Vaccinations are rolling out and President Biden has signed a massive relief bill that includes $30B to save public transit from disappearing. After a long and difficult year we can start to see the outlines of the future we want to build — if we take a real moment to consider lessons learned about equity, access, and sustainability.

Muni During COVID

In the beginning of shelter-in-place, when coyotes were howling on empty streets in normally bustling North Beach, very few cars were on the road. We saw how much better Muni performed without traffic. In some areas, like along Junipero Serra Blvd., Muni saw almost a 50% savings in travel time.

With buses traveling so quickly, normal schedules no longer worked. Instead, buses started running relative to each other so they would arrive with regular frequency. This is known as headway management (headways being the time between vehicles), something we’d been discussing for years. We had clear, live proof that if we can keep Muni out of traffic, it can be frequent, fast, and reliable.

Because SFMTA targeted its limited resources to prioritize equity and be responsive to essential needs (the most transit-dependent neighborhoods, medical facilities, groceries), routes like the 8 Bayshore and 9 San Bruno, serving the southern and south-eastern part of the city, saw more frequency than ever. The demand for cross-town trips became more apparent, challenging the traditional service map that focused on downtown.

With these various patterns revealed during the shelter-in-place order, we see clearly who has been less well served by our pre-COVID Muni service, and what a more equitable and accessible Muni service might look like.

Keeping Muni Out of Traffic

These patterns showed us how important a network like our 30x30 vision is. We want to see a network that connects all neighborhoods with Rapid Muni routes that run end-to-end in 30 minutes by 2030, arriving at least every 10 minutes. (See our article for more on what Rapid service is and how it’s designed.)

We launched our 30x30 campaign in 2019. After doing our own outreach and research, we identified three routes to start our campaign with: the T Third, the 22 Fillmore, and the 29 Sunset. Our campaign collaborated with Lowell Peer Resources students to push for Rapid service on the 29 Sunset. As a result of our advocacy, SFMTA has started to study improving the 29 Sunset.

When we make resource decisions that connect all neighborhoods, rather than focusing the most resources on the downtown peak period commute, we can provide the service some neighborhoods have needed for decades. When we protect Muni from cars, Muni can run faster and more reliably.

The 30x30 vision also lifts us out of block-by-block, parking-space-by-parking-space debates about whether or not Muni could possibly get anywhere reliably. If the run-time of a given route is currently 40 minutes, you can start looking at every obstacle along the way that could be removed to shave 10 minutes off. When a bus can complete a trip 5 times in two hours instead of 4 times, riders can get more service without adding more vehicles.

If a route reliably takes 30 minutes instead of 40 or 60 or more, the tens of thousands of riders that use it every day benefit. People have more time to plan their days, to see their friends and family, to take a breath, to take a class, to go shopping. People currently dependent on cars can try Muni when travel time and convenience start to be competitive (we’ve seen ridership increase on Rapid routes, defying overall ridership declines). This shift can lead us to a more sustainable future of fewer cars.

Another core feature of the 30x30 vision is that it can leverage low cost infrastructure improvements that exist today. We don’t need to wait decades to build expensive subways to deliver real benefits for Muni riders now (though we want and need subways too). We can provide Muni with dedicated lanes, dedicated lights, and dedicated boarding areas — delivering benefits to riders and savings to the city without trying to secure large amounts of funding.

Building From TETLs To 30x30

As traffic has returned, we’ve seen traffic delays directly lead to crowding on buses. There’s a pile-on effect of a bus being delayed, leading to more people waiting to get on it, leading to more delays to board everyone, which creates a bigger gap to the bus ahead of it and more bunching with the buses behind it.

Before the pandemic, SFMTA had to add buses and trains to the streets to compensate for congestion — wasting resources simply because we didn’t have the transit priority needed to combat increasing traffic congestion.

In response to the state of emergency, SFMTA rolled out Temporary Emergency Transit Lanes, or TETLs, to protect Muni from traffic. Pretty much everyone who can drive is driving. Car sales are up. Traffic is coming back much faster than transit ridership. If Muni gets stuck in traffic now, it means essential workers and people dependent on transit are left behind again. It also means wasted resources for an agency that is facing a budget shortfall and is already struggling to keep up with demand.

