Open Thread: Reality Check on Bus Service and the Salesforce Transit Center

And other thoughts on San Francisco's new $2.26 billion landmark

A typical Oakland bus stop. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless indicated
A typical Oakland bus stop. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless indicated

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The ribbon cuttings and celebrations are over. Today was the first real, workday test of the newly opened Salesforce Transit Center.

So why is the lead photo of this open thread of a bus stop in Oakland?

At last week’s press tour, Architect Fred Clarke of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects told journalists he aspired to design the new terminal to stop treating bus riders as second-class citizens. But it’s unclear how that is going to work when so many bus stops on the opposite end of the journey don’t even have a bench, shelter, or arrival information.

Streetsblog took the bus this morning to check out the new Salesforce Transit Center in operation. It left its last stop in Oakland, where Streetsblog boarded, twenty minutes late. And the bus, as usual, spent time at a near standstill just trying to get onto the bridge. It’s amazing that officials give a bus with 25 or 30 or 50 people the same priority as a carpool with three people or, in most places, a private automobile with one person. The bus was articulated, and snapped up and down violently when it got up to speed. It’s kind of mind blowing that transit officials think a bus that shakes and bounces such as this is sufficiently comfortable to purchase. I guess it’s okay as long as someone else is riding it, right?

Sorry, but bus riders are still treated as second class. All photos Steetsblog/Rudick
Bus riders are still treated as second class citizens when 25 riders get the same priority as individual motorists. All photos Steetsblog/Rudick

The Salesforce Transit Center is about treating bus riders as full citizens? Okay, then what would bus riders have preferred: the fancy new transit center, or converting private vehicle lanes on the bridge back into transit-only lanes, as they once were? What if the money had been spent on even minor upgrades to stations throughout the East Bay, such as adding arrival signs, benches, and shelters? What if the money were spent on more buses, more drivers, and better bus fleets with comfortable seats and good suspensions?

Meanwhile, Bike East Bay’s Robert Prinz shot video, embedded in the Tweet below, of a bus entering the terminal. Prinz sped it up; the bus trip around the loop is slow and tedious. For some reason, the buses carry riders all the way around the loop before discharging them, passing by empty slot after empty slot. Why can’t the bus drop off passengers at the first slot available, especially during off-peak times? Prinz also had thoughts about the cost of the bus trip:

That said, let’s hope (naively?) that the impressive Transit Center and its public park is seen not as the completion of a project, but rather a start to dramatically improving bus service throughout the region. Because while the status of bus riders may have improved a bit with the opening of the new terminal, they are still very much second class citizens compared to motorists in private cars.

Let us know what you think about bus service to the terminal (and anything else that comes to mind about the Salesforce Transit Center…including the eventual plan to bring in high-speed rail and Caltrain). Do you think the new building is just a first step towards dramatically improving public transit service in the Bay Area? Comment below.

  • mx

    I never again want to hear that we can’t afford something in this city. $2.26B for this, but we can’t have a fully staffed compliment of social workers at SF General? If anything, the new building will make Bay Area transit service worse, as we’re already hearing today how tens of millions of dollars a year will be diverted from transit agencies to fund its costly maintenance and upkeep (and security).

    The reality is that Ed Reiskin was out smiling on stage cutting a big ribbon, and nobody’s asking him why he just oversaw secret massive cuts to Muni service. As a transit rider, I prioritize frequent, reliable service that’s fast, safe, and clean well above having a big rooftop park. That everyone is spending all this time talking about the building and not the ever-worsening bus service is a huge failure.

    Fundamentally, why does the Salesforce Transit Center exist (beyond to eventually provide waiting space for Greyhound)? The Transbay Terminal predated BART and was the gateway to SF for rail service across the bridge. With BART open for 46 years now and AC Transit heavily subsidized, what are we actually doing here? You can read AC Transit’s own reports: “Most AC Transit Transbay services are highly unproductive, in many cases due to their duplication of the faster, more direct BART network.” BART is over capacity at peak and expensive. Why did we just try to address that problem with a massively expensive bus terminal?

    The goal may be to stop treating bus riders as second class citizens, but transbay riders inherently are: they’re not on the fast train that goes under the bay.

  • Roger R.

    Sometimes. But the bus I boarded comes from Alameda. It makes no sense for me to take it since I can walk to BART in five more minutes. But if you’re living on Alameda and heading to SF, what’s faster… taking a bus to BART or just staying on the O bus? Could be a toss up, but if the bus had its own lane in the tubes and on the bridge and freeway, it’d be a faster door-to-door ride on the bus, especially if you work in the Salesforce tower, for example. On the park and the rest of the building, I first covered the construction when it was just a hole in the ground. I always asked why they didn’t build the train station underground and the DTX first The bus portion and park could have been phase II, albeit with a ventilated tunnel since Caltrain is only now electrifying (or they could use dual modes). But anyway, they built it from the top down, instead of from the ground up. Always seemed weird to me and a disservice to commuters. Especially since if one phase fails to be realized, I’d rather it be the aerial park, etc., not the train station.

  • david vartanoff

    Agree on phases–and Caltrain could already have been electrified in the time spent building the tower if not stalled by MTC. At least the solid concrete lump plan got stopped.

  • david vartanoff

    Absolutely we need dedicated lanes both on the bridge and the freeway approaches.

  • Anthony Albert

    The bridge itself is not really a primary choke point for the transbay buses. The metering lights, when they’re on, do a really good job of maintaining a flow on the bridge itself. A dedicated lane would drastically reduce overall capacity of the bridge without saving more than perhaps 1-3 minutes for each bus trip.

