At 40 Years, San Francisco’s Transit-First Policy Still Struggles for Traction

Four decades after San Francisco's transit-first policy was adopted, Geary Boulevard remains designed to give priority to auto drivers over people walking, cycling, and riding Muni's busiest bus line. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/jivedanson/5071985059/in/photostream/##jivedanson/Flickr##

The first private automobile users on early 20th-century American streets were generally accorded no special privileges on the public right-of-way. “The center of the road was reserved for streetcars, and the new automobiles had to move out of the way,” as Renee Montagne describes it in the 1996 documentary Taken for a Ride, which chronicles the decline of American public transit over the 20th century.

When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a transit-first policy on March 19, 1973 — 40 years ago this week — a return to the early 1900s streetscape may not have been what they had in mind, but the city’s intent to undo decades of urban planning and governance geared towards promoting driving at the expense of public transit was clear. A key provision of the policy reads, “Decisions regarding the use of limited public street and sidewalk space shall encourage the use of public rights of way by pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit, and shall strive to reduce traffic and improve public health and safety.” (The policy was amended to include pedestrians and bicyclists in 1999.)

Yet today, the vast majority of San Francisco’s street space remains devoted to moving and storing private automobiles, making the public right-of-way hostile to walking and bicycling. Muni remains underfunded, with vehicle breakdowns and delays caused by car traffic a daily part of riding transit.

“When there’s excess road space that cars don’t need, it’s given over to bikes, peds, and transit,” said Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, “but where there’s a real shortage of road space, in the most congested parts of the city, the car is still the priority.”

“It seems like the transit-first policy is just a recommendation,” said Jason Henderson, a geography professor at SF State University and author of the upcoming book Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. “There’s no requirement for the city’s decision-makers to actually follow it.”

Since Ed Reiskin became director of the SF Municipal Transportation Agency in July of 2011, he’s helped develop a new strategic plan for the agency that sets a five-year goal of reducing driving to 50 percent of all trips, down from the current estimate of 62 percent — a number that hasn’t changed significantly since the 70s.

“We haven’t really moved the needle that much,” said Reiskin. “In the big scheme of things, a lot of people are still relying on their own single-occupant automobile to get around the city.”

This poster created in Muenster, Germany helps illustrate the rationale behind allocating street space to encourage walking, biking and transit. Image via ##http://cycletoronto.blogspot.com/2010/03/roads-should-be-used-for-transportation.html##Cycle Toronto##

Even though action on the transit-first policy has been lacking in the decades since it was adopted, Reiskin commends the elected officials who enacted it for being ahead of their time. “Today, people are thinking much more about active transportation and being multi-modal, but 1973 was a different time, and the fact that the Board of Supervisors had that foresight was tremendous.”

Geary, 1973. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/4719742610/in/photostream/##Eric Fischer/Flickr##
Geary, 2010. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/4719092831/in/photostream/##Eric Fischer/Flickr##

Still, the scant visible progress toward the transit-first vision over the last 40 years might lead anyone using San Francisco’s streets to ask: What happened?

In the years immediately after the adoption of transit-first, advocates say the opening of BART and the Muni Metro system may have quelled the city’s sense of urgency. The entire decade of the 1970s was marked by construction of the BART and Muni Metro tunnels under Market Street. The city did paint some downtown transit-only lanes soon after the policy adoption, but by the time the Muni Metro opened in 1980, other priorities may have put transit improvements on the backburner.

“We’d made some major leaps from where we were in the 60s, where we had ripped out the rail lines and basically forced everyone on to buses — it was a really bad place,” said Joél Ramos, a community planner for the sustainable transportation advocacy group TransForm and a member of the SFMTA Board of Directors. In the 1980s, Ramos surmises, “We were distracted trying to fight so many other battles, from a flailing economy, to fighting for more affordable housing, to dealing with environmental concerns.”

Without any elected officials championing the implementation of the transit-first policy, Henderson says planners also found it difficult to overcome opposition to re-allocating road space from cars to transit, and the city failed to lay a foundation of stable funding sources for Muni improvements and operations. “Nobody owned it,” said Henderson. “It’s amounted to just maintaining the existing service, barely.”

No doubt, San Francisco could have suffered a much worse, car-blighted fate. By the 70s, the city had already benefited from the Freeway Revolt of the previous decade, largely averting what befell other American cities, where highways tore apart the urban fabric. Even if the transit-first policy was “never fully implemented,” a 1999 report from the SF Planning and Urban Research Association credits it for city planning decisions to accommodate massive downtown job growth with transit instead of driving, largely by restricting new parking:

Were it not for the transit-first policy, the city would have followed the path of so many other American cities, widening roads, narrowing sidewalks, demolishing downtown buildings and then filling the spaces with parking garages. We would have destroyed the very density and walkability that makes this city different from the rest of the country, that creates the high economic values of downtown, and that provides the quality of life we enjoy.

