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Hampered by Tunnels, Center BRT Lanes on Geary Limited to the Richmond

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A rendering of the recommended plan for Geary BRT at 17th Avenue in the Richmond. Images: SFCTA

Correction 12/17: The next community meeting on Geary BRT is tonight, Tuesday, at 5:30 p.m. at the Main Public Library.

The latest iteration of the plan for bus rapid transit on Geary Boulevard includes center-running bus lanes only on the Richmond District segment between Arguello Boulevard and 27th Avenue — about a quarter of the street’s length. East of Arguello, where Geary’s center traffic lanes run through two tunnels designed to whisk cars past Masonic Avenue and Fillmore Street, planners say center-running transit lanes are too problematic and expensive to engineer. Instead, they propose side-running colored transit lanes all the way to downtown.

Planners from the SF County Transportation Authority maintain that their recommended plan [PDF] for Geary’s Richmond segment, previously called Alternative 3-Consolidated, will still produce significant gains for riders on Muni’s busiest bus line. Along that segment, the project is expected to cut travel times by a quarter, make the line 20 percent more reliable, and increase ridership by up to 20 percent. The current estimated cost for the project is between $225 million and $260 million.

That comes out to $35-40 million per mile, and with more than 50,000 riders every weekday already, planners say Geary BRT is worth it. “It’s a really cost-effective investment to make because people are going to start using it if we make this set of improvements,” said SFCTA planner Chester Fung.

Filling in the Fillmore underpass to raise Geary’s center lanes back to street level would cost an estimated $50 million and could add years to a project that has already been delayed extensively, planners said. Geary BRT was originally supposed to open in 2012, and the SFCTA says its current proposal could be implemented by 2018, the same year as Van Ness BRT — an improvement over the previous 2020 timeline.

“It’s not what I’d like it to be,” said Winston Parsons, a member of the Geary BRT Citizens Advisory Committee, though he said the SFCTA’s reasons for limiting the center-running lanes are “understandable.”

“I initially advocated that both tunnels be filled, but it’s simply not in this project’s budget and would drastically increase our timeline,” he said.

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The Bay Area Needs More Walkable Housing, Not Google Bus Bashing

The anger of the protestors who blockaded a Google bus in the Mission on Monday was very real and understandable. San Francisco residents, living in a highly sought-after city with a limited housing supply, are coping with a crisis of skyrocketing rents and evictions. Meanwhile, Muni riders increasingly find their stops blocked by private shuttles that appear to be whisking away the very Peninsula tech workers blamed for driving up rents.

Plenty has been written about the strife caused by SF’s housing crisis in the last few years. But as we wrote in February, pointing fingers at tech shuttles doesn’t help solve the problem — if anything, it’s a distraction from effective solutions.

The real culprits are the decades-long failures of SF and other Bay Area cities to develop efficient transit systems and the kind of walkable neighborhoods that are in ever higher demand, yet in scarce supply in the region. And deeper than that is the cultural aversion to change and the political establishment that caters to it, avoiding tough but necessary decisions.

Don’t get me wrong — the fact that private shuttles are illegally using Muni stops without paying anything for it is unjust and unsustainable, as Monday’s protestors rightly called out. But those specific problems can be addressed by devoting more curb space to transit — both public and private — the vast majority of which is currently devoted to free, subsidized personal car storage. The SFMTA’s plans to convert car parking to shuttle stops and establish a private shuttle fee system are a step in the right direction.

But what’s really hampering Muni performance is all the private car traffic that bogs down buses and the unnecessary frequency of stops. Imagine if protestors devoted this much energy and media savvy to demanding speedy implementation of the Transit Effectiveness Project by City Hall.

Meanwhile, the fact is that the Bay Area can’t have the dynamic tech-based economy sought by Mayor Ed Lee and an affordable housing supply for middle-class and low-income people without building substantial amounts of walkable development.

One factor we’ve pointed out on Streetsblog is that housing development in SF and other cities is hamstrung by minimum parking requirements, meaning housing for people is mandated to come with a certain amount of housing for cars. This adds to the cost of building, owning, and renting that housing, and limits the amount of space for residences or businesses. And as research has shown repeatedly, when housing is bundled with a parking space, residents are more likely to own a car and drive, making the transit system less effective.

