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SPUR on What the BART Strike Means for the Regional Transit Agenda

Cross-posted from the SPUR blog. Gabriel Metcalf and Ratna Amin are SPUR’s executive director and transportation policy director, respectively.

For a group like SPUR — one that works to promote transit, walking and biking as primary forms of mobility — there’s no question that a transit strike is a major setback. It instills in people the sense, consciously or unconsciously, that they cannot count on transit being there when they need it. People who don’t have the flexibility in their jobs to work from home, or who need to get their kids to school, are getting the message that they can’t rely on transit for daily trips.

All of this is deeply unfortunate.

What does it mean for our broader transportation agenda when something like this happens?

The Numbers

Fully 63.5 percent of the 400,000 daily trips on BART are to or from the San Francisco downtown area, and 50.1 percent of all BART trips go through the Transbay Tube, according to data from BART’s monthly ridership reports. On weekday mornings it carries about 21,000 people per hour to the west side of the bay. By comparison, the Bay Bridge carries about 24,000 people per hour in the same direction. Both systems are currently very congested for much of the morning and afternoon peak hours (though not all the cars on the bridge are full), according to a Bay Bridge congestion study.

Although only about 5 percent of the region’s workers use BART during the morning peak, taking that 5 percent off the road brings tremendous benefits to our roadways and other travelers. With BART’s closure, we see how moving that small number of people off transit and onto roads causes “chaos” through much of the region. Many of the highway corridors that BART serves are operating near capacity at peak hours already — which is part of why BART keeps breaking ridership records. When highways are operating near capacity, it takes very few added cars for congestion to become gridlock.

Our region is projected to grow from 7.2 million people today to 9.3 million people in 2040 — that’s 2.1 million new people who will need to get around the bay. Auto demand on highway links like the Bay Bridge already exceeds capacity. Assuming we are not going to add more road capacity on these corridors, we actually need transit to carry significantly more people each year than it did the year before.

The BART strike focuses us on the need for a reliable public transit system. And it contains some important lessons for our broader transit agenda.

Lesson No. 1: The Need for Redundancy

Losing BART to a strike is somewhat like losing BART to an earthquake. And it just so happens that SPUR has conducted an in-depth study on how to provide resilience in our transportation system in the event that we lose segments of our network to an earthquake.

Read more…

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A Straighter Extension of Caltrain/HSR Into Downtown SF: Is It Worth It?

A simulation of a curve in the planned downtown extension alignment, as rendered in a video from the TJPA.

By 2029, San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center — which has been called the “Grand Central of the West” — will allow people to hop on an electrified Caltrain to San Jose and high-speed rail down to Southern California from the same platform. That’s the vision, at least, of planners working on the extension of Caltrain from the current terminus at 4th and King Streets to the massive transit hub under construction in SF’s downtown core.

But some advocates and planners say the planned rail alignment for the downtown extension of Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail, which will share tracks along the Peninsula, needs to be revisited because it includes too many sharp turns, which they say could slow the trains down and create a bottleneck. Planners at the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, however, say any increase in speeds would be minimal, and that embarking on a planning process for a different alignment could delay construction by at least a decade. Currently, the extension is expected to be built some time before high-speed rail is completed in 2029.

“Are we sure a new alignment will be better? Definitely not, we just think it’s worth asking the question again at this stage,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of SPUR, who was appointed to the TJPA Board by Mayor Ed Lee. “From my perspective, the DTX (downtown extension) is now the highest priority transportation project in San Francisco, and it should be the focus of a lot of attention until it is underway. We think that at this stage it’s a good idea to take some time to explore alternative alignments and ways of phasing the project.”

Brian Stokle, who writes the blog Urban Life Signs, wrote a post in March about “uncrooking San Francisco’s crookedest tunnel” in which he laid out the conceptual differences between a few different alignment options. Some alignments could alleviate engineering obstacles, while causing other complications to arise. One of them would allow riders to transfer to the Central Subway station under construction at Moscone Center. Altogether, there’s no clear winner.

“Whatever tunnel and stations get built, we should be considering what we’re asking for and what’s most important,” Stokle wrote. “Simply stating this is a tunnel to get to the Transbay Center is missing the point. We’re creating a valuable piece of infrastructure that should work for at least a century into the future and work for not just Caltrain, HSR, and downtown, but benefit the entire region, including other transit operators, residents and commuters.”

But changing the alignment could set the DTX back by decades, according to Scott Boule, the TJPA’s community outreach manager.

