Red ‘Transit Only’ Lanes Under Fire From City Hall

Due to an awkward loophole, tech shuttles and private, for-profit transportation companies have been allowed to use S.F.’s expensive red lanes.

The issue of San Francisco allocating public spaces to private, for-profit companies is sadly nothing new — hello, Dreamforce and Twitter tax break — but in recent months a blatant display of the city catering to tech companies has drawn fresh attention. Transit-only lanes, which are easily identified by their fluorescent red-painted carpet, are meant to speed up Muni buses to better serve the city’s public transit riders. So far, Mission, Market, and Geary streets have them; 16th Street, Van Ness Avenue, and outlying Geary Boulevard are next.

But due to a bizarre little loophole that interprets the word “transit” to mean a “vehicle that carries 10 or more people,” private tech buses and Chariot shuttles have thus far legally been allowed to take advantage of the lanes. While the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has yet to conduct any studies on their effects, it’s something of a no-brainer to assume that the millions of dollars spent creating these red lanes is more-or-less negated by the influx of tech buses, whose gargantuan double-decker vehicles number nearly 400 each day.

At a City Hall hearing on Monday the issue of red transit-only lanes was front-and-center. Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who called for the hearing, focused on who should use them, challenging the SFMTA for not collecting data on whether or not this flexible definition slows down buses.

It’s an issue that could drastically affect her constituents. After years of outreach and planning, the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project is finally underway, which could speed up the 38-Geary trip from Ocean Beach to Downtown San Francisco a full 10 minutes — no small feat for commuters who live along the western edge of the city. But with the flexibility of the law as it stands, the pricey red-lane project could be a moot point if for-profit vehicles are allowed to flood its lanes.

“With the red carpet lanes being shared by all the Chariots, with the shuttle buses that go along Geary Boulevard, I became increasingly more concerned that this public infrastructure is being exploited by private industry,” Fewer says.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen has backed her up.

“I know that our red carpets have been controversial in and of themselves, but I am convinced that prioritizing Muni makes a lot of sense,” Ronen said. “But over the past few months I’ve learned that our red lanes are not always just for Muni — that they are being used by private bus companies that carry workers from apartments in San Francisco to jobs in the suburbs, private shuttles that offer selective routes for premium prices, casino tours, and more.”

The issue of red lanes being used by vehicles other than Muni buses and taxi companies seems like a no-brainer: Just ban tech buses and Chariots from using it, and be done with it. But, as with everything in San Francisco, it’s not that easy. Blocking for-profit companies from using the speedy lanes means reinterpreting the definition of transit, something that the SFMTA has taken all the way to the City Attorney’s office in an attempt to remedy.

“We are not working to change the definition, we are working to clarify the definition,” says SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose. “That may involve changing the actual language or it may involve just clarifying what the various references in the city code and the California Vehicle Code mean.”

Based on Monday’s hearing alone, it appears the people of San Francisco are whole-heartedly behind this effort. Nearly two dozen people took to public comment, presenting a range of reasons that these lanes are being misused. Many of those who took the mic for public comment used the opportunity to challenge the existence of red lanes at all, drawing attention to how they affect local businesses. For them, the potential of these already-tricky lanes being used by for-profit companies is a one-two punch.

“We are seeing massive infrastructure being built all over the city, with the primary purpose of speeding up Muni service. Small businesses have been shuttered due to the disruption caused by the infrastructure buildout,” says San Francisco resident Lori Liederman. “Neighborhoods are disrupted for months or years in order to speed up Muni. San Franciscans have supported bond measures to pay for filling potholes and improving our streets, only to see heavy tech buses and tour buses wear them down. The public sphere needs to be protected, not whittled away.”

The Mission Merchants Association spoke up in support of its businesses along the red corridor. As the SFMTA has not yet done an economic impact report on how these lanes (which require the removal of parking spaces) affect local businesses, the MMA did their own. After interviewing 350 businesses, they found that 301 had reported a loss of revenue that they credit to the red lanes. Nearly three dozen employees have been laid off and 14 businesses have closed.

For the average transit rider, it’s hard to view these red lanes as anything but positive. After all, lessening our dependency on cars is undoubtedly a step forward as an environmentally responsible society. But the cost of such a decision should also not be glossed over.

“My business is going down because people can’t find parking spaces,” says Silvia Ferrusquia, who, for the past 28 years, has owned Latin Bridal at 2644 Mission St. The store, which specializes in gowns for quinceañeras, first communions, and weddings, is the last of its kind in the Mission. Because of that, families often drive long distances to visit Latin Bridal — and due to the high value and large size of the dresses, which often have multi-layered skirts, tend not to take public transportation.

“We used to be eight or nine, now we are the last one left,” Ferrusquia says. “Soon we will probably be gone because of these red lanes and the way they affect us. They took four parking spaces on each block. Who’s going to want to be driving around to have to purchase one thing? They have to go somewhere else to buy, maybe a mall. It’s really affecting us a lot.”

Carlos Bocanegra, member of the United to Save the Mission coalition, points out that the red lanes are particularly dangerous as their negative effects target unprotected populations. 

“Low-income, middle-income, and other vulnerable residents of San Francisco use and need public transit the most, yet we are ignored from these processes and left with a disinvested and unreliable transit system that caters to the few instead of the many,” he says. “Meanwhile, the MTA is bending over backwards for private corporations to target services geared to higher income people.”

Red lanes are a divisive issue, and a loaded one for those who claim their entire livelihoods are threatened. But there is one thing that transit riders and small businesses can agree on — if there have to be red lanes, they should be for Muni buses and taxis only, not tech buses, TNCs, Chariot shuttles, or any privately owned, for-profit modes of transportation.

Fewer heard that loud and clear at Monday’s hearing.

“People have a deep affection for their public transit system,” she told Sean Kennedy, the Muni Forward Program Manager who was there as the voice of the organization. “The goal of public transit should be that public transportation is the main mode of transportation in San Francisco.

“If the intent behind transit-only lanes is to increase reliability, then that is a reason to protect red lanes as a publicly-operated transit,” she added. “I would like to work with the community and the SFMTA … to clarify and protect red transit lanes for public transportation.”

Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors has limited power in determining what rules the SFMTA puts into play in this battle. But, they do have control over the streets, and Fewer isn’t letting that loophole slide by. She can legally introduce legislation to bar tech shuttles and for-profit transit agencies from using these lanes, and she plans to.

“These are public streets,” she says. “They belong to the public of San Francisco.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. |  @TheBestNuala

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