Unfortunately, the positions staked out by Supervisors David Campos and Malia Cohen on recent housing development projects coming out of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan work against the goal of affordability. Campos and Cohen have fought projects on the basis that they don’t have enough parking, causing developers to add spaces or subtract apartments, flying in the face of smart zoning policies developed over ten years. Meanwhile, parking-free housing is a growing trend in other American cities.

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Q&A With Robert Grow: How Utah Decided to Embrace “Quality Growth”

Envision Utah didn’t tell Utahns they should build light rail, says Robert Grow. Utahns expressed their hopes and desires for the future, and plans for transit construction arose from those values. Photo: Visit Salt Lake/Eric Schramm

If you’ve ever wondered how a deep-red state like Utah has managed to build some of the most ambitious transit expansions in the country, the short answer is: Envision Utah.

Starting in the late nineties, the non-profit Envision Utah brought together an incredibly broad spectrum of interests, including plenty of people without a specific stake in the process, to explore how the 10-county region surrounding Salt Lake City, known as the Greater Wasatch Area, should cope with anticipated population growth. Organizers showed people what would happen if the region carried on with business-as-usual development, then outlined the ramifications of three other potential scenarios with scientific rigor. The extraordinarily thorough process involved hundreds of public meetings, leaving no one out and turning every participant into a problem-solver. Along the way, Envision Utah pioneered a new approach to regional planning, bringing together transportation and land use decisions in unprecedented fashion.

Robert Grow says he didn't tell Utahns what to do; they told him what their values were and they came up with a plan together, Photo: Envision Utah

Robert Grow. Photo: Envision Utah

It would be fair to say that after this effort, nearly entire state was on board with the vision that came out of this process: Quality growth with compact, mixed-use development, multi-modal transportation options, and untouched wild and agricultural spaces.

If you have some time, this history of Envision Utah will hold your attention like no other planning document. (If you have a little less time, you can get the basics in this PDF.)

Robert Grow was the founding chairman who guided Envision Utah through its formative stages. He returned to the helm last year as its president and CEO. In the interim, he helped bring lessons from the Envision Utah model to 80 regions around the country. After a recent swing through the East Coast where he shared the Envision Utah story at an event organized by Transit Center, I called up Grow to see what the rest of the country can learn from his home state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Envision Utah gets a lot of attention for having done this process and instilled these values in a place where people wouldn’t have expected it. You don’t talk about “smart growth,” you talk about “quality growth.” I was curious where that phrase came from.

It came from the fact that this was Utahns deciding how Utahns wanted to grow, and therefore we gave it our own name: “quality growth.”

If you look at many of the goals — transportation choices, housing for everyone, spending infrastructure money smart, preserving water, making sure we have clean air — people across the country have differences, but also have common things they really want. They want to have personal time and opportunity; they don’t want to be stuck in traffic and waste their lives. They want to get home for dinner with their kids or spend time with their friends. The things we value actually drive that quality growth strategy in Utah.

So we did not, quote, “instill” those values. Those values are the ones Utahns already had. So the goal was to understand not how to manipulate or push people toward an outcome but to listen to them in a way that we understand what they really wanted. And then to show them, through the scenarios, the choices.

Envision Utah has absolutely no authority. So we just show people, if you choose this, this is the outcome, but if you choose this, that’s the outcome.

What other language changes or thematic adaptations did you have to make when taking on a quality growth mission in a place where people are deeply skeptical of government, deeply skeptical of planning, deeply skeptical of urbanism?

I’m not sure they’re skeptical of all those things. Their values are their values. When they see choices and they choose how to grow, those strategies may look like strategies other places but adopted by Utahns. We used the words that Utahns used.

This values study approach which we used is not a poll. It involved almost 100 multi-hour interviews, laddering people — and laddering is a term I could describe but essentially saying: What are the attributes of living here? How does that affect your life in a functional way? What is the emotional quotient of that — how does it make you feel? And how does that attach to your values?

