City workers installing the transit-only lanes in early 2016. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board voted to allow private buses — tech coaches, Chariot vehicles, casino shuttles, Academy of Art buses etc. — into the transit-only “red carpet” lanes on the future $35 million Geary Rapid Project. It was a contentious discussion, and various advocates of public transit decried the decision to allow tech shuttles and gambling buses to elbow into space many had assumed was reserved for public transit; this was bemoaned as a “corporate giveaway.”

That may be, but it’s nothing new: Private buses are already allowed on nearly every red transit lane in San Francisco, and have been for years; Tuesday’s vote only added Geary — certain designated sections of Geary, rather — to a huge, jumbled pile of “transit-only” corridors all defining “transit” in myriad and haphazard ways. But, make no mistake, usually in ways allowing private buses into transit lanes.

This is why some red lanes, like the one on Mission, read “Buses and Taxis Only,” while others, like the one on Haight, read “Muni Only.” San Francisco, it turns out, is always both more myriad and haphazard than anyone could have imagined. You can see the city’s listing of its Gordian Knot of “transit only” corridors here, with descriptions for each one of what constitutes “transit” and when, based upon the time and day, that definition is valid.

Does it make sense to allow private buses or other such vehicles in red carpet lanes — or not — on a Byzantine, lane-by-lane, project-by-project basis? If you’re a transit layman, you’d probably say “no.” And, it turns out, if you’re a transit expert you’d say “no,” too.

More than a decade ago, transit professionals Michael Kiesling and Matthew Ridgway penned a study of San Francisco’s fledgling bus lanes for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “A survey of San Francisco’s bus-only lanes shows a lack of consistency for operating hours of the lanes and uneven signage guidelines. The inclusion of taxi operation in the existing lanes is also not uniform across the City,” they wrote all the way back in 2006. “Lack of consistent operating times and signage / street markings can lead to confusing conditions for drivers not familiar with the concept of bus-only lanes.”

Their No. 1 suggestion for this city: “Standardization of bus-only lanes throughout the City should be a top priority.”

That has not happened.

The city’s administration of its “transit-only” lanes has only grown more haphazard and opaque in the past dozen years — not that the citizens who came out Tuesday to yell about the Geary Rapid Project (or, quite possibly, the commissioners they were yelling at) ever realized this was happening. And, when Kiesling and Ridgway urged the city to come up with straightforward, uniform rules 12 years ago, nobody had heard of Chariot or App-hailed transit services— or, for that matter, apps. Or smartphones. This is, to put it mildly, a complicating factor.

So, if this is, indeed, a “corporate giveaway,” it has been for quite some time. Whether San Francisco should allow any dictionary-definition bus in the red lanes — operated by Muni, a casino, a cult, a tech company, a school, a circus — is a debatable proposition. Whether San Francisco is doing this in a smart or decipherable way is less debatable.

But is it legal? That’s confusing, too.

  • The state vehicle code section 642 defines a “transit bus” as “any bus owned or operated by a publicly owned or operated transit system, or operated under contract with a publicly owned or operated transit system, and used to provide to the general public regularly scheduled transportation … ” (emphasis ours).
  • The city’s own transportation code section 7.2.72 forbids the operation of “a vehicle or any portion of a vehicle” in a designated a transit-only area other than “public transit vehicles and taxicabs, vehicles preparing to make a turn, and vehicles entering into or exiting from a stopped position at the curb.” No mention of tech shuttles or casino buses here.

Our query to the City Attorney’s office regarding how the two above laws interface with the city’s longtime policy has not yet been answered.

In the meantime, San Francisco continues to lay down the red carpet for private buses.

Update — Monday, Aug. 29: The City Attorney’s office gave us a full response to our queries:

The law allows for transit-only lanes to include use by both public and private transit vehicles as long as the vehicles meet certain criteria.

