Stockton Bus Riders Take a Back Seat to Central Subway Construction

Photo: Howard Wong

As if squeezing onto the 30-Stockton wasn’t already undignifying enough, Muni riders on Stockton Street soon face a four-year detour to make room for the construction of the Central Subway project.

Beginning January 21, southbound buses on the 30 and 45 Muni lines will be detoured off of Stockton Street at Sutter Street — a change likely to exacerbate delays on one of the city’s most heavily-used transit corridors already notorious for its slow, overcrowded bus service.

The Central Subway, a $1.6 billion project which the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) says is necessary to serve the needs of transit demand along the Stockton/Fourth Street corridor, isn’t expected to open for at least eight more years. But while riders take a back seat during its construction, the agency has yet to indicate any interest in improving existing transit on the surface — one of the major criticisms leveled against the Central Subway over the years.

Last July, the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury blasted the project in a report calling on the SFMTA to redesign it “to better serve the San Francisco population.” The major problems cited included poor connectivity to major destinations and transit stations and a lack of “plans to address existing problems on the Stockton corridor before project completion.”

“The problems have been noticeable, predictable, and no solutions have ever been offered,” said Howard Wong of Save Muni, a “volunteer group of transit experts, public transportation supporters” which has lobbied the SFMTA to pursue surface transit improvements as a more useful and cost-effective alternative to the Central Subway to meet transit needs on the corridor.

The 30-Stockton, which runs through San Francisco’s densest areas of Chinatown and Union Square, is widely known as one of the most overcrowded and slowest-moving buses in the city. A 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article cited its average speed at 3.6 mph between Market and Sutter Streets, and while more recent official data weren’t immediately available, service doesn’t seem to have improved. In the San Francisco Examiner’s recent “Man vs. Muni” series, it was the first — and last — bus to be raced at a walking pace by transportation reporter Will Reisman. (Reisman won the second round.)

Although the Chinatown Community Development Center and other groups have voiced support for the Central Subway, some transit advocates say with or without the project, the more immediate needs of service on Stockton need attention.

“Stockton Street is the most hectic street in the city,” said Robert Boden of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union (SFTRU). “Buses have to compete with delivery trucks, cars, and pedestrians, making it nearly impossible for Muni to run reliable service. Hopefully SFMTA will implement speed improvements to ensure buses move easily through Chinatown, providing riders with quicker travel times.”

Bunched buses sit mired behind tour buses, taxis and private autos in Stockton Street's "bus only" lane in the Union Square shopping district. Photo: Aaron Bialick

A report [PDF] released by Save Muni in November of 2010 included five near-term transit improvements that they say could speed bus service on Stockton:

Improvement 1: Deploy part-time loaders during peak times. Loaders would check fares and otherwise facilitate bus boarding through the rear doors. By making better use of the rear doors and by encouraging people to move quickly to the backs of buses, loaders could speed up the loading and unloading process. Loaders, strategically positioned at the four or five most congested stops in Chinatown during the busiest times of the day, would significantly enhance Muni service between Union Street and the Stockton Street Tunnel.

Improvement 2: Deploy low-floor buses along Stockton Street. Low floor buses make loading easier, safer and significantly faster. The current situation is severe enough to warrant the immediate procurement and deployment of enough lowfloor buses to end the inordinate loading delays that currently plague the riders of the 8x, 30 and 45 lines.

Improvement 3: Enable Stockton Street buses to pre-empt traffic signals. This long overdue improvement would facilitate better and more reliable bus flow during all hours of the day.

Improvement 4: Create a Southbound transit-only lane on Kearny. This would enable the southbound 8x bus to be rerouted fromColumbus/Stockton/Fourth to Columbus/Kearny/Market/Fourth. Simplifying the southbound 8x routing in this manner would provide northeastern San Francisco with a faster and more direct connection to Market Street and the Financial District. By removing 8x riders and 8x buses from Stockton Street while maintaining a robust Stockton Street 30 and 45 line service, it would also improve bus flow and ease crowding on Stockton.

Improvement 5: In order to calm traffic, improve the pedestrian orientation of the street and facilitate the flow of Muni buses, consideration should be given to altering the configuration of Stockton as Market Street was successfully altered last year.

“It almost seems that the MTA is purposely avoiding solving these problems,” said Wong, “the very conventional management techniques that have been tried and true in transit systems throughout the United States and throughout the world.”

