Design will not save us

(The title of this post is the mantra of one of my personal favorite urbanists, @surlyurbanist. Give his Twitter and blog a look.)

Several weeks ago, Elon Musk released a concept video for his new project, The Boring Company. It was met with predictable fanfare and fawning, and the Twitterverse lit up with comments about how futuristic it is. Musk and his proponents seem to be operating on the assumption that resources for transit are constrained indefinitely, and there is no point in trying to implement solutions which are proven to work for moving large numbers of people around. Transit advocates should be worried about this even if his ideas seem innovative. Projects like The Boring Company keep private cars firmly centered as the dominant transportation mode, which cities like LA are actively trying to avoid. Additionally, we have seen this movie before—Musk’s idea is really just a sped-up rehash of personal rapid transit (PRT).

Not much can be said about PRT in practice, since the largest operating system has five stations and the daily ridership of an average Muni bus line. But perhaps that’s all we needed to know, because we shouldn’t expect PRT systems to support heavy ridership! Luca Guala of MLab shares his personal experience designing PRT systems and running into this problem here. The use of small, “personal” vehicles to transport people in high-demand cities like SF or LA is dead on arrival, and Musk’s video gives only a tiny nod to carpooling with a small glass shuttle-looking vehicle. No explanation is given for how non-drivers would use it or how the shuttles decide where to go. In addition, point-to-point transit does not dovetail nicely with good land use planning. Building this sort of infrastructure will guarantee the death of dense, walkable commercial and mixed-use districts. Fixed-route transit prioritizes them, which is a point I’ve been trying to make going back to my very first post.

shuttle

We should also consider the potential costs of making large infrastructure investments in new and unproven technology independently of any other transportation systems, especially in the hopes of exporting the technology to get a bigger user base and drive down the cost of production. This is the same decision BART made decades ago and the Bay Area has been paying for it ever since.

A blind belief that new design can get around any set of constraints is not healthy for long-term urban planning, as we’ll be jumping from one fad to the next. Several months ago, we were discussing China’s elevated bus as one potential solution to expanding roadway capacity. The elevated bus has many of the same problems as Musk’s project, in that it requires investment in one-of-a-kind, unproven infrastructure, which is almost certainly going to be very expensive. It also trades in the large fixed cost of building, say, a busway or train viaduct over the median of a highway for a large variable cost of building highly specialized vehicles every time the system needs to expand capacity. In the long run, this will cost more money and will be harder to maintain.

I should reiterate that we already know how to move around huge numbers of people, and the world’s densest and most successful cities are already demonstrating this every day. There are no novel problems in urban transit to design around. Rather, the issue is aversion to large capital expenditures. This isn’t exactly unjustified, since long-term investment is subject to the volatility of the local and national economy, government budgets, and shifts in constituents’ priorities. A big investment which doesn’t go to completion doesn’t help anybody at all, and this often means we are consigned to delays and cost overruns. The Second Avenue Subway was held up for a long time because New York City’s financial woes would put the brakes on it whenever work started, and suburbanization meant the New York metro area saw it as less important than building more highways.

We shouldn’t let that dictate how we build infrastructure, though, and many other countries show us this model is still perfectly viable. These countries have more political will to expand transit infrastructure and are willing to spend a lot more money. This means that organizing and calling your representatives is ever more important—it’s the only way we’re going to create a political climate which is conducive to sustained, meaningful investment in transit, and guarantee that SF (or whichever metro area you live in) is prepared for the future.

Mobility and autonomous cars

Around the Bay, and especially in tech, there is a lot of excitement about autonomous cars and what they can do to help people get around. Sadly, the biggest proponents of this new technology are also talking about what it can do to displace transit. I’d like to get into why this is misguided, and talk about what sort of problems we should expect them to solve, and which ones they won’t have much of an effect on.

Safety

This is probably the clearest win for autonomous vehicles. As they improve, they’re not going to make avoidable mistakes that human drivers make, such as getting distracted or driving while tired or otherwise not in a great mental state. Autonomous cars aren’t going to drive aggressively, they don’t have blind spots, and they can react to multiple things happening at once. This will help keep drivers from crashing into pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers, so we should be happy about this.

