Busway Down Geary Likely Next Big Project for San Francisco

Rail options dismissed as too costly

Geary Boulevard is one of San Francisco’s busiest roadways, packed nonstop with automobiles, pedestrians, and buses as it runs east-west from downtown to the sea at 48th Avenue. The San Francisco County Transit Authority has been working for years to improve public transportation along the corridor; buses there currently serve more than 50,000 riders a day, and the street once had a streetcar line. A few days ago, the authority released its draft alternative analysis for the corridor, and the results indicate that the city will move ahead with a busway along the street with reserved lanes in the median, costing about $200 million to construct by 2013. The authority’s board will vote later this month on what alternatives to pursue as the project moves forward.

Light rail service — either street-running or underground — will likely be eliminated from consideration because there simply isn’t enough money in the authority’s coffers to pay for the project. Improvements to the section of Geary entering downtown east of Gough Street, where it is too narrow to accommodate reserved bus lanes and vehicular traffic, will not be included in this project either because of similar cost issues. The bus rapid transit line west of Gough Street will be built to light rail specifications, however, so if future funding became available, the corridor could be converted to train service.

The alternatives study doesn’t articulate a bus rapid transit-over-light rail preference, it simply argues that Proposition K, which provides funding for transit improvements in San Francisco, will only raise about $100 million over the next several years (after money has been distributed to the expensive Central Subway project). Even with the 60-40 federal-local funding split common under the New Starts program, a light rail project running the length of Geary would be far too costly to build. There’s been some criticism of the report, focusing on its outrageous cost estimates, including $2.5 billion for an all-surface light rail line running the route’s six miles (in 2025 dollars), but even if the project only cost $600 million to build, it would still be too expensive.

I’m not a huge proponent of BRT; there are so many good reasons why rail, especially in a big and dense city like San Francisco, makes more sense. But the alternatives analysis is, more than anything else, realistic. It would be a waste of time for the Transit Authority to demand a rail line for which the city has no capacity to pay.

In the long-term, it might be a good thing that the city isn’t pushing forward with a light rail line on Geary. (If built, the project could have theoretically operated independently or, if underground, as a spur from the Central Subway.) Rather, the Geary right-of-way should be reserved for the city’s most important — but so far unplanned — project: a new BART subway. BART’s capacity through the Transbay Tunnel to the East Bay is at capacity, and continued growth in the urban core, as well as a future potential California High-Speed Rail connection to Oakland, makes a new under-the-bay connection necessary. Pairing BART and CAHSR tunnels would cheapen overall costs.

If you’re building a new underwater tunnel, it makes sense also to connect that line to new capacity in the urban core — probably near the proposed Transbay Terminal Center, and then, if we’re thinking big, up Geary. This idea has been well covered by SPUR (PDF), Transbay Blog, and The Overhead Wire. The street has high potential ridership and could probably qualify for a true high-capacity metro, not just a light rail line (from a cost-effectiveness perspective). If the city went ahead and built a light rail tunnel under the street today, a BART line there would be unthinkable, so BRT is a good move from that perspective.

There’s one final advantage to moving ahead with this BRT project: it will lead to significantly improved amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists along the street. It would also eliminate two vehicular lanes and as a result reduce traffic. Geary is, shall we say, not the most beautiful of boulevards, so the chance to clean it up and improve the urban environment there should be welcomed. If the light rail subway alternative had been advanced by the report, we wouldn’t be discussing how to use transportation funds to pretty up the street. BRT gives us that option.

More than anything else, though, this alternatives analysis is a pragmatic approach to addressing a complicated transportation problem with limited funds. We’ve got to find more money before we can start dreaming about rail.

20 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Mad Park

    This is so sadly lame – had not Sacramento “borrowed” so much transit money to pay for other stuff, and had the mayor shown an ounce of leadership, rail would be laid along Geary all the way to the Ocean.

  • Unfortunately putting a bus on Geary probably means no rail in our lifetimes. It’s unfortunate but once that corridor gets “something” then people will say, they already got improvements, where’s mine. It’s stupid but true. So if Geary goes down to BRT, kiss rapid transit goodbye.

  • Mad Park

    Agreed. Here in the Seattle, despite the fact that we are finally opening rail after 40+ years of discussion, we are now about to get a mess of Bus “Rapid” Transit too – same bumpy buses w/ new paint jobs, same SUVs swerving in front and out of side streets, same diesel propulsion (er, um “Hybrid”). Sorry, if they can’t lay rail and hang catenary, they shouldn’t bother.