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said the agency has evaluated surface improvements as an alternative to the Central Subway, but they were “rejected from further evaluation…because they had fewer benefits in terms of service reliability and greater impacts on parking and traffic.”

Detours starting January 21st. Image: SFMTA

“The SFMTA considered and reviewed a range of transportation alternatives to provide public transit service that enhances and preserves the social, physical and environment aspects of the communities to be served while minimizing potential negative impacts during construction and operation of the line,” he said. “Though the capital costs were less for a surface alternative than for a subway alternative, the surface alternatives only minimally met the project purpose and need and resulted in higher operation, maintenance costs and environmental impacts.”

But Wong said the Central Subway, which will only extend as far north as Chinatown eight years from now, won’t serve the bulk of the passengers that travel on the corridor from northern Chinatown, North Beach, Russian Hill, the Marina, and the Embarcadero.

“If they’re saying they’re never going to improve service for the bulk of the people in the northeast quadrant, then they’re not doing their job,” he said. “You have to have better, more dependable buses, because they’re not going to walk a mile or two to the Central Subway station to ride half a mile.”

The construction detour starting this month could add several minutes for riders as it reroutes buses onto Mason Street via Sutter, taking a sharp left onto Market and a right on Fifth Street all the way to the Caltrain station. Northbound buses will remain on their regular routes.

“Even a small change in a bus route can be confusing for riders at first,” said Boden of SFTRU. “Hopefully this temporary re-route will allow riders of the 30 and 45 to have reliable service by avoiding the construction area.”

In the meantime, measures to mitigate the transit impacts of the detour are limited to a supplemental shuttle for the 8x line which loops between Broadway and Kearny and SoMa. The shuttle “will continue to operate down Stockton Street during peak service hours until later in the construction schedule,” said Rose.

However, the agency ultimately continues to rely on the Central Subway as the solution to the corridor’s problems.

“We think that the only reason trial programs haven’t been instituted is to create a sense of urgency to drain all the funds from the entire citywide Muni system to the Central Subway,” said Wong. “I think that’s disingenuous and dishonest to the ridership.”

  • mikesonn

    Wait, wait, wait. This is complete and utter bullshit!

    “Though the capital costs were less for a surface alternative than for a subway alternative, the surface alternatives only minimally met the project purpose and need and resulted in higher operation, maintenance costs and environmental impacts.”

    Higher operation and maintenance costs for surface improvements? How is that even possible??  SFMTA, that’s rich. Kudos.

  • It’s kind of misleading to cite that Chronicle article for the speed, when it is only referring to the speed in the four blocks between Market and Sutter.   The line as a whole operates at around 6.2 mph, judging from NextBus data.  I’ll check and see whether there have been any recent changes to the speed (as a whole or in that section).

  • Aaron Bialick

    Thanks for pointing that out – I added some specification.

  • You suggest that Muni is avoiding solving these problems, but don’t go so far as to suggest why: because powerful interests want this subway to be built. The laughable conclusions that surface improvements had a higher cost is besides the point. 

    I wish that at a minimum Muni would consider making some of these improvements IN ADDITION to the subway, but that doesn’t seem to fit the narrative that the Subway is the only solution. Seemingly, the 30 stockton is still going to be a slow bus making the same route even after the subway is completed. 

    Instead, why don’t we try some of these improvements on busses that are not in Subway or BRT corridors that have similar problems. 5 Fulton anyone? All these solutions would seemingly work there, and as far as I cant tell the 5 Fulton is getting nothing in the near to medium term. 

  • btpayson

    anybody think it is odd that the SB bus goes all the way down Mason St to Market, left on Market, then right on 5th? It sure seems like the better solution would be to go down Mason to Eddy St, left on Eddy St, then right on 5th. Taking a right on 5th from Market St will mean that the bus will just sit there for the entire green light waiting for pedestrians, then will turn once the light turns red.

  • anon

    I think it’s a great change and should be made permanent. It’s quicker to get out at Union Square and walk to Market than take the bus for those two blocks.

  • Joel

    Howard Wong? Isn’t he the retired architect who opposed the North Beach Library renovations (and resulting traffic calming changes)? I’d like to believe what he’s saying, but because of his position on the library, I’m not sure he’s credible.

  • Jim

    Poles supporting the bus wires that the 30/45 need could not be placed on the “bridge” portion of 5th St over Hallidae Plaza.