Traffic and congestion

People often argue that self-driving cars will be able to squeeze more capacity out of our current road networks. The car’s aforementioned ability to react very quickly and correctly to whatever is going on around it will allow them to pack more tightly on streets and freeways, so people should theoretically be able to get places more quickly.

For freeways, it’s not clear how this is any different from a freeway widening project. We already know these don’t have any long-term effects on congestion because of induced demand, and we should probably expect passengers in autonomous cars to tolerate slower and longer rides than they otherwise would if they were driving because they’re no longer forced to pay attention and drive the whole time. This would make congestion worse. Furthermore, it’s unlikely we’ll have widespread adoption of autonomous cars in the coming decade, and even if we had a sudden, total adoption, the cars will probably need to allow human drivers to override the autonomous driver. This means the vehicles won’t be able to take advantage of tighter spacing and road capacity won’t go up. If we get to the point where the cars never need a driver watching, we’ll have cars on the road without any people in them at all! You might have your car drive you to work, and then go back home to pick up your kids and take them to school. Transit agencies call this empty trip deadheading, and it’s purely a waste of road capacity.

Another argument is that the autonomous nature of cars will allow them to coordinate more effectively among each other. Trusting surrounding vehicles to correctly relay their intent opens us up to a slew of prickly questions about computer security, so I’m not sure we can really evaluate how useful this is, or even if it will happen in the near future. Even if we could, operations like merging onto a freeway involve a lot of actors and necessitate slowing down if the freeway is congested, so there might not be as much room for improvement as we expect.

Street grids will fare a little differently. Since the alleged capacity expansion happens on all streets in the grid at once, we might not see a huge increase in congestion on only major streets as we would with freeways. We should still expect induced demand, and there are plenty of other reasons why driving on street grids will be slow, since we will still have lights and stop signs and pedestrians.

We should definitely not count on autonomous car fleets to take the place of mass transit, as this would entail a huge decrease in the number of people we could move around given the street grid. This is especially important because the total capacity for people to get around acts as a cap on the density and amount of activity the city can support. New York can only operate because the subway moves millions of people per day. LA, on the other hand, has issues with sprawl and road capacity. After decades of trying to build its way out with freeways, it has decided it needs mass transit infrastructure to keep up with its growth and densification. SF’s Subway Master Plan is an admission that getting more people around is ultimately going to follow from investment in transit.

Parking

As soon as we get autonomous cars that don’t need a human backup, our demand for parking should become a lot lower, or at the very least, parking won’t need to exist downtown or in other areas where the land could be put to better use. This sounds great, but it could end up backfiring and making congestion and traffic problems worse as a result.

We already know there is a “shortage” of downtown parking, and so if some users switch to autonomous cars that can park themselves further away, it’s unlikely to immediately result in a reduced usage of downtown parking. Plenty of other people are ready to use the parking space that an autonomous car rider would have used otherwise. Even if that weren’t the case, we’d still have to worry about induced demand, and we can model this by looking at what would happen if we added a bunch of free public parking lots. As it stands, the cost or hassle of parking downtown will make transit a more appealing option for some riders, and reducing this burden can get people back into cars, which will cause more downtown gridlock.

We don’t really need to do guesswork here, though—we’ve already seen what happens when there’s a massive expansion of car riders who don’t need parking. In the past, if you wanted to take a car somewhere but didn’t want to park or drive, you would take a taxi. Cities like San Francisco regulated the number of taxis on the road by offering medallions, without which taxis could not operate. The rise of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft has effectively lifted the limit on the number of cars used in this manner, and as a result we’ve seen worse gridlock in cities where it is heavily used. As expected, downtown parking is still impossible to find, even when lots of people are riding in someone else’s car.

It’s also worth thinking about what we can do if the demand for parking does drop significantly. Free street parking has already done lasting damage to the built environment in many places. I’m not sure what the best use of the newly freed up space is: road diets might be useful and could free up some more space for buildings (though it would take years for them to be rebuilt to incorporate the space); we can build parklets; some might be replaced with protected bike lanes; some could be transit-only lanes. I’m worried that downtown commuters would want them to be turned into extra lanes of mixed traffic, which would not improve the streetscape at all.