Stockton Street in Chinatown. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images via ##http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2012/07/24/27542/bay-area-on-the-road-to-a-mileage-tax/##Southern California Public Radio##

Peter Tannen first learned of the transit-first policy when he applied for a job as a San Francisco transportation planner in 1992 at what was then the Department of Parking and Traffic. “I was actually shocked on two counts,” he said. “I thought, gee, I had no idea San Francisco had such a wonderful policy. And my other shock was looking around seeing that it wasn’t being implemented very much.”

When he started at DPT, Tannen said the agency had no staff dedicated to bicycle or pedestrian projects. He was the first manager of the department’s Bicycle Program. When the SFMTA was created in 1999 (at the same time that voters approved the addition of priority for bicyclists and pedestrians into the transit-first policy), DPT was folded into it. Looking back from the vantage point of today’s SFMTA, which has a Sustainable Streets division and a Livable Streets subdivision, Tannen, who retired in 2006, said he’s witnessed an organizational, cultural, and political shift when it comes to putting safe walking and bicycling ahead of driving convenience.

Projects like one of the city’s first road diets on Valencia Street — a 1999 trial project that added bike lanes, leading to a 144 percent increase in bicycling on the street [PDF] in the first year — or the removal of one parking space along the Wiggle, were a “really big deal,” he said. “It happened, but now I see proposals to remove 30 or 40 parking spaces, and things actually happen.”

Valencia Street, where in 1999 bike lanes replaced two traffic lanes -- one of the first such cases in San Francisco. Photo: Aaron Bialick

But make no mistake: SFMTA efforts to reclaim parking and traffic lanes still often face strong resistance from residents with a car-first mentality. Just this week, angry residents fueled by a misinformation campaign rallied against SFMTA proposals at a neighborhood meeting, upset by the potential removal of parking spaces on Polk Street to make room for protected bike lanes and more public space.

“While I think most San Franciscans believe in the principles of the transit-first policy, when you start talk about changing traffic, parking, or transit, it very quickly becomes very personal for people,” Reiskin told Streetsblog after the meeting. Still, he says, “We have a very clear policy mandate.”

The SFMTA’s Polk proposals would only remove, at the most, half of Polk’s on-street parking, which altogether makes up just 7 percent of parking within a block’s range of the business corridor, to create a safer street in an area where virtually every street is designed to be dominated by cars.

“You have a very continuous network for motorists in cars,” notes Livable City’s Radulovich. Meanwhile, “The pedestrian network, the transit-priority network, and the bicycle network, are still gappy, uneven, and completely missing from some parts of town.”

While such fierce resistance might be on a downward trend, Morgan Fitzgibbons, who leads a sustainability-focused group called the Wigg Party, points the finger at the SFMTA and elected officials like Mayor Ed Lee for dragging their feet and placating car owners rather than firmly standing by the transit-first policy. Fitzgibbons wrote in an op-ed in the Huffington Post this week that while San Franciscans have waited for delayed projects like the Fell and Oak Street bikeways — in which the SFMTA took time to create parking spaces on side streets to make up for parking loss — officials in cities like New York and Chicago are setting concrete goals and moving ahead with bike lane implementation.

Dave Snyder, who previously served as head of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and transportation policy director for SPUR, pointed out that even today, the city is building a “ridiculous” amount of car parking in the redevelopment area of Mission Bay, which sits on flat bike-friendly terrain close to major regional transit lines and downtown.

One possible vision from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for protected bike lanes on Polk Street.

“Transit-first needs to be owned by a politician,” says Henderson. “A politician has to care for it in a way that they understand all the nuances, understand all the issues, and become a champion and spokesperson for it, because it’s a political issue.”

Henderson doesn’t believe anyone has filled the role of transit-first champion, but Supervisor Scott Wiener has by far taken the most action on transportation reform at City Hall. Even if transit advocates don’t always agree with his approach, Wiener has introduced legislation attempting to do everything from increase Muni funding to streamline pedestrian safety improvements to increase the availability of car-share.

If San Francisco were to be graded on its implementation of transit-first, “I would give us a C+,” said Wiener. “In a lot of areas, the MTA is moving in the right direction, but it needs to move faster and more aggressively.”