The California Vehicle Code (Section 233) definition of a “bus” includes: “A vehicle designed, used, or maintained for carrying more than 10 persons, including the driver, which is used to transport persons for compensation or profit, or is used by any nonprofit organization or group, is also a bus.”

Under the law, both public transit and private transit vehicles can be buses.

The San Francisco Transportation Code (Section 601) lists numerous street segments and the types of vehicles that may be operated in them. There is a combination of public-transit-only lanes and lanes that allow “buses” in general. The lanes that refer to “buses” would permit any bus that qualifies under Section 233 noted above.

The section of the San Francisco Transportation Code that you’re asking about (Section 7.2.72) deals with violations. It is not the section that lays out permitted uses, which is Section 601. The violations section probably should be updated to avoid confusion.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

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The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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    1. What? Last time I checked, a private bus is allowed to travel on the streets of our cities, counties, and states. Just because a lane is selected as “Bus and Taxis Only, At All Times” yet those vehicles with a capacity of 10 or more occupants are still allowed into the lanes to continue doing what they are supposed to do, only better, sounds more like the REVERSE of privatization. Well, that might be a stretch. What is is is a pumped up Car Pool lane. It is not privatization of anything public. The argument that letting private buses in a transit lane is a privatization of the public sphere is just an emotional knee jerk response, not an analysis of what is really happening.

  1. Joe,
    Enjoy your articles very much: great material and well written!
    Avid reader,
    Thank you!

  2. So 30 people in 30 separate company paid Ubers are welcome to clog the bus lane but 30 people in one company paid shuttle don’t? Sorry Joe you need to workshop this argument because you’re not making any sense. Keep up the hard work though!

    1. Shaun —

      There’s not an “argument” here. I’m merely stating what the city’s law is and why it’s not good policy to determine the meaning of “transit-only” lane by lane. Go through and read it again.

  3. I don’t really see the point of this article. Rather obvious questions that need to be addressed:

    Do you think there is currently significant traffic in these bus lanes that requires you to scale back usage by private mass transit solutions like Chariot and the Tech Buses?

    Is it in the best interest for the city to make it less appealing to take these options?

    What modes of transit would these passengers take if the private buses were less efficient? (hint: the public bus system here is inefficient and unreliable despite being well funded and city government doesn’t seem to care, so it probably won’t be that)

    What would the impact be on the city’s transit system of them making this shift?

    Most of the laws in SF are selectively enforced (if I pulled my pants down and took a dump on the sidewalk, I’d be arrested and probably made a sex offender yet plenty of people seem to get away with it), so its seems like the impacts of this action are worth considering.

    More broadly, I don’t see where there isn’t more discussion in SF around shifting the bus system towards a Chariot type model with smaller vehicles and more routes and frequencies (and possibly an on-demand component).

    1. Dennis —

      Well, we’re a match, because I don’t really see the point of your comment.

      Even transit professionals I spoke with were unclear of San Francisco’s rules regarding who gets into red lanes. Both the groups concerned with allowing private buses into future Geary Rapid Project lanes and, quite possibly, the commissioners making that call did not necessarily seem fully aware of our rules yesterday. I would think making these sorts of matters public is a pretty self-evident core function of journalism.

      Your fascinating ideas about what would be best for the city’s transit system are worthy of discussion — somewhere — but are really tertiary to a story about misconceptions about what the law is, now, and how that relates to yesterday’s contested vote. Much of the emotion around the MTA board’s decision seems to originate from a belief that this constituted groundbreaking new city policy. It doesn’t.



      1. I see that but it feels like you’re overlooking the meat of the issue being presented. The Whys behind the Whats.

        Outside of a libertarian debate club meeting, I can’t actually imagine many people letting the meaning of ‘bus’ determine this type of policy and having our city’s transit system being at the mercy of it.

        Are people really mad about the wording or is there a broader issue? Is it valid and what would happen if they got their way?

