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.