    A MUCH more impactful improvement would be to add a bus-only lane to the approach to the toll plaza. It’s there, not on the bridge, that the buses can lose sometimes up to 15 minutes waiting to get on the bridge.

    I take the NL in the morning, and while there’s a bus-only ramp past the toll plaza, it starts well past the point where traffic backs up. Meaning the bus has to wait in the queue of private autos to reach the point where the bus-only ramp begins, and this can take a very, very long time.

    When traffic is bad, they even redirect the NL on a ten minute detour past West Oakland BART to get on 880 and use the carpool lane there to access the bridge, rather than taking its normal West Grand approach to the toll plaza, so that the bus doesn’t get stuck in the traffic leading up to the bus ramp.

    This choke point adds an extreme amount of variation to the travel time. Sometimes it can take as little as 22 minutes to get from 19th Street in Oakland to the terminal in SF, sometimes it can take an hour.

    Not only is the toll plaza a more significant choke point for the transbay buses, it’s also less constrained than the bridge itself for added capacity. For example, the ramp leading up to the bus-only entrance to the bridge there has a shoulder wide enough for a bus. Cars use this shoulder already to cheat past traffic and queue up early for the Fastrak lane to the far right at the toll plaza, thus further blocking the bus-only ramp with an extra “lane” that the buses have to pass to access the bridge. This shoulder could be converted to a bus-only lane to allow the bus far quicker and more reliable access to the bridge. However, it would need physical separation of some kind, or at the very least, very robust enforcement by CHP to ensure it isn’t used as a “shortcut” for impatient drivers.

  • Prinzrob

    Correction, I sped up the video because people on social media have very short attention spans. I didn’t think the 2-minute loop from the off-ramp to the Line F stop was tedious, and appreciated the bus driver being extra cautious considering it was probably one of their first times through there. Having the different bus lines stop in consistent locations makes sense, so regular riders know where to wait and where to go for their transfer.

    If bus speeds are a concern it would make a lot more sense to advocate for things like bus lanes on the bridge and surface streets, pre-paid and all-door boarding, near to far side intersection bus stop reorientation, bus boarding islands with protected bikeways, and so on.

  • City Resident

    Hopefully this new transbay terminal will help speed up the ever-so-slow process of extending Caltrain into downtown. If this happens, it seems it will be well worth it. So far, however, this project bears some resemblance to Cloverdale’s train station – which was built in 1998 and is still awaiting passenger rail service (which it’s due to receive in ? years).

  • Andy Chow

    They built it from the bottom up. In 2008/2009, they were considering not building the basement and leaving up in the future phase. They were able to build the basement with the ARRA fund. There’s not enough money to extend the tunnel in the first phase and you can’t get property revenue unless the old terminal is demolished, which can only be done if the replacement terminal for the bus is going to get done.

  • Andy Chow

    I think the Transbay program as it is is a success. In the 1970s after BART opened, this location has been considered multiple times for redevelopment, often without any transit/transportation components. At that time BART was considered more than enough.

    This project drove redevelopment in the area, while preserving and enhancing this place as a transit facility for another century. This is the place in downtown that is big enough for a train station. If we didn’t rebuild the terminal, any kind of rail extension, whether it is from the Peninsula or the 2nd Transbay Tube, would be almost impossible.

    This site has been considered for replacement or removal for the last 40 years, and has been ignored by the City and MTC for many years given the focus on BART extending to the suburbs and SFO (in hopes to replace Caltrain someday). It took strong citizen advocacy, and a persistent will, to carry this project through. Now the place is an icon and people showed up to see what it is.

    You think that the choice is the have to terminal as it was or what we have, but a more realistic choice could be between what we have now versus plain commercial development with a low key street level bus stops where buses struck in downtown traffic and blocks away from downtown, with zero prospect for rail.

  • Ben Eversole

    I agree that the drop off process took way too long. The bus should drop off at the first available slot and then proceed to its designated pick up location. I also believe there should be more seating in the terminal. Finally I 100% agree we need transit only lanes on the bridge and toll plaza. Who can we call or write to for transit only lanes?

  • Roger R.

    Ooops. Sorry Rob. I corrected that. I agree the buses should do the pickups in consistent locations, but, if things aren’t backed up, I see no reason they shouldn’t stop as close to the elevators as possible as soon as space is available, rather than giving riders a tour of the loop every time.

  • crazyvag

    There was talk about using an Eastbound lane in the morning for SF-bound buses. It would require some construction though.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That’s just bending over backwards to accommodate cars in the most expensive way possible without requiring anything of drivers. Much more sensible to just paint a bus-only lane in the correct direction.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    This terminal was financed by essentially auctioning off high-rise development rights in the surrounding area. That’s a 1-time thing and can’t fund social workers at SFG.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Those of you who, like me, regularly take the AC Transit service to the “temporary terminal” are familiar with the driving in circles. Every bus entering that terminal needed to stop at and cross three crosswalks! The new system is way better.

  • crazyvag

    It’s a compromise. The old terminal had two concentric circles, making each one smaller, but crosswalks added delays. New one has longer ride, but no stops. Pick your poison.

  • Mike

    I like the idea of a bus only lane up to the metering lights as a first and relatively easily implementable idea. Sounds like that in itself could save bus riders tens of minutes without creating a major backup for drivers on the bridge itself.

  • chainsaw buddha

    So frustrating that this added about 15 min each way by my estimation. AC Transit also decided to add new drivers on my line (The P) this week!! I agree with dynamic bus parking and dedicated on and off ramps. Today I cycled to the ferry and did that…..it was faster!!

    Bureaucracy reigns.

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