Wiener emphasizes that the transit-first policy is “not about making it hard to drive, but about giving people options other than driving their car.”

“There are some people that are always going to drive their car, but there’s a certain percentage of people who would get rid of their cars, or drive them a lot less, if they had other viable options,” he said.

Ramos said “it’s probably only in the last 10, 15 years that we’ve started to understand transit-first, and that it’s not just something that we should be providing as part of our social fabric, but it should also be something that corresponds to improving the economy and a better, healthier environment. And I think it’s going to take a while for that value to catch up with the mainstream.”

“Most people are accustomed to a car-based lifestyle,” he added, “and I think it’s going to take some time to help people really understand that that’s not really economically viable for the city. All of the subsidies that go into providing parking for cars, or the ramifications of not having safe places for people to ride bikes or even walk, are having an impact on the city as it continues to grow, and as cars become more ubiquitous on our streets.”

  • So much of reducing traffic and increasing public transit has to do with awareness. With carsharing & ridesharing available now, and bike sharing soon to come, hopefully folks won’t be as disinclined to abandon traditional vehicle ownership.
    My fear: with reduced traffic comes increased car ownership…
    Solution: put in BusRapidTransit lanes in combination with a MASSIVE campaign to educate the public about alternatives to car ownership available in our fair City.

  • Each street in San Francisco needs to be re-imagined and, when necessary, redesigned to accommodate the safety and convenience of transit, bicycles and pedestrians. Then, if there’s room, accommodate car travel. Then, if there’s still room, accommodate on-street car storage.

    This may sound radical now, but in ten years it will be accepted practice in cities with population densities over 15,000 people/sq. mile.

    As a taxpayer, I’m very glad the city’s charter was amended to include bicycles and pedestrians. They are by far the cheapest way for the city to move people around. Both also make the San Franciscans who do them happy and healthy (proven!), which is also in the best interests of my pocketbook as well as the ultimate prosperity of San Francisco.

  • Anonymous

    Geary Muni rail please. Sigh.

  • Thanks for this article, Aaron. I’m glad to see some positive news here on Streetsblog – it’s discouraging to read most of the articles which are only bad news, when I know lots of good things are happening too.

  • Are any other American or Canadian cities doing a better job of prioritizing transit, bicycling, and walking over driving than San Francisco?

  • TinyTim

    Some easy steps to take: Enforce and add more diamond lanes at Market St. transit islands–all along Market. No cars (or taxis) should be allowed along there, so multiple buses do not have to wait to pull up to an island.
    After 20 years of discussion, implement priority signal changing/delaying when a MUNI vehicle is approaching an intersection so that the light remains green long enough for it pass through. Audit the audible/ visual announcements of stops, so those unfamiliar with the route can know when to get off without asking the driver. (some of them either don’t work or are turned off (violation of ADA?)) Also make sure destination signs are correct; otherwise tourists are confused and again have to hold up the bus asking if this bus is really going where the sign says it is. The destination has to be correct for the radio signals to be in sync to display the stops.
    Drivers need to understand that most of their announcements cannot be heard from the midway to back of vehicle, unless they speak clearly, slowly and concisely (especially for tourists), avoid slang and speak loudly if there’s no microphone.

  • Jake Wegmann

    I think at least a few are: Portland. Vancouver, BC. Montreal. Chicago. New York. Even Long Beach. Not all of those cities have as much transit, biking and walking as SF (though some of them do), but they are all making improvements at a much faster rate.

    All of those cities seem to be able to implement projects that improve the public right-of-way for non-drivers at a much faster clip than San Francisco. They don’t study, debate and dispute every possible public improvement to death. They make improvements, and if they are not well-received, they change them, AFTER they’ve been built.

    The trouble in SF is that while the intentions are good, the implementation takes so long that any momentum gets sapped. If the public realm in SF were improving at the rapid rate that it is in, say, Portland, then that would stiffen the spines of the Supervisors to tell NIMBYs who are making demonstrably selfish and anti-public spirited arguments against changing anything to go and stuff it. Once that happens, the conversation changes from “why are you, politician, doing this horrible thing to my neighborhood?” to “why are you, NIMBY neighbor, stopping this from wonderful improvement from happening in my neighborhood?”

    San Francisco has many things about it that are just amazing and unique. But the ability to actually implement visionary improvements to the urban environment, rather than talk about them, is not among them. I don’t see that changing (despite the tireless and valiant efforts of the people in the SF Bike Coalition and other livable streets groups). Other cities that are almost as progressive, but that are vastly superior on implementation, are way too far ahead at this point.