SFMTA’s proposed TETL projects, October 2020

We of course strongly support TETLs. They are proving their worth in making bus trips faster, and riders are noticing shorter trips. They also let folks see and experience the improvements in real-time. TETLs have achieved transit priority in one year that could normally take five or more years. We can’t afford to lose these gains; we need to work to make transit priority permanent before the projects expire 120 days after the state of emergency lifts.

TETLs are limited, however. As quick projects, they are incomplete. Removing a single parking space for Muni can cause significant backlash (or at least long discussions with local residents, merchants, and the District Supervisor), and involves much more community outreach time. As they need to move quickly during the state of emergency, SFMTA staff is generally avoiding parking removal as part of TETLs.

In many cases SFMTA is taking advantage of plans that have already been in the works. SFMTA is being strategic with its resources and focusing on TETLs that are most achievable. This efficiency isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that too many areas where TETLs could make a big difference are not included in the plans.

But again, TETLs are like a proof-of-concept for 30x30: quick, low-cost improvements can significantly improve transit service; travel patterns criss-cross the city more than was previously considered; and a network of frequent, fast service means that transfers are more doable for riders.

Designing the 30x30 Network

So how do we take advantage of the lessons learned in the past year? How do we build on the success and go further for a real 30x30 network? It’s time to get out the map, consider neighborhoods and routes, and design the best 30x30 network we can.

Pre-COVID map of Muni Rapid Network

The current Rapid network consists of 5 bus routes (5R Fulton, 9R San Bruno, 14R Mission, 28R 19th Ave, 38R Geary) and the light rail network (J, K, L, M, N, T). The bus routes for the most part have been improved (with some key stretches left to address), but as we all know all too well, our surface light rail tends to be slow as molasses. So an early improvement would be transit priority for all surface light rail.

A lot of neighborhoods and connections are left out of that Rapid network map. See what trips become more doable if we:

  • add the 29 Sunset, crossing the southern and western sides of the city;
  • add in Van Ness as the BRT project is completed next year;
  • add the 22 Fillmore (16th Street will be Rapid-ready when it’s completed, but there isn’t currently a plan to fund and provide a 22R Fillmore);
  • add in the 48 Quintara to cover the middle of the city with an east-west route;
  • add the 44 O-Shaughnessy for improved Bayview connection as well as connecting a fairly central north-south corridor.
Add in key cross-town connecting routes for a lot more mobility

If each of these routes ran at least every 10 minutes, and if their end-to-end travel time (run time) was even 10 minutes faster than pre-COVID, imagine how much more connected the city would become. Imagine the areas you could access so much easier than today. Imagine how much more attractive Muni would be as an option for how many more people.

We could then layer on other important routes to fill out the map a bit more: the 1 California, 24 Divisadero, and the 30 Stockton. These all currently have high ridership and fairly frequent service, but with transit priority to speed along riders they could serve many more people so much more efficiently.

Add a few more north-south and east-west routes to better serve Bayview, Richmond, and the denser northeast corner of the city.

These maps are not prescriptive, but are intended to show the possibilities of a 30x30 network. It is time to bring together riders to define what the 30x30 campaign does next. We need riders from across the city, familiar with the challenges of a variety of cross-town trips. We need people passionate about getting into the detailed challenges of transit priority. And we need people who can help us organize transit riders to speak up for their needs. We need to push for red lanes, transit signal priority, bus bulbs, queue jumps, and all the improvements that will make it possible for Muni to cross town in 30 minutes.

If we can make the city’s temporary transit lanes full permanent projects, we’ll jumpstart the 30x30 vision. But TETLs will not be enough. As San Francisco emerges from the pandemic, fast, reliable Muni service that connects the entire city will be essential to providing an equitable, accessible, sustainable future. Join us as we organize to build the next phase of our 30x30 campaign.

Join us Wednesday, March 31, 5:30–6:30 for a workshop to talk about 30x30 and where we go from here.

If you’d like to help define and advocate for the 30x30 network with us, apply here for our 30x30 Workgroup by April 6.

A rider-based organization working for excellent, affordable, and growing transit in San Francisco. Join us! http://sftransitriders.org/join

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