Cost of city transit services

It’s possible that this can reduce operational costs for transit and paratransit systems, but I’m not optimistic about this. Transit operators do more than drive; they help people with disabilities board and alight, and are responsible for resolving situations where e.g. a passenger is harassing other passengers. Even if there were other ways of guaranteeing accessibility or safety, we’d probably still have bus operators. Indeed, trains are now controlled automatically in many metro systems, but we still employ train operators on just about all of them.

As with all new technologies, it’s hard to account for everything ahead of time. But even if these cars do improve traffic and parking, it would just be a band-aid over the deeper issue of decades-long overinvestment in roads and free public parking and subsequent underinvestment in transit and other infrastructure, and putting a band-aid on a problem like this risks entrenching it even further.

Call your representatives

A few weeks ago I saw this article on TransForm’s blog. Senate Bill 1 and Assembly Bill 1 are state budget measures which are making their way through our legislatures right now. I agree that these bills are putting lots of money into freeway infrastructure that could be much better spent in other places, and even if the state is more willing to fund transit than in past years, the federal government has become a wildcard and we can’t count on their investment anymore.

I called Scott Wiener’s office to make my grievances known. During his time as my representative on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he was one of the most pro-transit public officials, and was largely responsible for the Subway Master Plan and did a lot of advocacy work. A few days ago, he co-wrote an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee with fellow state senator Ben Allen to call for more transit funding. Mr. Allen represents parts of western LA and some surrounding cities—an area which is currently trying to walk back decades of underinvestment in transit and fixation on cars. If any constituency knows the dangers of continued prioritization of motorists above all other modes of transportation, he’s certainly speaking for them. Our representatives are listening, and this is how they elevate our voices to the rest of the state government.

There has been an unprecedented level of public involvement in the democratic process lately, largely as a result of the actions of the Trump administration. People are calling their senators and congresspeople over many issues. It’s gotten to the point where I often get full mailboxes and busy signals! This is great, because it’s how we make our voices heard outside of elections and how we can get our elected officials to better represent our collective opinions. But we should also remember that this is useful at the state and local levels, as well. Transit in particular is an issue which all levels of government set policy around, and we can make a big difference by calling our state and city officials.

The state legislature provides a page to find your state senator and assemblymember here, and if you live in San Francisco, you can find your supervisor by searching for your address here and going to the “Supervisor District” section in the report. Get calling!

What could have been, and what we can do

First, a small announcement—Muniology is one year old! I want to thank everyone who has been reading. Getting my thoughts into a longer form has often forced me to refine or even rethink them, and I hope you all have been using them as a jumping-off point for your own thoughts about how things could be improved in the Bay and what we could do to improve the lives of all of our residents.

Another interesting thing has happened recently, as well. New York City has completed the first phase of its long-overdue Second Avenue Subway. The line was initially proposed in 1919 and had seen little progress in those years due to rehashing political fights and budget shortfalls. It opened at the turn of the new year to much fanfare, but to a lot of people, this shiny new subway represented a sobering thought—lots of time was taken and lots of money was spent, and the end result was still but a sliver of the original proposal. How much time and money would be required to see the whole thing through? Is this workable in an environment where transit agencies need to balance ever-increasing demand for service and swelling maintenance backlogs?

By no means is New York the only city with this problem; lots of cities are going through the same pains. San Francisco has had similar problems designing its rapid transit system, and the Bay Area as a whole is staring down the barrel of a crisis when BART tops out its possible peak demand in around fifteen years. BART is only able to sustain so much growth with the new cars, longer consists and more frequency as allowed by the new switches, but this can only go so far before we need huge infrastructural investments to keep the system growing. At the same time, BART is attempting to extend service to more areas, which puts more stress on the rolling stock it has, and replace 90 miles of worn-down track.

