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:
- Part 1 | Van Ness BRT: Why We Need It
- Part 2 | Van Ness BRT: Design Alternatives
- Part 3 | Van Ness BRT: Service Plans
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.