Geary BRT Changes Lanes

SFMTA is rethinking plans to add bus lanes down the center of Geary Boulevard — as well as its approach to building transit infrastructure.

Excluding Market and Mission streets, which are served by subway lines, Geary Street is far and away the busiest transit corridor in San Francisco. With about 54,000 daily riders pre-pandemic, the 38 and 38R bus lines see more daily passengers than any individual Muni Metro train line or the entire light rail system in San Jose, and nearly as many daily riders as Caltrain. Improving the journey for all of those bus passengers has long been a goal of  San Francisco transit officials.  

But now, after years of planning, it’s looking like the latest effort to speed buses down Geary is getting scaled back. And depending on whom you ask, that might not be the worst thing — at least in the near term.

During a May 12 meeting of the Geary Rapid Community Advisory Committee, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) staff announced they are now pursuing a different configuration for Phase Two of the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project. 

Instead of building a more-fully fledged bus rapid transit (BRT) line with center-running bus lanes between Arguello Boulevard and 28th Avenue, the agency plans to construct side-running bus lanes along the length of the boulevard. If planners get their way, that middle section of Geary in the Richmond District will look less like Van Ness Avenue, where center-running bus lanes currently are being installed, and more like Mission Street, where red bus lanes run next to the curb. 

In the wake of the disruption on Van Ness, there’s a sense among both SFMTA staff and transit advocates that the center-running bus lanes on Geary aren’t worth the time, money, and frustration for local businesses and residents. The tantalizing possibility of building a subway beneath Geary also looms large over these discussions. Perhaps it would be better to save the cash and the headaches for a project that will deliver truly transformative mobility benefits to the city and the neighborhood, activists say. The bigger issue, in hindsight, is why SFMTA had to go through so many years of planning and lawsuits only to end up with a tried, true, and relatively easy transit solution.

“One of the victories that Muni has had in the past several years has been its program of incremental street changes, and this seems the most promising path moving forward,” Eric Chase, a transit blogger who has written extensively on the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project, wrote in an email. But for Chase, this change in lanes isn’t exactly cause for celebration, either. “It can be frustrating that there was a significant effort to conduct [an] environmental review of the Geary project with characteristics of ‘full’, bona fide BRT, and then present that to the public as the preferred alternative, only ultimately to backtrack toward a less elaborate project,” he said.

A Long Road

Plans to improve transit service down Geary have been swirling around San Francisco politics from time immemorial, as Chase recounts in a 2008 blog post.

In 1909, San Francisco voters approved a $1.9 million bond measure to lay streetcar tracks down Geary at a time when most streetcar lines were privately owned and operated. The vote was an important precedent for the establishment of Muni, or “the people’s railway,” three years later, making San Francisco the first big city in the United States with a public transit agency. In 1936, when streetcars still plied Geary, city planners proposed a subway line down the boulevard that never got built. 

The streetcar tracks were ripped out in the 1950s when the central part of Geary was widened and turned into an expressway as part of the “urban renewal” of the Fillmore. Despite its autocentric makeover, Geary continued to serve as one of the busiest bus routes in the city in the ensuing decades.

More subway proposals followed in 1966 and 1974, but to no avail. The 1974 plan looked at different potential transit technologies, including a subway all the way out to the beach, a mix of subway and surface trains, and an improved bus line running on “transit-preferential streets.” 

Then, in 2003, San Francisco voters passed Proposition K, a half-cent sales tax for transportation that included funds for the already planned T Third light rail line, the Central Subway, and the Geary and Van Ness transit corridors. Prop K earmarked funds to study a light rail line down Geary, but eventually the concept was downgraded to bus rapid transit — a fairly new transit concept popularized in South America referring to dedicated lanes and high-quality stations for buses.  

After years of initial study, a draft of the Environmental Impact Report for the Geary BRT project was filed in 2015. Progress was slowed for a year by a 2017 lawsuit alleging the environmental review hadn’t adequately accounted for increases in traffic or what would happen if no project were built. 

The lawsuit was thrown out by late 2018, and the project was allowed to proceed in two phases —  the segment east of Stanyan Street and the segment west of Stanyan. The eastern segment will be finished by the end of the summer, said SFMTA Major Corridors Planning Manager Liz Brisson. That portion of the route saw side-running transit-only lanes, bus bulbs for easier boarding, and new transit priority traffic signals, among other improvements.

The second phase is where plans are shifting. According to the original plan, the segment of Geary between Arguello and 28th Avenue would have received a center-running transit-only lane, much like the one under construction on Van Ness. That plan would have enabled buses to run completely segregated from other traffic along that stretch. But it wouldn’t have been cheap, or easy to build. The latest cost estimate, from 2018, put the Phase Two price tag at $235 million. And if things were to go anything like they have on Van Ness, there could be unforeseeable challenges — both technical and political.   

A diagram showing how the Geary BRT project could change, from an SFMTA presentation on May 12. (SFMTA)

Van Ness Looms

All that money and work might not be worth it when the benefits of cheaper, easier-to-build, side-running lanes are pretty significant.

“For center-running configurations, you need to build new boarding islands and also do major capital work,” Brisson said. Compare that with the cheap and relatively painless work on the eastern half of Geary. “We’ve had really good success with staying on time and on budget with this project. Obviously, the communities who live along the corridor have dealt with construction disruption, but we’ve managed to keep it under control and not have as much of a reaction to it as maybe you’ve seen in other parts of the city.” 