  • Ian Leighton

    too bad we missed the chance in the first round of BART, that was gonna go down geary, up to the presidio, and into marin.

    i’m sad. we need a transit emperor to just go “just shut up. build it. now.”

    so much for san francisco being progressive when it comes to transit, now we’re “the city that used to know how, but somehow totally, utterly, completely forgot”

    why does full metro have to be so damn hard these days? or even light rail underground (assuming the same capacity / speed). beats me. we can’t suck it up and realize that in the long run, it’s the best thing to do.

  • Mad Park

    Somehow automobile related infrastructure is considered an investment but transit is always a cost – go figure!

  • Electric trolley buses?

  • jon

    unbelievable

    this is one of maybe 3 corridors in the US that could support a true heavy rail subway line and yet they cant even get surface LRT line. wow

    and they arent even willing to give up a few blocks of car lanes for transit, even more wow.

    granted rail construction is higher in really urban areas, but how the hell does houston, phoenix, salt lake city, sacramento, san jose, portland, los angeles, san diego, charlotte, dallas, etc. built the amount of light rail that they have in the last 10 years and yet one of the most urban cities in the country cant squeeze out a rail line along its busiest corridor? i mean portland has built like 70 miles of LRT in less than 25 years. LA has probably built double that in the same time, including much of it grade seperated.

    if youre gonna do busway brt you could just order a big shipment of jersey barriers and some white paint and run your fleet’s newest articulated buses, you get the same thing as this proposal minus the hundreds of millions of dollars.

    maybe the thing to do is just do nothing and hope that in 10 years they’ll pursue this project again but with a rail option.

  • I’ve followed this issue for years as an SF resident and transit planning consultant. I wish there were a rail transit subway on Geary, but in the real political and financial world, BRT is a reasonable outcome. If we care about the environmental goals of transit, it would be wrong to wait another generation to have any decent transit option on one of America’s densest urban transit corridors outside New York CIty.

    An important geographical point that you didn’t mention is that while the entire corridor is dense by American standards, there isn’t really a western (outer end) anchor needed for a strong rapid transit line. On the contrary, at the west end of the line, the project has been bedeviled for decades by concerns about impacts on on-street parking in the Richmond commercial strip, and in San Francisco’s intensely democratic polity, that matters.

    The disappointment is not that this is BRT, but that it’s not going to exist east of Gough. Presumably buses are going to run in the existing poorly enforced bus lanes across downtown. Until that problem’s addressed, it will be wrong to call this a complete rapid-transit corridor or a complete example of BRT, though of course people will call it that and use it to judge BRT a failure.

    BRT vs LRT comparisons often ignore the fact that BRT, by its nature, is easy to compromise. The commonest such compromise is to say “downtown, it’s just too hard.” That’s how Ottawa got to where it is, with a world class busway pouring into downtown surface streets that are over capacity to an almost comical degree.

    Yes, the next generation may get to see rail transit in the corridor, but we’ve been waiting long enough for functional rapid transit on Geary. It’s time to build what we can, while demanding a better solution downtown.

  • The anti-bus remarks that I read show more ignorance than anything else. More intelligently, one might assess the pros and cons of each. If the primary goals is moving people, then one mode could make more sense in one setting while another could make more sense in another. The idea behind many BRT schemes is that it is a stepping-stone for light rail that will make the latter option more palatable fiscally. Sometimes, it is fiscally irresponsible to leap right away to rail before improving the existing bus system.

    I grew up with buses on Geary. They were not the problem. Rather, they were good, frequent, clean and efficient. Narrow streets trying to accommodate too much automobile traffic was the problem.

    Good transportation planning does not benefit from minds too small to have enough space for more than one idea.

  • Susan, buses simply don’t attract riders or investment like rail does. Never has, never will. They are a far too impermanent for any developer worth their salt to trust millions too and there is a whole class of people who would never be caught dead on a bus that would happily get on a train.

  • I do not buy into the elitist attitude that only rail is good enough. Also, buses can be more permanent than Mr. Burger appears to know although they can also serve as reasonable precursors to rail. Please look at http://www.masstransitmag.com/web/online/Online-Exclusives/Attracting-TOD/5$5320.

    I consider it irresponsible to further the stigmatization of buses.

  • Matt Spencer

    Thank you Susan. I commute daily along the Geary corridor and a well-implemented BRT line is likely to provide better functionality than a surface-running LRT line would. Geary already has three lines – 38 (local), 38L (limited stops), and 38X (stops in western SF then is an express to downtown).