To illustrate our own Second Avenue Subway-esque problems here in San Francisco, I wanted to take a look through the proposals of rapid transit systems past and see what could have been, and if there’s anything we can do to make this a reality. (I’d like to thank Eric Fischer for compiling all of these plans. Follow him on Twitter at @enf if you like this sort of thing.)

San Francisco has been thinking about grade-separated rail for over a century. An SF Chronicle article from 1904 talks about a possible future four-track subway under Market, a rail tunnel to Oakland, and elevated rail around the Embarcadero. At this point the city was nowhere near its later population, but it was growing rapidly and needed a plan for how to continue to get people around. The specifics include a subway along Post to Masonic and some weirder ideas such as a subway under Douglass St. The stop spacing on Market is very dense, but if they were envisioning a subway of the sort that the IRT had just opened two of in New York, the four-track design would have allowed for both local and express trains.

This plan for an initial subway system was produced in 1930. By that time, San Francisco had over 600,000 people and was growing rapidly. Though the city was still not completely built out at the time, it would have easily been dense enough to support subways. This plan was not nearly as ambitious as the one in the SF Chronicle article above, but it still had some interesting features. The Sunset Tunnel had just opened at this point, and the subway connecting directly into it would have reduced the conflicts that currently dog the N-Judah as it pops above ground for a short two stops before diving back down. The O’Farrell subway has obvious benefits, though it seems to be a little short to be worth the trouble. Even so, one of the more interesting effects is that it would have saved the Geary corridor from conversion to buses, in much the same way that tunnels and private rights of way saved the current Muni Metro lines. Because of this, it would have been easier to install center-running transit lanes and avoid infrastructural decisions that ended up complicating future transit development, such as the cuts and overpasses at Fillmore and Masonic.

Fast forward another several decades—BART has just opened, and with it a subway tunnel was built for Muni Metro under Market. While construction for the Market subway was still in progress, transportation planners were working on the Northwest Extension, which would bring Muni Metro to the Richmond. Of the plans, the most expansive is this one, where a subway on Geary extends out to Park Presidio with streetcar tracks continuing to Lands End. The subway branches at Masonic to serve California and Balboa as well.

The most recent plan is the Four Corridor Plan, which was published in 1995. Muni seems to be adhering to this plan somewhat even now, but much of what is in the plan seems to be even less ambitious than the prior proposals, not to mention that what we’re actually getting is even less ambitious than that. The Four Corridor Plan gave us the T-Third Street, which was completed to the easier milestone of connecting it up to the Muni Metro Extension tracks rather than starting the subway and sending it up to Market. It also specified the subway through North Beach, of which the Central Subway is but the first step. The original plan called for rail to the waterfront, but the Central Subway stops at Washington for now. (There is a concept study for its eventual extension to the waterfront, but they don’t seem to assume this will happen until sometime around 2030-2040.) Rail was supposed to be installed along the crowded Geary and Van Ness corridors, including about 2 miles of subway for the Geary line and a little over 1 mile for Van Ness. Both of these are now being pursued as BRT projects. The Rail Capacity Strategy lists Geary LRT with the potential for up to a mile of subway as something to pursue in the near-term, but it doesn’t list Van Ness as a potential LRT line out to even 2050. Additionally, the Four Corridor Plan had a 20-year time frame for everything except Van Ness. We’re still years away from a piece of one project and haven’t even begun another.

What happened?

One reason is that this stuff is really expensive and takes a long time to build now! This article by Josh Barro raises a number of interesting points about the Second Avenue Subway, namely that building such large, deep stations is much harder and costlier than it might seem. This is also true of the Central Subway, where the tunnels have already been complete for two and a half years (and took less than a year to bore). While shallow cut-and-cover construction of the whole subway might not cost less to dig a tunnel, the shallower stations are less expensive; stations just below street level can even forego concourse levels (e.g. 18th St on the 1 train in Manhattan or Kendall/MIT Station on the Red Line in Boston). Central Subway stations are now under construction, and because this is disruptive to people and businesses on the surface, they often have to jump through extra hoops to avoid political isses. For example, the Union Square station construction has to be halted and covered up around Christmas every year because area merchants are worried the construction will drive away customers—the result is Winter Walk SF. In addition, labor is much more expensive now, but it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to do anything about that.