    Good ideas — and that’s really all the Transit First policy is — are great, but only to a point. In the end, you have to implement them for them to make a difference.

  • Jake Wegmann

    One important omission from what I wrote above: none of SF’s implementation paralysis should be laid at the feet of staff working within MTA and other city agencies. Quite the opposite — in my experience, they are the most well-trained and competent people that you would ever meet.

    The issue is the system and the political culture they have work within and around.

  • mikesonn

    Polk Street is just the most recent example. Why take part in the planning process when you already disapprove of the project and you can just show up at the last minute and scream/yell/etc and get the project stopped anyway?

  • The worst part is that if they NIMBYs get victories they are inspired to attack more, but the people who want change get tired of getting bashed around and check out.

  • How I grade various cities I’ve biked and taken transit in:
    Transit Grade // Bike Grade (quality of infrastructure/calmness of traffic and niceness of drivers)

    San Francisco: B // C- (C-/C-) (will up bike rating to a C once Oak Street is striped and there is one N-S street above Market with a bike lane)
    Boston: B+ // D+ (D+/D) (gets bump for bikeshare)
    Honolulu: C- // D+ (D/C-)
    New York (Manhattan only): A- // D (C/F)
    Seattle: C // C- (C-/D+) (gets bump for Burke-Gilman and Interurban trails)
    Charleston: D // C (D/B)
    New Orleans: B- // C+ (D/A-)
    Average town/city in the US: D- // F (F/D-)

    Amsterdam: A- // A- (A-/A)
    Berlin: A // B+ (B+/A-)
    Prague: B // D- (D-/D-)
    Vienna: A+ // B (B+/B)
    Paris: A // B- (B/C-)
    London: A // C (C+/C-)

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Are any other American or Canadian cities doing …

    Special Olympics!

    Extra gold stars for every special snowflake!

  • Richard Mlynarik

    One important omission from what I wrote above: none of SF’s implementation paralysis should be laid at the feet of staff working within MTA and other city agencies. Quite the opposite — in my experience, they are the most well-trained and competent people that you would ever meet.

    Market Street redesign? Remind me: how many decades late? DPW and SFMTA are on the case!

    POP on Muni. Remind me how many decades that took? (And that $30 million just donated to defense contractor Cubic to buy faregates at the same time as POP was planned? Priceless)

    Central Subway? Muni staff’s highest priority for the last decade and its only priority for the the next two decades. Remind me again how many new riders that $2 billion will attract and how much Muni’s operating expenses will be “lowered”, will you?

    Signal priority for transit anywhere? We’re clearly dealing with the Best and Brightest at the City Agencies.

    Caltrain Downtown Extension/Transbay? $4 billion utterly wasted on a disastrously stupid elevated park that can never function as a remotely efficient train station.

    Third Street Light Rail? $650 million, worse speed, worse reliability and higher costs than the 15 bus it replaced. Brought to you and designed by the dedicated and competent and well-trained agency staff of the City Agencies.

    High floor buses and high floor streetcars purchased after 1985? We’re clearly dealing with “well trained and competent”.

    The Metro moving-block signalling system? Brought to you by the best people you’ll ever meet.

    Some of the highest hourly operating costs and maintenance costs on the planet? An “implementation paralysis” detail! Ignore it.

    Oh man.

    Here’s a challenge: name one thing that the hard working and highly competent staff have gotten right in the last four decades. I guess if your “experience” of human conurbations is limited to Detroit, San Jose and San Francisco then SF’s public servants come out on top.

  • Ryan Brady

    Drivers shouldn’t be speaking. Just use recordings.

  • Bob M

    It’s sad how fundamentally Richard misunderstands how things work in a democracy. Projects that have community support get built; projects that have community opposition don’t. You don’t need a tea-party style distrust of public servants (nor a borderline-racist conspiracy theory) to explain why Central Subway’s getting built and Geary RT is not. One community wanted their project and the other community did not. Like Jake said, public servants must work with the culture they work in.

    I hope that most transit advocates do not share Richard’s perspective, because they’ll stay ineffective as long as they sit on the sidelines taking pot shots instead of organizing and showing up.

  • vcs

    @Bob M —

    Mlynarik posts are bitter medicine. 90% of the issues he raised had zero democratic and community input. You can’t blame Muni’s atrocious operational practices on “NIMBYs”, as much as you’d like to absolve MTA’s incompetence.

    Even the central subway was sold to the voters as a package with Geary rail. Even though that *was never* the intent.

