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The pros and cons of the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project


The Geary Bus Rapid Transit project, or Geary BRT for short, is the subject of debate among Richmond District residents. The project is designed to speed up buses and make service more reliable and comfortable along Geary Boulevard, as well as improve pedestrian conditions among the busy corridor with new medians, safer crossings, landscaping and countdown signals.

But the Geary BRT is dismissed by opponents as being too expensive, too disruptive to residents and businesses, and unrealistic in its goals. On the other hand, proponents believe that Geary Boulevard can become the “Great Street” it was always meant to be, and that bus riders will benefit from the service improvements and merchants from the increased ridership into the Richmond District.

To help clarify the two sides of the Geary BRT debate, I invited two Davids to weigh in on the primary issues around the project. They were provided with the same set of questions and asked to keep their answers to no more than 150 words.

Falling into the anti-BRT camp is David Heller, President of the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants & Property Owners Association and founder of savegearyblvd.com.

For the pro side, I invited Dave Snyder, a regular sf.streetsblogs.org contributor and longtime activist for better transportation. You’ll see the Davids’ side-by-side answers below to some of the top questions that arise when Geary BRT is discussed. But don’t just take their word for it – head over to gearybrt.org to learn more about the project.

Many thanks to David Heller and Dave Snyder for participating in the Q&A.

Sarah B.

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Please give a short bio about yourself and explain your relationship to the Geary BRT project:
Dave Snyder: I’m a longtime student of local transportation policy, and activist for better transportation since 1991. After stints as the chief executive of local organizations, the SFBC and Livable City, I served as the transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association where I learned about best practices in public transit and worked to promote improved transit in San Francisco. I learned that BRT systems are an important innovation in public transit that provide a fantastic return on the investment for limited dollars available to build new public transportation infrastructure. David Heller: As president of the Greater Geary Boulevard and Property Owners Association, I am responsible for actions that benefit or hurt local businesses, which are the life-blood of our community. I served on the first citizens advisory committee, which was comprised to investigate the potential for the Bus Rapid Transit system.

As a Richmond District resident, what are the two most important things I should know about the Geary BRT project?
Snyder: (1) That Geary BRT will be public transit unlike anything most of us have ever seen: new vehicles that feel like and operate like trains, stations instead of stops, and faster and more reliable than our current buses and LRVs, and (2) that impacts on car traffic will be minor, almost negligible. Heller: The BRT project was born in secrecy when the SFMTA snuck enabling legislation into a 10-page bill requesting an extension of sales tax revenues for transportation projects. There was one sentence, on page 6 of the legislation, which called for the BRT plan and made it a “voter mandate” to implement. At the meetings before the November vote on the legislation, the MTA’s advisory board made a decision to not tell anyone in the Richmond District about the legislation’s provisions and to avoid the Richmond District’s numerous community meetings for fear of exposure. As well, the highly-politicized MTA is skewing or misleading the public in its partisan effort to get the program going. For example, the number of cars leaving Geary for other Richmond District roads is expressed in terms of vehicles per minute, not vehicles per hour, which gives a better impression of what the actual impacts would be.

What effect will the Geary BRT project have on the businesses along the Geary corridor?
Snyder: All businesses will benefit a little, some a great deal. Geary BRT will attract more people to the corridor as people figure out that if you want to go downtown without your car, you can always walk to Geary and catch a fast and comfortable BRT vehicle in five minutes. This means more people on the Geary sidewalks able to pick up something at a store on their way home. For businesses that need to attract people from the whole city, faster access from Market Street and the Van Ness BRT will make the Richmond an easier destination to access. Construction is usually a hassle, but in this case the sidewalks are hardly being touched, so access to businesses will be unhindered. When the street is dug up, the impact will be much like repaving, which is going to happen anyway, and in fact be coordinated with the BRT construction. Heller: Businesses will suffer during construction and after. The loss of traffic lanes, left-hand turns and parking spaces will hurt an already battered business district. Traffic will be driven to ancillary streets as people avoid the driving-unfriendly environment of Geary. When the BRT line is converted from buses to light rail vehicles, businesses located between the “transit stations” will suffer. Only the high-traffic “transit station” locations would benefit, and those locations are usually taken by high-volume chain stores, such as Walgreens.