Read more…

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SPUR Urges City to Reap the Benefits of Removing Highway 280

“If the freeway were removed, Mission Creek Park would become an asset to the entire area. The lower drawing shows a future view of Seventh Street to Mission Creek and beyond.” Image: SPUR

Taking down the northern spur of highway 280 is the cover story in the latest issue of the Urbanist, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association’s member magazine. SPUR makes the case that if San Francisco is to reap the full benefits of moving Caltrain and high-speed rail underground and re-developing the Caltrain yard at 4th and King Streets, taking down the freeway is a can’t-miss opportunity:

Currently, the stub end of Interstate 280 creates a barrier between the developing Mission Bay neighborhood and Potrero Hill. At the same time, the Caltrain railyard — 19 acres stretching from Fourth Street to Seventh Street between King and Townsend — forms a barrier between Mission Bay and SOMA. The obstruction will only get worse if current plans for high-speed rail proceed, forcing 16th Street and Mission Bay Boulevard into depressed trenches beneath the tracks and the elevated freeway.

Check out the rest of SPUR’s analysis here.

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Great Highway Re-Paving to Come With Minor Bike-Ped Upgrades

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The Great Highway, the motorway that divides Ocean Beach from the Outer Sunset and Richmond, is set to get some bike lane and pedestrian improvements north of Lincoln Way as part of a nine-month re-paving project started this week by the Department of Public Works.

The 6-foot painted bike lanes planned between Lincoln and Cabrillo Street would be an addition to the original SF Bike Plan [PDF], which only called for bike lanes north of Cabrillo and along the length of Point Lobos Avenue. Last Friday, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency gave preliminary approval at a public hearing to extend the lanes south to Lincoln past Golden Gate Park, and the project is expected to receive final approval from the agency’s board of directors at an upcoming meeting.

While much more remains to be done to create a safer, less car-dominated Great Highway (see SPUR’s long-term vision, which includes fewer traffic lanes and a two-way, protected beach-side bikeway), the bike lanes and pedestrian refuge islands will provide some improvements in the meantime.

SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum praised the SFMTA’s adjustments to the Bike Plan, calling it “a great example of city staff working together to layer bicycling, walking, and traffic calming improvements into a repaving project, so that the benefits are tripled.”

“If this project is approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors, we will have a much more ‘complete street’ along this section of the now-intimidating Great Highway, and all road users will benefit,” she said.

The road space for the bike lanes will be created by narrowing the Great Highway’s four traffic lanes. Point Lobos Avenue, which runs by the Cliff House, will go on a road diet under the Bike Plan, with two of its four traffic lanes replaced with median space and a buffered bike lane in the northbound direction. The southbound, downhill traffic lane is only slated to receive sharrows.

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Congestion Pricing: Vital for Funding a Sustainable Transpo Future in SF

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Third Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Take a shot at budgeting San Francisco’s future transportation revenue with the new online “Budget Czar” simulator from the SF County Transportation Authority, and it will quickly become clear: If residents want better transit and safer streets for walking and biking over the next 25 years, the city needs to collect new sources of transportation revenue in a way that effectively reduces motor vehicle congestion.

The SFCTA anticipates having $64 billion to spend over the next 25 years, with 80 percent ($52 billion) going to maintain the existing state of street and transit infrastructure — “not nearly enough to meet projected needs,” the agency said in a statement. With $9 billion already committed to projects in the works, that leaves just $3.14 billion left to devote to projects like pedestrian safety upgrades, a network of protected bikeways, and increased transit service — improvements that the SFCTA believes are in high demand from the public. By seeing how residents would budget that $3.14 billion in the “Czar” simulator, the SFCTA says it hopes to get a better picture of how to prioritize transportation projects in the 25-year San Francisco Transportation Plan, expected to be adopted next spring.

“We need to critically think about, ‘What are some of the best sources of revenue?’” said Egon Terplan, regional planning director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “One of the really important functions of the Transportation Plan is to put that on the table, and to say, ‘What projects do you want as a city and county? And if you want more investment in transportation projects than we likely have money for, are you willing to pay for it?’”

As funding sources like gas taxes and federal grants shrink, population growth in the Bay Area means the SFCTA expects as many as 412,000 more daily car trips clogging the city’s streets and highways by 2035. But that scenario can be averted if San Francisco institutes a congestion pricing system that provides incentives for drivers to avoid adding to traffic jams while funding improvements to make transit, bicycling and walking more attractive.

