What’s the Hold Up for Van Ness BRT?

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/captin_nod/5890208913/sizes/o/in/photostream/##bhautik joshi/Flickr##

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 to 2016.

The agonizing wait has left many frustrated transit advocates asking, “What’s the hold up?”

Tilly Chang, the deputy director for planning at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) leading the planning effort, says answering that question opens “a huge can of worms.”

“We understand the frustration,” she said, citing a slew of factors contributing to the delay of the massive project.

Van Ness BRT is in many ways the first of its kind in the United States, and its scope has grown to include a complete overhaul of the street. The project’s environmental impact report/statement, released last month in compliance with state and federal requirements, also included a burdensome level of analysis.

“Trust me, for those of us going through this process, we would love to have it move as fast as possible,” said Michael Schwartz, the SFCTA’s project manager.

“The fact that there really isn’t an example in the city, and in North America, of full-featured BRT in a dense urban environment like San Francisco is part of what makes the project really exciting, but also means there are significant policy decisions to work out,” he said. “I think there’s a trade-off where there’s a really good process that happens in California and San Francisco to involve stakeholders and do good coordination, but that does take time.”

One major impediment, said Chang, has been the extensive impact analysis required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) using the automobile-centric transportation metric known as Level of Service.

“It is not only time consuming and expensive, but in direct conflict with the city’s transit first policy,” she said, although she noted that efforts to reform LOS requirements in CEQA are “nearing completion.”

Staff also cited the technical complexity of the project’s area, which includes many busy intersections and runs along a state highway controlled by Caltrans. It also requires negotiations with agencies like the Federal Transit Authority, the SF Public Utilities Commission, the SF Planning Department, the Department of Public Works, and the SFMTA.

Since its conception, the project’s scope has grown into a major redesign of the two-mile stretch, including pedestrian safety improvements, landscaping, road resurfacing, and the replacement of all traffic signals. Much of that work was being planned independently of the BRT project, which was pushed back in part so that all the changes could be built concurrently.

Schwartz said coordination saves the city time and money in the long run. “It makes sense to go in while we’re doing the construction,” he said.

Chang said the timeline isn’t extremely long for major transportation projects in the United States. “The average federal highway project takes over ten years to get through these stages; subways take at least twice as long, and bus rapid transit projects should take far less time,” she said. “But there is a range of BRT definitions, and full-featured BRT is more like rail.”

While BRT should be faster to implement than rail, Schwartz said planners have “realized along the way that many of the same coordination issues of a much more intensive infrastructure project still need to be worked out.”

The release and expected certification of the project’s EIR is a major milestone, but up to four years of work still precede construction. “From 2012 to 2016, the plan is to undertake design, purchase and test vehicles, obtain needed permits, fill in funding gaps, and construct the facility,” said Chang. “There’s a desire to go faster but we need to pick a locally-preferred alternative and get more engineering done, including the condition of the sewers, before we can update the project schedule.”

Construction could come faster depending on which design alternative is chosen, said Schwartz. The center-median option would require less sewer work than the dual-median option, bringing the construction schedule up to 2015 with service beginning the year after.

Chang says by the time riders are zipping along on BRT on Van Ness, Geary Boulevard, the East Bay corridor, and El Camino Real in the South Bay, future BRT projects should face fewer obstacles.

“We and AC Transit hope and expect that these first projects will provide proof of concept to help pave the way for the skeptics in the public and at public agencies, so that future BRT projects can have a smoother path to implementation.”

  • Oh, come off it. If the ATG silliness has been in the offing since 2009, why haven’t the new rules been implemented yet? The problem: impact on traffic is naturally one of the primary concerns with any large development. What you folks really want is legal cover to implement your “improvements”—taking away traffic lanes and street parking, especially—to make bike lanes regardless of the impact that will have on traffic for everyone but cyclists, a small minority in SF.

  • mikesonn

    *slow clap*

    This is a transit improvement and you are throwing a fit. And thereby making yourself even more irrelevant.

  • Aaron Bialick

    No Mike, I’m sure Rob found the word “bikes” in the article somewhere.

  • the greasybear

    Anderson likes to claim his opposition to all bicycle infrastructure is rooted in his purported support for speedy public transit–bike lanes will slow down Muni!. That sentiment is belied here, where Anderson argues against speeding Muni service–because it will “take away” private motorists’ special privilege to store bulky private property right on the pavement in our shared roadway. What a hypocrite.