Some projects run into political issues and lawsuits purely because some people want to try to use any means necessary to halt them. Van Ness BRT was supposed to begin construction in early 2016 and start revenue service in 2018. Instead, SFCTA spent this year litigating over the trees it would displace, and then over the historic street lamps that would need to be removed. For a project that would help so many people, it’s unclear that these issues are raised in good faith.

San Francisco has also had its share of unlucky timing, as well. The Four Corridor Plan was written on the heels of the construction of the Muni Metro Extension, which provided rail service around the Embarcadero to South Beach and Caltrain. This was built to support the major office development during the dot-com boom. Of course, this bubble popped in 2000, and the recovery was stalled by the broad financial crisis of 2008. There simply wasn’t as much extra money to go towards large capital projects during this period as the city had forecast.

All hope is not lost, however. Public involvement is more important than ever; it brought us the full 19th Avenue Subway plan back in February of last year. Political will is building to give transit agencies more money, as BART passed a $3.5 billion bond in November, and LA Metro has been able to get its hands on bonds to accelerate projects and meet increasingly ambitious schedules. Outreach efforts like Subway Vision have given MTA some extra direction on where to put its resources—amusingly, the remaining bits of the Four Corridor Plan show up in deep red here, so maybe MTA will still consider those projects first. Propositions J and K failed in the most recent election cycle, but this seemed like a problem with how it was sold to the public more than anything else. Most people did want extra money to go to transit and homeless services (as evidenced by Prop J passing) but probably did not notice that Prop K funded it.

Organizations like SFTRU do a lot of outreach and advocacy work and joining or donating to them will help make sure transit issues stay at the forefront of public discussion. Supervisors and other officials do pay attention to these organizations.

Even if we give transit agencies lots of money, expansion is still going to be slow and expensive unless we make sure something is done about that as well. BRT projects can alleviate pressure in the near-term, but as San Francisco densifies and costs continue to go up, we are going to need to make sure we have other solutions for this. We may not have issues quite as bad as the Second Avenue Subway with regards to station costs because Muni subway stations really only need to be about 300 feet long, which is enough for 4-car trains. (By contrast, the longest BART consists are 710 feet long, so its stations will always cost a lot more.) In addition, Van Ness, Church, and Castro Stations have less complicated designs with smaller mezzanine levels. This might seem like it lowers station capacity, but in practice people never wait on mezzanine levels even when there are lots of amenities. When transit agencies come around with proposals, go to their meetings and make sure they are considering designs like this to keep costs lower. Mezzanine-less stations might not be a good idea for more pedestrian-unfriendly areas like Stonestown or SFSU, but they could work well for narrower streets such as Geary in the Tenderloin.

This post on Second Avenue Sagas argues that some of the cost reductions are going to come from constituents who engage with their elected leaders. In the absence of public support, most agencies don’t have the political capital to negotiate for lower costs from their contractors. This is doubly bad for them from a public relations standpoint because they often take the brunt of the blame when they present projects with high costs to the public. This sort of self-feeding problem ends up hurting everyone.

If we want a better future for San Francisco and for all of the people living in it, we are going to have to get more directly involved than we ever have before. Vote, join advocacy groups, call officials, go to meetings and make sure there is a voice in the crowd that doesn’t care only about how many parking spaces are lost.

Thanks again for reading!

The sparseness of the rapid network

San Francisco has complicated geography. While the hills are nice to look at and offer some great views and parks, they’ve also forced Muni to do some suboptimal network design. Hills will break up the street grid and be very hard to pass over. We can see this quite clearly with Mt. Sutro and the Twin Peaks, which cut off the Castro/Noe Valley street grid from the Sunset one. This makes it difficult to design an east-west line that fills in the gap between the N and the L. The 7 tries to avoid this by coming in from Lincoln Way, and the 48 up from West Portal (though only during peak hours), but large areas are still left uncovered and the innermost bits of the Sunset aren’t well served by this sort of design. Hills also break up Noe Valley and Glen Park, making continuous north-south lines difficult.

