The Future of Van Ness Avenue is a Full-Feature BRT Route

VN_Civic_Center.jpgVan Ness BRT at City Hall, Alternative 5: center-center median option.

With overwhelming approval for the Proposition K half-cent
transportation sales tax in 2003, San Franciscans  signaled they
not only wanted to maintain a state of good repair and operational
solvency for their transit system, they were willing to dedicate more
than 25 percent of the tax to expansion, including a network of transit
preferential streets and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).  The first two BRT corridors will be on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue, the latter with a target opening date by Muni’s centennial at the end of 2012.

The two routes already carry one tenth of Muni’s total ridership and proponents of the BRT treatments expect the improvements in reliability and convenience will attract many more riders.  Though Van Ness BRT still has significant hurdles to surmount, including environmental review and securing funding, the planned route has seen scant public resistance, unlike the Geary corridor, where business and community interests in the Richmond have made a bunch of noise about the fear of lost parking and construction impacts. Forty-six percent of people living on the two-mile Van Ness corridor don’t own cars, though with transit travel times currently double auto travel times, current mode split only shows around 25 percent of those same people using transit (PDF).

The full-feature Van Ness BRT line is proposed to have physically separated bus lanes that run two miles, from Lombard Street to Mission Street, where the 47 and 49 lines will then re-enter mixed traffic and continue their routes.  Buses will be low-floor, with doors for entry on both sides in one proposed option, and signals will be prioritized similarly to light rail vehicles on the Townsend-3rd, and riders will buy tickets before boarding to prevent the significant delays associated with queueing and paying onboard.  Station stops would be spaced more than double current stop spacing, or an average of 900 feet, and the TA said its Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) asked for even greater spacing in several locations at its last meeting.

As part of the MTA’s Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), the 47 and 49 buses have been targeted for improvements beyond the 2-mile segregated corridor so that buses avoid delays traveling in mixed traffic for the remainder of their routes.  TEP project manager Julie Kirschbaum said the 49 is proposed to make limited stops southbound from Mission Street to City College, while the 14 will run limited and local on Mission Street to make up for fewer stops on the 49.  Additionally, the agency expects to place pre-pay ticket boxes along the length of the 49 route, lengthen bus stops to allow the 49 and 14 buses to fit two-deep, and implement signal priority measures to prevent further delay.

Of the estimated $120 million needed to complete the project, the TA estimates that one quarter of the cost will be covered by Proposition K funds, while the rest is expected from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.  Tilly Chang, the TA’s deputy director of planning, pointed out that Van Ness BRT was the only New Starts project in the nation to receive a high rating for cost-effectiveness.  Neither the MTA nor the TA were concerned the FTA would provide the requested funding when the EIR is certified in 2010.

Because full BRT treatments are innovative to San Francisco, and would be a first statewide, the TA, MTA, and Caltrans have had to rewrite many of the standards and rules for how streets are used and how buses would travel through them (Caltrans BRT PDF).  Because Van Ness is a state highway, Caltrans had to change the standards for things as simple as the width and height of BRT station platforms and bulbout crosswalks, which under state standards would otherwise be considered a hazard to motor vehicles.

Advocates have voiced concern that the MTA might not support a dedicated bus lane closed to vehicle traffic, preferring instead to tinker with tools that don’t work as well, and cite the underwhelming results of bus-signal prioritization experiments on Geary Blvd downtown.  MTA communications director Judson True vowed that the agency is fully-committed to the BRT process, including lane separation for the two miles of the corridor, though acknowledged that they were studying all options as part of due diligence.

As the debate on this blog indicates, light rail has a cache in the public eye that BRT doesn’t, and the TA acknowledged that it is studying the possibility of a long-term light-rail project built over the existing BRT lanes.

The next TA CAC meeting is Tuesday, March 3rd, from 5-7 pm at the TA offices, 100 Van Ness, 26th floor.  CAC meetings are open to the public and all interested parties are encouraged to attend.

And thanks to Chinagirl below for the heads up about the Geary BRT CAC meeting this Thursday, February 26 at 6 pm at the TA offices.

  • jdub

    BRT is great. The distance between bus stops in San Francisco is much too short, often about 350 feet between stops. 900 ft should be the default distance between stops even on non-BRT routes. 1200-1500 ft on BRT would get us closer to subway performance with better speed and reliability.

  • Dave Snyder

    I agree with jdub in general, but in this case Van Ness has too many transfers to crossing routes to eliminate as many bus stops as would normally be optimal. They are eliminating some that are currently used, but not many. I hope the BRT on Geary achieves your proposed spacing of 1200-1500 feet.