  • Anonymous

    Having moved recently to Brisbane, where a massive amount of money was recently spent on upgrading bus infrastructure to include a downtown tunnel and a series of busways radiating from the downtown . . . i now laugh whenever I hear someone suggest improving a bus network rather than building or extending rail infrastructure. The busways & tunnels here are gorgeous and easy to use but they’ve been open for a few years and are already at crush load during the AM and PM peaks. Going with buses over a subway was an epic fail on the part of Brisbane and Queensland politicians. The amount of buses and drivers (and the capital and operating costs) it would take to replace the capacity of the Central Subway renders most arguments against it specious at best.

  • spijim, there is a Brisbane right next to San Francisco and for a moment I was surprised and delighted to hear they’d invested in any type of transit infrastructure. Then I realized you’re in Australia.

    I totally agree that rail is much preferable to buses. I also think transporting people below the surface is important for dense cities. The problem with the Central Subway is that it is so poorly designed, particularly in the way its Union Square/Market Street station connects to the Powell Muni/BART (the main point of the whole thing) that walking from Chinatown to the Powell BART station or from Moscone/Yerba Buena to the Powell BART station will be literally faster than taking the Central Subway. Which means it just isn’t going to have great ridership, which indeed is what Muni is already predicting. So it will garner little income while it’s on-going operating costs suck up precious resources from all the rest of the Muni system. Which indeed, Muni has already predicted.

    So this is the issue. For the incredible amount of money that the Central Subway will cost and keep costing, we are getting astonishingly little functionality out of it. With that money we could’ve put fixed rail down Geary Street all the way into the Sunset, a much more important project that would’ve truly improved transportation in San Francisco.

  • Anonymous

    It takes 15-20 minutes to walk from Market St. to where the new Chinatown Station will be – over some pretty steep terrain. The train ride will take 2-3 minutes.

    Light rail on Geary would be fantastic – but then once it gets downtown where does it go? Does it sit in traffic? The existing tunnel under Market St. is already near capacity at rush hour so it’s not going down there. Without laying new tracks you can’t expand the light rail network. Without laying those tracks underground you can’t expand a system that gets anyone where they’re going on time – a constant complaint when it comes to Muni.

    Finally, moving 60,000 people per day on buses would take 1200 bus trips or 100 light rail trips. There’s really no comparison when it comes to efficacy. Not only are buses not up to the task of moving that many people efficiently but paying 120 bus drivers is a lot more expensive than paying 10 train drivers. The fuel is more expensive. The emissions are worse. Even the capital costs are questionable.

  • The new Chinatown station will require descending long, long escalators to go 90 ft underground which will take a passenger nearly three minutes. Then it will require an average wait time of five to ten minutes, depending on time of day. Then, bing, a very short 2-3 minute ride! Then going up more escalators (an ascent of 40 ft), which will take a minute and half. Then a four minute (1/5th of a mile) walk to get to the BART station. This all adds up to 15.5 to 21.5 minutes of transit time. (And of course any glitch with Muni and times could be far slower.) So yes, walking directly will be as fast or faster. If a person is going to or from anywhere south of Washington Street, it makes the walking time even shorter.

    A light rail line should go down Geary and end at Powell. It should go underground at least the last several blocks before Market. The problem with Central Subway is that it has to go so deep to get under both the Muni and BART underground lines and it has to start this descent well before Market. If a Geary line ended at Market, its stop could be placed directly next to the Powell Station. I think the best plan would be to put a line on Geary underground from Gough Street to Market. Failing that, the city could make Geary east of Gough a transit-dedicated street with only local traffic allowed (no through car traffic) with signal=prioritization lights and then underground the the last few blocks. In addition, the entire Union Square area should be pedestrian and transit only. The place is a zoo anyway. You’d be doing drivers a favor to keep them away from the area.

  • mikesonn

    Transit-only Stockton Street. Sadly, we’ll get the worthless stub of the Central Subway and reduced bus service (the 30 will see service cut) (also, Muni will see a huge hit to operational funds which will eventually lead to system wide cuts as well).

  • Anonymous

    In most cities it’s generally quicker to walk than to take a subway or light rail train for just one stop as most of the uncertainty lies in how long you’ll have to wait for the next train. This is easily remedied by having a “next train arrival” board at the entrance to the station.

