Three times faster buses at no extra cost
I've been staying in San Francisco this summer, visiting from The Netherlands. Since I don't have a driver license and my trip was too short to buy a bicycle*, I move around mostly on foot and by bus. Unfortunately I can't fail to notice how slow busses are here. I've used public tranport in over 100 cities all over the world, so I'd like to offer a number of suggestions based on that experience.
I'm confident that these measures are very cheap or even profitable and will dramatically increase the speed at which people can move from A to B. Currently most busses are only marginally faster than walking and during rush hour often slower (2 to 3 miles per hour). At the very least taking the bus should be faster than cycling (12 miles miles per hour) and ideally it should be faster than driving.
In particular, busses going to BART or Caltrain should be fast and highly reliable, so that more people end up using these trains. A trip from Van Ness & Broadway to Caltrain currently takes 30 minutes officially and in practice often 40. Add ten minutes for walking to the bus and waiting for it and another ten minutes to make sure you don't miss your train and this 2.5 mile trip takes a full hour. This needs to be reduced to 15 minutes, leaving about 10 for the ride itself. Let's see how...
1 - Don't stop at every block. This is the part that drives me insane the most. Buses stop at almost every single block, usually once for a stop and once for a traffic light. Let me tell you a secret: people can walk! Some Limited busses stop only once every five blocks. This should not be the exception, but the rule, with a possible exception for very steep hills. This adds a maximum of two blocks walking to a trip, but anyone traveling more than half a mile will earn this time back.
2 - Charge a lot more for people who buy a ticket at the driver. People should either buy a ticket before they board or use Clipper. In The Netherlands people who wish to bother the driver and hold up a bus full of passengers pay two to three times more. Could you imagine if BART allowed people to buy tickets on the train while it's waiting at the station?
3 - Probably the most ambitious part of the plan, but San Francisco is the right city to try this: a bus should be able to request a green light, wirelessly. This requires traffic lights to be networked. Initially drivers could request green lights manually by pressing a button ten seconds before they need it, but later on software could antipate it based on traffic, number of passengers (dis)embarking, etc.. Networked traffic lights open a huge opportunity space in general.
4 - Never leave early; in my hometown of Utrecht each bus driver has a display with the name of the stop and the scheduled departure time. Unforatunately many drivers ignore this and leave early. The result is that passengers need to leave their homes earlier to catch a bus, wasting 5 minutes. Ironically being faster, means being slower.
5 - Don't take bicycles on board. This is completely absurd except for long distance busses (>5 miles).
6 - Be mindful of how a bus connects to BART or Caltrain; bus 47 stops accross the road and half a block from Caltrain in stead of directly in front of the station entrance on the correct side of the road. A little more attention to detail can easily shave two minutes of the average trip.
Hope this helps!
* = not to mention that cycling is pretty risky, since any fool can obtain a California Driver License with virtually no practice, roads are old and there's a shortage of seperate bike lanes.