  • Eugene

    Yep. When I saw the headline begin with “What’s the Hold Up” I knew Rob Anderson would be involved somehow.

  • mikesonn

    If I may: what he thinks is that we (the collective bike-nuts “we”, of course, since we have secret meetings to discuss this) are using BRT to change CEQA & LoS so that we can install bike lanes around SF with impunity. Our “concern” for transit is a front.

  • So no one wants to actually discuss LOS and ATG? Lots of attempted cleverness and some sneers but nothing substantive. I addressed my comment to the LOS and big-bad-CEQA baloney.

    On Van Ness BRT: the EIR is done, and shouldn’t we want a thorough analysis of the impact of such a big project? Now if the MTA didn’t have to do any LOS studies, what kind of traffic studies would they have do under an ATG system? Or do you just want Bicycle Plans to be exempt from LOS and CEQA? 

  • mikesonn

    LOS = not taking away anything from private autos. So since our last 50 years have done nothing but give, give, give to private autos, LOS cements that in place and we are stuck with our built environment. Unless, of course, we make it easier for private autos; but if we do that, LOS will prevent the future taking away of whatever is given. So, in essence, the private auto taketh and never giveth back.

    At least there’s this:

    “The City and County of San Francisco do not consider parking supply as part of the permanent physical environment; therefore, they do not consider changes in parking conditions to be environmental impacts as defined by CEQA.”

  • Mike:

    This not only about “private autos”; it’s also about trucks, cabs, motorcycles, and buses, that is the more than 90% of road users other than cyclists.

    Here’s a simple question: What kind of traffic studies would be done under the Auto-Trips Generated (ATG) system?

  • Sprague

    Thank you, Aaron, for asking why transit improvements take so remarkably long to achieve when the need for change is so apparent (for example, why is it taking years for TEP to be implemented?).  It is encouraging to see the growth of cycling in SF as well as the broad support for improved transit.  If transit and cycling infrastructure is improved, it will be used.

  • mikesonn

    In LOS, a single occupied privately-owned vehicle carries the same weight as a full public transit bus or LRV. How is that a sane system?

  • Mike:

    You can’t answer the question, can you? If LOS is abandoned for traffic studies, and ATG is substituted, what kind of traffic studies would even be possible? LOS measures the time it takes traffic to get through intersections, whether that traffic is a car or a bus. Of course bike folks like you prefer ATG, because anti-car “improvements,” like, oh, for example, Bicycle Plans, don’t generate any additional auto trips. They just jam up exisiting traffic. This is probably why even the City Attorney understands why the courts wouldn’t accept substituting ATG for LOS: it would make sensible traffic studies impossible, and traffic studies are crucial in determining the impact of projects.


    The last city bicycle count showed that the largest increase in cyclists happened while the injunction against the Bicycle Plan was in place, which means there’s no demonstrable relationship between bike infrastructure and an increase in cycling in San Francisco.

  • Anonymous

    LOS is a joke.  It makes it impossible to implement measures designed to replace car traffic.  The whole point of an express bus is to get cars off the road, yet the LOS analysis begins by assuming the same number of cars on the road.  That this is claimed to mitigate environmental impact is a farce.

  • Anonymous

    GF was just in Amsterdam: massive network of bike lanes and not much room for cars.  According to LOS analysis, Amsterdam should clearly widen the roads, remove the bike lanes, so the cars can get to their destinations faster, generating less exhaust and noise.  The environment would improve!  Errr….

  • djconnel:

    LOS and traffic studies in general are not intended to “measure car traffic.” Their purpose is to measure the impact of proposed projects on the environment. The ATG proposal is the joke, since it’s whole purpose is to give anti-car “improvments” a free pass to screw up traffic. But the anti-car bike people aren’t honest enough to say plainly that they want special consideration; instead they try to disguise the proposal as a serious alternative to LOS.

    And there’s this: the more you jam up traffic for those wicked automobiles you also jam it up for buses.

  • I of course meant to type “meant to replace car traffic.” 

  • Kevin

    Why is there no express or limited on Van Ness now?
    Why cant there be a express on Franklin and Gough  
    just making   2 or 3 stops?

  • Rob – at least learn how to reply in threaded form.