In lieu of the BRT project, what else could we be doing to achieve the same objectives of the BRT, which are described on the project website as “to improve travel times, reliability, and the user experience on one of San Francisco’s highest ridership bus routes”?
Snyder: The MTA is already planning to increase the frequency of the 38L and run it until 9:00 p.m. They are also going to adjust the light timing in the eastern portion of Geary. These changes are important practically because they provide better service at less cost to Muni, but they are also important politically because they will provide a sense of optimism among Muni riders. In my experience as a transportation activist, I have learned that people need hope, a sense that the government cares and is making changes to improve the lives of everyday people. Muni riders haven’t had this optimism in a long time, but they deserve it! Boy do they deserve it! If the MTA follows through on these modest improvements, it should make people more enthusiastic about the chances for really fantastic transit that BRT can bring. Heller: A whole bunch of the recommendations we made to improve transit on Geary is being incorporated into the BRT, including transit signal control and GPS monitoring technology. We recommended transforming one lane of traffic on Geary to a “transit-only” diamond lane during morning and evening commute hours but the plan was dismissed by the MTA, which is hell-bent on spending a quarter of a billion dollars on the project, whether it is needed or not.

If/When completed, do you think that the use of public transportation to and from the Richmond District will increase? Why or why not?
Snyder: I’ve come to learn you can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do. You can’t force them out of their cars, or onto bicycles or buses. Most people make a pretty simple calculation about time and money, and choose whatever option is easiest, and worth the money. For example, the 55,000 daily riders of Geary today don’t take the bus to stop global warming, they do it because it’s easy enough and cheap compared to parking or taxis. It’s pretty easy to understand that if you make transit faster, more frequent, more reliable, and more comfortable, more people will take it. Heller: The Geary BRT is slated to end at 33rd Avenue, not at the Great Highway as it currently is. For riders in the Outer Richmond, there will be a hardship just getting to the new Geary BRT line. Travel times will increase slightly for bus riders, but at what cost to the community – years of extensive construction, a dispersement of vehicles onto other Richmond roads, a loss of businesses, etc. It is a large price to pay for a few years of union construction and the shaving of a few minutes off the average downtown commute.


Of the proposed layouts for the BRT lanes, which do you recommend and why?
Snyder: Either of the two center options is better than the side option. The side option eliminates the qualities of BRT that make it seem like a train. The side option will require the bus to be delayed by or swerve around double-parked cars or even cars legally waiting to pull into a spot. This won’t happen with the center option. The side option also does not allow for express buses to pass the locals without swerving. Also, the center option also allows the restoration of parking spaces that are currently occupied by bus stops. In sum, the side option isn’t really BRT. Heller: Using the outside lanes, with exclusive transit use during busy commute times, is the cheapest, most efficient and cost-effective option. But, because the BRT line has to be “rail ready”, the center lane option is being aggressively pursued by the MTA. Of the two center lane options, one would require a whole new fleet of buses with loading doors on the left side of the bus. That option would also shut down when a bus broke down, making it a “straw” choice. There is only one option that the MTA wants, and all of the other choices being studied are for show only.

Finally, please use this space to add any final thoughts about the project.
Snyder: As a transportation professional, I’m excited to see the Geary and Van Ness BRT projects built because I think they will be models for more projects throughout the city. Some say that BART should have been extended under Geary as originally contemplated and they’re right, but this is almost as good and so very much cheaper. This technology doesn’t exist anywhere in the Bay Area, so people can’t appreciate how different it’s going to be than the regular bus. Even though it won’t be trains, it will be better than Muni’s existing surface light rail lines: just as comfortable but more frequent and faster. Where BRT does exist around the world, it’s very popular and beloved. Once we have it, San Franciscans will wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. It’s about time we joined the rest of the world and implemented this new idea to improve transit. Heller: The MTA’s Geary BRT plan should be scrapped. It does little for improving commute times or the quality of ride on the Geary #38 bus line and costs upwards of $250 million. The MTA claims the new bus line would increase ridership, but when pressed to explain who the additional riders would be, the MTA has no answers, other than saying people would leave their cars behind to ride the Geary #38 bus line. The population of the Richmond District is not expected to increase much in the next decade, so increased ridership is a red herring. Perhaps the MTA will fill the buses up with commuters from other Bay Area cities, further impacting the parking problems in the Richmond.

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92 Comments

  1. i give you US examples of failed BRT systems and you cry foul. Give you THE worldwide leading example of failed BRT and you cry foul. give you middling examples of BRT systems and you cry foul. they’re all the same to me — they all fail. none offers dignified transit, and none have delivered on their promises.

    You’re given BRT examples that work and you cry foul. I can give you LRT examples that have failed (some of the best failures are VERY close to you). The T, here in SF, has lower ridership than the bus that it replaced – and guess what – the 9x bus that was introduced at the same time as the T has had continually increasing ridership because it gets people where they want to go and works better than the T. Or…if we want to look at a complete failed system, you can travel down to San Jose and take a look at the worst LRT system in the world – VTA light rail. Ridership has never met expectations, the vehicles are painfully slow, and system cost (both initial buildout and operations) has always been higher than projected.