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SFMTA May Test Two-Way Bikeways on the Embarcadero

SPUR's vision for an "EmBIKEadero." Image: Carrie Nielson

A two-way protected bikeway along the Embarcadero could get a trial in the coming months. The SF Municipal Transportation Agency is considering implementing a temporary two-way bikeway along the waterfront during the next America’s Cup events in October, according to an agency report. The agency is also developing plans for a more permanent bikeway along the Embaracdero near Pier 39, from Kearny to Powell Streets.

During the next America’s Cup yacht races, which are scheduled from October 2 to 7, the SFMTA “is investigating the feasibility of a trial two-way cycle track on the east side of the Embarcadero,” according to an agency report to the Bicycle Advisory Committee [PDF]. “A lane of northbound traffic could potentially be converted to a temporary two way cycle [track]. Staff is working with the Port and local merchants to develop the concept further.” No details on the length of the bikeway are currently available.

A two-way bikeway on the Embarcadero, or an “EmBIKEadero,” was recommended in a report [PDF] from the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and in the SF Bicycle Coalition’s Connecting the City campaign. “Creation of a separated two-way bike path alongside the Embarcadero would enhance the safety of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike,” SPUR wrote on Streetsblog last year. “Promoting multi-modal connectivity along the Embarcadero will help ensure that the public can access and enjoy its waterfront for the duration of the America’s Cup and beyond.”

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Transbay Transit Center to Fill Downtown With People, Not Cars

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The new Transbay Transit Center is expected to transform San Francisco’s downtown core by focusing new development around a massive regional transit hub in eastern SoMa. Scheduled to open in 2017, it will link 11 transit systems and eventually CA High-Speed Rail. Some have called it the ”Grand Central of the West.”

Renderings via TransbayCenter.org

The SF Planning Commission last week approved an influx of high-density office and housing redevelopment, including the West Coast’s tallest skyscraper, in the neighborhood surrounding the new station at First and Mission Streets, known as the Transbay Center District. To ensure that new workers and residents come by transit, foot, and bike instead of clogging the streets with cars, the plan would make sweeping streetscape improvements and limit the amount of car parking in the area.

“This is going to be one of the best examples of transit-oriented development in the world,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “We’re going to be putting in $4 billion in transit infrastructure and then putting our tallest buildings right on top of it. It’s going to be studied and emulated all over the world if we get this right.”

The hub, which replaces the old Transbay Terminal, would connect to transit systems in all nine Bay Area counties, including Muni, BART, AC Transit, SamTrans, and Golden Gate Transit. Caltrain would operate on an electrified system connecting directly to the station, thanks to a recently-approved plan to extend tracks from the 4th and King station. Caltrain would share those tracks with high-speed rail trains.

Streets within the plan area — bounded by Market Street to the north, Steuart to the east, Folsom to the south, and just short of Third to the west — would be transformed with improvements for walking, bicycling, and surface transit.

Major streets — Mission, Howard, New Montgomery, Second, First, and Fremont Streets — would get wider sidewalks, road diets, transit lanes, and boarding islands. The planning department is also looking at creating a transit-only plaza on Mission between First and Fremont.

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Six Ideas for Saving Bay Area Transit

[Editor's note: This article is re-published with permission from the transit-themed March issue of The Urbanist, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association's (SPUR) monthly member magazine. The article, written by SPUR Regional Planning Director Egon Terplan, is based on a discussion paper developed by the SPUR Transportation Policy Board. Read the full paper at spur.org/tsp.]

Improving transit by changing financing, fares, speeds, metrics, territory and maps.

Every day, Bay Area residents and visitors take more than 1.4 million trips on one of 27 different public transit operators. But for more than a decade, the costs to operate these transit systems have been increasing far faster than any improvements in the service. Unless we make changes now, the system will not be sustainable in the future.

Regionwide, transit carries one in ten people to work. It costs more than $2.2 billion to run these 27 transit systems each year. More than $700 million comes from fares and $1.5 billion is a direct subsidy from a hodgepodge of sources (sales taxes, federal funds, state gas tax revenues). By looking out to 2035, these systems will face a combined $17 billion capital deficit and an $8 billion operating deficit.

