Waiting (and Waiting) For the Geary Bus

20 years is way too much time to improve transit in San Francisco.

Visualization for Geary Boulevard at 17th Avenue, by SFCTA.

Congratulations to San Francisco! The city that claims to know how has finally done it: Supervisors recently approved a design to build dedicated bus lanes along Geary Boulevard. That means Muni’s busiest line, the 38-Geary and its more than 52,000 daily riders — about as many people as there are in the North Bay city of San Rafael — will eventually see relief from overcrowding and faster, more reliable service.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is trying to address a problem, one that’s acute along Geary — the six-mile, east-west arterial running from Market Street almost all the way to the Cliff House. Dedicated bus lanes, also known as bus rapid transit, or BRT, seem a straightforward solution.

The problem is that Muni, as everyone calls the transit system, is so very, very slow. Buses must compete for space on congested streets, pick up passengers at the curb, maneuver back into traffic, weave around double-parkers and delivery vehicles and so on. (This is fun to think about when you’re late for work.)

The solution, thank goodness, is at hand. With dedicated lanes, the 38 can be separated from ordinary traffic. No more fighting to leave the curb or getting stuck behind vehicles making turns onto side streets. With bus-level boarding platforms, passengers move on and off faster. BRT is also less disruptive to build; unlike a subway, there’s no digging up roads for tunnels or underground stations.

Forgoing expensive rail solutions to traffic-choked streets, Bogotá, Colombia, Curitiba, Brazil, and Mexico City have turned to BRT in recent years. So have Istanbul and Brisbane, Australia. Ditto for Cleveland and Hartford, Conn. (Plenty of places in Europe and Canada have it as well, as one might expect.) Mexico City and Istanbul, to name two systems, had buses going in just three years.

But in San Francisco, it’s a different story. In finally green-lighting BRT on Geary, the city conceived, funded, studied, vetted, reviewed, revised and approved the project in about as much time as it takes to conceive, deliver, raise, educate and send a child to high school. The start of construction is still at least a couple years away, so this same child may one day graduate college and enter the workforce before a single shiny, new bus starts rolling along in a separated lane.

There’s a reason for the sarcasm. Our institutional molasses isn’t remarked upon with alarm, but with celebratory press releases. That’s exactly what the San Francisco County Transportation Authority did in 2013 on the 10th anniversary of the approval of the funding for Geary BRT. Lost in the self-congratulation was the fact that BRT buses were supposed to start rolling down Geary the year before, in 2012. Here’s a timeline from the BRT study’s feasibility report back in 2007:

Shovels are now “anticipated” to start doing what shovels do sometime in 2019, so keep an eye out for that press release too. But there’s no rush. Here’s the latest timeline (subject to change, of course):

Here’s why I’m testy: I began attending community meetings for BRT more than a decade ago to find out what was taking so long. (There have been more than 260 meetings over the years with various groups in various neighborhoods.) In the Richmond district, some residents and merchants didn’t … appreciate the proposal. Let me try that again: They rained disdain on planners and transportation officials. Their hyperbole over BRT would have fit right into today’s Breitbart-style fake news. For example:

  • The project is going to destroy Geary, just like Market and Mission were torn up for BART! (There’s isn’t any tunneling involved, so no.)
  • BRT is going to take away the parking! (The project’s plan preserves more than 95 percent of spaces, so no it’s not.)
  • A separate bus lane will make Geary traffic worse! (It will keep the two lanes for cars in each direction, and cars won’t have to compete with buses. So no.)
  • Traffic will be pushed onto already busy side streets! (Side streets like Anza have stop signs every one or two blocks. They are great ways to get nowhere very slowly, so not really, no.)
  • The construction is going to be totally disruptive! (The work on medians, stations and reshaping of auto lanes will be done in phases over the six-mile corridor, not all at once, so not so much.)
  • BRT is an extravagance since Muni can’t do anything right! (That might be a valid point if you’re a cynic about public works. But having Muni go away and do nothing of consequence to speed up travel or clear up congestion isn’t really a solution to anything, so it merits a no.)
Typical vibe at Geary BRT public meetings.

At one point, one person at an early BRT meeting was compelled to say it was no surprise why it’s so difficult to get anything done in San Francisco, something I’ll expand upon in a moment. But first, the naming of names: If there is one person directly responsible for throwing up the barricades, it’s gadfly David Heller, head of the Greater Geary Blvd. Merchants Association. That’s him at left pointing at Transportation Authority staff and yelling in a video, posted on an ad-hoc site now taken down. Here’s a taste from the same meeting I found on YouTube.

