Geary BRT Town Hall

Last night I attended a Town Hall Meeting about implementing a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system down Geary, full of outspoken citizens eager to have their voices heard. As one of the first town halls I attended, I was a bit taken aback by the general lack of civility some attendees displayed, but I guess it gives everyone a chance to express their feelings.

However, I’ll save thoughts about town halls and citizen engagement for a future entry, as I want to focus on some of the issues and the debates brought on by transit improvement, and my thoughts about what should be prioritized. For quick background, the planned bus-only lanes down Geary will help what is often called ‘the most used bus line west of the Mississippi’, which averages over 50,000 boardings a day. Although the exact layout has not yet been decided, the city is aiming to finish the lanes by 2018.

As with any massive public works project, there are a couple of groups who are unhappy with the project, and which I broadly categorize as follows:

Geary Merchants

Probably the biggest opponents of the Geary BRT project are the merchants, or more precisely, the merchants association. They have two main worries: loss of business during the time the BRT is constructed, and loss of parking that could discourage potential customers.

Community Conservatives

This group is particularly worried about what the extra development along the Geary corridor could bring, including a potential loss of parking. They tend to be fairly happy with the status quo and are unsure about the potential negative impact of the BRT.

Transit Advocates

Not that this group is completely opposed to the project, but many are worried about the project being effective enough. In particular, the SF Muni Transit Riders Union is actively pushing for a light-rail to be added by 2032 (the current funding requires that this project be ‘rail-ready’ even if few expect or want the massive extra funding needed for rail.) Also, many people have other ideas about implementation, including one who was aggressively pushing skip-stop.

My Thoughts

Overall, I am quite glad that the project will be moving forward.  However vocal many of the opponents were at the town hall, I had the sense there was a large silent majority very happy to see their travel times being drastically reduced. Many of the current problems, overcrowded and bunched (and hence unreliable)  buses will be significantly alleviated with: dedicated lanes, traffic lights set to buses, and low floor buses for easier boarding (especially with wheelchairs.)

One of the biggest problems I saw at the town hall was the general mistrust people had with the government. In general, few people seemed to understand the purpose of the government’s intentions and hence misconstrued them. To me, it seemed that many people half assumed the government had not put much time into seriously thinking and evaluating the project. For example, the head of the merchants association was surprised by data collected by the government that showed only about 25% of people went shopping on Geary via automobile even though surveyed merchants  assumed around 75% of customers arrived by car. His extensive experience with the merchants did not match the government surveys, and was legitimately surprised by the government using what he believed was flawed data. Hence, when the data was displayed, he immediately questioned the validity of the survey, and the governments conclusions based data.

Although I don’t claim to be an expert, I am very much looking forward to the BRT system providing a faster more reliable connection from the Richmond district to downtown.

Last thoughts: although I have seen BRT in many countries, one particularly striking application is in Jakarta with the TransJakarta buses. Jakarta is notorious for its horrendous traffic jams and the city planners wanted to figure out a way to encourage middle-class Jakartans out of their cars. Since they did not have the funds for a metro system, they created a completely separate network of bus only lanes across the city. I was immensely impressed with the speed and efficiency after riding it. However, it still has not been that successful at getting middle- and upper-class Jakartans out of their cars. Indeed, even though the system is new, the buses are in terrible shape (on one bus the doors could not close) and heavily utilized by mostly lower-class riders. The challenges in Jakarta are a warning – BRT is of course intended to expand cross-class ridership of the buses to get car-owning citizens to forgo their cars, but can only effectively achieve this if the buses are comfortable and maintained such that all citizens are happy to utilize the system.

Addition: for more information (with a definite anti-merchant association standpoint), you can see this.