Transit First at Last

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SaveMuni has often been critical of the SFMTA. However this time it has earned our thanks and commendation. But first a little history.

On March 19, 1973, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors adopted one of the country’s first “transit-first” policies. In those days idea of “transit-first” was virtually unheard of. However to harried Muni riders whose jammed buses continually crept along in congestion, it sounded like manna from heaven. Henceforth Muni’s bus loads of people were to be given a higher priority on crowded city streets, and the riders cheered.

But nothing happened. Decades went by with little change on the clogged roadways where it was most needed.

In recent years however things have picked up. Under Ed Reiskin’s leadership the SFMTA is beginning to install transit-only lanes on the heavily congested thoroughfares where buses have traditionally bogged down. To make the expensive Van Ness BRT system work for the important #49 line (which travels between City College and the north end of Van Ness Avenue), the SFMTA carved out transit-only lanes on Mission Street. To help the Muni’s beleaguered #8x, #30 and #45 lines get through Union Square, the SFMTA proposes to ban cars from lower Stockton Street. Changes like these are strong moves that offer the promise of significantly improved bus service on the affected Muni lines. They also engender strong push back. Not everyone understands or even cares about the travel woes of Muni riders. Strong reactions are to be expected from those who support transit-first, “but not on my street”, and those who regard change of any kind as threatening.  It is in any event important that the SFMTA interact with other street users and remain sensitive to the needs and perceptions of the abutting business owners and other inhabitants of the affected streets.

Despite objections there are two strong reasons for supporting the SFMTA’s recent transit first initiatives.

The first is that giving loaded buses priority on city streets is of immense benefit to the Muni riders who account for 700,000 Muni trips a day.

The second is the effect on traffic generally. As Muni gets more expeditious and reliable it will attract additional riders, many of whom currently drive. It is not unreasonable to envision a Muni ridership of well over 1,000,000 trips a day in the not so distant future. Whether or not this occurs will depend in large part upon how successful the SFMTA is in making its system more attractive to more people.   In any event it is undeniable that people traveling on light rail vehicles and buses in groups of 100 and 200 are far less space-consuming on city streets that people traveling solo or in pairs in individual automobiles. If people discover there are more reliable and expeditious ways of moving through the city than driving, it will mean tens of thousands of fewer cars on the road. And in a densely built up place like San Francisco, that’s a win-win.

In its Transit-First program the SFMTA is struggling to make things better for hundreds of thousands of daily Muni riders and to reduce traffic congestion on city streets.  And for that it deserves commendation and support.

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