A "BRT" bus pulls up on a painted red lane
A bus enters the new transit-only lane on Van Ness Avenue, as a crowd looks on from across the street. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

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.  

Mayor London Breed cuts the ribbon on the new bus rapid transit lane on Van Ness Avenue.

“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.  

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. The picture seems to show overhead lines to be used by electric buses. The picture also shows a diesel/hybrid bus, not an electric bus. Any idea why the electric overhead lines were installed if they’re not going to be used?

  2. First of all, does anyone remember the initial bid price that doubled to $350M? Ask yourself why are projects in SF are always over budget and where does the money really go. It’s not the prime GC, it’s the subs but every prime has to pay the annual $50K “donations” per large project.
    One of these subs was Azul Works, short memory? well, not only he was indicted by the Feds but he was a key player in the Nuru/Kelly/Bread criminal cartel.
    Actually, the “Mayor”, SFMTA Ed Reiskin and Virginia Harmon, SFPUC Harlan Kelly and Ivy Fine, the City Administrator, Naomi Kelly and Romulus Asenloo conspired to terminate one of the subs $20M contract claiming in writing that it is over budget and did replace it with Azul Works for $30M for the same scope of work (the case is in litigation)
    Finally, not a single person in this picture had anything to do with the actual project, some of them collected the subs profits from this project and the others supported these actions claiming see no evil, hear no evil and do evil . SF leashes on public display.

  3. Van Mess should have extended to ceasar Chavez than east to portrero at least the three hospitals could be linked cpmc st Luke’s and Sfgh in one run maybe UCSF by going to the 16th street east. The loop and link concept is missing in too many projects by the sfmta…

    1. Instead of a 30 year project extending to Ceasar Chavez would have delayed the project conservatively to 2065 and 8 billion dollars.

  4. Glad to see it completed at last. Next, Muni, let’s see better frequency of service on the 49! Often I’ve been able to walk Van Ness from City Hall to Sacramento Street without being passed by a bus.

    1. What a joke! And so in keeping with the cartel that runs this city (into the ground). Paint a couple lanes red on Van Ness (at a cost of $350 million) and voila problem solved. Don’t bother to add more buses cause that would mean more bus drivers. Heaven forfend.. On Sunday, I was on a 49 going from 16th to McAllister at 2:30. The bus was completely packed (a covid breeding ground if ever I saw one; oh we’ve moved on) and people were packed at the stations waiting to get on which they couldn’t. This is a Sunday afternoon. What’s worse, it comes as no surprise. And the Cartel is trying to funnel all dissatisfaction into the recall. The cynicism is as pure as it is vile.

  5. yesterday I saw a SFPD vehicle using the bus lane SB at van ness and broadway, which is the only possible left turn. the cop did know how to decipher the bus signal and just waited for the green left arrow and proceeded to go straight and cut off traffic.
    cops think it’s their convenience lane…

  6. While bus ride might or may ght not be shorter, the traffic on Van Ness is visibly much worse. I can understand that city want to encourage resident to use more public transportation, but if on the other hand traffic on Van Ness goes end to end gridlock is not really a thing to celebrate.

    1. Those in power don’t care that traffic gets worse – in fact, punishing drivers is part of their plan. That, and increased government spending. Even if it doesn’t ultimately improve anything to any significant degree, that $345 million butters a lot of people’s bread – it creates more patronage jobs (at least temporary ones), and helps government officials justify their 6-figure salaries.

  7. What’s being sold to the public is quite different from the actual goals of BRT: While reducing trip times end to end is nice, consistent trip times are more important. Riders learn to set their expectations and find them met. In addition, consistent run times help preventing vehicle bunching. We’ll see how that’s all going to work out.
    The unfortunate part, besides the endless delays, is how this project was sold to the public – SFMTA going out on a limb how around the world BRT was supposed to be a thing and such. Well, this might be true for the developing part of the world. In Japan, China, Europe, you’d get laughed out of the room. They build rail lines, preferably underground. And as far as aforementioned developing countries are concerned: BRT is the fist thing they get rid of when they can afford to put rail in place, preferably underground. The City of course shot itself in the foot for one day go and do this as well – what with permitting that passage/tunnel underneath Van Ness that the “Jack Tar” hospital at Geary requested. We can file this under “zero vision”. Speaking of, what with these tech shuttle buses now? Someone at SFMTA please revoke their privilege for stopping on Van Ness, which now means they block a travel lane every time they let people in or out.

    1. Yeah underground train would’ve been nice. And also extending train tracks to cover the entire Bay Area including Marin county, Oakland hills etc could significantly reduce commuting time and cost in the Bay Area.