The “Bus Rapid Transit” Battle of Geary in San Francisco


San Francisco, given its density and supposedly progressive attitude ought to have a world class transportation system. Sadly, it does not. A ride on the city’s most popular bus line, the 38-Geary, takes an astonishing 60 minutes (or more) to cross the 6 mile route from beach to bay. I could rant about it well outside the scope of this blog, but I’ll get to the point.
The San Francisco transit organization, MUNI, is begining to turn itself around and wants to replace the clunky ’38’ with a top-of-the-line system knows as “bus rapid transit’. BRT is cheaper than a rail system, but almost as effective – the buses are extra big & they have their own exclusive right-of-way. They switch red lights to green and people pay at attractive station platforms before they get on, thus avoidng bottlenecks at the door. In other words, it will make life much easier for residents and business people alike.
Naturally, there are people who are resistant to change for one reason or another. It so happens that most of them are self-described “Geary St. merchants”, who, frankly, give more thoughtful businesses a bad name. Are they just afraid of change? Or are their concerns more grounded?

For the most part, I think these business people are simply ignoring the big picture. They have gotten so used to a certain rather fanciful idea – that cars are the only way customers will come to them – that they can’t conceive of anything else. This is despite the fact that this pandering has made Geary one of the ugliest streets in the city – something that’s definitely not good for business. Given that no parking places will actually be removed, and that BRT will make public transit at least twice as fast and frequent, this fear is totally unfounded as their customer base can only increase with BRT and the street will be infinitely more attractive.
That said, given the inevitable disruption that will occur during the construction phase of this project, it is only fair that the city offer some form of compensation to the merchants – I can’t emphasize this enough. If the city were to extend this olive branch to the merchants association would it turn things around? How much is enough?
Still need more information to decide – check out for the low-down on BRT. And the “anti BRT” site for a somewhat more narror perspective.
Finally, if you are in San Francisco – please drop in at a rally to support BRT tommorow at noon at Presidio Middle School at 30th & Geary. If you bring this coupon, you’ll get a free drink at Trader Sam’s! Now that’s good business.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

7 responses

  1. What a fantastic idea! I’ve always complained to people that every major city in the world I visit has a better transportation system than SF.
    Here are some other changes on my transportation wish list:
    1. Regular intervals for MUNI trains.
    I usually ride the N-Judah. I’ll check Nextbus and find trains arriving in 2 min, 23 min, 25 min, and 27 min. I undertand delays are caused by street traffic, but there has to be a better way to queue the trains more consistently.
    2. Include a FastPass with every car registration.
    For years, the percentage of Bay Bridge lanes dedicated to FastPass was lower than the percentage of users. Wouldn’t traffic flow much smoother if we could eliminate the time it takes to exchange cash? Plus, those poor workers wouldn’t have to breathe auto exhaust all day.
    3. RFID fobs for MUNI and BART instead of paper tickets.
    I’ve seen a pilot system on MUNI trains, but I’ve never seen someone use it.
    4. Replace the 1980 Atari display screen in the Powell Street MUNI station.
    We’re supposed to be the hub of technology and we have a pixelated display that shows a dot moving along a line? Come on – my cell phone has better graphics.
    I’m amazed that we can’t find some firms to subsidize technological improvements for SF public transportation. Maybe if we get the 2016 Olympic Games, we’ll have the motivation to catch up.

  2. Electric buses are much more appealing than internal combustion buses; witness the acceptance of battery electrics on Santa Barbara’s upscale State Street. I would strongly suggest electric trolleybuses for the Geary BRT, and that they incorporate traction batteries or supercapacitors that would allow off-line operation. Trolleybuses with these features are reportedly being used in China. In addition to off-line operation, they would avoid the use of costly, high-maintenance and ugly overhead crossings and turnouts.

  3. Some improvement in bus travel time can be had using no infrastructure costs.
    A technical term for this improvement is “defacto nub stop operation”.
    The layman’s description is this: Buses do not pull to the curb but rather passengers walk out to meet the bus, or wait in the space between parked cars (called the nub if raised to curb height) where the bus used to pull in.
    Bus rapid transit typically uses nub stops instead of bus pull in bays.

  4. All this enthusiasm is premature, since the EIR on the Geary BRT isn’t even completed yet. The problem area for the #38 line is between 33rd Avenue and Masonic, since there are stop signs/stop lights on almost every intersection. It’s not parking that’s the only concern but also the danger of pushing traffic off Geary onto surrounding neighborhood streets.

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