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Bus Stopped 

How an attempt to make the 38 Geary bus work became another senseless San Francisco social cause

Wednesday, Nov 24 2004
About a year ago, Jay Primus boarded the 38 Geary bus on the west side of Market Street and rode it through the Tenderloin District, jostling, swerving, and spending as much time stopped as moving, until he finally arrived at Van Ness Avenue, a mile up the street. There, Primus disembarked, turned left, walked a block to O'Farrell Street, and boarded the 38 eastbound to Market again. In all, Primus repeated this round trip 40 times, armed with a clipboard and a stopwatch.

"We all know the Geary bus is kind of screwed up, but I needed to find out exactly what was wrong," says Primus, who until recently worked as an intern at the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which operates the city's bus system. "Every time the bus stopped, I was writing down why, and how long. That includes loading passengers, waiting behind a double-parked vehicle, waiting to pull out from a double-parked vehicle. You start from zero and then write down 38 seconds. It resulted in a really big spreadsheet with all that data."

Primus, 28, had previously worked in the software world, designing user interfaces, which, he says, involved "trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes, [with] empathy. It informs everything we do, whether it's writing for other people, or designing a good map, or a project like the 38 Geary.

"It's identifying needs, identifying goals, or really good analysis, like trying to fix something like this."

Ah, how pleasant it is to hear the youthful twitter of a private-sector engineer entering government for the first time. He looks around himself and sees a candy store of problems, which, with the deft application of engineering, design, and management principles, can actually be fixed. Just like that. If he's bright, enthusiastic, and idealistic enough, he'll scurry from cubicle to cubicle with an evangelist's grin, reigniting a spark that went dark eons ago in his fellow engineers, planners, managers, and overseers. Inevitably, however, the engineer -- whether he be a designer of sewage systems, public health care systems, or city transport networks -- will run into a bug so confounding it can't be repaired.

Some things don't work properly, he will discover, because people don't particularly want them to.

Three years ago in this space I imagined a coming citywide conflict over plans for an overhauled, vastly more efficient system of bus, trolley, and subway transit designed to make San Francisco's public transportation system a reasonable option to automobile use. Once the dust settled, I predicted, a much larger proportion of San Franciscans might find it easier to ride the bus than drive, and this change would benefit all of us, whether or not we ever dropped a dime in a Muni toll box. Traffic for those still driving would ease. The city would become less polluted. People wouldn't get run over by cars nearly as often.

According to internal documents I obtained at that time, Muni planners wanted to install bus-only lanes along major transit thoroughfares such as Geary, Van Ness, Potrero, and Mission. Ultimately, this high-speed transit grid might speed someone from the Richmond District to Richmond, Calif., in minutes, rather than the hours it now takes. But before this could even begin to happen, I predicted at the time, a war would need to play out, with transit planners on one side, and people who didn't want to lose parking spaces to bus lanes, and who didn't want to see automobile traffic slow down in deference to buses, and who didn't want to lose their favorite bus stops on the other.

That battle has now begun. About 400 people have signed a petition opposing a Muni plan to make bus travel along Geary and O'Farrell streets swifter, more reliable, and more comfortable because the plan involves removing five bus stops from the Tenderloin.

For Tenderloin residents who've gotten used to having bus stops on every block, the Muni plan is another example of fat cats in government neglecting a poor neighborhood.

For transit planners, public transit advocates, and representatives for the elderly and disabled, who use public transit in large numbers, this change is actually a first step toward making transit work better citywide.

Like many firms that took care in picking over the spoils of San Francisco's multimedia implosion, Muni obtained an über-intern. Jay Primus was not only a design specialist, he was also armed with the optimistic sense of possibility that characterized many who came to San Francisco for the 1990s dot-com revolution. Soon after starting work a year ago, Primus volunteered to study what was wrong with the 38 Geary line, a crucial, 54,000-rider-a-day transit artery that is one of the city's least reliable, least comfortable, and slowest. The dysfunction of the 38 Geary line, transit planners and advocates believe, helps encourage thousands of residents of the Richmond and Western Addition districts to clog downtown with their cars during the morning and evening commutes, stalling traffic, exacerbating street-level pollution, and making life far more dangerous for residents of the Tenderloin and South of Market areas.

After Primus completed his bus-riding sojourn and built his database of delay, he suggested some changes; they were so good that Muni brass told him to write an implementation plan. The result was a low-cost proposal to increase the reliability and speed of the 38 Geary. This would be a precursor to a bus rapid-transit line from downtown to the ocean, part of a citywide plan drafted in 2001 to move San Franciscans along the city's main corridors at the speed of BART.

"The way we see it is it's part of a bus rapid-transit network that was approved by voters last year," says Andrew Sullivan, executive director of the transit advocacy group Rescue Muni. "We see this as an interim step toward bus rapid transit."

The elder advocate group Senior Action Network, whose constituents represent an outsize portion of transit riders, was excited about the plan. "There are seniors throughout the Richmond District," the senior group's Bob Planthold says.

Some Tenderloin residents, who benefit from having a bus stop, figuratively speaking, at their front doors, opposed the plan.

"Tenderloin's 30,000 residents once again are seeing our neighborhood treated as a place that people go through, not a real neighborhood with real people and real needs," says Michael Nulty, who circulated an anti-bus-stop-removal petition that garnered 400 signatures, mostly from outside the neighborhood. "They came up with a plan, forced it on us."

Progressive supervisors, led by Chris Daly, jumped aboard, characterizing the 38 Geary revamp as an affront to the low-income and disproportionately disabled residents of the Tenderloin. Thus another questionable San Francisco social cause was born.

But it's not a social cause in the peace versus war, poverty versus plenty, right versus wrong variety. Rather, it's a dubious social cause in the San Francisco mold, in which the passionate few who benefit from the way things are battle against the dispassionate many who would benefit if things were changed to work better.

In San Francisco, proposed changes in the status quo require proof of perfection, while the requirements of stasis are nil.

In the end, both supporters and opponents of the 38 Geary changes invoke the ideas of sympathy for the elderly, the infirm, children, and mothers.

"It's whether these people have to walk another block, wait a little longer. With no supermarket, no core service, families with children with groceries in their arms are going to have to be walking all that time," says Tenderloin neighborhood activist Richard Allman, advocating to keep all the Tenderloin stops, even if the bus is so slow few with workaday schedules can use it.

"What about parents with babies and strollers? That is a burdened constituency that needs to know the bus is going to arrive on time," says Planthold, speaking for fewer Tenderloin stops and a faster bus ride.

The truth is, removing a quarter of the bus stops in the Tenderloin, where bus stops are now on every block, will inconvenience a quarter of the residents, while greater reliability will improve things for the rest of them, as well as making the bus swifter and more reliable along the rest of the line. If the changes work, and people choose to ride the bus rather than drive downtown from the west side, then tens of thousands of pedestrians, drivers, and residents will benefit. And if those good effects create momentum for improving efficiency on other bus lines, commuters, bicyclists, motorists, and residents who may or may not be in motion will be blessed by a city not clogged by smelly, dangerous, noisy traffic.

This, at least, is what Primus had in mind when he began riding the bus back and forth between Market and Van Ness a year ago.

"It's been frustrating," says Primus, now a transit consultant with the transportation design firm Nelson/Nygaard. "I worked at Muni over a year, and it was an interesting process to see how these civil servants really work to make things better for everyone, and then encounter a lot of opposition. The plan has been described as yet another example of people in the Tenderloin being trod upon and getting the short end of the stick, when really it's to make things better."

It's precious, listening to engineers talk about how they'd like to make San Francisco work better for everyone. Precious, but usually futile.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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