  • poncho

    Oh please, yes there is some pain now but this project will greatly benefit these very riders when it is finished. Streetsblog should know better than to make an issue out of this. San Francisco should have built a subway network decades ago instead of continuing to rely on its painstakingly slow and constantly delayed surface bus system clogged by SOVs in this supposedly “transit first” city.

  • Mario Tanev

    And in the next 7 years NOTHING can be done? Regardless of your feelings on Central Subway, you have got to be completely out of touch to think that NOTHING can be done in the short term to help transit riders on Stockton. Stockton should be made transit-only until the Subway is built at the very least.

  • Mario Tanev


    I don’t think you should let yourself be convinced by anyone. Just go ride buses on Stockton St and I think you’ll be convinced that things CAN be done to speed up traffic. For one, the street can be turned to be transit-only. Yes, some drivers will be inconvenienced, but at the very least they should realize that they benefit a lot from the Subway (since it should relieve some pressure on traffic). Only someone with an auto-centric perspective can think that there is no short-term solution until the Subway opens.

  • mikesonn

    anon, what change? The 30/45 will be turning at Sutter, two blocks before Union Square.

  • mikesonn

    Mason doesn’t have wires, does it? I think they’ll be converted to diesel either way.

  • mikesonn

    Mario is right, Stockton can’t wait 7-8 yrs for a solution. The subway is getting built, but there is zero reason why something can’t be done in the mean time. Even a limited transit only set-up would be better than the current situation. Also, since the barriers have back up on Stockton between Post and Market, there hasn’t been a PCO stationed to force SOVs from continuing on Stockton. It’s a parking lot out there.

  • Andy Chow

    They installed wires because it is a long term detour. They won’t convert it to diesel because they most likely don’t have enough vehicles to replace trolley buses (they need to keep back up buses to substitute rail) and that the opposite direction is not being detoured.

  • Andy Chow

     Actually if Muni were able to convert the 30 and 45 to diesel, both routes could keep their current alignments for a while, since the 8X and 91 are not being detoured (and both are diesel).

  • mikesonn

    Good point on the replacement buses and the return route. And yes, it is a long term detour so “worth” the cost in that respect.

    As for keeping the current alignment, that could be true since the 30/45 are currently routed west on Harrison to 5th which is similar to the 8x route. I don’t see where the routes would be different enough to have 30/45 completely rerouted but not the 8x unless the overhead wires are really that crucial (e.g. station work at Mascone will require the support poles to be removed up near Mission/Howard).

  • Daniel Krause

    Howard Wong’s photo demonstrates perfectly why we need a high-capacity rail line through the densest part of SF. BTW, this article is obviously biased toward Save Muni, an organization that totally biased against this critical investment.  Disappointing but expected in SF, where the left has become anti-infrastructure in recent years.

  • using a capital “s” in Subway just makes me think of sandwiches.

  • mikesonn

    Maybe you could lay out some points in favor of the subway.

  • Mario Tanev

    I just re-read this and I just have to respond.

    First, many transit supporters who are not supporters of the Central Subway are not anti-infrastructure. Many of them support infrastructure, such as transit-only lanes, TEP, BRT, light rail and other subways (e.g. Geary).

    Howard Wong’s photo doesn’t demonstrate why we need a high-capacity rail line. It demonstrates that bunching is occurring on Stockton street, that’s all. That is not an argument for a subway. Bunching occurs for too reasons:
       1. When one bus is delayed, it picks up passengers that were supposed to get on the following bus, thus the following bus is sped up and the two buses bunch up. Improving reliability (by introducing all-door boarding and by allowing only transit) would alleviate bunching and the photo above would not be possible.
        2. The reason buses are bunched up without intervening cars is simple – cars don’t want to be stuck behind buses, whereas the buses have no choice. If there is a car in front of a bus, the bus has no choice. If there is a car behind a bus it will turn to a different street or try to pass it. In such a case, the bus that is a fair distance behind can speed up because the cars in front of it have cleared because of the bus in front. This whole problem is solved by banning cars.

    All you need to do is examine the frequency at the start-points for the three lines. They are not so frequent as to warrant a longer continuous vehicle. Also, there is no proof whatsoever that rail is required, and you only think that it has to be subterranean because you can’t envision Stockton being closed to cars with transit priority signaling at intersections.

    You can still be pro-Central Subway, but don’t use the maliciously screwed up Stockton as justification.


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