By value laddering you learn what people want, but you also learn why they want it. And knowing why they want it and the words to describe it, when you present scenarios you can present them in Utah words. And so Utah is here to keep Utah “beautiful, prosperous, neighborly and healthy” for future generations. We added “healthy” a few years ago. Those were Utah’s words for a prosperous economy.

Those are Utahns’ words for things you might say in completely different words somewhere else. But we didn’t pick the words. Utahns picked those words.

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Supes Avalos, Wiener Clash on Equitable Spending Strategies for Muni

John Avalos (left) and Scott Wiener (right). Left photo: Paul Chinn, SF Chronicle. Right photo: Dennis Hearne Photography

Supervisors John Avalos and Scott Wiener are sparring over how new revenue for transit should be spent to benefit the Muni riders who need it most.

With tax measures proposed for the 2014 ballot that could significantly increase transportation funds, Avalos introduced a charter amendment yesterday that would “require the city to prioritize investments to address existing disparities in service to low-income and transit dependent areas,” according to a statement from his office.

The Transit Equity Charter Amendment “provides a framework for how the city rebuilds transportation transit infrastructure and rebuilds transit service,” Avalos said at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, explaining that it would also set stricter equity performance metrics and increase oversight by the SF County Transportation Authority Board, which is comprised of the supervisors. “It will help ensure that our investments are also targeted to address service deficiencies in our low-income and transit-dependent neighborhoods,” he said.

If approved, the amendment — also sponsored by Supervisors David Campos, Jane Kim, Norman Yee, and Eric Mar — would be placed on the November 2014 ballot alongside tax measures to increase funding for transportation upgrades, as recommended by Mayor Ed Lee’s Transportation 2030 Task Force, a 48-member group that has met throughout the year to develop the recommendations.

Avalos, who represents the SFCTA Board on the task force — also known as T2030 — has criticized its lack of representatives of low-income communities. It has reps from a broad range of city agencies, regional transportation agencies, and transportation advocates like SPUR, the SF Bicycle Coalition, and Walk SF, as well as labor groups. It also includes two for-profit tech companies — Google and Genentech.

Representing the Board of Supervisors on the task force along with Supervisor David Chiu is Wiener, who said the Avalos amendment will “undermine Muni service, make the system less reliable, and do nothing to achieve what we need most: to shore up the system and expand its capacity to meet the needs of our growing population.”

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Haight-Market Contra-Flow Bus Lane, Ped Upgrades Coming Next Summer

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The intersection of Market, Gough, and Haight Streets. Images courtesy of the SFMTA and the SF Planning Department

Construction of a red contra-flow bus-only lane and pedestrian safety upgrades at the hairy intersection of Market, Haight, and Gough Streets is on track to begin in January and be completed next summer, according to the SFMTA. The plan to create a more direct route for riders on Muni’s 71-Haight/Noriega and 6-Parnassus lines, approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors two years ago, is expected to come along with sidewalk bulb-outs, pedestrian refuges, and new greenery.

Currently, standing on the intersection’s northern pedestrian island to cross makes you “feel like a total loser,” said neighborhood advocate Robin Levitt at a meeting last night of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, where residents seemed to welcome the project.

The pedestrian safety improvements were rolled into the two-way Haight project along with sewer work, which adds to the seven-month construction period. SFMTA staffers said the 71, 6, and F-Market lines are expected to be temporarily re-routed during that time.

HVNA also suggested some adjustments to the plans to expand sidewalks and pedestrian islands, such as adding a bulb-out on the narrow east corner of Gough instead of the west corner, and moving the car parking lane to the east side to add protection for pedestrians. An HVNA sketch submitted to the SFMTA also included shifting the pedestrian island further to the west to make more room for passing buses. SFMTA staff said that bulb-out adjustments could be made with approval at a public hearing.

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Muni Metro to Launch Double-Train Loading, Three-Car Trains in October

Muni is poised to begin double-train loading and running three-car trains at underground metro stations to speed up boarding and increase capacity on the system’s busiest stretch.

As we reported, Muni began testing double-train loading, a.k.a. “double berthing,” in July, but Transit Director John Haley said the agency hasn’t run tests with actual trains yet. Managers have upgraded the train control software, which Muni says is the main hurdle to allowing two trains to board passengers in a station simultaneously, and run simulations.