In addition, I think that the hills and narrower streets that some of the highest-ridership lines traverse have prevented them from getting rapid buses added to them. I would expect the criteria for adding a rapid bus to be something like the following:

  • High ridership
  • Lots of transfers to other high-ridership lines
  • Long route
  • Dense stop spacing on the local

If we look at just the rapid network, it seems to be very commute-focused, with few crosscutting lines except for the 28-19th Avenue. Entire areas of the city also seem to be lacking in rapid service.

sf-rapids
I excluded the 7R-Haight/Noriega Rapid here because it skips so few stops that it might as well be a local.

Just about every line here serves to get people downtown! By contrast, the area just west of downtown LA seems to have no problem implementing a rapid grid in addition to its locals.

west-la-rapids

It’s missing a few pieces—perhaps rapid lines on Beverly and La Brea—but the grid structure is clear here. Can we look at something similar for SF? First, we need to decide which lines are due for rapid upgrades. The Van Ness section of the 47 and 49 will essentially be rapid once Van Ness BRT is complete, so that’s a start. Having a 49R to complete the rest of that journey would be nice as well, and Muni does seem to be planning something along these lines. I have some ideas for other upgrades, ranked roughly from what I think are the best options to the worst:

  • 29-Sunset (19k riders/weekday, crosstown line, connections to most rapids and Balboa Park Station)
  • 44-O’Shaughnessy (17k riders/weekday, crosstown line, connections to most rapids and Glen Park Station)
  • 1-California (26k riders/weekday, 29k with express routes, adds service north of Geary)
  • Either the 22-Fillmore (16k riders/weekday) or 24-Divisadero (10k riders/weekday, but longer route and denser spacing)
  • 45-Union/Stockton (10k riders/weekday, goes through an area with little rapid coverage, though the route is shorter)

 

So what’s stopping us from upgrading these lines? One of the interesting things about rapid buses is that if they are deployed along frequent local bus lines, they won’t really save much time or go much faster if they can’t pass the local buses. This means that trolleybus lines that are potentially too steep for a full motorcoach are immediately off the table! The 1, 22, 24, and 45 won’t be able to have rapid service for this reason. This is a real bummer, since the 22 or 24 would have filled a nice gap in the middle and added a crosstown rapid line. Additionally, the stop spacing on the 24 is so dense in some areas that it stops are not even 600 feet apart—sometimes even under 300 feet! It would have been nice to have a fast ride at times other than the middle of the night, but it’s not looking too good right now.

Can we at least add rapid service to the 29 and 44? Passing on normal two-lane streets is harder, but still possible. From the Presidio terminus to about Holloway & 19th Ave, the 29 is mostly on large streets where passing is easy. The same is true while it’s on Ocean. Otherwise, the streets are narrow and might not allow passing, and passing on Mansell would probably be dangerous for bikers. The 44 spends a lot of time on large roads as well, and Silver is a better street to pass on than most with only one lane in each direction.

What does the rapid network look like with these additions?

sf-rapids-2.png

 

Still not perfect, but it’s getting there! We have some semblance of a grid in the southern and western areas of the city now. Twin Peaks has a faster way to go crosstown. The northern areas are still underserved, but I’m not sure there’s a good solution to that short of a Union St subway. Perhaps something could be done using Broadway since it is flat, wide, and the area seems like it could use the service, but it wouldn’t line up with any existing line and would probably be the result of some rejiggering of the lines that are already in the area.

A downtown subway grid

Recently, the SFCTA, SFMTA and various other transportation organizations released a website called Subway Vision. It aims to collect ideas from everybody about where to install new subways in SF. The Subway Master Plan is supposed to ensure that we are always building a subway, and we currently have the Central Subway under construction, along with planning for the M subway and construction hopefully in the not-too-distant future. Future expansion plans are also being considered right now, as the Rail Capacity Strategy report released back in February gives an outline of what Muni thinks its next steps will be.