        A typical reasoning goes: ‘if rich people didn’t have these non-gov’t buses they would take public transit and fund and advocate for a better system’. Something tells me they would just keep their cars and even if they switched the entrenched system underlying the transit system would block change / reform / improvement, but that’s just one opinion.

        A lot of the time, it just feels like people here will destroy the system to get back at tech. ‘If I can’t have it than nobody can’ type of mentality. (Ironically a very Trump voter type of approach from a very different background / worldview). Create an avoidable crisis to foment social revolution or some semi-delusional idealistic scheme.

        I’m genuinely a fan of your site / work, but I wish you’d ask these questions more. I feel like half the time you probe deeply and the other half of the time you just take activists and gov’t officials at face value. We need more people in this city asking ‘Why’.

        1. Dennis —

          You’re putting the cart before the horse. All of these are nice essay topics but this was a clarifying story about what the law is (which even experts did not realize); why it’s bad policy to do determine what “transit-only” means on a piecemeal basis; and how this may or may not conflict with city/state laws. All the rest of it is for later.


      2. Well, I certainly understand Dennis’s comment and cannot understand why you do not. Dennis grasps what I feel is the bottom line on letting private buses use transit lanes. Why shouldn’t they be allowed? First off, the need for 24/7 transit lanes on Geary is just rediculous. There is a 2 minute time differential between non-commute times and peak times for buses traveling downtown. The rest of the time, the lanes will be a ghost town. Dennis doesn’t question if it is groundbreaking policy to CONTINUE to allow private buses in the lanes. The question is, would it be better if the private buses were kept out. I say no, and I believe Dennis says no as well. What was the point of the article? To get all blustered up over the fact private buses are in the lane? Is the point to argue they should not be there? What is the alternative? The plus of letting private buses in the lane is that MUNI buys less buses, more people get shuffled around and the system is by far greener. So, that makes 3 of us, JE, I have no idea why you posted your comment.

        1. Mark —

          This was a story explaining what the city’s policy is — which was not well-known even among transit experts and activists — and criticizing a balkanized approach to “transit-only” lanes that redefines “transit” on a street-by-street basis. Nowhere in this story am I advocating for or against the Geary proposal (or, for that matter, any other streets). The laws are confusing and contradictory. The City Attorney’s office has kindly explained why private transit is permitted in red lanes, but even they admit the laws should be cleaned up because of incompatibility.

          It’s interesting to me that more and more readers seem to be incapable of discerning the difference between a news story and an argument. But not surprising.

          Thanks for reading,


          1. JE-

            Have you taken a moment to look at MUNI only lanes – where they are positioned on the streets vs the “Bus and Taxi Only Lanes” that are right hand lane running? Is there really a “Piece-meal” arbitrary way that these lanes are getting laid out? I have not yet done this research, but, like I said in another post, I am pretty sure there is a difference in the type of lane and a reasoning behind it.

          2. Mark —

            The piecemeal approach is making some lanes “Muni only,” some lanes “Muni and Golden Gate Transit only,” and some lanes “Buses and Taxis only.” Now imagine installing hours of usage and having alternating segments on even the same streets. It would probably make more sense to simply determine what manner of vehicle is allowed in any red lane and then make it consistent.


    2. How bad was life before the red lanes, Ubers, Lyfts and tech buses, when we got around with their personal cars or bikes, caught the Muni, or stood at the curb and hailed a cab? Was it inconvenient to do your own shopping and laundry, window shopping along the way and maybe stopping to purchase something? As I recall, my commute was easy from the center of SF to Menlo Park. Are we having more fun now? Are we better off living in a state of constant change and confusion? Some of the people freaking out on the streets are sane, just dazed and confused. We need a time out. We need a break from street projects and bus re-routing and every other confusion the SFMTA can dream up.

      As Mayor Breed said, and you can’t expect people to take a bus that is not there. If SFMTA dropped everything else they are doing, could they turn the Muni a reliable source of transportation? If not, why are we paying them to paint red lanes?