Already, the project is delivering time savings as high as 20 percent along the corridor during some times of day, Brisson said, for a budget of $36 million for the transit improvements, or $65 million including the utility work. While it’s too early for a revised cost estimate on the Phase Two project, Brisson said it will be in the ballpark of Phase One. 

The added cost of utility upgrades represents a major variable for the next phase of the Geary project, thanks to a city policy that requires transit and utility improvements to be done in tandem. The utility upgrades were the aspect of the Van Ness BRT project that slowed things down the most, leading to a construction period nearly two years longer than originally planned and causing financial hardship for local merchants. 

“A lot of people are totally scarred by [the Van Ness BRT project],” said Cat Carter, communications director for the San Francisco Transit Riders Union (SFTRU). (Disclosure: This writer is an SFTRU member.) Despite the fact that most of that project’s delays can be attributed to utility work, “SFMTA ends up with a black eye for it,” Carter said. “And that absolutely makes it harder to advocate for SFMTA to do big, bold projects.”

Faster Benefits 

While construction would be minimized with the move to side-running transit only lanes, the overall timeline for the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project Phase Two project will still be a long one. Brisson said the new timeline “might not be that different” from the one currently posted on the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s (SFCTA) website, which states the project will take two to three years for final design work and two to three years for construction. 

The project will need to go through another outreach process this summer and seek final city approvals next year, as well as additional federal approvals. (State approvals and environmental review are complete, as the side-running project was one of the alternatives studied in the EIR.) Then, after the project is fully designed, SFMTA will have to coordinate with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission on utility work — the intensity of which will depend on an evaluation of road conditions.

A rendering of the nixed center-running bus lanes. (SFMTA)

But even with that rigmarole, the side-running configuration would allow the transit improvements to go in place much faster than the center-running lanes would have, possibly as early as next year. The project could begin as a “quick build,” marking off the transit lanes with paint before adding more significant infrastructure upgrades. It would also follow in the footsteps of the temporary emergency transit lanes installed during the pandemic, including on stretches of Geary, that SFMTA now hopes to make permanent

“We did a survey as a part of the emergency transit lanes,” Brisson said. “And there were a handful that specifically said you should just make this permanent instead of doing the big expensive project with the construction and business impacts.”

The potential speed of the improvements is a plus for transit activists, many of whom weren’t exactly thrilled with the center-running configuration in the first place. Part of the initial appeal of the center-running lanes was that they might easily be converted into light rail — but subsequent study proved that not to be the case, Carter said. Another issue with the center-running lanes was that rapid buses wouldn’t be able to pass locals. In fact, travel time for some rapid buses actually would have been slower with the center-running lanes, than with the side-running lanes, according to the EIR.

However, that document predicts slightly lower ridership for the side-running lane configuration. And while buses include camera technology that automatically tickets cars double-parked in bus lanes, buses will still have to share the curb lane with right-turning vehicles, and cars entering and exiting parking spots.

All in all, Carter supports the move to side-running lanes, calling it a better investment. As for where those savings should go, she doesn’t mince words: “I think it’s really good to re-evaluate that because we don’t have a plan for Geary subway yet. And that needs to happen.”

Seeking the Subway

As of this year, a subway down Geary just might be more than a distant dream. In February, BART and the Bay Area Council began promoting a new rail-building program for Northern California called Link21. The centerpiece of the program would be a new transbay rail crossing, likely serving both BART and regional rail trains such as Caltrain and Capitol Corridor. The tunnel could unlock the possibility of a new BART line through San Francisco, and transportation planners in the city have made clear that line should go down Geary. Link21 planners hope to complete the second transbay rail crossing in about 20 years, although pieces of the larger project could open before then.

“If there really is momentum behind getting a second transbay tube for rapid transit, you have to land it somewhere in San Francisco,” Chase wrote. “Geary is the most logical corridor to be served and has been for decades.” That would make SFMTA’s pivot to side-running lanes in the Geary BRT project “more palatable in the long run.”

According to the preliminary maps released by the SFCTA’s long-range planning process, Connect SF, the new subway line would travel from the Salesforce Transit Center downtown, and proceed down Geary Boulevard before heading south along 19th Avenue in order to connect to the rest of the BART system near Daly City. The rough plan would still leave a large portion of the western half of Geary without subway service.

“Not all of the Geary Phase Two area is likely to have a subway, so having excellent bus service to complement rail, as well as to feed to the nearest rail station is important,” said SFMTA’s Brisson. “I think the Mission corridor is an interesting example where we obviously have a very busy 14 service on the surface plus two BART stations.” 

By the time planners start working on the subway in earnest, they might look back longingly at the debates over parking, tree removal, and environmental review that characterized the Geary BRT project. The amount of physical change and construction required to build and support a subway line will be on a whole ’nother level. 

In fact, in 1974, planners reported the biggest concern about a possible Geary subway project was the question of maintaining “the present residential character of the corridor” — in other words, ensuring new apartment buildings wouldn’t be allowed next to the line. If city officials pursue a Geary subway, they should prepare to reopen that can of worms.

In the near term, though, the side-running bus lanes can’t come soon enough, Carter said. “I just want it to happen tomorrow, yesterday, 10 years ago.”

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