SPUR’s report Critical Cooling recommends 42 options for reducing local carbon emissions. This is one of them. To learn about all 42 ideas, read the full report

Bus Rapid Transit on Geary Boulevard

Urbanist Article
Annual savings potential:
Annual public cost:
Public cost per ton:
Implementing agency:

Horizon year:
1,400 tons per year
County Transportation Authority, Municipal Transportation Agency


  • Implementation of bus rapid transit on Geary will result in a 25 percent increase in Muni passenger trips in the Geary corridor, of which 31 percent will be diverted from auto travel.
  • Capital cost of implementation will be approximately $225 million. The program will not increase operating costs, and will result in $1.9 million per year in new fare revenue from increased ridership.
  • Our analysis excludes the emissions associated with construction, which can be significant in the case of large infrastructure projects.


Bus rapid transit offers the opportunity to provide faster, more frequent, more reliable bus service in one of the busiest transit corridors in the city, without increased operating costs. Doing so would divert some trips from private vehicles and reduce overall CO2 emissions.

However, as with many transit projects, high capital requirements increase the cost of the project far greater than a level at which it could be justified on the basis of CO2 emissions abatement alone. However, the project’s emissions abatement potential should be considered along with other potential benefits, such as improved transportation opportunities.

What we do now
Geary Boulevard is one of the San Francisco’s major East-West corridors. It functions both as a major transit corridor – carrying more than 50,000 transit trips on the 38-Geary and 38L-Geary Limited bus lines – and a key auto corridor, carrying between 30,000 and 65,000 auto trips daily. It is also a major corridor for pedestrian travel. The street layout gives the interests of motorists priority over transit riders, and transit trips are significantly longer and less reliable than auto travel in the corridor. Buses often are delayed and bunching is a frequent problem, contributing to crowding on buses.

What we could do
Bus rapid transit is a transportation option that has the potential to provide the speed and capacity of rail with the lower cost and greater flexibility of a bus. It relies on rubber-tire vehicles, but generally includes a dedicated lane so that buses do not have to compete with mixed traffic, as well as other improvements such as signal priority, and level boarding for fast loading and unloading. Systems sometimes also feature distinctive branding and pre-paid tickets. BRT systems have been implemented with great success in South America, Canada, Europe and Australia, and more recently have been implemented in American cities such as Boston, Los Angeles and Eugene, Ore.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority has developed a plan to implement BRT on Geary Boulevard. Geary Boulevard is an excellent candidate for high-capacity transit service because it is a very wide right-of-way that serves as the primary east-west corridor for the northern portion of the city. Converting the 38-Geary into a BRT system has the potential to improve speed and reliability, attracting significant new ridership. Some of these potential new riders would be those who now choose to drive private vehicles, and moving them to transit would reduce emissions. A study team is reviewing the environmental effects of a limited number of alignment alternatives for a BRT system on Geary.

BRT service would increase average vehicle travel speeds, allowing Muni to provide more transit service without increasing operating costs. However, implementing BRT on Geary Boulevard presents a number of challenges that will have to be overcome through significant capital expenditure. The most expensive capital investments will result form the need to realign or reconstruct intersections and Fillmore Street and Masonic Avenue, where the route as currently configured would run at a different grade than most of the route.

A study team is evaluating a number of alignment options as part of formal environmental review. The exact cost of the project is not known, but costs could total $225 million. If we assume that capital costs would be financed by the City at 5 percent interest over 30 years, and that the improvements themselves have a 30-year useful life, the annualized capital costs would be $14.6 million.1

Increased ridership also would increase revenue. Including passes and discounted fares, Muni collects 50 cents per passenger who boards, on average. Additional ridership could generate $1.9 million per year. The net revenue impact of BRT on Geary would be a cost of $12.7 million per year.

Carbon savings potential
SFCTA's feasibility study estimated that the BRT project has the potential to increase ridership in the corridor by as much as 25 percent. A 25 percent increase over today's daily ridership would yield and additional 12,800 Muni trips per work day. We estimate that 31 percent of these passengers would otherwise be drivers of private vehicles. 4,012 daily trips diverted from auto travel, at an average of 3.3 miles per trip, would yield a daily reduction of 13,240 VMT per day, or 3.97 million VMT per year beginning in 2015. The estimated annual emissions reduction would be 1,410 metric tons.

With an annualized cost of $12.7 million, the project would cost more than $9,000 per ton of emissions abatement. This high cost per ton is consistent with other capital-intensive transit upgrades, and reveals that transit capital investments must be justified on the basis of other benefits, such as improved transportation choices. The significant CO2 emissions reduction should be considered as one potential benefit of the project, but not one that justifies its full cost.

1 SFCTA Geary BRT Feasibility Study. http://www.sfcta.org/images/stories/Planning/GearyCorridorBusRapidTransit/Geary_FS.pdf