  • theo

    It’s not quite as bad as Dave Snyder says. Along Van Ness, the crossing bus routes are only really dense from Market to Sutter. Past Sutter, you could easily go 4-5 blocks or around 1200 feet between stops.

  • a van ness BRT or streetcar or whatever would have a tremendous benefit for anyone who has to DRIVE down Van Ness.

    Way back when I used to live in Marin County, and commuted from there to the Peninsula (yeah I know easily the most ass-backward commute, but things happen) and had to drive on Lombard and Van Ness to go south. If the buses had their own lane and such, they would not have to keep pulling over to drop people off. It’d be a smoother ride for bus riders, and they’d go faster, and cars and trucks would not have to be stuck behind buses in rush hour traffic.

    it IS kind of funny to see the furor/celebration of a BRT on Geary..I guess people forgot we had the B-Geary line, torn out in part because BART was coming “soon” to Geary, and as such a streetcar would have been a duplicate service. 50 years later and the “temporary” 38 Geary is going strong!

  • Love the music on the TA vid, sounds really space age, sleek and modern, daresay the soon to be hip “low floor” sound. Could imagine the TA staff meeting where they decided on which soundtrack to use, cranking out the various funky BRT beats high up on the 26th floor of the SFCTA HQ, all that’s missing is a little profound spoken word from Jose Luis.

    The Geary/Fillmore BRT station has the potential to be one of the worst places in San Francisco and would need some serious west facing wind protection maybe wrapped in a cowl and with really strong air curtain for starters.

    On Van Ness, BRT stations can be placed much further apart so long as there is frequent local service to get riders to the BRT stations for express service onwards. The real quandry of Van Ness is that most transfer riders won’t benefit from BRT unless it stopped frequently because they’re on the half of the line closest to Market, and that would undermine the premise of BRT. The question is then can the planned resident base make this work and can the knot of connections closer to Market be resolved elegantly?


  • Marc, I see Fillmore and Geary as an opportunity to have something really quite nice. A canopy could be erected sheltering the entire intersection, in the style of a classic European rail terminal. This would work best if they bring the buses up to the street level, instead of leaving it in the hole.

  • stephanie

    Are bike lanes not a part of this new exciting grand plan? Honestly?!

  • jdub

    Polk is already a pretty good street for bicyclists. With some improvements such as painted bike lanes or even reversing the bike and parking lane as in 9th Ave in NYC, there would be no need for bike lanes on Van Ness. Leave Van Ness to cars and buses.

  • chinagirl

    The next Citizens Advisory meeting for Van Ness BRT is Tuesday, March 3rd at 5 pm (at TA headquarters, 100 Van Ness Floor 26), as you correctly pointed out. However, the next Citizens Advisory meeting for Geary BRT is Thursday, February 26, 6 pm, same place.

    The Geary meeting, while less advanced in the process, could be even more important for two reasons. First, according to the tentative agenda, they will be discussing bikes on Geary. As pointed out, bikes make sense on Polk rather than Van Ness. But on Geary, given the flat slope and retail, and wide right-of-way, the demand and opportunity exist to create a fantastic bike facility, separated from buses and cars.

    While not currently on the agenda, a second critical item that may come up is considering making Geary a two-way street downtown, reverting to the pre-1970 layout with 2-way Geary and Sutter Streets, and reversing Post to be one-way westbound (hence the design of Starr King & Peter York Way). While this would obviously make Geary transit much more legible and easier to transfer to Van Ness, the concern is that the increased bus frequency from BRT will jam up when it gets downtown (even worse than today) if this crucial section is not enhanced.

    Given the onslaught of rabid, don’t-delay-my-car-or-remove-my-parking-because-I’m-more-important-than-50,000-bus-riders hostility, the TA and MTA sometimes become timid and may water down BRT in order to placate the Muni-haters. Please come to the Geary BRT meeting next Thursday to show support for the TA and encourage their talented staff to create a true Great Street, from Market to the Ocean, one that will be a pleasure for bus riders, bicyclists and pedestrians.

  • Peter

    First, according to the tentative agenda, they will be discussing bikes on Geary. As pointed out, bikes make sense on Polk rather than Van Ness.

    I agree completely. Bike activists in this town really need to get their heads on straight and oppose bike lanes on every street where it is clear that motorized traffic now dominates. This is the only way forward.

  • Peter

    sorry jdub, i left your comment out — i’m in much aggreeance:

    Polk is already a pretty good street for bicyclists.

    I think it’s already perfect, actually.