  • mikesonn

    “If I may: what he thinks is that we (the collective bike-nuts “we”, of course, since we have secret meetings to discuss this) are using BRT to change CEQA & LoS so that we can install bike lanes around SF with impunity. Our “concern” for transit is a front.”

  • Murph: And you apparently have trouble making substantive comments regardless of the “form” you use.

  • mikesonn
  • Anonymous

    Exactly as @mikesonn:disqus said: we got to where we are — with cars utterly dominating our cities — without ANY environmental impact on building freeways and roads everywhere at a whim and at the expense of all other (more efficient (and hence cheaper), healthy, and environmentally-friendly) forms of transit. Now we have a situation where cars — the most inefficient form of transit ever created — are literally destroying our cities and our planet and which have resulted in an infrastructure that is so expensive we can’t afford to maintain it. Public transit, bicycling, and walking are *inherently* more efficient forms of transit than personal autos and hence any design that increases their usage and decreases car usage is a huge net gain for environmental concerns. If you really want to be fair, let’s do an environmental assessment of how much damage our current car-dominated situation is causing. Of course, that will show that we should immediately reduce car usage to nothing but the essentials (carrying heavy loads from time to time, one-off trips to places with out public transit, etc) ….

  • Sprague

    “And there’s this: the more you jam up traffic for those wicked automobiles you also jam it up for buses.”
    …unless you create bus lanes or, better yet, transitways/exclusive bus right-of-ways.

  • Anonymous

    It’s stunning how Rob Anderson doesn’t get it, but loves to rant about it .  Caltrans cites LOS in corridor reports, but conventional roadway LOS (measuring throughput times at signalized intersections) is mostly meaningless as it’s always skewed by things like signal timing, ingress/egress, road/weather conditions, and time reporting.  V/C (volume/capacity) ratios establish the capability of a roadway to contain traffic, but again is not a reliable measurement of service.  ATG is the best measure in an urban environment as it ties land-use and transportation, recognizes that adding auto amenities (like parking spaces) add traffic. 
    I’m not a huge fan of Van Ness BRT unless it also would run up Lombard and tie in to the Sonoma/Marin express bus routes, but Caltrans is moving it forward.  The best way to get people out of cars is to make congestion avoidable by taking the bus, or making driving so expensive that the bus is a better choice. 
    Currently, Van Ness is such a mess that adding a BRT couldn’t make things much worse.  To me, the Geary BRT makes more sense, as it’s the busiest transit corridor  in the city, and will be useful to so many, but it’s not a Caltrans -controkk 
    BRT also will create “transit rich” nodes that will be great locations for denser, taller infill.  The big challenge will be getting BRT lanes across the Golden Gate Bridge.  I wish that CT had planned BRT lanes on the new Doyle Drive replacement.                                                 

  • James Figone

    How about implementing something like the NYC Select Bus Service (SBS) that uses many BRT elements including low-floor buses, prepaid boarding, dedicated lanes, single priority and reduced stops.


    These routes are implemented in months rather than years or decades.  Must we wait until 2017 until we get any improvements when systems like SBS can be implemented right away?  

  • Sprague

    A BRT extension along Lombard would be fantastic for Golden Gate Transit and its riders.  Too frequently, those buses are stuck in northbound congestion without the option of being able to detour over local streets (an alternative available to private vehicles).  Transit riders deserve faster and more reliable service and exclusive bus lanes help keep operating expenses down for transit agencies.

    If I’m not mistaken, the new Doyle Drive will have four inbound lanes and three outbound lanes.  Unfortunately, this represents greater capacity and I don’t think that transit will be benefitting from this.  This may merely encourage even more non-transit commutes.  Somewhat relevant (for everyone from the Peninsula who works a standard 9 to 5 in the North Bay) is the lack of speedy inter-county north-south public transit and, therefore, the lack of a viable alternative to driving.  Golden Gate Transit’s route 101 is the only express option (and, of course, route 101 would benefit from exclusive BRT lanes on Lombard).  Fast transit connectivity is nearly absent between San Mateo and Marin counties.

  • It would be amazing if the van ness redesign included bike lanes…

  • Bob Gunderson

    That picture up there clearly shows that bicycles are the problem. There needs to be more lanes for car traffic and parking, and absolutely no room for bikes, and the bus would glide through the cars like a hot knife through butter. Idiotcycles just create a deathtrap for everyone. http://dearestdistrict5.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-wiggle-is-major-deathtrap-for.html


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