One month after its debut, this is how SF’s Van Ness BRT is performing

One month after its long-awaited debut, Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit has led to notable travel time savings and attracted more riders, according to performance figures from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

City planners behind the Van Ness BRT project that took $346 million and 27 years to complete had envisioned it would turn buses into de facto subways on wheels. The 1.5 mile stretch of center lanes on one of San Francisco’s busiest north-south corridors untether Muni and Golden Gate Transit buses from the traffic congestion that often plagues Van Ness Avenue.

Figures from the city’s transportation agency that will be presented at next week’s Board of Directors meeting show that the exclusive bus lanes have helped Muni buses on the corridor operate closer to light rail transit speeds. Northbound weekday trips on the BRT lanes are also saving riders 35% in travel times, according to the agency, meaning that it takes Muni buses about nine minutes less to travel on the corridor than it did before the BRT project.

The 49-Van Ness/Mission line, Muni’s sole line operating on Van Ness BRT, has also seen 13% boost in ridership since the project’s debut, according to the agency.

“We are already seeing travel time savings that match the expectations from the original planning documents,” said SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin. “Even though we still have some work to do fine tuning the traffic signals, we’re still getting both tremendous travel time savings and, very importantly, big improvements in reliability.”

The BRT benefits have helped make the 49 line faster, overall. Before the pandemic, it would take 49 buses 50 minutes, round trip, to complete a run between stops at Mission and 13th streets and Van Ness and Chestnut Street. Now, completing that same trip are doing so in about 35 minutes on weekday mornings, shaving off 14 minutes from travel times, agency data show.

The BRT lanes are expected to bring more travel time savings as the agency optimizes the transit signal priority that help buses progress through intersections on the corridor faster.

But while the BRT project has brought immediate results in boosting travel times, the Muni system remains in flux more than two years after the start of the pandemic.

It’s unclear when, or if, the SFMTA will fully restore pre-pandemic service levels. The agency plans to restore service incrementally throughout the summer and fall as it hires more operators. Frustrated transit advocates have wanted SFMTA to act faster to restore suspended lines and add frequencies to current lines, though the agency has said an operator shortage has hampered progress.

Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ByRicardoCano

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