    If we replaced this with LRT, you would be stuck with only two surface tracks that travel no faster than traffic, which is very slow in SF due to commute congestion, as well as suffering long boarding/deboarding times due to the high numbers of riders. There would be no way for any LRT vehicle to pass another, so everyone would be forced to take a painfully slow ride to/from downtown.

    Additionally we already have multiple articulated (i.e. double-capacity) buses that back up 2 or 3 at a time along Geary and that still is sometimes not enough capacity to handle ridership (estimated at 45,000 daily I believe). What would be the point of having LRT after LRT backed up along rail on this corridor? I really don’t see how this would be an improvement – instead it would be a massive fiinancial expenditure that would please train types but would potentially degrade service levels. If we are willing to judge transit modes based on their pros and cons and not pre-conceived biases, BRT has more going for it than just a low implementation cost and surface-running LRT is inappropriate for this corridor.

    SF residents ride buses despite their drawbacks. Turning the Geary line into Muni Metro would not solve anything in my opinion. BART along Geary as a complementary service would be very fantastic, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Also, Yonah, as far as bike or ped improvements to the corridor, I see nothing about this in the SFMTC report. Geary is a terrible street to walk or bike along but I don’t see that changing unless even more auto lanes are removed and we all know that’s not going to happen. There will be no bike lane or multi-use path. Sidewalks will continue to be inadequate for the high numbers of pedstrians. The SFMTC clearly did not even consider those issues in their analysis, or if they did, they gave up and omitted them from the report.

    I hope this works out ultimately. These studies have been taking forever and I don’t see anything going into service until 2015 or 2016 based on the current pace and the MTC’s track record for implementing projects. Likewise the omission of improvements east of Gough is criminal in my opinion, but I’m hopeful that this will result in an improvement to transit along this corridor and the chances of Geary BRT being a boondoggle are much lower than, say, the Chinatown subway, which I think is a disaster already 10 years in the making.

  • Matt Spencer

    ^^ And by MTC I mean MTA ;).

  • Matt Fisher

    This is a f**king outrage. I currently live in a Mecca of BRT, Ottawa, and I’m incensed that Geary Blvd. is suggested to be ideal for just more buses. I am not an elitist. I know I am partisan, but I don’t think shoving this in a situation where they say they can only barely afford BRT is outrageous. It should ideally be a subway.

    BRT is a swindle in general to me. After 11 years of living here (I moved from Newfoundland), I’m convinced that BRT is an attempt to convince us that we can do without rail. Bad.

    • 1.) OC Transpo, Ottawa’s transit operator has long claimed that its busways carry up to 10,000 passengers per hour per direction (phd). I have twice attempted to verify this “on my own” but the highest volume I observed was roughly 5,000 phd.

      I have attempted to find “independent published verification” of Ottawa’s 10,000
      phd claim for roughly 18 years. No luck. All published references to this figure in the transportation literature state OC Transpo as the source – or the former general manager who spearheaded BRT development (John Bonsall) – or give no source at all.

      Nor does any published reference state – except in very general terms (e.g. “Southeast Transitway”) – when and where this volume might be observed.

      Therefore: If there is a location along the Ottawa transitway system where one might stand (or sit) and observe the passage of 10,000 passengers during a continuous 60-minute interval, then that location is a closely guarded secret (together with other key details, such as season of year and time of day).

      2.) OC Transpo claimed for years that BRT provided large capital and operating cost savings.

      The theory, outlined in its alternatives analysis, went like this: “BRT” would permit higher operating speeds than buses in mixed traffic. Each bus would therefore be able to cover more km during peak periods. In other words, a given level of peak-period service could be operated with fewer buses. That would permit a smaller number of vehicles in peak-period service, and a smaller overall fleet size. Result: savings in capital cost (smaller fleet, less investment for storage and service facilities) and operating cost (fewer buses, and drivers, required for peak-period service).

      In other words, OC Transpo asserted that it would obtain – and was obtaining – greater productivity as the result of BRT.

      Which was not true, and could be demonstrated as such using statistics published by OC Transpo. It said, in effect, that two key performance indicators would
      change – significantly – in the direction of “greater productivity.”

      –Increased “annual bus km per platform hour” and

      –increased “annual bus km per scheduled peak bus.”

      Almost too good to be true, eh ?

      What actually took place, as successive Transitway segments were brought into service, was – nothing. The two “performance indicators” described above did not budge. These results were apparent, from the annual statistical compilations, almost from “day 1.”

      From 1982 to 2002, OC Transpo “operating cost per revenue service hour” rose by nearly 60 percent – adjusting for inflation, and during a period when “real” wage rates paid by OC Transpo remained stable.

