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Politics & Policy

San Francisco officials approve Geary Blvd. transit-only lanes despite protests

A 38R-Geary bus travels along Geary Boulevard toward Downtown San Francisco on May 4, 2023. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

San Francisco transit officials have unanimously approved a controversial proposal to install transit-only lanes onto Geary Boulevard, giving the go-ahead on Tuesday to a project more than 20 years in the making.  

Starting this fall, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will add transit-only lanes between 33rd Avenue and Stanyan Street, a heavily traveled corridor that also encompasses much of the city’s Richmond District. In addition to turn restrictions and curb extensions for easier bus boarding, the project will change the angled parking between 28th and 15th avenues into parallel parking to make space for the bus lanes. 

The agency estimates that these improvements will save over five minutes for 38-Geary riders on that segment each day, adding up to nearly 23 hours a year and easing operational constraints. In 2021, the SFMTA completed a similar project extending bus lines on Geary heading toward Downtown from Stanyan Street east to Market Street—on time and on budget, staffers proudly noted.

But several merchants have expressed concerns about the disruptions, fearing that the project will be the death knell for businesses on Geary still struggling to recover from the pandemic. A vocal group sought a delay in parking changes expected to happen later this year until 2025, when sewer construction is slated to begin.

On Monday, a group opposing the proposal staged a “funeral” for Richmond District businesses that have shuttered, like La Vie Vietnamese Restaurant and Thom’s Natural Foods. Sean Kim, owner of Joe’s Ice Cream, was among those carrying the coffin.

Pallbearers carry a coffin after a funeral mourning Thom’s Natural Foods and other local businesses on Geary Boulevard that have had to close because of economic hardships, on Aug. 14, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“We have to survive,” Kim told officials Tuesday. “Do not harm small businesses in the name of efficiency.”

If the transit agency’s Board of Directors had approved the delay, it would have added $200,000 and 600 hours of labor to the $48 million project. Some parklets on Geary may have been forced to rebuild twice.

The project’s scope had already changed dramatically. Plans for center-running bus lanes, like those seen on Van Ness Avenue after a controversial transit-improvement project, were changed to side-running lanes to speed things up.

Further, the SFMTA reduced the number of lost parking spots from 70 to 31 after hearing concerns from merchants. It will also convene a working group to craft a marketing campaign to entice the public to visit Geary Boulevard, beginning in October. 

Angled street parking near the Joe’s Ice Cream parklet near Geary Boulevard and 19th Avenue, on July 12, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Supporters of the project touted safety benefits for pedestrians. Geary Boulevard, with three lanes of traffic in each direction plus parking, is one of the city’s widest thoroughfares. On average, one pedestrian is injured by a traffic collision in the area each month, according to the SFMTA. 

“The businesses that have sadly closed did so under the status quo,” said Trish Gump, a Richmond District resident and safe streets advocate. “Geary is an unpleasantly loud and dangerous street. A calmer, quieter street would create the type of environment that invites people to wander, explore—and, yes, spend money.”

The agency estimates that it would turn over 7,000 car trips into transit rides, the equivalent of 700 homes switching to sustainable energy. A community survey in fall 2021 found that more than 60% of 600 respondents supported the plan for side-running lanes, already proving effective east of Stanyan Street.

Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond District, joined the merchants’ calls, expressing disappointment that the agency would move forward with a “flawed” plan. On the other side, Mayor London Breed wrote in full support to deliver on long-promised commitments for safety and travel upgrades. 

Director Manny Yekutiel, who owns Manny’s Cafe, urged the transit agency to offer merchants more than the allotted $25,000 in aid and to waive parklet fees. He ultimately supported the compromise proposal but noted the “high levels of drama” it took to get there.

“This discourse around this project is a perfect microcosm of what is hampering our city from becoming the best version of ourselves,” Yekutiel said. “It cannot be this divisive to dedicate a lane to buses.”

Correction: A prior version of this article incorrectly stated the project's budget, the total number of parking spaces that would be lost, the date of the community survey and the month when the working group will convene.