A couple weeks ago, Fran Taylor, who writes for the Mission Dispatch, posted commentary about the SFMTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project. The article focused on the proposed service changes for the Mission and Bernal Heights, comparing the reach of current service to the reach of the TEP’s proposed routes (see map at right; streets marked in dark gray currently receive service but would not be served under the TEP proposal). The article noted that many neighborhood destinations, like schools and grocery stores, are now conveniently located on transit lines, but would no longer be if the TEP draft proposals as they now stand were to be adopted. Although realigning the 27-Bryant off of Bryant and onto Harrison south of 17th Street may fulfill the purpose of filling in the large gap between Mission Street and Potrero Avenue at a central point, the article notes that this adjustment moves buses into heavier traffic and provides direct service to industrial blocks with lower transit demand. Of course, it is necessarily the case that any service realignment will adjust which destinations receive direct service and which do not. But the important question to ask is whether, on balance — despite increasing limited stop service on the Mission Street transit spine — the net change to service in this dense, largely transit-dependent neighborhood is positive or negative.
It is hardly surprising that routes like the 26-Valencia do not see the high ridership that the 14 and 49 do — if you are willing to put up with a crowded bus, walking one block from Valencia over to Mission could easily be the difference between waiting twenty minutes for a bus or waiting only two minutes. But the only reason why this comparison even makes sense is that north of Army Street, the 26 — an anachronism from the olden days of private, competing streetcar operations — serves essentially the same transportation purpose as the 14, i.e. shuffling to and from downtown. The whole length of the route is generally duplicative of nearby routes with higher ridership that are part of the long-term “rapid” network. The 27-Bryant, on the other hand, serves deeper South of Market in a way that neither the 14 nor the 26 does, but this line also serves riders shuffling between downtown and the Mission who would rather not hike to and from BART. Less frequent service and lower intensity uses on Valencia and Bryant, as compared to Mission Street, are two clear factors that explain the lower ridership. But there is a difference between saying, on the one hand, that destinations on or near Valencia and Bryant will likely never generate the ridership to justify direct service, and, on the other hand, observing that the type of service that those streets have enjoyed to date is not the right fit, doomed to lower popularity because of being redundant to the powerhouse Muni/BART Mission corridor. Despite whatever we might say about the lack of riders on Valencia, there is a connectivity benefit to having direct service to grocery stores and commercial strips, even if the strip happens to lie just off of a major corridor (see: 2-Clement, 19-Polk).
Routes which pass through a neighborhood do not always provide the best way to move around that neighborhood, even if they run frequently. The TEP has formally recognized this problem by introducing a new version of the 19-Polk which would reinstate a modified version of the old 42 downtown loop. Longtime riders are perhaps understandably skeptical of this idea, given that splitting up the 42 paved the way for more service cuts. Yet, it would be nice if the loop would stick around this time; the City’s densest inner ring neighborhoods are not as connected to each other as they could be under the current service plan.
The Mission is a fairly large neighborhood, itself composed of a collection of diverse districts. This area’s current loop service, the 67-Bernal Heights, is transformed under TEP proposals into a feeder to the 24th Street BART station, and it avoids Mission Street altogether. Especially in light of the fact that service between the Mission and Potrero Hill is proposed to be reduced, a crosstown circulator that focuses on just this section of the city (but north of the area currently covered by the 67) could be a nice way to serve neighborhood-oriented destinations along or near the current 12, 26, and 27 routes, but while still concentrating resources on Mission Street to provide better radial service to and from downtown. Of course, such a service would be more lightly used than Mission Street service, making it “inefficient.” But it would also increase connectivity between neighborhoods, without insisting that each of those neighborhoods be connected to downtown/Balboa Park rather than to each other. For choice riders, it is the neighborhood crosstown route that could be the difference between a transit trip and a car trip. Quick, frequent downtown service is great in terms of moving more people most efficiently; but most people do more than simply go to work and back, and we should strive to capture more recreational transit trips. There is no doubt that the TEP’s approach of creating a network of rapid routes slated for long-term improvement is sorely needed, and the completion of dedicated transitways on those corridors will be an important step forward. But a top-notch transit system makes it easy to move not just to and from downtown, but also between neighborhoods.
Finally, one last note: although this post focuses on the Mission District, please feel to use the comments as an open forum on TEP in general. I will probably forward the comments here onto Julie Kirschbaum and the other TEP folks to add to their pool of commentary. And if you haven’t done so already, don’t forget to attend one of the remaining community meetings to comment on the draft proposals; the meetings run through May 17.