Van Ness Avenue is a mess for public transit. Buses on the roadway, which doubles as U.S. Highway 101's route through The City, creep through the gridlock at a measly 5 mph, on average. The congestion also causes the buses to cluster, leading to unreliability in service for the tens of thousands of passengers who ride the Muni routes on the artery.
But San Francisco officials have a chance to help fix the thoroughfare with bus rapid transit, a long-overdue plan that is expected to speed up travel on the route and increase passenger capacity.
City lawmakers should stand up for the project's transit-first approach and reject the naysayers' doomsday scenarios about traffic nightmares.
The plan is to bring transit-only lanes to a 2-mile stretch of Van Ness and South Van Ness, stretching from Lombard Street in the north to Mission Street in the south. Dedicated transit lanes would run down the center of the roadway, along with other improvements including consolidated stops and limited left turns.
The project's environmental report says it could reduce bus travel times by 33 percent through the project area and increase Muni ridership along the route by 37 percent. Half of those new riders are expected to be former drivers.
Such assumptions make sense. Traveling along Van Ness by bus can be a grueling exercise in patience. There often are long gaps between buses and, once aboard, as much time can be spent sitting still as moving along. Indeed, the environmental report notes that "loading and unloading passengers and time spent waiting at traffic signals accounts for nearly 50 percent of total travel time on Van Ness Avenue."
It would figure, then, that people who have suffered through such transit-related delays often turn to their cars.
The City's goal should be to steer at least some of these drivers back to transit. Bus rapid transit along the corridor is the best opportunity to make that happen.
But like the buses on Van Ness, the plan to improve the corridor has crept along slowly during the last two decades. In the next few weeks, city officials will either move the project forward or slam the brakes on it. It all depends on whether they kowtow to the loud concerns of a few fearful residents.
Some pro-car residents and merchants warn that the project will cause automotive traffic from Van Ness to spill over into parallel streets. But that misses the project's goal, which is not to make driving harder along the corridor but to encourage more people to use public transit.
Although the project might encourage some wayward, impatient drivers to find alternative routes through neighborhoods, it should also encourage more drivers to become transit users, now that their patience will not be tested by fickle bus service.
In their dual role as members of the Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, county supervisors should approve the plan's environmental report and, ultimately, the overall project. Muni riders have spent enough time sitting on idling buses waiting for this long-overdue project.