    I’m in favor of rail as much as the next guy, but there are failed systems all over the place, just as there are failed and successful BRT systems all over the place. As with anything, successful implementation depends on many things, not simply the mode of transit chosen.

    i know not to argue with true believers — evidence is not important to them.

    Is that why you dismiss any successful BRT system, as well as any failed LRT system? Success depends on the details, not the mode.

    and for those who claim SF is broke and can’t afford anything but a few more buses, i point you to the Central Subway. it’ll cost about $2 billion for 2 miles. all i want for the people of Geary is $1 billion for six miles

    Any data showing that a rail system of any use could be built on Geary for a billion would be nice. The T-Third ended up being close to that (and you’re right that the CS will likely hit two billion), so how can we expect Muni to handle a corridor like Geary for less than $5 billion for LRT? If you’re talking about some other agency doing it, or some drastic restructuring of Muni in order to lower costs, I’d be interested in how you’re going to accomplish this – politically.

  2. it’s pretty clear that light rail on Geary is the most sensible compromise solution. the T-Third line is roughly the same size as Geary, and was done for less than a billion dollars. the addition of the T-Third line to the SF Transit network has made the city immeasurably more livable. more people are riding every day. revitalization is booming all along the line. seniors now have access to real transit. the poor communities of southern SF now have access to real transit. everybody deserves access to real transit, even the people who ride the 38.

    Wow. Missed this paragraph before. You’re going to use the absolute disaster known as the T as an example of a successful LRT system? Wow.

  3. Peter Smith,

    thank you for your comments, though i haven’t parsed through everything you’ve written here.

    i made the point that a BRT project built in stages along a road surface and a subway excavation are not comparable in cost, scale or neighborhood impact. i believe your point was that merchants opposing BRT are in such dire straits that they must resist any disruption whatsoever.

    i appreciate and am alarmed by this; Geary needs its businesses to thrive. at the same time, i would beseech to you and others that the Richmond *as a whole* needs better transit, along with other improvements along its main commercial corridor. When i say as a whole, i mean merchants and residents and riders and students and visitors.

    Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. preservation for a few does not justify mediocrity for everyone, which is what we have on Geary today.

  4. Open Letter to Muni, and The SF County Transportation Authority

    There are a number of alternatives the City has failed to adequately consider in its preliminary planning for a proposed Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan – several of whose considerations would tear up Geary Boulevard, eliminating traffic lanes, snarling traffic and potentially hurting neighborhood merchants, the lifeblood of the community.

    Add “Low-Cost” Alternative to Environmental Impact Report

    The SF Transportation Authority should add an alternative to its EIR for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that considers a low-cost option for Muni bus service, such as dedicated bus-only lanes along Geary Boulevard for sidewalk passenger pick up and drop off.

    The lanes could be reserved for buses just during commute hours: 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. eastbound and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. westbound. This option would minimize the impact on merchants.

    Consider Other Available Options to Improve Bus Travel

    From the beginning, the Transportation Authority has focused on extraordinary measures to improve transit times, with little or no consideration being given to less invasive remedies already available. These remedies include giving buses the power to change traffic signals and using GPS technology to avoid the bunching of buses.

    Another option is to eliminate some stops along Geary. Certainly the last suggestion comes with its own set of issues, but the fact is that the buses are slowed considerably by having to stop at almost every block of the boulevard.

    Conduct an Economic Impact Study

    There are numerous merchants on Geary Boulevard and other nearby commercial corridors who remember the construction of BART along Market Street and the disruption and loss of business it brought. Muni’s construction of the Third Street light rail has also been challenging for local merchants and residents.
    It is for these reasons that we have been urging the City to include a study of the economic impact of both the construction and the implementation of the system. Merchants fear negative impacts due to years of construction or a change in shopping patterns along our successful commercial corridor.

    An economic impact analysis examining these issues is necessary for the Transportation Authority to anticipate the impact and lessen the damage caused by any potential project.

  5. Paris’s first modern tramway (light rail), the T3, or ‘Tramway des Maréchaux’, opened in December 2006. It’s a dignified, even classy, system — people love it. Check out this video (link) and see how similar that boulevard is to Geary — it’s uncanny. It was built for about $100 million per mile — less than what we’d expect Geary to cost for a similar system — twice what BRT will cost, but unlike BRT, it will do the job it promises to do, and it will actually add capacity to our system, and provide people with a dignified alternative to their cars.

    Here’s the English-language wiki page (link).

    And here’s a Streetsblog post from December 2007 that first tipped us off to this stellar piece of transit infrastructure (link).