“The tests on the software so far have been positive with no bugs or glitches found,” Haley told Streetsblog in an email. “The software and hardware are installed and if the Live Field tests go well we would target Late October / early November to start in service.”

“We think the public will love it,” he added.

Meanwhile, Haley told a Board of Supervisors committee last week that Muni plans to start running three-car trains to make short runs within the underground system only, between the Embarcadero and West Portal Stations, to relieve crowding. Haley said Muni had to work out software kinks to ensure that the third car would communicate with the others, and that those trains should begin running by next month.

Those service upgrades are among eight changes that Haley said Muni operations managers are looking to make. See the rest on the table below.

Image: SFMTA

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SFCTA Board Approves Van Ness BRT Plan With an Extra Stop

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Image: SFCTA

The plan for bus rapid transit on Van Ness Avenue was unanimously approved today by the SF County Transportation Authority Board, which is comprised of the Board of Supervisors. The plan, which includes transit lanes that run along a center median but converge to load at right-side boarding platforms, is generally the same design that received initial approval from the board in June last year, although a stop was added between Broadway and Vallejo Street after protests from members of a nearby senior center against the removal of the existing stop.

At the hearing, many elderly attendees called for the inclusion of the extra stop, while transit advocates supporting the project countered opponents who complained about the removal of car parking and traffic lanes, as well as what they perceived as a high construction costs for minimal gains in speed and reliability.

The BRT redesign is expected to shave seven minutes from bus travel times on the two-mile stretch of Van Ness and make service more reliable. Supervisor Scott Wiener, who said the time savings estimates are too conservative, lambasted opponents’ “completely misleading” claims that seven minutes were unsubstantial for the cost of the project, which will also include pedestrian safety improvements.

“It will probably get quoted in the press, and there will probably be some narrative out there about how this is $125 million to save seven minutes,” said Wiener, who pointed out that with 16,000 estimated Muni boardings on Van Ness (not including riders who board its lines on other streets), “you’re talking about millions of dollars of economic savings a year.”

“If we could have that level of savings all across our system, it would absolutely revolutionize Muni,” he said. “This is an extraordinary project — it’s not perfect — but it is very, very good and a positive step for the city.”

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SamTrans Upgrades El Camino Real Bus Service With More Reliable Route

SamTrans hopes to attract more transit riders after combining its popular 390 and 391 bus routes into a single route, called ECR, that now runs the length of San Mateo County along El Camino Real with more frequent and reliable service. The ECR runs every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 20 minutes on weekends between Daly City and Palo Alto, between about 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. the next morning.

The old 391 route used to run between Daly City and downtown San Francisco, a service that SamTrans no longer provides. “By eliminating the lower-performing San Francisco portion from the ECR line, SamTrans is able to invest more heavily in its Peninsula service,” the agency said earlier this month. On an average weekday, about 400 riders used the 391 to access downtown San Francisco, a small portion of the 11,600 passenger total ridership of 390 and 391 combined.

The ECR service replaced the old routes on August 12, and public officials marked the occasion at the Redwood City Transit Center last Friday. “This is for more reliable public transportation, a critical issue for us,” said Redwood City Mayor Alicia Aguirre. “As our community grows, we need better transportation.”

The ECR bus route runs along El Camino Real, the thick black line in this map. Source: SamTrans Service Plan Market Assessment

Since most of San Mateo County’s population and employment centers are concentrated along a narrow strip of land near El Camino Real, bus service along the corridor is exceedingly important. Routes 390 and 391 together accounted for more than 25 percent of SamTrans’ total weekday ridership in 2011, according to the agency’s 2013 service plan.

The new service clarifies what used to be two confusing, overlapping routes. The 390 bus ran between Daly City BART and Palo Alto Caltrain, while route 391 ran between San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal and Redwood City Caltrain during weekday commute hours and between Daly City and Redwood City Caltrain at all other times. Even between Daly City and Redwood City, where the two buses overlapped, the routes didn’t make all the same stops — Route 390 skipped San Bruno BART while Route 391 skipped Daly City BART.

