Waiting for BRT

Why is it taking so long to build long-planned bus rapid transit systems on Van Ness and Geary?

Project completion in 2018
Photo courtesy of SFTA
The new layout of Van Ness after the bus lane redesign, slated to finish in 2018. The design ultimately chosen is called the "locally preferred alternative."

By Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez


You're on Muni's underground line, the train stalled just shy of your stop, just stuck there, the light at the end of the tunnel right in front of you. It's a frustrating feeling, right?

With more than six years worth of delays in three major transit overhauls — the Van Ness, Geary and Geneva Bus Rapid Transit Projects — it's beginning to feel just like that.

The projects are designed to speed up the most trafficked transit routes in the city by making the buses run like trains. For the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit, the 47 and 49 would drive in dedicated bus-only lanes shuttling riders north and south, reducing travel time by a third, according to project estimates.

Van Ness BRT was initially announced in 2004 with a planned unveiling of 2012. Eight years later, the new debut is set for 2018. The Geary Project is even worse, with a completion date slated for 2020.

The Van Ness BRT is finally getting its wheels turning this month, with the Environmental Impact Report set to be approved by a number of governmental bodies: the Van Ness BRT Citizen's Advisory Committee, the Transit Authority board, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.

Why the hell has this bus project taken nearly a decade to start its engine? As is customary in politics, fingers are pointed at all sides.

At a citizen's meeting for the Van Ness BRT on Sept. 4, two angry factions gathered in the Old First Church Fellowship Hall on Van Ness. The SFMTA's spokesperson for the project, Lulu Feliciano, wrapped up her presentation to the crowd of about 100, and that's when they pounced.

"Van Ness' three lanes will be limited to two, but it's a highway, isn't it?" asked Carole Holt, owner of Russian Hill Upholstery. "Why do cars have no consideration?" She told the Guardian she worried her customers from Marin would have trouble getting to her store.

Another Polk Street activist, Kelly Gerber, walked right up to Feliciano's face and gestured with his hand like an angry schoolteacher. "Why has no one ever heard of this?" he bellowed, telling us he opposes the loss of parking spaces.

Ironically, transit planners say car traffic would move faster, partially because of the elimination of all left turns along Van Ness except Broadway.

"They're just angry and zooming in on every little detail," Mario Tanez, spokesperson for the SF Transit Riders Union, said of BRT's opponents.

The mostly younger crowd of transit activists showed up in equal force to counter the Polk Street merchants, hoping to stem the tide of NIMBYism.

"We're the generation that will actually see these improvements," Teo Wickland told us. He's an urban planning student who hopes to see Muni running on time.

Feliciano said the project was complicated by having to coordinate multiple city agencies, all with their own goals.

Instead of digging up the same stretch of concrete a dozen times in a decade, San Francisco tries to include as many agencies as possible when cement is broken in any part of the city, she said. Since the Van Ness project is a two-mile stretch between Lombard and Mission streets, many are involved.

infographic showing different city agencies involved in the reconstruction of Van Ness

Graphic by Brooke Robertson

Peter Gabancho, the project manager for Van Ness BRT, said that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will put in new water lines, institute a rainwater catch system, and do sewer work. The Department of Public Works plans to repave, and the SFMTA will replace overhead bus lines and light poles.

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