People spend a lot of time talking about Geary whenever new subways are discussed. And that’s great! Having high-capacity transit on Geary is extremely important given that its bus lines ferry the same ridership as Caltrain. BRT will definitely help, and we’ll see how this develops in the future. However, I think the need for new subways downtown is often overshadowed by this discussion. Our current rail network has one subway that goes from downtown outwards, through which a large percentage of its 150,000 daily riders go. This is a huge bottleneck! Problems that occur in the subway here are liable to delay many people and cause lots of gaps and bunches. If there is one thing we can learn from New York here, it is that these problems are way more tolerable when there is some redundancy.

Having extra subways parallel to the Market Street Subway downtown is hardly a new idea. SPUR advanced the idea in this report and has implied it in various materials concerning a second Transbay Tube. By pulling together some ideas from these and the Rail Capacity Strategy, we can come up with a nice grid-like structure for subways in downtown SF.

First, if we look at the Rail Capacity Strategy, we find that Muni eventually wants to put LRT on Geary. LRT will improve capacity even more than BRT, but the most interesting part about the plan is the fact that it might be a hybrid subway/surface line. Muni gives cost estimates for all of the involved projects in the report, and the lowest estimate for Geary LRT appears to be the cost of installing surface rail along its entire length at a cost of about $1.4 billion. By using the estimated cost of installing other subways and doing some math, we can figure out that the $3 billion upper bound makes sense if Muni installs a mile of subway and 5 miles of surface rail. One mile of subway takes us from Market to about Van Ness along Geary, which is a reasonable option.

But why should we stop at Market? Merging into the Market Street Subway is probably not feasible, since it’s not possible to fit a flyover junction when there is already another subway below. Even if it were possible, it would probably be ill-advised, as we’d get one extra stop at the expense of subjecting the new subway to all of the same problems we get by combining the other lines. But there are other options—the report also has lots of figures for job and population density in various sections of the city, and we can use those to extend the route. 2nd St in particular has a very high density of both, and a subway in the Geary area could connect through Mongtomery Station and continue into SoMa along 2nd St. This line could be anchored at AT&T Park, which is surrounded by a commercial district, and which often relies on the easily-overwhelmed Muni Metro Extension to get people in and out on game days. 2nd St is also slated for an upgrade to LRT in the distant future, according to the Rail Capacity Strategy.

It might seem like overservice, and while the redundancy with the Central Subway is nice, that’s not really what we’re after. The grid really comes together when we install a subway along Folsom. Folsom is considered one of twelve high-priority corridors for expansion by Muni. By pulling a line out of the Market Street Subway between Church and Van Ness and instead sending it up Folsom, we solve a number of problems:

  • Fewer lines are merging at Van Ness, which means we can mitigate a bottleneck there
  • The already-existing flyover junction would make construction of the other one less disruptive, since we wouldn’t have to reconfigure the current subway
  • In the event of backups in the Market Street Subway, all KLM trains could reroute into the Folsom Street Subway instead, mitigating delays (J and N trains could stop at Church & Duboce for transfer) and still allowing decent access to Montgomery and Powell areas via the 2nd/Geary and Central Subways

In this proposal I choose the L train to be pulled out in standard service because we can’t pull out the J or N, as the new trains will leave the MSS before the J or N merge in; the M is going to improve capacity in the MSS after its subway expansion and use of longer trains, which is important; and the K can only run short trains at the time being, and may still be used to serve the Muni Metro Extension.

The end result is a grid-like structure centered on 2nd, 4th, Market and Folsom Sts, with additional transfer points along the Embarcadero and on King. Here’s what it looks like:

names
Above-ground stops are circled with gray, and Van Ness BRT is shown as the green dashed line.

There’s also room for further expansion: Leavenworth, Civic Center and 7th St stations all line up quite nicely, for instance (and would be easily connected by the bus I laid out in earlier articles). If the Caltrain railyard is rebuilt underground and the 280 spur is at least partially torn down, this could open up enough land that extending the Muni Metro Extension out to 7th St and building more rail along 7th St makes sense, as well. Some ideas for extending high-capacity transit along Van Ness send it down 11th St and Potrero Ave, in which case they would also fit nicely into this grid; extensions down Mission could also use the transfer to the new station at Duboce Ave. Sadly, I think the Chinatown T stop is too far north to have a really easy transfer, but a line down Sacramento St might be useful and connect Van Ness BRT with Embarcadero and Main St Stations. The T would be within reasonable walking distance of such a line.

