SF Officials, Advocates Take a Ride on BRT and Bike-Share in Mexico City

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Supervisor Scott Wiener (the tall one) with the San Francisco delegation at a BRT station platform in Mexico City last week. Photo: SFCTA

More than a dozen city officials and advocates traveled to Mexico City last week to experience firsthand the ease of getting around a city with robust bus rapid transit and bike-share system.

The SF delegation, invited and paid for by organizers at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, included Supervisors John Avalos, Scott Wiener, and Eric Mar, as well as reps from the offices of Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisors David Chiu and Malia Cohen, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, the SF County Transportation Authority, the Planning Commission, the SF Bicycle Coalition, the SF Transit Riders Union, and SPUR. (Streetsblog New York reporter Noah Kazis made the trip last year — check out the dispatches from his visit here, here, and here.)

Mexico City received ITDP’s Sustainable Transport Award this year, and its Metrobus received the organization’s silver rating for BRT systems. It would have been ranked gold, except that crossing between the center transit lanes and the sidewalk was “frightening,” said Michael Schwartz, the SFCTA’s project manager for Van Ness BRT.

The lack of pedestrian safety improvements, said Schwartz, is one mistake San Francisco won’t make with its BRT corridors. “The experience on the Metrobus was amazing — you move quickly, efficiently, and reliably,” he said. However, after getting off the bus, “even though you have a walk signal, sometimes there’d still be cars crossing. You were definitely on guard all the time.”

Metrobus is a network of four corridors that carries 850,000 people per day — about as many as the entire Muni system. “They’ve become so popular, a lot of the choice transit riders — people getting out of their cars — choose Metrobus over the metro,” said Schwartz.

Granted, there are 21 million people in Mexico’s Federal District metropolitan area, compared to San Francisco’s population of 800,000, and 7 million in the Bay Area. On the busiest Metrobus line, which carries 450,000 riders per day, buses arrive every 45 seconds on average. While Muni’s longest articulated buses stretch about 18 meters, a portion of the Metrobus fleet — the double-articulated buses — are 25 meters long.

SF delegates roundly praised the features that make Metrobus so efficient, like physically separated transit lanes, off-board fare machines, and elevated station platforms.

(Left to right) Supervisors Eric Mar, John Avalos, and Scott Wiener with SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum at an EcoBici station. Photo courtesy of Leah Shahum

“Sometimes, it’s good to start with the obvious: Buses move a lot more quickly when there’s nothing else in their lane,” said Judson True, an aide for Supervisor Chiu.

Comparing his experiences in Mexico City with San Francisco, True said San Francisco is far ahead in areas like disability access and even pedestrian safety. However, he also saw “how far behind we are in terms of transit infrastructure, bike-sharing, and our bike infrastructure.”

The SFCTA currently has two BRT projects in the works: the two-mile Van Ness corridor, and a six-mile corridor on Geary Boulevard. But those projects are both on pace to take more than a dozen years to plan and construct. The Bay Area Bike-Share system, which is set to launch in August with 700 bikes spread across five Peninsula cities (350 in SF), has been delayed and downsized for several years.

Meanwhile, Mexico City’s first BRT line “went from conception to service in three years,” said True. When transportation projects take as many years as they do in the U.S., “It just ceases to feel like a real thing — it’s hard for the general public to understand what’s at stake or how they’re going to benefit from something,” he said.

Planning Commissioner Cindy Wu (right) and Avalos aide Jeremy Pollock grab EcoBici bikes. Photo: SFCTA

“What we saw in Mexico City,” said Supervisor Avalos, ”gave us a great deal of enlightment what we face in terms of designing and constructing and operating these programs, and moving them forward.”

The convenience of getting around on EcoBici, the Mexico City bike-share system that launched with 1,200 bikes in 2010, was “one of the best transportation experiences I’ve had around the world,” True said.

Mexico City planners, said Schwartz, see EcoBici “as a way to extend the transit network without needing to build a new bus line, without needing to pay a separate fare.” And key to the system’s success, he said, was pairing bike-share stations with protected bike lanes along major corridors. Along Paseo de la Reforma, the addition of a bike lane reportedly doubled bike-share ridership.

City planners in the Federal District do cut some corners that would be unheard of in SF. When the city rolled out EcoBici, they simply laid down the initial stations in parking spaces without doing any public outreach until motorists protested after the fact, said Peter Gabancho, the SFMTA’s project manager for Van Ness BRT. And Mexico City planners took a similar approach when removing stops for Metrobus BRT.

As any SF transportation planner or advocate knows, the political culture in the city makes it impossible to remove parking spaces and bus stops without a fight. “There are some cultural differences in the way the cities operate,” said Gabancho.

But Ratna Amin, SPUR’s transportation policy director, pointed out that moving faster on sustainable transportation projects allows Mexico DF planners to learn lessons faster in planning future projects.

Supervisor Mar (right) and SFMTA Board Chair Tom Nolan (in white, left) among the SF delegation at a BRT station. Photo: John Avalos

In planning San Francisco’s BRT projects, Amin emphasized that cities should “focus on the integrity of each one and deliver the promise of BRT without negotiating away things like dedicated lanes.”

Jeremy Pollock, an aide to Supervisor Avalos, said he was initially skeptical about BRT. “It seemed like lipstick on the pig of regular bus service,” he said. “But to experience it with center lanes, it really is a higher level of service.”

On a small stretch where Metrobus ran in bus lanes on the outer sides of the street, unprotected from car traffic, he said, “There was constant double parking and obstructions, whereas the center lane was constantly smooth flowing. It’s a night and day difference.”

Riding Ecobici down protected bike lanes on La Reforma, said Schwartz, “It was amazing to be in the heart of downtown, with all these cars stuck in traffic next to us, and we were just gliding by.”

Here’s a list of delegates from San Francisco who participated in the Mexico City trip:

1. John Avalos – SFCTA Board Chair
2. Scott Wiener – SFCTA Board Vice-Chair
3. Eric Mar – SFCTA Plans and Programs Committee Chair
4. Cindy Wu – SF Planning Commission Vice-Chair
5. Tom Nolan – SFMTA Chairman of the Board
6. Gillian Gillett – Director of Transportation Policy, Office of the Mayor
7. Jeremy Pollock – Legislative Aide to SFCTA Board Chair John Avalos
8. Judson True – Designee/Legislative Aide to SF Board of Supervisors President David Chiu
9. Andrea Bruss – Designee/Legislative Aide to SFCTA Finance Chair Malia Cohen
10. Leah Shahum – Executive Director, SF Bicycle Coalition
11. Michael Cabanatuan – Staff Writer, San Francisco Chronicle
12. Peggy da Silva – SFTRU Chair
13. Ratna Amin – Transportation Director, SPUR
14. Peter Gabancho – Project Manager, SFMTA
15. Michael Schwartz – Senior Transportation Planner, SFCTA
16. Shari Tavafrashti – Principal Engineer, SFCTA