Bus Stopped

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

"The way we see it is it's part of a bus rapid-transit network that was approved by voters last year," says Andrew Sullivan, executive director of the transit advocacy group Rescue Muni. "We see this as an interim step toward bus rapid transit."

The elder advocate group Senior Action Network, whose constituents represent an outsize portion of transit riders, was excited about the plan. "There are seniors throughout the Richmond District," the senior group's Bob Planthold says.

Some Tenderloin residents, who benefit from having a bus stop, figuratively speaking, at their front doors, opposed the plan.

"Tenderloin's 30,000 residents once again are seeing our neighborhood treated as a place that people go through, not a real neighborhood with real people and real needs," says Michael Nulty, who circulated an anti-bus-stop-removal petition that garnered 400 signatures, mostly from outside the neighborhood. "They came up with a plan, forced it on us."

Progressive supervisors, led by Chris Daly, jumped aboard, characterizing the 38 Geary revamp as an affront to the low-income and disproportionately disabled residents of the Tenderloin. Thus another questionable San Francisco social cause was born.

But it's not a social cause in the peace versus war, poverty versus plenty, right versus wrong variety. Rather, it's a dubious social cause in the San Francisco mold, in which the passionate few who benefit from the way things are battle against the dispassionate many who would benefit if things were changed to work better.

In San Francisco, proposed changes in the status quo require proof of perfection, while the requirements of stasis are nil.

In the end, both supporters and opponents of the 38 Geary changes invoke the ideas of sympathy for the elderly, the infirm, children, and mothers.

"It's whether these people have to walk another block, wait a little longer. With no supermarket, no core service, families with children with groceries in their arms are going to have to be walking all that time," says Tenderloin neighborhood activist Richard Allman, advocating to keep all the Tenderloin stops, even if the bus is so slow few with workaday schedules can use it.

"What about parents with babies and strollers? That is a burdened constituency that needs to know the bus is going to arrive on time," says Planthold, speaking for fewer Tenderloin stops and a faster bus ride.

The truth is, removing a quarter of the bus stops in the Tenderloin, where bus stops are now on every block, will inconvenience a quarter of the residents, while greater reliability will improve things for the rest of them, as well as making the bus swifter and more reliable along the rest of the line. If the changes work, and people choose to ride the bus rather than drive downtown from the west side, then tens of thousands of pedestrians, drivers, and residents will benefit. And if those good effects create momentum for improving efficiency on other bus lines, commuters, bicyclists, motorists, and residents who may or may not be in motion will be blessed by a city not clogged by smelly, dangerous, noisy traffic.

This, at least, is what Primus had in mind when he began riding the bus back and forth between Market and Van Ness a year ago.

"It's been frustrating," says Primus, now a transit consultant with the transportation design firm Nelson/Nygaard. "I worked at Muni over a year, and it was an interesting process to see how these civil servants really work to make things better for everyone, and then encounter a lot of opposition. The plan has been described as yet another example of people in the Tenderloin being trod upon and getting the short end of the stick, when really it's to make things better."

It's precious, listening to engineers talk about how they'd like to make San Francisco work better for everyone. Precious, but usually futile.

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