BRT has been covered at length in the Richmond District blog; you can read his Heller’s position and my counter for yourself and see what you think. Another rabid critic equating BRT to doomsday was a local merchant named Keith Wilson, who used his crazy beefs about the project to ingratiate himself with community members and then, authorities say, defraud them.

Speaking out against transit to better scam people is a, shall we say, novel form of NIMBYism. Compared with Wilson, then, you might think that Heller, even when you set aside his status as a longtime merchant, has a reasonable argument. So let’s stop for a moment and examine what’s going on when he says that stopping BRT “is about survival.”

Think globally, dysfunction locally

Transit projects like BRT affect whole communities — the merchants, the neighbors, the riders, everyone. Changing the physical streetscape to favor transit vehicles may tick off some folks, and there might be some disruption for some amount of time. NIMBYs like Heller keep harping on how transit officials should stop what they’re doing and study the potentially negative economic impacts of BRT. That would be a good idea if only there were no actual, apples-to-apples data from other neighborhoods in San Francisco that show improving transit is a boon to everybody’s well-being.

The city and its transportation agency are tasked with making it easier for people, not just cars, to get around, and that can happen on Geary and other major arterials without a free-for-all of big-ass buses and vehicles clogging up every block, with pedestrians risking life and limb at crossings. (Wait, what’s wrong with widening roads? Well, after decades of doing that, we know that adding lanes for cars is an inducement to more congestion. Los Angeles saw $1.1 billion spent to widen the 405 and ended up with, wait for it, worse traffic.)

In any case, the critics’ complaints were not all for naught. The final design for Geary BRT is a “hybrid” plan, with the dedicated center lane exclusive in the Richmond district, from from 37th Avenue to Arguello. East of Arguello, to and from downtown, buses are to run on red-painted lanes on the sides of the boulevard. It’s not full-fledged BRT, but we can still call it an improvement. Planners still say that bus speeds along Geary will be at least 20 percent faster, and riders could save up to 20 minutes round-trip.

All of San Francisco’s values must be expressed in their purest and most exalted forms in everything, and everyone must be repeatedly heard, or the support-meter defaults to zero.

It’s important to note that for all their NIMBY noise, a handful of activists like David Heller couldn’t gum up the works this much for 52,000 daily riders. (They have interest too, right?) Something more than that is making infrastructure move slower than Muni in San Francisco.

Here’s a truncated explanation: In not-too-distant history, San Franciscans have fought bureaucratic overreach and the wrecking ball of so-called urban renewal. One legacy of that struggle is the notion that when you speak out, you always get what you want — and if not, then it’s fascism. Each longtime resident, neighborhood group and self-important fixer must be consulted and sucked up to for blessings before even a strip of curb can be repainted. Politicians such as city supervisors, eager to assert their bona fides with their neighborhoods, enable them. It’s easy to understand why: You want to be at the ribbon-cutting under the banner that says “Working for the community,” not taking lumps for an unpopular plan to be completed well beyond your term in office. So the default position is to acquiesce to the screamers, send planners back to the drawing boards and push for more outreach, since dozens of meetings, sorry that’s not enough.

The Richmond district’s brand-new supervisor, Sandra Lee Fewer, is already singing along to this tune, voicing concerns about traffic and whatnot stemming from BRT on Geary. (Really? Cars are better at moving people than transit?) Notice how she floats a rhetorical question about “plans to guard against gentrification and displacement” that may occur after the transit upgrade. Why Sandra Lee Fewer doesn’t get, with construction years off, that preparing for BRT is now her job is not the issue. What I’m irked about is that such a lack of leadership leads to mission creep at best, and no progress at worst — both of which hold back and squeeze San Francisco. All of our values must be expressed in their purest and most exalted forms in everything, and everyone must be repeatedly heard, or the support-meter defaults to zero. Once that happens, improving a bus line is framed as a fiasco, on the same level as the bullldozing of the Fillmore.

San Francisco is special for many reasons, among them its inability to countenance anything that lacks political posturing on impossible ideas, extreme degrees of public input and cynicism from civic corners. That NIMBYs don’t want us have nice things is not particular to this place. What is striking is the city’s prevailing response to all the demands — to delay, prolong the charade that we give a toot about transit or housing or whatever and mark the passing decades with press releases.

It really isn’t surprising, is it, why it’s so hard to make headway in San Francisco.

Follow Anthony Lazarus on Twitter: @Sr_Lazarus

p.s. Everyone interested in NIMBY dynamics and how they play out needs to clip and save this Planetizen article, from which I quote: “It is rare to encounter vocal neighbors whose political views or personal values counteract the visceral sense that their very way of life is being threatened.”