    With some improvements such as painted bike lanes or even reversing the bike and parking lane as in 9th Ave in NYC, there would be no need for bike lanes on Van Ness.

    I don’t know. Painting bike lanes and reversing bike and parking lanes and all that — really, if a biker can’t handle traffic then they shouldn’t be riding on the streets – they should stay on the Embarcadero, where they belong.

    Leave Van Ness to cars and buses.

    Agreed. I would actually prefer to leave every street in the city to cars and buses, but not everyone agrees with me yet. They’ll come around.

  • Peter

    ‘Are bike lanes a part of this new exciting grand plan?’


    This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Simple Questions.

    There’s a reason the policy is called ‘transit-first’, after all. And I, and all other good bike people, should be in deep agreeance with this policy. There is no better way to promote cycling than to give cyclists a safe place to ride — somewhere outside the city limits, preferably.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    chinagirl: I don’t understand making Geary 2-way east of Van Ness, unless the idea is to completely close it to cars. Geary is already a mess with only one direction of traffic. You couldn’t make it 2-way with dedicated bus lanes unless you removed all the parking. Please elaborate on this idea.

  • Joel Ramos

    Ditto chinagirl comments here.

    To make matters worse, the new Japan Town Center plan is not making any improvements for bikes on Post St., which could be to Geary what Polk is to Van Ness for bicyclists.

    Imagine new street designs for Geary and Post, and neither w/ bike facilities.

    Chinagirl’s comments about car drivers versus Muni / bikes are (sadly) not an exaggeration. Muni riders’ voices are being dwarfed by car driving BRT opponents at these meetings, and bicyclists are virtually non-existent in the Geary discussion. If you bike anywhere near Geary, please come out on Thursday, February 26 at 6:00 pm at the Transportation Authority, 100 Van Ness Avenue, 26th Floor.

  • jdub

    Peter, if we want to get new bicyclists on the streets, a simple painted line demarcating a bike lane will not do it. Our bicycle facilities should be safe enough for people from 8-80 years of age. Polk St as it exists now does not meet this standard.

  • The TA is pushing the center platform idea, which saves a couple of feet in width and allows shared use of shelters, signs, ticket machines, etc. for both directions, but at least as of a couple years ago they were pretty hand wavy about forcing both Muni (SFMTA) and Golden Gate Transit have to maintain specialized bus fleets for just one or two roads.

    None of their existing fleets can use the center platforms which will prevent them from being able to add any extra services for events, reroute other lines either for emergencies or permanently without buying additional busses.

    The other thing is side platform gets us two medians instead of just one. That will allow for a better tree canopy to develop and if well planted a generally prettier view as you look across the street and see two sets of greenery. It also breaks up crosswalks into even shorter segments with two pedestrian refuges about a third of the way across and

  • Joel

    It would have been nice if it were a streetcar. Anything for less diesel emissions.

  • Jonathan Neil

    Just FYI, this isn’t the first BRT project in the state. LA’s MTA already has a route that uses a converted train route as a BRT bus lane. It’s called the Orange Line, and runs from West Hills to North Hollywood.

  • Joel Ramos

    In respect to diesel emmissions, there is still the possibility that the BRT could be run with electricity. Eitherway, zero-emmissions technology is changing and progressing so rapidly that by the time this project is implemented, it’s almost certain that it will have much less emmissions than what the 38 puts out now.


Geary Blvd BRT Meeting Tonight in the Richmond

Image: SFCTA As the environmental review process moves forward for the Geary Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, Supervisor Eric Mar is holding a community meeting to discuss the many issues at stake along the city’s busiest bus route. As we’ve written, the Geary BRT will be complementary to the proposed Van Ness corridor project, […]

Options for Geary BRT Come Into Focus

Just after San Francisco approved a preferred design for its first Bus Rapid Transit route on Van Ness Avenue, the SF County Transportation Authority showcased the latest conceptual proposals for a companion BRT project on Geary Boulevard. Geary BRT, which has been fraught with delays over the years, is expected to bring relief to riders on Muni’s […]

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

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 […]

What’s the Hold Up for Van Ness BRT?

For what’s intended to be a relatively quick, cost-effective transportation solution, San Francisco’s first Bus Rapid Transit route on Van Ness Avenue has been a long time coming. Planners first conceived the project in 2004, and as late as two years ago, it was scheduled to open in 2012. Since then, construction has been pushed back […]

What’s the Best Design for Van Ness BRT?

After years of delay, the 2016 target date for the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project seems more tangible than ever. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority recently released its draft environmental impact report and will select one of several proposed design alternatives in the spring. The SFCTA is asking for public input on the different […]