  4. ≈ Before there were “red carpet” lanes, there were diamond lanes, and I noticed that San Francisco has long allowed taxis into these lanes whereas other cities I’ve visited wouldn’t dream of doing so. Uber/Lyft uses all of these with impunity, because that’s so disrupt-o-riffic.

    I will also note that the Geary project is subject to a 1989 voter mandate to build a “fixed guideway” transit corridor. This was understood at the time as an expansion of the Muni Metro system (i.e. light rail), but was quickly downgraded to BRT, which technically qualifies as a fixed guideway. Of course, we’ve downgraded it further, to a glorified red carpet, and now to a glorified red carpet for casino buses. I checked the Federal standard for “fixed guideway” and it has also been downgraded to include private vehicles. Oy vey.

    That’s what you get with neoliberalism at all levels of government.

    1. Last I checked, the free market is pretty good at making things efficient. Not perfect. But pretty damn good. Let us look at excluding private buses from the current “Buses and Taxis Only At All Times” lanes. Honestly, does anyone think that private buses are slowing down the performance of MUNI? I mean, let us keep the argument simple. MUNI drivers love their work, show up every day, and the buses are run at optimal, perfect, non-breakdown efficiency. Is there anyone that actually thinks that private buses driving in those lanes have any effect on MUNI buses? Well, you can say that they will impact the MUNI buses, but how? By getting in their way? How? They are only allowed to use agreed upon stops that MUNI uses now. But I think it is a very limited amount. Spend a little time looking at the red lanes now and you will find that the majority of the time, they are ghost towns. So, the people that ride private buses should be forced to either drive in a regular car and create more pollution, or try to fit onto MUNI buses, which let us be honest, are impacted by all sorts of other things and if you made a list, private bus interference would be AT THE BOTTOM OF THE LIST. So eliminate private buses and tell MUNI to go buy more buses to handle these new riders? So we can pay more taxes to buy more buses so the private companies do not use their own money to move their own employees or Chariot riders have to ride MUNI? It makes no sense to scream that private buses should not use a transit lane when the transit lane is utilized at VERY LOW CAPACITY BY THE PUBLIC BUSES. There is excess capacity now and that will continue for a very long time so why would anyone in their right mind not allow private buses into the TOL. Wait, they already are allowed. So who in their right mind would want to change that? I have not looked into this yet, but, are MUNI only lanes the rail-type bus lanes? Are they all center running lanes or are they right hand lanes as well? My guess is they are never right hand curb or curb-offset lanes. I have to do my homework. I am sure there is a logical reason for the MUNI only lanes not allowing private buses, and to hold them up as a reason for the TOL’s to not allow private operators is probably just an emotional response to a logical issue.

  5. You need to dig a little deeper. 7.2.72 depends on section 601 of the Transportation Code, in Division 2. Subsection 21 of Section 601 states: ” (21) Other Transit-Only Areas. Except for buses, taxicabs, vehicles preparing to make a turn, vehicles entering into or exiting from a stopped position at the curb, and vehicles entering into or exiting from a driveway, no vehicle may operate in the following Transit-only Areas during the times indicated:”

    There is a list of streets that follow after that. This includes the red lanes on Market, 3rd st, etc. Notice this section uses the wider definition of “bus.”

    Also there is a distinction in some red lanes between “muni only” and “bus / taxi only” as well.

    1. Ken —

      I am familiar with section 601, and I pointed this out in the story because of exactly that discrepancy. Section 601 — which we link to within the article multiple times — describes myriad and broad descriptions of “transit-only.” This includes the “Muni-only”-“Bus and Taxi Only” distinction, which we also mention in the article. And yet, the legislation regarding fines for driving in transit-only lanes does not make the same distinctions.

      In short, the definition of “Transit-only” appears to be narrower in some portions of city law than others. Perhaps germane: I am told legislative intent does not apply to municipal law.

      We eagerly await the city attorney’s response.