How was your 4/20? Hopefully, you didn’t spend it the way the SFMTA Board of Directors did, in a meeting that stretched nearly to the 8-hour mark.
Of course, some things do require a great deal of planning, and this past Tuesday, the SFMTA staff provided the board with updates on transit service, presented plans for new transit-only lanes and “high occupancy vehicle” lanes on some of the city’s busiest streets, and provided a glimpse of their future plans.
Reopening the Subway
Though it was only briefly discussed during Tuesday’s meeting, Muni riders can expect to see some major improvements in the coming weeks. On May 15, the Muni Metro subway will finally reopen between West Portal and the Embarcadero, serving the N, K, and T lines in their pre-pandemic form. The K and T will once again be “interlined,” meaning K trains will become T trains once they reach downtown, and vice versa. The M and L lines will continue to be served by buses for the time being. The historic F streetcars will also resume running from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf via the Embarcadero.
Bringing more trains into service will then free up more buses to provide increased service on other routes. To avoid another embarrassing subway shutdown like the one that happened in August, SFMTA staff plan to test subway service for a full two weeks before welcoming back passengers. Subway riders should enjoy a smoother, more predictable ride thanks to improvements that were made during the shutdown. There will also be wifi throughout the line.
In recent weeks, there’s been a whole lot of drama surrounding the question of whether to keep JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park car-free in perpetuity. Supervisor Shamann Walton has described the car-free stretch of road as “recreational redlining,” making the park inaccessible to his Bayview-Hunters Point constituents arriving at the park by car. The De Young Museum has also been lobbying to bring cars back to JFK, arguing that it prevents visitors from accessing the museum. The nearby Academy of Sciences has been more equivocal, saying they support a “thoughtful planning process” before a decision is made on a permanent closure to cars.
Naturally, bike and pedestrian activists have fired back, saying that JFK is far safer and more welcoming than it has ever been. They also cite the 5,000 free parking spaces located on the numerous other roads in the park where cars are currently allowed, including Museum Concourse Drive, which provides direct pick-up and drop-off access to the museums.
During the Tuesday meeting, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin laid out how the agency plans to respond to the hullabaloo — related to both JFK Drive and the Great Highway, which has also been closed to cars since the beginning of the pandemic — cryptically stating that “the current configuration is unacceptable, but I would also say the previous configuration is unacceptable as well.”
SFMTA is currently planning a detailed “work scope,” in which they will study how car-free JFK is going, who is using it, and how to mitigate its unintended side-effects, Tumlin said. That will include an analysis of how the closure affects traffic on other streets, how to better-manage parking in the park, especially for people with disabilities, how to improve the park shuttle, and how to better incorporate scooter and bikeshare. In addition, the agency will analyze how public transit to and from the park could be improved.
Tumlin also said SFMTA plans to do outreach in areas far from the park, including Bayview, Visitacion Valley, and Chinatown. The goal, he said, is “to make sure that all San Franciscans can come to the park”
All of that will be in addition to a preliminary study of car-free JFK by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), the agency that does long-term transportation planning for San Francisco.
The “work scope” Tumlin described will need to be approved by the SFMTA Board (at a later date), the Rec and Park Commission, and the Board of Supervisors. Car-free JFK would remain in place while SFMTA completes its studies, a process that would take no more than a year, Tumlin said. After that point, all of the aforementioned agencies would vote once again on whether to make the closure permanent.
We shall see whether this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is enough to appease Supervisor Walton and other supervisors who have expressed skepticism about car-free JFK.
Tumlin said SFMTA plans to undertake a similar process for the Great Highway. On that corridor, the SFCTA is currently studying the impacts of different options going forward, including keeping the street as is, fully reopening it to cars, and keeping it closed at select times. Tumlin said that analysis will be published shortly, and that SFMTA will soon launch a website tracking transit and street projects on the West Side of the city.
Transit Only Lanes
Later in the meeting, SFMTA staff described progress on implementing transit-only lanes in San Francisco. The city currently has about 50 miles of transit only lanes, including six miles recently installed as “temporary emergency transit lanes” during the pandemic. According to SFMTA’s data, these lanes really do make buses faster and more reliable, even as traffic begins to approach pre-pandemic levels.
“We’ve kind of found the silver bullet and it’s not rocket science,” SFMTA transit planning manager Sean Kennedy said. “You reduce transit travel time and improve reliability, and ridership goes up.”
Pre-pandemic, the routes that received transit only lanes and other improvements saw speed improvements of 10 percent, and a 14 percent increase in ridership. Those improvements came despite declining ridership across the Muni system as a whole.
SFMTA staff is planning to come back to the Board in the coming months to ask for several emergency transit lanes to be made permanent, including the ones on Geary, 7th, and 8th streets, Mission (through SoMa), the 4th Street Bridge, and the intersection of Church and Market.
At the meeting, the Board voted to authorize two more — or rather, one and a half more — temporary emergency transit lane projects. The first will affect the 1 California, adding new transit only lanes to sections of Sacramento, Clay, and California in Chinatown, Nob Hill, and the Inner Richmond. The second project will add “high occupancy vehicle lanes” to stretches of Park Presidio Boulevard, Lombard, and Richardson streets, affecting the the 28 and Golden Gate Transit buses. Under the current service pattern, no Muni buses are running on Lombard.
The lanes will be open to drivers making right turns, and those accessing driveways or parking spots.
The lanes on Lombard and Park Presidio, which are technically state highways, will function much like carpool lanes on the freeway, open to any vehicle with two or more passengers. SFMTA Board member Steve Heminger, who was the lone dissenting vote on the item, questioned whether the lanes would be effective when all two-passenger vehicles could use it. SFMTA’s own analysis concluded that a third of vehicles on these three-lane roads have two or more passengers, leading them to the conclusion that the HOV lanes wouldn’t meaningfully increase traffic.
However, SFMTA officials stressed that they are prepared to up the requirement to three passengers per vehicle if the lanes prove ineffective. The project, being done in collaboration with Caltrans, is the first of its kind in California. Staff characterized it as an “experiment.”
Kennedy revealed that transit-only lanes for the 1 California bus, and the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Park Presidio and Lombard, would be the “last” emergency transit lanes SFMTA plans to implement during the pandemic. That means several planned emergency transit lanes will not be implemented, including on Laguna Honda, Bosworth, Masonic, and Presidio.
However, these and other corridors are still considered “transit priority projects,” which are slated to receive improvements in the coming years. But as the map above shows, several major transit routes aren’t scheduled to see improvements until 2025 or 2026. In the nearer term, Muni riders can expect major changes on Taraval, to improve the L street car, and on 16th Street between Potrero and Church, where SFMTA will be installing transit-only lanes for the 22 bus. Staff said they’re also in the early stages of planning a rapid route for the 29 bus.
In other words, these marathon meetings, debating whether the city should give more street space to buses and bikes and less to cars, will be going on for many 4/20s to come.