. While this is not what you are discussing here, I think it is indicative of how the transit in the bay area has been designed and operates. Nobody in the train station seems to care or know what trains are going where. Riders are only allowed on the trains immediately prior to departure and I have been told this is because they are “cleaning” the trains. So, instead there are potentially a couple of hundred people jammed into the station room waiting for the doors to be opened at peak times. Comedy. The best is not having any audible confirmation telling you what train you are on until AFTER the doors close and the train leaves the station. There has only been one time that the engineer announced the train name and stops prior to the doors closing in the 3 years that I have been riding.

    But, not that I have ranted, I think the idea of mass transit is simple….give people a reason to ride and they will. Express trains/buses are a must. Stopping on every block or close to it is a joke. How does that help anyone get someplace? If people can’t walk 3 or 4 blocks to get a bus, then they probably can’t get onto the bus or get anywhere else for that matter…this is a separate issue in my mind. I would love to see something connecting the north side of the city to the transit hub areas on the south side…that is actually something of value. Having to leave my home a hour + before a train is not helpful, convenient or of value. Anyway, I hope that something of value comes out of this as it would be another plus for the city.



    Posted by sanfrancisco | 8 October 2007, 11:57 am
  4. Jason, these are certainly great comments, and you emphasize a couple really important points: (1) small, incremental changes can make a big difference in improving service and the whole experience, at low cost; and (2) Van Ness BRT is only one step in a larger process to create a whole rapid transit network in the city that connects to regional rail in a productive way.

    Caltrain upgrades are actually a topic I have been meaning to get to in this blog, and, gripes aside, it has really turned itself around by showing a type of creativity missing from most other Bay Area transit agencies. (It sure would be nice if they would tell you what train you’re on before departure though, wouldn’t it?) That said, I think that many more commuters from SF would like to take advantage of Caltrain, if only they didn’t have to put up with slow, unreliable Muni to get to the depot.

    Posted by Eric | 8 October 2007, 2:09 pm
  5. I like the idea of express buses on Van Ness, and it makes me wonder – why do we need to wait for BRT improvements? How about Muni takes a couple months and runs some ridership experiments – say one month switch 30% of the buses to a limited bus (similar to the 38L or 14L or other limiteds), then tries 50% limited, then maybe adds a couple runs per hour limited.

    Seems like something that could be done with little extra cost to gauge demand for BRT express buses in the future.

    Posted by Chris | 8 October 2007, 5:50 pm
  6. Remember the entire brouhaha last year when the MTA brazenly suggested cutting several stops for the 38 in the TL?

    See Chris Daly’s schpiel:

    Politics, politics, politics.

    Posted by Clarence | 8 October 2007, 5:55 pm
  7. (Excuse me, three years ago.)

    Posted by Clarence | 8 October 2007, 5:55 pm
  8. I think it does largely come down to politics — it’s part of the reason why we have way too many bus stops in the first place, and it’s the reason why they’re so difficult to remove. The TEP is uncovering some interesting data trends, but ultimately, we’re spending a couple years to determine what any rider would tell you is common sense… too many bus stops!

    That said, an experimental limited bus wouldn’t entail complete removal of bus stops, which is what was proposed in the TL, and it would be a good way to at least get a sense of how much demand there would be for different express services. It would be unusual, though, as we only have a couple crosstown routes that run as limited or express.

    Posted by Eric | 8 October 2007, 6:20 pm
  9. Eric – I appreciate your excellent review of the Van Ness corridor BRT project in the past 3 posts.

    Obviously you have a clear and effective view of how the service should operate. Anyone who has experienced a quality transit system (most likely outside of the US) would agree with your views.

    But, then we face reality. Why does the city have an EIR that takes 2 years before implementation can begin? Will this project fail just like T-Third because of incompetency in execution?

    How can we work as residents of the City to:
    a) reduce time from concept to implementation?
    b) ensure quality implementation (both in building and then subsequent service offerings)?

    Posted by kfarr | 12 October 2007, 10:22 am
  10. kfarr: thanks for your thoughtful comments on these posts. As you said, we face reality, and it sounds like I can speak for both of us in saying that the letdown of the T-Third weighs in on how Van Ness, Geary, and other corridors are addressed. There are hoops to jump through, and I doubt we can do much to speed up the planning and construction process. In terms of helping to ensure quality implementation, concerned and interested members of the public are highly encouraged to make their views known to the TA — sending in comments via email, attending meetings, and so forth. Some people on the team are specifically devoted towards studying ridership patterns and matching those to potential service opportunities. There is public input going into this process, and a strong, articulated interest in a robust BRT implementation (i.e. not curbside BRT) can only encourage them to take as seriously as possible the designs which will generate the highest benefit for transit riders.

    The comparison to the T-Third is a valid one, and it helps to underscore the point that we don’t want repeat disappointment. At the meeting from last week, I tried to make this point explicit with respect to signal priority in the corridor, and the sheer number of BRT stations that are currently planned. There are lessons to be learned.

    Various stages of this project will be accompanied by public input, and final approvals won’t take place until 2009. You should definitely look into attending the meetings — we can always use another pro-transit voice! There won’t be any meetings for awhile, while the draft EIS/EIR is prepared, but the next batch should appear in spring 2008. As you probably expect, I’ll continue to follow this project closely and will announce meeting times (for Van Ness BRT and other projects) here on the blog.

    Posted by Eric | 12 October 2007, 11:04 am
  11. Thanks, Eric. I will most definitely plan on attending meetings as soon as they take place in 08.