      Not only that: maintenance costs, fuel consumption, non-revenue (“deadhead”) km and
      road calls all increased while labor utilization became less efficient. Management did moderate the negative trends in cost-effectiveness by improving service effectiveness.

      However, the “cost” of the “inherent” or “structural” inefficiencies associated
      with Ottawa’s transitway program – which have not been explained – is considerable. Based on 2002 service levels, the implied annual cost (CAD 2002) was about 65 million; the implied cumulative cost from 1982 to 2002 is roughly (CAD 2002) 1.4 billion.

      BRT, Ottawa-style, is perhaps not the best of ideas.

  • Susan De Vos

    Mr. Fisher,

    Are you familiar with the geography of the area?

    I suppose every situation has its own unique combination of engineering and political issues, but what I read suggested that things would be designed to enable an upgrade to light rail when/where possible. It could be a wise move indeed to get a wedge in and then go from there rather than to be so unrealistic that nothing happens. There is no reason to think either that a BRT line is permanent or that it somehow undermines rail. I wish rail proponents were more open to acknowledging the potential benefits of BRT. That said, I have never lived in a place with BRT. So …

  • Matt Fisher

    I’ve never been to San Francisco, or to California. My dad has, however, been to San Diego and ridden the Trolley there. I’m sure BRT is not an “evil” idea for Geary, but I’m still skeptical. I believe that they will say that BRT is “rail on rubber tires” and “just like rail, but cheaper”. They will further try to convince us that we can do without rail. Yes, BRT is flexible in the sense of rerouting, but the fact is that BRT does not attract as much development as rail, and around our Transitway stations here in Ottawa, we aren’t doing as much development. Presumably, you’re referring to the Euclid BRT in Cleveland, but LRT would have done greater wonders, in my opinion at least.

    BRT is not as pemanent as rail. I know it could work in the short term, but in the long term, busways make less sense. This short term thought process is what’s being used to favour BRT and make it look better than LRT. They just like BRT on Geary more because it’s cheaper, and according to them, in my opinion, cheaper is better. Cheaper is not necessarily better. I would not want to treat transit investment as being like an investment in the stock market, which is what they seem to do.

  • Matt Fisher

    If I would add anything else, in Edmonton, they will be going with LRT over BRT to the north and the west. Of course, it’s probably easier in Alberta due to oil money, despite its conservatism, while in S.F., they say even an all surface LRT is unaffordable. I can’t stand it. :)

  • “I consider it irresponsible to further the stigmatization of buses.”

    “I’m convinced that BRT is an attempt to convince us that we can do without rail.”

    Mode choice is an is a planning / design / engineering / financial issue that cannot be critiqued solely from the perspective of social science (… or ideology …).

    In general, if ridership works out to a weekday average of 5,000 passenger-km per km of line length, then a low-cost rail line can be justified and will provide lower operating costs than buses.

    Other factors need to be taken into account (peak-period passengers per hours), but this “meter-stick” is quite familiar overseas (especially in Japan).

    If ridership works out to a weekday average of 10,000 passenger-km per km of line length, then significant investment for strategic grade separation, perhaps even a downtown subway, is justified. “Required” is sometimes a better term.

    If ridership works out to a weekday average of 20,000 passenger-km per km of line length, then full separation can be justified – and will provide significantly higher service quality and lower operating cost than buses in mixed traffic.

    Of course, if a city does not have the capital (or the inclination) to build a rail line, bus service can certainly be improved. This should be “routine policy” in all major cities, because not all lines have sufficient traffic to justify the investment for rail development.

    The Ottawa BRT (“Transitway”) system is a classic example of something that other cities should not try – unless they wish to risk the less-than-favorable operating-cost trends that are well documented by published statistics.

    The Ottawa transit system publishes the best compilation of transit operating statistics that I’ve yet seen. These document some strongly negative trends that coincide with Transitway expansion. However, it seems that most everyone in town – even transit advocates who are strongly critical of BRT – avert their eyes.

  • Rick

    This is ridiculous. I live near Geary west of Masonic. I avoid the bus because it is jam packed and the drivers drive like crazy. Buses are always lurching around and I’m dizzy by the time I get off. What we need is a subway line that goes from downtown to the ocean. It would increase shopping traffic downtown, could be routed through Golden Gate park and would reduce traffic and congestion in and around the park. All parties should be in favor of an underground rail line. Buses could continue to run above ground and they’d be less crowded and Geary in general would be less congested.

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