    I’ve lived in Philadelphia and NYC and spent a considerable amount of time in Boston, DC and LA and sure, when the stations are relatively close together (a 5-10 minute walk) I would not board a train at the closest station just to go one stop then transfer. If I had the choice to walk less than 10 minutes (this is assuming I wasn’t carrying anything) and take the one train to my destination then I would walk. In the case of the Chinatown station the potential time savings of going one stop isn’t the actual or implied utility of the service. The utility is in the future expansion options it allows, the connections that it offers, the huge capacity increase that it allows upon opening (and into the future) and that walking to Chinatown from Market St. is not a fun walk and 10 minutes on flat terrain is the typical threshold for choice between walking and some other mode. That’s not to mention that people boarding at Union Square and alighting at Chinatown (or vice versa) will be a relatively small amount of this route’s overall ridership – which is typical of any two station pairs, ie, there are a lot of other places to get on or off the train.

    That said, it doesn’t take 3 minutes to go down 90 ft. on an escalator. The 115 ft. deep Wheaton Metro station in DC takes 2m30s to move the 230 ft. length of the escalator. Most escalators move at around 1.5 fps. Shorter escalators are usually a little faster because their motors don’t have to work as hard. Anyway, 90 ft. down means a 180 ft. escalator would take 1m57s – and that’s assuming that you just stood there on the escalator and didn’t take a few steps while you were on it. The 260 ft. deep Washington Park station in Portland has elevators that make the trip in 30 seconds. The DC and LA Metros both have a few stations in the 80-100 ft. deep range. The old World Trade Center PATH platforms were 80 ft. down and even further removed from the street. It you have any kind of motivation in your step at all it doesn’t take 3 minutes to get down that far especially when you have moving walkways under your feet.

    While it does take about 4 minutes to walk 1/5 of a mile the distance from the Powell St. Station to where the Union Square Station will be is about half that distance. The average wait time for a service that runs on 3-12 minute headways won’t be 3-12 minutes. It would actually skew towards the lower end since most of your ridership is going to come during peak periods when trains are more frequent.

    Anyway, In a real word scenario we’re going to arrive by BART at Powell St. and I’m going to walk through the concourse over to the subway station. You’re going to follow me through the concourse because a. you have to walk in that direction anyway and b. it’s quicker because there are no traffic lights underground. You surface at Union Square and walk for 17 minutes. I descend for 1 minute, wait 6 minutes, ride 3 minutes and ascend for 2 minutes. I get there 5 minutes faster.

    LA, NYC, Boston and Philly all have similar connections where a short walk + escalator ride is required to transfer between lines. It doesn’t stop 40,000 people per day transferring between the orange and blue lines in Philly (as just one example among them). Tunneling under a city has as much to do with where a station needs to go as it does with avoiding building foundations, fault lines, underground streams, deposits of gas or oil and other subway stations. Still, assuming it was feasible to engineer running the Central Subway directly under Powell St. station and having one platform directly below the other isn’t always ideal. Dangerous platform crowding is routine at DC Metro interchange stations, in part because riders don’t go up to a concourse to change trains (thus diluting the pressure from each arriving train) they just ride one escalator.

  • More research on escalators! The Wheaton Street escalator actually takes 2 minutes and 45 seconds to traverse its 115 ft of depth. (I was using actual user reports, but I can see that there might be a tendency to exaggerate.) That would imply a 2 minute 15 second ride for our Chinatown escalator.

    There are also many reports of the escalators being out of order. Forgot all about that possibility.

    For anyone who wants to vicariously experience a long escalator ride, this video is great. Just stop watching after the 2 minute 18 second mark and you’ll know what the Chinatown escalator will be like.

  • mikesonn

    “that walking to Chinatown from Market St. is not a fun walk”

    Um, what?! It’s an awesome walk. The tunnel kinda sucks but that’s because -cars- (I recently walked the tunnel when traffic was closed off for the Chinese New Year’s parade, holy awesome!) but really the walk is pretty eventful and engaging. Not to mention you get to stroll past Union Square and all the hustle and bustle that entails. Also, Chinatown->Market is downhill. If you are going to make any argument (even though I think it is still a weak one) against the walk, it’d be Market->Chinatown. I walk this route several times a week and am never bored with it.

  • That’s not to mention that people boarding at Union Square and alighting
    at Chinatown (or vice versa) will be a relatively small amount of this
    route’s overall ridership.

    Wrong. Just go watch the throngs currently detraining at Powell and going upstairs for a 30/45 at Market to go to Chinatown. I understand things change but I’m just not sensing a big increase in traffic from Potrero Hill to Chinatown on the CS.

  • Anyway, In a real word scenario we’re going to arrive by BART at Powell
    St. and I’m going to walk through the concourse over to the subway
    station. You’re going to follow me through the concourse because a. you
    have to walk in that direction anyway and b. it’s quicker because there
    are no traffic lights underground.

