Witnessing a Transit-Last City

Advocate relates experience of watching bus passengers being left to wait while police prioritized people in private cars

Muni buses backing up on Market Street before the intersection with Clayton. Note the Jeep being permitted to pass. Photo: Sprague Terplan
Muni buses backing up on Market Street before the intersection with Clayton. Note the Jeep being permitted to pass. Photo: Sprague Terplan

San Francisco lawmakers and bureaucrats love to talk about equity, equity, and equity. And yet individuals in private cars are continually prioritized over people riding transit. Advocate and occasional Streetsblog contributor Sprague Terplan witnessed a particularly egregious example of this a couple of weeks ago on Market Street when, thanks to police activity, Muni buses were left to hang for over an hour while private cars were readily given detours. Here is his account of what happened:

On the evening of April 14, I watched a disturbing scene in which San Francisco police froze bus service and gave total priority to people in private cars. It was because of an incident on the 3400 block of Market Street, “where a person was in possession of a firearm. Officers, including emergency crews, were at the scene at around 7:23 p.m. to make contact with the person” – (according to KRON). Police blocked off Market where it intersects with Clayton Street. I live nearby and can see this intersection from my living room.

Market Street was closed to all outbound/uphill traffic. Motorists in private vehicles were permitted to divert off and on to Market from Clayton, using turns which are normally reserved for Muni buses.

Bus service, on the other hand, was just frozen.

Outbound L Taraval and inbound 33 Ashbury buses started backing up on Market Street (I counted at least six Muni buses stuck on Market, at least two of which were route 33 buses). Muni buses lined up in the left lane, allowing cars and SUVs to pass and detour through the intersection.

If cars could immediately proceed onto Clayton, why couldn’t buses, which for the 33 is its regular route? The L buses at the front of the line could have moved out of the way and the 33 buses could have navigated to the intersection just as the cars did. It is also unclear why the L was not rerouted immediately in the same manner, making the right onto Clayton to continue one block up to Corbett Avenue, which parallels Market. Eventually Ls were detoured onto Corbett, but it was an hour before the buses started moving again, by my observation.

Ironically, the signal at Market and Clayton is one of the 33’s few transit priority features, with the Muni signal turning green as trolley buses approach the intersection. Yet, because of a combination of incompetence or indifference or both, that night Muni froze its buses and ceded all priority to private cars.

One Muni operator even directed motorists through the intersection.

“Transit first” is supposed to be official city policy. I am very supportive of the SFMTA and steps they have taken to speed up Muni service, including the recently opened and fantastic Van Ness BRT.

But when there are traffic delays, collisions, police activity, etc., all steps should be taken to give Muni vehicles priority to move through and away from the site of the incident. Police and traffic enforcement should always prioritize transit riders – for the sake of efficient use of city services, equity, livability, environmental sustainability, and common sense.

Muni’s response: Unfortunately, yesterday’s incident was one in which we were unable to proceed through the area as we would have liked. We recognize that service reroutes do impact our customer’s commute and we try our best to minimize that impact. There are times, however, when there are incidents outside of our control, like last night’s, where the only thing we can do is wait for the scene to clear so that we can resume regular operation and then begin to make adjustments to the affected routes so that we can balance out service in both directions.

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Sprague Terplan is a member of the San Francisco Transit Riders (SFTR) and a long-time transit rider in San Francisco and the North Bay.

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