Talk about a strugglebus: After decades of planning, nearly $350 million, and seemingly endless construction, city officials and transit enthusiasts today inaugurated the anticipated new bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes along Van Ness Avenue.
No, it’s not an April Fools’ joke.
At least 200 excited residents and spectators gathered in front of the War Memorial Opera House this morning for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, then crammed themselves onto the first buses to operate on the new red bus-only lanes in the center of the roadway.
“It will be better for me, it will take less time to get where you are going, faster,” said regular 49-Mission/Van Ness rider Vinicio Cajina in Spanish. Cajina took the bus this morning to run an errand in the Mission. It was his day off, and he said the new lane seemed like an improvement. “The traffic will be less complicated.”
“It does feel like it’s faster,” said Emily Schlotterbeck, a Mission District resident who, on her Friday morning commute, inadvertently found herself on the first 49 bus to christen the new lane. She noted that the road felt smoother, and the cars — off in their designated lanes — weren’t honking as much.
The 49 runs through the Mission District from City College to Fisherman’s Wharf. The SFMTA estimates that the line currently shuttles about 20,000 passengers a day. Free from car traffic and timed to avoid red lights, the 49 and other buses on the new so-called BRT lanes are expected to see transit times cut by 32 percent, according to the SFMTA.
On the way to further celebrations at Galileo High School, this reporter tested the estimate. The inaugural 49 bus departed from the McAllister Street stop, near City Hall, at 10:02 a.m., and pulled up at North Point Street, by Fort Mason, 11 minutes later. Google Maps estimated 17 minutes, meaning we saw a 35 percent decrease in travel time.
This improved travel time will have system-wide effects, said San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Stephen Chun. A trip from 24th and Mission streets to Fisherman’s Wharf should now take about 35 minutes, compared to the previous 42 minutes, about a 16 percent overall improvement.
“I’m really glad it’s finally open,” said B-Rod Beteta, a community organizer with SF Transit Riders, who rode the bus to participate in the historic and long-awaited day.
Improvements to Van Ness Avenue have been in the works since a 1989 sales tax expenditure plan to improve mass transit, and a 1995 Four Corridor Plan to put a rail down Van Ness Avenue.
Plans shifted to an aboveground rapid-transit lane by 2003, and construction finally began in 2016, said Chun. The project included replacement of major utilities, new streetlights, landscaping, and improved accessibility.
The decadeslong project cost $345.9 million.
“We know that construction on Van Ness severely impacted residents and businesses, and we want to extend our sincerest gratitude for your patience to everyone that was affected,” said Chun. “We have learned our lessons and are already successfully applying them to other projects across the city so that we are delivering changes rapidly and efficiently.”
Despite roadblocks to reach this day, people eagerly crowded onto buses, examined the new bus stops in the middle of the road, and enthusiastically discussed the new thoroughfare amongst themselves.
“It was faster and that’s the whole point,” said Amy Van Doren, a policy advisor with SF Transit Riders who rode one of the first buses this morning. “You’re not wading in and out of congestion.”
While the bus did glide gloriously past cars stuck in Friday morning traffic, there may still be kinks to work out in the new system. To some riders’ confusion, the 49 headed south toward the Mission stopped at one red light after another, bringing the travel time up to nearly 20 minutes between North Point and Mcallister streets — longer than the pre-BRT 18 minute estimate.