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Plan to Speed Bus Traffic Could Be Bad News for Drivers

Buses would run every 3.5 minutes, but car lanes along Van Ness would be eliminated

Van Ness BRT A plan to transform bus traffic on Van Ness Avenue, the busy San Francisco thoroughfare, could be good news for transit riders, but not for drivers.

Separated bus-only lanes would replace one lane for cars on each side of Van Ness between Lombard and Mission streets, according to a voluminous report released Friday by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which features a variety of ways the changes could be made.

Tilly Chang, an SFCTA planner, said the plan, known as bus rapid transit, would transform the unpredictable 47 and 49 bus lines into something similar to a rail line. Buses would arrive every 3.5 minutes and the trip would be 30 percent faster. Passengers would be able to board at any door. The doors would be level with the curb, in the same way that BART train doors are level with the platform. And traffic lights outfitted with special technology would extend green lights so that buses could fly through intersections. 

"I think you get close to the benefits of rail, but with a cheaper technology," Chang said.

The two-mile-long project is estimated to cost between $87 million and $130 million. For comparison, the 1.7-mile-long Central Subway from South of Market to Chinatown, which has become a hot topic in this year’s mayoral election, will cost $1.6 billion.

The plans are welcome news to many of the 16,000 passengers who wait every day along the two-mile stretch of Van Ness, where buses often arrive in bunches because of traffic.

“The 49 and 47 take forever on Van Ness,” said Mario Tanev of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union. “We support this project 100 percent — the buses will go faster and be much more reliable.” 

But the 39,000 daily drivers who use Van Ness, which is part of Highway 101, may not so pleased.

“Where do they expect the traffic to go?” said Jennifer Thompson, who drives to her job at an architectural firm on Van Ness.

Chang said that some drivers would likely use streets parallel to Van Ness, like Larkin, Gough and Franklin. She said improvements would be made to ease traffic on those side streets.

“Will there be gridlock on day one? No,” said Chang. “It’s when we get into 25 years from now when we have a lot of growth. Then, yes. But that’s something we’d eventually have to deal with even without the project.”

The authors of the report studied a variety of options, including placing bus lanes in the center of Van Ness. The public will get to weigh in over the next few months, and a final choice will be made in the spring. The project could be completed as early as 2016.

Depending on which option is chosen, the 442 parking spaces along the two-mile stretch could be reduced by 68 or increased by 13. However, making room for more parking spaces would require prohibiting left-hand turns at all but two intersections along that stretch.

In at least two scenarios, all seven parking spaces between Union and Green streets would be eliminated — right in front of Chan’s Trains and Hobbies, a toy train store. An employee of the store who identified himself only as Jim said it would “absolutely” hurt business because “it is difficult to park here as it is.”

But others were not as worried. Nate Stevens, the manager at Guitar Center on Van Ness, said that because parking is already so scarce along Van Ness, losing parking spaces wouldn’t be a real hardship.

The idea of bus rapid transit was born in Curitiba, Brazil; the cash-strapped city was looking for an inexpensive way to ease gridlock. The idea has not made many inroads in this country yet, but plans for bus rapid transit are also moving forward in Oakland and for the busy Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. 

“It really has to the opportunity to transform how we view buses,” Chang said.  “In many parts of the world, based on necessity, buses have a really central role. It’s unfortunately been underutilized this country.”

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