This expansion provides a lot of extra options for people to move around on corridors that Muni considers important, and getting them into a shape where they work well together. Having redundant infrastructure makes the system more resilient and also makes it easier to justify arbitrary planned service changes, which people will need to deal with if we ever eventually want 24-hour rail service.

But don’t just take my word for what subways are worthwhile to build. With Subway Vision, Muni is giving all of us an opportunity to influence the evolution of the city. We should use this opportunity to tell them what we think!

The one-seat slowdown

In the article about the 19th Avenue Subway, I wrote briefly about the plans for the J to cover the portion of the M route in Ocean View (Randolph, Broad, and San Jose). Residents of Ocean View are now faced with a trade-off when trying to get downtown. They will experience a faster ride if they take the J to SFSU Station and transfer to long, fast M trains to continue inbound. However, some people are not happy about the loss of a reasonably quick one-seat ride, since their current route will be replaced with the J coming all the way around through Balboa Park. The J is going to spend a lot more time in mixed traffic than the M does currently, and so taking it downtown from Ocean View is likely to be a slow and unreliable ride. While we should think about what will keep the J reliable, we might also want to consider doing something else to mitigate the concerns of Ocean View residents.

Let’s take a look at the N. A large percentage of this route is at-grade, and getting from one end to the other is very slow. This sounds familiar! During commute hours, when subway space is limited and people from the forties need to get downtown in a reasonable amount of time, Muni runs an express route along this line. The NX-Judah Express aims to get people from further out to downtown quickly by skipping lots of stops in the middle and using faster one-way, timed-light roads where possible to keep the buses moving. Plenty of bus routes have matching express routes during commute hours. The 1-California and 38-Geary each have two express routes which use Bush and Pine to get downtown quickly. The 7X-Noriega Express uses Oak, Fell, Franklin, Gough, Golden Gate, and Turk. Express routes for the 8 and 14 use freeways. But most light rail lines do not need an express route since the subway generally obviates the need for them. To support a light rail express line, we need to be able to get people from far-flung areas onto fast roads and keep them there until we get close to downtown. With the J extension to SFSU, the line might become eligible for such treatment.

280 and 101 can be used to transport people express from the Glen Park areas to downtown more quickly than it would take to crawl all the way around and finally get into the subway. Stops between 19th Ave & Randolph St and San Jose Ave & Santa Rosa Ave would be serviced by the express bus, after which it would take 280 via Baden and either Circular Ave or Monterey Blvd. From there, it can get on 101 via the Alemany Maze interchange. The Central Freeway will allow the bus to exit on Mission to service Van Ness & Market. The bus can make normal J stops up Market from there. (Other designs might make different stops downtown or use a different route to get there, as the NX tries to serve the Financial District more specifically. I tried to make this serve existing downtown J/M stops as closely as possible.)

map

Now that the JX services stops up to Santa Rosa, we can turn around more J trains at Glen Park. This already happens during commute hours, but it’s rare, and with the JX to supplement service past Glen Park we will be able to get away with turning some trains around more quickly than we would be otherwise. This would help keep the route more reliable for residents further inbound on the route.

Of course, there are other concerns at play here. I don’t normally like introducing express buses, because they are an expensive proposition with regard to how much service they actually provide. Muni will be forced to increase its peak bus fleet to accommodate the extra commute-time load. The J station at Glen Park is somewhat confusing if trains are turning back there, since trains can’t cross over to the inbound track from the outbound side. I’m not sure how expensive installing this extra track would be. Furthermore, extremely heavy traffic on the freeways may mean the bus won’t save any time after all! However, if this idea gets more people on board with the 19th Avenue Subway by assuaging concerns over the reliability of the J and preservation of a somewhat quick one-seat ride to downtown from Ocean View, then I think it’s worth studying.