“The bus drivers often had to explain to riders waiting at the stops where they were going,” said SamTrans spokesperson Christine Dunn.

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Jarrett Walker: New Geary BRT Option Could Provide Faster Service

When it comes to providing the fastest, most reliable bus rapid transit service on Geary Boulevard, cutting out bus passing lanes and “consolidating” local and express services might sound like a downgrade. But according to transit consultant Jarrett Walker, such a configuration could actually provide a superior level of service. It’s all about using the right metrics to judge travel times.

Would Geary BRT be downgraded by "consolidating" services into one line? No, says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. Image: SFCTA

Streetsblog asked Walker, author of the book and blog Human Transit, to weigh in on the debate between Geary BRT’s Alternative 3 (with bus passing lanes) and Alternative 3-Consolidated (without). In response, he pointed out that “if you combine both services into a single pattern, everyone gets more frequency.”

“Total trip time includes waiting time as well as in-vehicle time,” Walker wrote in an email. Providing one BRT service more frequently, rather than devoting some buses to local service, “should reduce average waits by enough to make up for a minute difference in travel time.”

“Rapid stopping patterns need to be much much faster than the local to justify having both,” he continued. “I have a little trouble believing that the differences in travel time are as small as [the SF County Transportation Authority estimates], but it would not surprise me if a single pattern ends up getting almost everyone where they are going sooner.” According the SFCTA, the “consolidated” BRT service would run its main stretch in seven minutes, while an express service would run it in six minutes, 10 seconds.

Jarrett Walker. Photo: Planning & Design Centre

Walker’s point on frequency seems very convincing, and since I’ve railed on the “consolidated” option as nothing more than a bid to preserve car parking for misguided merchants, an apology is in order. The benefit of shorter waiting times outweighing stop delays wasn’t made clear to me, and I was skeptical of a proposal that appeared late in the process — particularly since it would allow planners to dodge political backlash by saving parking spaces while reducing space for transit.

As Walker pointed out in his book, such misconceptions about quality transit service are common. ”In most debates about proposed rapid transit lines,” Walker wrote, “the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than vehicle speed in determining the total time a transit trip will require.”

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5-Fulton Upgrades to Include Limited Service, Road Diet, and Stop Removal

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Two 5-Fulton buses approach the turn at Central Avenue on McAllister Street. Photo: cbcastro/Flickr

The 5-Fulton could get less crowded this fall after Muni launches a package of speed improvements [PDF] in a pilot of the Transit Effectiveness Project.

The SFMTA plans to launch a 5-Fulton Limited line, remove some excess stops, move stops across intersections for smoother loading, and extend the length of bus zones to make room for double bus loading. Early next year, planners said bus bulb-outs would be also be added at seven intersections as part of a re-paving project on Fulton west of 25th Avenue.

A road diet would also be implemented on Fulton between Stanyan Street and Central Avenue, reducing four traffic lanes to two, plus turn lanes. Aside from calming traffic, SFMTA planners said that change would allow for wider traffic lanes to safely fit buses. Currently, the buses must squeeze into 9-foot lanes, resulting in a high frequency of collisions with cars. The new lanes would be 12.5 feet wide.

The new 5-Limited would run the entire length of the route using the 5′s regular electric trolley coaches, serving only the six most heavily-used stops between Market Street and 6th Avenue, running that stretch 17 percent faster than the existing local service, planners said. From the Transbay Terminal to the beach, the 5L would run 11 percent faster than the existing service.

Local bus service, which would be served with hybrid motor buses, would only run as far west as 6th Avenue, and run that stretch 7 percent faster. That means anyone looking to use a local stop on the middle stretch east of 6th, coming to or from the western stretch, would have to transfer between a 5L bus and a 5-local, though planners said relatively few riders seem to make such trips. The 5-Limited would stop running at 7 p.m., after which electric trolley coaches would serve every stop on the line.

With the 5L carrying the bulk of rush-hour commuters on the route at a faster clip, Muni planners say the improvements will go a long way toward reducing crowding. At daytime hours, between 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., the 5 currently runs at an average speed of just 9 mph, said SFMTA planner Dustin White.

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