Guest Commentary: Tips for a Tunnel Shutdown

The needs of transit riders must come first during the Twin Peaks tunnel summer shutdown

The Twin Peaks Tunnel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Twin Peaks Tunnel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Sunset residents and visitors are in for a long summer. The Twin Peaks Tunnel will be shut down for repairs for about 60 days straight, starting June 25. Over 80,000 daily riders normally whooshed across the city in a subway tunnel are moving to surface streets. This is an excellent moment to take a step back and appreciate the wisdom of investing in subways for the benefit of everyone, riders and drivers alike.

We support infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. Without them, we get breakdowns, delays, accidents, and limits on capacity. But the disruption of upgrades is not fun for anyone, and riders often get left behind with inadequate and confusing replacement service, with more challenges and more travel time to get through the week.

What Happens When A Subway Moves To The Street

  1. Longer commute times. It takes longer to drive over a hill than to zip through it. The disruption affects the L-Taraval most: SFMTA estimates an end-to-end increased time of 20 minutes. Each way. For two whole months.
  1. Less reliability. We already have significant issues with our light rail vehicles competing for space once they leave the dedicated space of the subway. SFMTA regularly blames irregular service, the gapping and bunching of trains, on interference from traffic. Now there will be that much more competition for space on the streets.
  1. More congestion for everyone. Buses will be stuck in traffic, and drivers will be affected by the extra 80,000 daily trips with which they’ll suddenly have to share the road. During rush hour, it will be around 24 buses in one direction per hour going over the hill. At least it’s not 80,000 extra cars throughout the day. Drivers may want to reflect on why they should be all in for public transit funding and priority, to keep more cars off the road and out of their way.

Tips for a Rider-First Subway Closure

How do we keep riders moving smoothly so we don’t hop into private transportation and contribute to traffic congestion? How do we avoid crushing our souls by tacking on an extra three or four hours to our commute week?

  1. Put transit first. In a Transit First city, prioritize the transit riders displaced by construction. Give the substitute buses dedicated transit-only lanes for their full routes. Program traffic lights to hold the green for buses and shorten the red. Divert cars from the worst of the congestion, where the bulk of riders are transferring: around West Portal, Castro, and Church St. stations.

Just putting in transit-only lanes could bring the 20-minute increase for L-Taraval riders down to 15 or fewer. That’s at least a 50-minute time savings over the course of the work week. So, let’s do it!

  1. Give free BART transfers within San Francisco. Since BART from Balboa Park is part of the solution, offer free transfers between Muni and BART within the City for the duration of the shutdown. (Wait, shouldn’t we have that anyway?) Muni plans to pay BART for free transfers from Muni at Balboa Park during the shutdown, but not for the return trip. Let’s do it everywhere, or at least there and back, and see how it impacts ridership and travel times.
  1. Add plenty of clear signage for riders, well in advance. How much warning did cars get before the holiday weekend Bay Bridge closures? Every stop on all three affected lines needs clear signage: “Tunnel closed between West Portal and Castro for two months starting June 25,” for example. Have route-specific instructions with a clear map. Provide stop-specific information like “this stop is moving over there,” with a clear map.

Give suggestions of alternate routes on signs, like “don’t go inbound from here, it’s quicker to head to Balboa and get a free transfer to BART.” Alert all the travel apps to inform users about the shutdown, the substitutions, and real-time information on their options.

Produce signs large enough to see from across the street at the stops that are being moved, so you to know something’s up before missing the bus when it’s actually stopping a block away.

Example of how not to do signs; woe to the tourist who has no idea what station stops are actually closed under “Twin Peaks Construction.” Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
  1. Minimize headways, coordinate transfers. Buses need to come twice as frequently as trains, since they’re slower and hold half as many people. Put real-time information at all transfer points so folks know how long they have to wait, if it’s worth running up or down the stairs, or if an alternate route would serve them better.
  1. Provide plenty of clear signage for drivers. Add digital signage on surface streets to let car drivers know what’s coming, and advise them to find alternate routes while those 80,000 riders are displaced from the subway to share the non-fixed asphalt routes.

SFMTA is trying to do some of this, which is good. In the past, they haven’t.