    And whether you prefer Geary have buses or trains, make sure to get the pedestrian and bicycle experience right — it increases the capacity/liveliness/livability/dynamism/business vitality of a street, and it does all that in part because cyclists help to make everyone safer — not just other cyclists, not just pedestrians, but even car drivers — we have the data.

    Do what NYC wants to do with their BRT routes (link) — provide bicycle infrastructure — it’s the minimum that is required, so it’s the minimum that we should do.

    and this morning we had just the latest in a long line of grisly auto-against-pedestrian killings in San Francisco — this one while the 70-year old victim was in the crosswalk on Geary, at Ninth Avenue (link). the driver hit her, knocked her 20 feet through the air, then slowly rolled over her again. horrific scene. people waiting for the bus are watching the whole thing play out. blood everywhere:

    Kong was struck at about 8:15 a.m. by a white van that had been traveling south on Ninth Avenue and turned onto eastbound Geary Boulevard, according to police spokesman Officer Samson Chan. No one else was hurt.

    what, exactly, is it going to take before people get indignant? do car drivers really believe they have the right to terrorize the city at will? we need to tame the auto traffic on Geary Boulevard, and make Geary Boulevard a place that people care about — a place that people want to be. right now, nobody wants to be on Geary except for the reason that it has the bus routes, and it provides the most direct route from Point A to Point B — there’s no reason we have to accept that it should be a horrifically dirty and dangerous place.

    give people walkability and bikability, and give them dignified transit — then watch Geary Boulevard blossom. it’s a simple recipe — all it takes is a little bit decency. even if you hate your children and grandchildren, then do it for Ms. Kong, and all the other people who have been killed, and are yet to be killed, on Geary.

  6. Thank you to everyone for your comments and feedback on this post and the Geary BRT. I am glad that it has sparked discussion on this important issue.

    Just a reminder to keep your comments on topic and relevant to the Geary BRT project. Many thanks,

    Sarah B.

  7. open letter to David Heller

    Mr. Heller,

    there are a number of issues with Geary Boulevard that you fail to consider in the planning for a proposed BRT project. but these should be obvious by now; after all, you’ve participated in this debate from the beginning.

    from the start, you’ve trotted out the same presuppositions — that BRT without a doubt would snarl traffic, change shoppers’ habits, decimate businesses, wreck the Richmond as you know it. you’ve boned up on your transportation expertise, and have decided that diamond lanes and GPS devices would do the trick, simple as that.

    another criticism you’ve made over and over is that the SFMTA doesn’t listen or respond to the concerns of merchants and residents. City planners, bureaucrats and consultants are just going ahead and doing what they want anyway, spending and pocketing millions of dollars in the process.

    it’s high time to say the following: probably no other party in this dynamic discussion has been as rigid and selfish as you. aside from noting some tweaks, your letter is but a big beef that says there are no gimmes for merchants in the project. your next one could come out with it and ask, “What’s in this thing for me?”

    as i wrote in my comment above, merchants are essential to the boulevard, but investing in transit is a boon residents, visitors, students and even merchants *as a whole*. this blind spot, where you see only what you want or what you ought to get, may be your grandest failure in the entire Geary endeavor.

  8. I agree. BRT on Geary and Van Ness and in Oakland are all needed NOW. Bus rapid transit can do everything rail does at a fraction of the cost. It is just as good as rail. And if/when ridership is high enough, BRT can be converted to rail. Ottawa’s Transitway has paved the way for bus rapid transit worldwide, including this project, which as I said is needed RIGHT NOW.

  9. Unfortunately, rail is too expensive for Geary at this time. Therefore, BRT is the best we can do. I like rail, but it is too expensive.

  10. Okay, I apologize. I never meant to say BRT is “just as good” as rail. Still, BRT on Geary is needed immediately. I am taking the “pro” side and saying NO to the “con” side. This is the dark side.

  11. A good example of light rail done correctly… Munich’s S-Bahn – easy to use, clean, punctual, etc. That’s the model San Francisco should be looking towards. Start with lines down Geary, Van Ness, and the extension of the rail down the Embarcadero to Fort Mason and then go from there. The BRT sounds Ok if we actually lay the tracks at the same time so moving to rail is pretty easy when the cost justifies it, but any solution that doesn’t lay the track while creating the new lanes is a waste of time IMO.

  12. I actually have no problems riding the #38 and I live at 43rd AVE. The problem isn’t the 38, it’s transferring to other MUNI lines that are not as efficient. For example, I work at 3rd and Cesar Chavez. Transferring from the #38 to the T line can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes. This has nothing to do with the Geary line and everything to do with the T. If I only had to get downtown I could take the 38X and be there in under 40 minutes every day, but adding the T line to my journey increases my commute to between 1 and a half to 2 hours ONE WAY. No wonder many of us drive.

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