    I worked with Dave at SPUR and some other driven volunteers to help push the Geary BRT project into the review stage. It’s still very frustrating that these processes take so long. One could almost wish for an autocracy in this situation, that is if the autocratic ruler has society’s best transit interests in mind.

    On another note, has anyone ever brought up the idea of (gasp) running a BRT line as a separate entity from MUNI? I realize it seems like an imperative that MUNI handles implementation/operation, but wouldn’t that be tantamount to giving a no-bid contract to a favored contractor? Surely there are companies (Bauer’s comes to mind) that might be able to live-up to the demand of operating this line.

    I realize that idea would introduce a whole new can of worms, but perhaps those worms taste better than those we deal with right now.

    Posted by kfarr | 12 October 2007, 1:45 pm
  12. the TEP is all well and good but I don’t know that it can uncover some things you can only get by riding it. after having to ride the 1 california and 30 stockton for a while I realized the need for a “shopper shuttle” that would better serve the elderly population that really needs something like that, and don’t need to travel to BART or MUNI downtown….will the TEP reflect that? who knows?

    Posted by n judah | 12 October 2007, 8:41 pm
  13. @ kfarr: Ah… the pro-transit benevolent dictator! I’ve often wished for such a person as well. Preferably, they would be a native-born Japanese, to maximize our chances of success :) As for privatizing Muni — the whole machine and its current regulations would make that sort of transition pretty difficult, and political will would be completely against such a move — though I understand how it is tempting to seek any alternative that could plausibly be better than the current situation. There would be budgetary issues to work out, and while you might see better reliability, in general, I’m skeptical of leaving private companies to take care of basic, fundamental needs (like transit). You’re right that it really does open a whole new can of worms, and the political will to think that through isn’t there. I would rather see Muni work through its very fundamental management, operations, and budget problems. These are at the heart of so many of the reliability issues we’ve been experiencing. Outsourcing operations on one or two lines might make those lines good, but we haven’t gotten to the root of the problem. Which reminds me, I really ought to do a real post on Proposition A soon.

    @ n judah: Hopefully someone working on the TEP is actually riding transit to offer perspective on these issues! The 30-Stockton has a pretty idiosyncratic ridership pattern, but it seems likes you could infer quite a bit from monitoring where people get on, where they get off, and how many are doing it. As for a “shopper shuttle”, I’d wonder if you could even see such an addition. There are only so many more buses that Stockton can take, short of doing some serious streetscape improvements.

    Posted by Eric | 12 October 2007, 8:51 pm
  14. “There are only so many more buses that Stockton can take, short of doing some serious streetscape improvements.”

    Is there any street that desperately needs streetscape improvements more than Stockton, though? I still get pissed every time I’m riding down Stockton and look out at the THOUSANDS of pedestrians trying to navigate their way through crowded 9′ wide sidewalks – while there are TWO parking lanes on the street. Such a waste of space would never be tolerated in most other countries. I’m fine with adding parking if it’s really needed somewhere in the area – but STREET parking on one of the most pedestrian-heavy streets in the West? Gimme a break!

    Posted by Chris | 13 October 2007, 8:26 am
  15. Well, you know my view on this, I think. Stockton does need to be reconfigured, even with a Central Subway. Bring on the fight over lost parking, I guess! But while we’re on parking: would you (or anyone else) happen to know how much the Portsmouth Square and St. Mary’s garages typically fill up? I don’t have any idea, but the two garages combined have 1,143 parking stalls. I wonder if you’d even need to build any replacement parking.

    Posted by Eric | 13 October 2007, 9:25 am
  16. Eric, you have some great ideas about the Van Ness BRT. I also agree that they should have a bus that runs only on the brt section of Van Ness and that it should start from Civic Center Bart, not Van Ness Muni Metro; it could be even called the V line. The thing is, the 49 starts all the way at Balboa Park Bart Station (on the other side of the city) and therefore there is no way in the world the buses will be on time when they get to Van Ness and Market, 5 miles and tens of stops later. 11 stops for 2 miles are also way too many. 3 stops a mile would be plenty. If somebody needed to get to a street not served by the 49/47 buses, they can just walk one block to Polk and catch a 19, which stop every block! I personally would like to see the Embarcadero transit lanes (currently used only by the super slow, alway packed with tourists, unreliable and uncomfortable F trains) used as a BRT. I mean, that’s already built and ready to go! It’s such a waste using it only for historic trains… maybe the 47 can be extended all the way around the Embarcadero.

    Posted by FS77 | 7 November 2007, 1:55 pm
  17. You know what would be even better? Light rail if possible. And yes, the stations should be really less, but here’s how I put it: Chesnut/Francisco, Union, Jackson/Washington, California, Geary/Offarrell, City Hall (one at Grove, one at McAllister), and Market/Mission so it won’t be as sluggish.

    And if possible, transit vehicles could run on the tracks, which would replace the 47 and the 9, like how the old H-Potrero used to run…

    Posted by Whole Wheat Toast | 13 June 2008, 9:09 pm
  18. Whole Wheat, I agree that Van Ness is a corridor that it would be nice to see integrated into our rail network, but the BRT project is not currently being planned for a rail upgrade. And VN itself is only part of the 47 and 49 routes. Without a plan to expand light rail through SoMa and into the Mission and Excelsior, you’d basically just have a two-mile light rail shuttle up and down Van Ness. A route that limited doesn’t really capture the benefits of LRT.

    Posted by Eric | 15 June 2008, 2:49 pm

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