    If you understand transit riders at all, you’ll know that in addition to that time calculation the riders will also be thinking “If I switch to MUNI, that’s another $1.75”. This is enough to get 30-40% to walk.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not following your argument. tens of thousands of people transfer from Muni to BART or Caltrain to Muni or BART to AC Transit every day. Sure, there’s a disincentive to transfer between operators but that sort of thing exists across all modes of transportaiton . . . and this is just as a much a Muni to Muni transfer as it is anything else.

  • Anonymous

    Right, it’s a long escalator ride if you just stand there and film it on your way down. People in a hurry usually walk at least part of the way. Per the “things sometimes break or malfunction so we shouldn’t bother building them at all” argument, new transit stations usually have redundant escalators in addition to elevators . We’ve already established that most people don’t ride trains to go one stop. That’s what walking is for. We’ve also established that the Chinatown to Market St. equivalent walk is mostly uphill in the one direction and about a mile in length so the “time invested” argument isn’t a particularly strong one. Subways are typically underground. If you could just walk right up to them on the street, get in and go directly to your destination they’d be called cars.

  • Anonymous

    Wrong? What are you arguing is wrong? That most of the 60,000 people per day who are expected to ride it will be going to/coming from Chinatown? That everyone boarding a 30 or 45 bus at Market is going to Chinatown and not simply through it? That most of the +100k people per day who pass through Powell station (but don’t get off the train) are actually headed to Chinatown?

    This is a common refrain before new, intersecting transit lines are built – that no one is going to ride the new line, that it’s a train to nowhere, etc, etc. Ridership on the new line almost always exceeds projections within the first 3 years and the ridership on the other line goes up with it. (See: Dallas, Houston, Denver, SLC, Portland, etc) When you add a new route you improve the utility of the entire system. It’s the same concept behind why building new freeways only results in more traffic.

    The disheartening part about the complaints in SF is that while everyone complains about the speed (and hence the reliability) of the system the naysayers are especially eager to say that nothing real should be done about it. Just tweak this here or move this there and everything will be fine. It won’t be fine. You need to add capacity to the system, not just move it around and when you spend capital $ to do that you need to do it in a way that gets you the most new capacity for the money and in a way that also limits your future operating expenses. You can’t do that with more buses or grade level, street-running trolleys.

  • mikesonn

    “when you spend capital $ to do that you need to do it in a way that gets you the most new capacity for the money”

    Yes, Geary, not Stockton. W/ Stockton, transit only lanes through the lowest-car-ownership rate neighborhood. There is zero reason Chinatown should packed onto the sidewalks with parking and 3 lanes of barely moving traffic. You speed those buses up, and now you are getting more runs per bus which is a de facto service increase. Now, surface transportation will actually be cut (impacting the other 70% of 30/45/8x’s runs) when a simple (but I guess politically impossible) solution is right there. For 1/20th the price, we could have more and faster service tomorrow, not in 10 years.

  • Anonymous

    I’m curious as to how you would grade Oakland/Berkeley on this scale? Compared to SF, I’d put the biking infrastructure lower but the niceness of drivers significantly higher, so it would come out a wash or even ahead.

  • “Right, it’s a long escalator ride if you just stand there and film it on
    your way down. People in a hurry usually walk at least part of the way”

    I just got finished reading you tell me that 60,000 people per day were going to take this thing. Now you tell me so few people are going to take it that you can walk down the escalators unfettered.

    All it takes is one old chinese lady with a push cart to block the entire escalator.

  • mikesonn

    “If you could just walk right up to them on the street, get in and go directly to your destination they’d be called cars.”

    No, they’d be called buses. And they already run on Stockton, but they are continually stuck behind private autos that are still, for some unknown reason, allowed to use Stockton.

  • Haven’t ridden a bike in Oakland/Berkeley! I look forward to it one day when there is bikeshare there. (I really hate carrying my bike up and down flights of stairs on BART.) The nice drivers sound appealing!

    I would say streets with low speeds, little traffic and nice drivers don’t need separated bicycle infrastructure at all. (Many neighborhoods I saw in Berlin, Amsterdam and Vienna were like this.) In New Orleans drivers never seemed to be in a hurry and were marvelously patient waiting for or when passing bicyclists. So it gets a decent bike rating from me with little or no bicycle infrastructure even though there is certainly traffic there.

  • Even though Larry Lawnchair proved that “You can’t just stand there,” my experience is that most people on escalators do indeed just stand there.