In recent years, the costs of running these transit systems have increased far faster than inflation, even as ridership on some bus systems has declined. About 14,000 people work full time for the region’s public transit systems. Wages and fringe benefits account for more than three-quarters of the operating and maintenance costs of transit, and the cost of fringe benefits in particular is rising fast. At the same time, budget shortfalls, unpredictable revenues and service cuts are degrading the quality of public transportation. Transit systems face competition from an underpriced alternative — driving — and often operate in low-density and auto-oriented environments that are not conducive to growing ridership.

Unless there is some change to costs and revenues, with corresponding improvements in service, the viability of transit in the Bay Area is at risk. Recognizing this looming crisis, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional agency that funds transportation, launched the Transit Sustainability Project (TSP).

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What SF Needs to Catch Up to NYC’s Bicycling Success: Political Leadership

New York City's Prospect Park West parking-protected bike path. Photo copyright Dmitry Gudkov

New York City has raised the bar in recent years for rolling out bicycle improvements and reclaiming public space from automobiles. While San Franciscans have come to expect major delays for bike projects as the norm in their city, New York, the only American city more dense than SF, has zoomed ahead by adding roughly 20 miles of protected bike lanes since 2007, with more on the way. After each new NYC bikeway is built, injuries to all users decline and bicycling increases along the corridor.

How can San Francisco emulate New York’s success? In short: San Francisco’s public officials need to exert bold leadership to hasten a painstakingly slow planning process intended not so much to achieve specific goals, but to avoid rocking the boat. That was the general sentiment at a recent forum where local bike advocates popped questions at Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, New York’s leading advocacy organization for bicycling, walking, and transit.

“New York’s success, tenaciousness, vision, and drive have been guiding the way for other American cities,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) Executive Director Leah Shahum told an audience at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association last Thursday, where she and White discussed the state of the bicycling movement in the two cities.

“We all know that we talk about Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Barcelona as being these wonderful bicycling cities, and many getting better and better, but [with] that European model, you really lose people,” said Shahum. ”To have a great American city guiding the way in being a great bicycling space, and really reclaiming space from the automobile and creating public space for people, frankly, is making our job a lot easier in San Francisco.”

NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has earned a reputation for pursuing groundbreaking projects like the two-way bikeway on Prospect Park West, which produced major benefits and, despite high-profile resistance from a small group of politically-connected NIMBYs, has been largely embraced by the public.

“We’ve been very lucky to have such great leadership that has managed, nevertheless, to involve communities and be very democratic while at the same time acting swiftly and decisively to implement safer streets,” said White. “I think one way to cut through the red tape, and maybe some of the needless process, is to appeal to safety, and say that every day that a street goes without pedestrian or bike infrastructure is putting people in danger.”

“There’s enough data now to show that it’s simply inhumane not to add bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure when there’s an opportunity,” he added.

One of the main barriers preventing San Francisco from experiencing the same “impressive explosion” of visible change, said Shahum, is that SF transportation officials and politicians like Mayor Ed Lee haven’t been as willing to commit to completing bike projects, and that New York planners don’t have “to go through as much process as we do in San Francisco.”

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SF Bike Share Will Be “For Anybody Who Wants to Make a Short Trip”

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The SFMTA has released a preliminary map of potential bike-share station locations (H/T Cyclelicious for inputting them into Google).

San Franciscans are burning with curiosity about the imminent arrival of bike share this summer. At a forum held by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association yesterday, participants wanted to know details like where the stations will be located and what color the bikes will be.

Officials working on the project say they can’t provide answers until the vendor is selected (expected by April), but Cyclelicious provides an early map of stations proposed by the SFMTA. Project manager Heath Maddox said that while the pilot’s 50 downtown stations won’t serve as wide an area as the world’s leading systems, the stations will be close enough together to achieve a similar “blanket-style” coverage within the service zone.

“The most important thing is to have a density of coverage that works,” Maddox told Streetsblog after the presentation [PDF] yesterday. “The regional system is really set up — and it makes sense — to be the first and last mile for regional transit, but the nature of what we’re doing in San Francisco is very different. It’ll be [for] anybody and everybody who wants to make a short trip via bicycle.”

Maddox said the station proposals are still very premature, and that the SFMTA will collect feedback on them through public hearings, an online map, and a possible town hall-style meeting.

As far as the potential for expansion after the pilot, planners couldn’t say much, but Maddox did present a citywide map of areas that are “ripe” for bike share, mainly featuring transit-accessible commercial corridors. Karen Schkolnick, the program manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said planners hope to use the information gathered from the regional 1,000-bike pilot to develop a ”seamless transition to the next system.”