Bus Stopped

How an attempt to make the 38 Geary bus work became another senseless San Francisco social cause

About a year ago, Jay Primus boarded the 38 Geary bus on the west side of Market Street and rode it through the Tenderloin District, jostling, swerving, and spending as much time stopped as moving, until he finally arrived at Van Ness Avenue, a mile up the street. There, Primus disembarked, turned left, walked a block to O'Farrell Street, and boarded the 38 eastbound to Market again. In all, Primus repeated this round trip 40 times, armed with a clipboard and a stopwatch.

"We all know the Geary bus is kind of screwed up, but I needed to find out exactly what was wrong," says Primus, who until recently worked as an intern at the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which operates the city's bus system. "Every time the bus stopped, I was writing down why, and how long. That includes loading passengers, waiting behind a double-parked vehicle, waiting to pull out from a double-parked vehicle. You start from zero and then write down 38 seconds. It resulted in a really big spreadsheet with all that data."

Primus, 28, had previously worked in the software world, designing user interfaces, which, he says, involved "trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes, [with] empathy. It informs everything we do, whether it's writing for other people, or designing a good map, or a project like the 38 Geary.

"It's identifying needs, identifying goals, or really good analysis, like trying to fix something like this."

Ah, how pleasant it is to hear the youthful twitter of a private-sector engineer entering government for the first time. He looks around himself and sees a candy store of problems, which, with the deft application of engineering, design, and management principles, can actually be fixed. Just like that. If he's bright, enthusiastic, and idealistic enough, he'll scurry from cubicle to cubicle with an evangelist's grin, reigniting a spark that went dark eons ago in his fellow engineers, planners, managers, and overseers. Inevitably, however, the engineer -- whether he be a designer of sewage systems, public health care systems, or city transport networks -- will run into a bug so confounding it can't be repaired.

Some things don't work properly, he will discover, because people don't particularly want them to.

Three years ago in this space I imagined a coming citywide conflict over plans for an overhauled, vastly more efficient system of bus, trolley, and subway transit designed to make San Francisco's public transportation system a reasonable option to automobile use. Once the dust settled, I predicted, a much larger proportion of San Franciscans might find it easier to ride the bus than drive, and this change would benefit all of us, whether or not we ever dropped a dime in a Muni toll box. Traffic for those still driving would ease. The city would become less polluted. People wouldn't get run over by cars nearly as often.

According to internal documents I obtained at that time, Muni planners wanted to install bus-only lanes along major transit thoroughfares such as Geary, Van Ness, Potrero, and Mission. Ultimately, this high-speed transit grid might speed someone from the Richmond District to Richmond, Calif., in minutes, rather than the hours it now takes. But before this could even begin to happen, I predicted at the time, a war would need to play out, with transit planners on one side, and people who didn't want to lose parking spaces to bus lanes, and who didn't want to see automobile traffic slow down in deference to buses, and who didn't want to lose their favorite bus stops on the other.

That battle has now begun. About 400 people have signed a petition opposing a Muni plan to make bus travel along Geary and O'Farrell streets swifter, more reliable, and more comfortable because the plan involves removing five bus stops from the Tenderloin.

For Tenderloin residents who've gotten used to having bus stops on every block, the Muni plan is another example of fat cats in government neglecting a poor neighborhood.

For transit planners, public transit advocates, and representatives for the elderly and disabled, who use public transit in large numbers, this change is actually a first step toward making transit work better citywide.

Like many firms that took care in picking over the spoils of San Francisco's multimedia implosion, Muni obtained an über-intern. Jay Primus was not only a design specialist, he was also armed with the optimistic sense of possibility that characterized many who came to San Francisco for the 1990s dot-com revolution. Soon after starting work a year ago, Primus volunteered to study what was wrong with the 38 Geary line, a crucial, 54,000-rider-a-day transit artery that is one of the city's least reliable, least comfortable, and slowest. The dysfunction of the 38 Geary line, transit planners and advocates believe, helps encourage thousands of residents of the Richmond and Western Addition districts to clog downtown with their cars during the morning and evening commutes, stalling traffic, exacerbating street-level pollution, and making life far more dangerous for residents of the Tenderloin and South of Market areas.

After Primus completed his bus-riding sojourn and built his database of delay, he suggested some changes; they were so good that Muni brass told him to write an implementation plan. The result was a low-cost proposal to increase the reliability and speed of the 38 Geary. This would be a precursor to a bus rapid-transit line from downtown to the ocean, part of a citywide plan drafted in 2001 to move San Franciscans along the city's main corridors at the speed of BART.

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