Muni to Build Emergency Transit-Only Lanes

The temporary bus-only lanes are intended to keep congestion down as city reopens.

The SFMTA board of directors on Tuesday approved temporary bus-only lanes in SoMa, the Haight, and Forest Hill as part of the agency’s efforts to keep buses moving as traffic begins to return. This first batch of lanes could be just the beginning of a broader effort to insulate Muni vehicles from traffic throughout the city.  

New “emergency” transit- and taxi-only lanes will be added to segments of Mission Street, 7th and 8th Streets, Masonic, Presidio, Laguna Honda, Woodside and Bosworth, improving travel times on the 43, 44, 19, 14 and 14R. These lines were selected based on projected travel time improvements provided by the transit-only lanes, as well as the hospitals, essential workplaces, and low-income, transit-dependent communities they serve. The transit-only lanes, which could be installed as early as early August, will be removed automatically 120 days after the citywide health emergency ends — unless the SFMTA board votes to make them permanent. 

“Now more than ever, Muni is serving those riders who have no other options and are more likely to be people of color or from low-income households,” Muni wrote in a press release. “In order to protect people who rely on transit from increased exposure to COVID-19 on slow or crowded buses, we need to act quickly to move more people with fewer resources.”

A map of proposed temporary emergency transit lanes. (Image courtesy SFMTA)

At Tuesday’s meeting, the SFMTA board also approved a revised budget that decreases Muni expenditures by $30 million for fiscal year 2021 and $54 million for fiscal year 2022, largely by keeping vacant staff positions unfilled. After agreeing not to raise fares for two years, Muni’s budget is dependent on one-time funding sources like the CARES Act federal stimulus package,  leaving a great deal of uncertainty as to how the agency will be funded in the future. 

As part of its new budget, the agency plans to resume modified light rail service in late August, and reach 70 percent of its regular service by early 2021. Once traffic returns to normal, however, Muni’s actual service provided could decrease as much as 10 percent as buses sit in stop-and-go traffic. The newly approved transit-only lanes will allow Muni to increase service and speeds on some of its busiest lines, thus helping passengers social distance onboard and ensuring riders spend less time in a congregate space. The SFMTA also approved a program to streamline approval for additional transit-only lanes for other congested corridors. 

One pending concern regarding Muni’s plans for transit-only lanes is who will get to use them. Currently, tech buses, university shuttles, and other private bus services can use many of San Francisco’s bus lanes. Supervisor Dean Preston wants to ensure that only public transit vehicles and city-licensed taxis can use the lanes. 

In response to a question about this issue at Tuesday’s board meeting, SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin noted that many Silicon Valley tech companies are encouraging their employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future, decreasing the need for tech buses, while other private shuttle services, like those provided by UCSF, help transport the city’s essential workers. “This is something that we’ll want to continue to watch over time,” Tumlin said,  “to make sure that we’re always prioritizing the flow of publicly accessible, publicly regulated services, and having a hierarchy that serves the greatest number of people but mostly optimizes for the public good.”

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