  • Anonymous

    I hate lugging my bike up and down the BART stairs too, but it’s worth mentioning that unlike SF, in Oakland the elevators are almost always working! Also, try a weekend bike trip from SF to Oakland via the ferry. No lifting involved at all, and it spits you out right at Jack London Square, where we will be moving the EBBC offices very soon. There’s even cheap bike rentals next door via the Bay Area Bikes shop. Give me a ring if you decide to come by and I’d be glad to show you around. (Not that the drivers are all that great, but relatively speaking…)

  • Anonymous

    which is fine. luckily the escalators are wide enough for two people and when someone runs afoul of escalator etiquette most people can find in their voice an “excuse me”.

  • Anonymous

    So you think that when someone says “yeah, that line carries 100,000 people a day” that they mean that 50,000 board at one station then all get off at the same station somewhere else along the line . . . and that those two stations just happen to be the same two that you have in mind? 30,000 people at Chinatown Station would make it the 3rd busiest station in the Bay Area . . . but as I already said, the number of people going between any two station pairs are going to be a relatively small percentage of the total riders on the line.

  • Anonymous

    Buses don’t go directly to your destination. They make a lot of stops and a lot of other people usually get on and off before you get to your destination . . . assuming that you don’t have to change buses to get where you’re going.

  • Anonymous

    For 1/20th the price you get an increase of 1/20th the capacity and 1/20th the speed and it’s incredibly shortsighted. It’s also not a long term savings for the investment. The problem is underfunded transit. Not a new rail line.

  • mikesonn

    The math isn’t that linear but you obviously are a huge Central Subway fan as nothing that has been said has gotten through to you. It is getting built, guess we’ll see who’s right. I really hope you are but I also really really doubt you will be.

  • Eric Fischer

    The 30 has a very sharp pattern compared to a lot of lines. If you believe the TEP passenger counts, 1200 people get on at 4th and Townsend, a few more trickle on south of Market, 3400 people get on on either side of Market, and then 5800 people get off at three corners between Clay and Columbus.

    I don’t know how many of them will switch to the subway (and it won’t be 30,000), but it really is about half the line’s total ridership that gets off in Chinatown.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right, it’s not that linear. I was just picking up on the hyperbole vibe that’s being put down here. An artic bus at crushload can hold maybe 120 people. A muni light rail two-car consist can carry 5x that many people. Even if you got all the traffic off of Stockton a muni subway can still carry 3-4x as many people per hour as buses. Once you get into the realm of 10-12,000 riders per day on a bus route and/or ridiculous boardings like 3-4,000 per hour buses are not effective and they’re more expensive to operate. Running 30 buses an hour is not cheaper than running 12 trains per hour – especially not in SF. It’s not a benefit to the transit system as a whole or to the individual riders to have to queue for buses then be packed in like sardines if you can get on at all.

  • mikesonn

    Your 30k ridership estimate is the hyperbole.

    It isn’t just one bus route, it is several. The main spike in ridership occurs in Chinatown. Central Subway provides one station 90 feet down. The bus service will still be needed because those buses serve North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill, Marina, Cow Hollow, and Presidio. Sadly, all those neighborhoods will lose service once their buses are cut when the CS is completed to only serve a very small catchment of Chinatown (and the weak connection to Powell). I can keep repeating this but, like I said before, it is getting built so we’ll have to wait and see. I hope your rosy predictions come to pass, but as someone very intimate with the Stockton corridor, I don’t see it happening.

  • Anonymous

    I never estimated 30k. I was making fun of anyone who would believe that one station in Chinatown would generate half the trips on the line. It’s a preposterous proposition. The estimated ridership of the line is 65k within 10 years of opening. That’s the whole line – not 3 stations. The route runs from the Sunnydale stop through to Chinatown. As the FTA demands conservative ridership estimates and if every other light rail line opening in the US in the last 15 years is any guide the line will pass those numbers in the first 3-5 years. You can keep repeating the same things over an over but the excuses you’re using are just that. Excuses that don’t pass the peer reviewed analysis that’s done on the route. It doesn’t keep people from riding in similar stations in other parts of the country, in other parts of CA or even in other places in SF. The line will exceed its published ridership numbers within a few years, the sky won’t fall on the bus network and the city will have a better system for it.

  • Given the current ridership on the T, If Chinatown isn’t going to generate half the trips on the line, then there isn’t much reason to build the extension.

  • biggerboy

    Not enough people live in San Francisco to make transit work efficiently.

    You want transit, build up. Can’t have current San Francisco “lifestyle” and density and effective transit.

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