San Francisco’s Transit-First Policy Turns 50

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Friday, March 17, 2023

Two buses, a bicyclist, a pedestrian and person riding a scooter all on Market Street.

Transit on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, 2018

It’s been a half-century since the San Francisco Board of Supervisors put transit needs above all other traffic initiatives, and now, the city’s Transit-First policy is celebrating its golden anniversary. The policy guides the city’s work on major infrastructure projects and planning efforts. Its principles drive San Francisco officials to promote incentives that reduce traffic congestion and solo vehicle trips, support transit investments including the purchase of Muni buses and light rail vehicles, and regularly evaluate how well our transportation network functions. 

Adopted on March 19, 1973, the original Transit-First policy was born out of an effort to reshape the Municipal Railway so it could serve San Franciscans' needs more effectively. The goals were very specific: 

  • Create exclusive bus lanes and prohibit automobiles from streetcar and cable car tracks. 
  • Restrict turning movements of automobiles that conflicted with transit vehicles. 
  • Extend sidewalks at transit stops to allow boarding from the travel lane.  
  • Strictly enforce parking codes and tow-away regulations along major transit corridors. 
  • Consider the use of preemptive traffic signals for transit vehicles. 

By the early 70s, San Francisco streets had become increasingly crowded. The Freeway Revolt just over a decade earlier led to the cancellation of planned highway construction in the city, and an office boom downtown was bringing in thousands of commuters. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) began a comprehensive review of Muni’s operations in 1972. The organization interviewed operators and management, conducted line checks and reviewed company properties and processes to identify areas for improvement. 

“The recurring theme was most Muni vehicles were operating in traffic. This was the source of many problems — schedule bunching, accidents, unhappy operators and riders,” said Jim Chappell, executive director of SPUR from 1994-2009. 

The recommendations in SPUR’s report, “Building a New Muni,” were well-received by the mayor and city supervisors, and the Transit-First policy was passed not long after its release. Transit-First also addressed concerns about increased air pollution and environmental damage by effectively putting the personal automobile on notice. 

Cable car tracks with the words “keep out” painted over the street.

Transit-only lane along the Powell Street cable car tracks from California to Pine Street | November 27, 1973 

New equipment, transit priority and a focus on complete funding for Muni were initial hallmarks of the policy. The passage of Proposition E, a city charter amendment, in 1999 further enhanced Transit-First by including protections in the landmark legislation for people walking and bicycling. 

“San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors showed remarkable foresight in adopting the Transit-First resolution, and it no doubt helped San Francisco remain one of the strongest public transit cities in the nation,” said Jason Henderson, San Francisco State University Geography and Environment professor and author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.  

In addition to making transit, walking and biking more attractive, Transit-First also promotes equity. When residents have options beyond cars, employment and economic opportunity can grow, as does the opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases. 

Professor Henderson believes San Francisco was the first city in the country to adopt a policy to prioritize public transit, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. “Transit-First must no longer be advisory,” he said. “[New policies are] needed so that public transit, cycling and walking are more than aspirational.”   

In recent years, the “Muni Forward” program has reflected the Transit-First policy with 80 miles of transit priority street improvements. Among those improvements, diamond-marked transit lanes have evolved to become the present-day “Red Carpet” lanes reserved exclusively for buses and taxis to reduce travel times and the impact of traffic congestion on Muni schedules. Meanwhile, Market Street has gone through various redesigns in the downtown area over the years. Following boarding island and lane improvements, San Francisco’s busiest thoroughfare received its first red transit lanes in 2014 and was declared “Car Free” in a monumental celebration on January 29, 2020. 

Three people board a Muni bus on Van Ness Avenue in front of City Hall.

Riders board a 49 Van Ness/Mission bus near City Hall 

Today we can see the Transit-First policy in action in the now open Central Subway and projects such as the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor and the Muni Forward L Taraval Improvement Project that is now under construction to add transit lanes, make the route more accessible and improve pedestrian safety and visibility. With Transit-First entering its 51st year, there are new challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic has driven many people back into private cars. However, the SFMTA’s improvement projects continue with a focus on proven strategies that make transit, walking and bicycling the city’s preferred modes of travel.