Tunnel closures have happened with a couple weeks’ notice. Routes or stops get changed, and all the rider sees is hard-to-read small-print dark orange signs you barely see until you’re right in front of them; even then they’re impossible to decipher and provide no real-time help. There’s been no street priority given to the substitute buses. These are some of the signature moves that show little regard for riders and what we experience every day while trying to make our way through our lives.

We want SFMTA to be bold in providing the best service possible to its customers, the riders. Don’t hesitate to take needed street space for riders – let car drivers understand the impact riders have on the livability of the city. Maybe once the construction is done and we’re once again off the streets those poor cars have to use, safely speeding through our tunnel at 50 miles per hour, some of those drivers will consider leaving traffic and joining us.

Rachel Hyden is Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders, a rider-based grassroots advocate for world-class transit in San Francisco.

  • david vartanoff

    About MUNI-BART transfers. One, restore unlimited BART withinSF to regularly priced Fastpass. Two ad that transfer to the Clipper cards–both plastic and single ride paper. Both of these should become permanent policies.

  • mx

    There used to be a Clipper bug where riding Muni->BART->Muni (without a pass) would eat your Muni transfer. It’s been a while since I’ve tried this; does anyone know if it ever got fixed? It seems like that would be more of an issue during the shutdown, since there are a lot more plausible trips that involve a BART segment in the middle.

  • How about keeping the K/L/M running on the surface between Balboa Park and the Zoo? Combine the K/L to run between BP and 22nd/Taraval and the M/L between BP and the Zoo. Run the 48 to Ocean Beach all times. First, not all riders are heading downtown. Second, a reverse commute option will provide relief on the shuttle buses.

  • peanutcrunch

    That is a really good idea! SFMTA you listening??

  • Thanks for writing this Rachel. I understand the problems Muni faced, but the solution is far too complex. My expectation is that riders will be hopelessly confused, and rather than try to figure it out, those who can afford to will throw up their hands and get a cab or Lyft (and I’m afraid that I am likely to be one of them; so far, my experience trying to take the bus has not been good). I’ll be interested to see how much Fast Pass purchase go down.

    One thing that could make this a whole lot simpler is destination-specific directions. If I want to get from the Market Street rail corridor to, say, the shops on West Portal, what do I do? Shops on Terravel? Stonestown? Forrest Hill? Zoo? And so on.

    Another quick and cheap fix: temporary WiFi in Church & Castro stations, so that transit apps work for connecting bus info.

    Another more expensive fix would be a temporary re-opening of the abandoned Eurika Valley station with a pedestrian walkway to Castro, which would sorta allow a single xfer station instead of using Church.

    For the future, Castro Muni station is already far beyond capacity many mornings, and desperately needs expansion. That should be done before there are any further tunnel outages so that a single xfer point can be used. Also, there need to be entrances on all four street corners, which would improve safety and even help car drivers.

  • While I understand the impact on us riders, BART service as part of a Fast Pass simply costs Muni too much, and would result in too many cutbacks elsewhere. I would only support bringing that back if the city did not have to pay for all of it, with the region picking up more of the tab.

  • Eureka Station? Are you serious? There is absolutely no way in the world that this closed station would ever reopen. First of all, it’s non-ADA compliant. Second, it’s a staging area for construction. Third, platforms are too short. Fourth, there is no access to the street (other than the steps leading to the sidewalk). Etc.
    Basically, with the tunnel closure we’re completely screwed west of Twin Peaks for at least two months. As for the additional 20 minutes for L-Taraval riders, expect that to double on a good day, triple on a bad day.

  • Muni/BART should have reached an agreement on honoring Muni-only Fast Passes well over a year ago before the delays in construction were revealed. This is a HUGE disruption to almost 100,000 daily riders. Work together and find a solution.

  • That’s like asking AC Transit to kick in for Muni. Forget it.

  • The problem is that BART’s solution is the city pays. Don’t forget, every suburb gets one vote on the board, and the city regularly gets outvoted. How much do you want to cut elsewhere from Muni to pay for it?

  • No, it’s asking Walnut Creak BART riders to pay something closer to their per capita share of the costs for BART. City BART riders already pay a disproportionate share, even though the city provides the majority of the riders. (The most egregious example of this is when the suburbs ganged up to make airport rides extra expensive to avoid the other proposal of a small charge for the then-free parking at their stations.) However, you are correct about forgetting it – so the city is stuck. When BART was included, it cost Muni a fortune and I doubt it was lightly dropped.