Oakland deserves better

I’ve been living in SF for several years now. Muni and BART get me everywhere I need to go, and it’s been reliable enough that I don’t even have to consider other modes of transportation. No matter where I go or what time or day of the week it is, I’ve got a good idea of several ways to get there, and I’m generally not worried about making connections or waiting for a long time (except, perhaps, between 1 and 5 AM). This provides me with a certain peace of mind and feeling of freedom—the city is fully available to me at the low price of $94 per month, and I never feel stranded anywhere.

I suppose this has spoiled me to an extent. I’ve been spending a good deal of time in the East Bay recently, and have been taking AC Transit around. Most of the time, it works well for me, but my use case is probably very different from most actual residents of Oakland. I usually take AC Transit buses to get from BART stations to some location and back. BART stations are usually served by many bus lines, and the sheer number of options can paper over the problems with frequency and ease of making transfers. On the occasions I have taken AC Transit buses between areas of Oakland not served by BART, I’ve had a vastly different experience.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that Oakland is a city with a lot of great neighborhoods and interesting places to go. It deserves a bus network that lives up to this.

Oakland can support high all-purpose ridership

One of the main determinants of the quality of the bus network is density. When you have more people in an area, you can have more riders. These areas are also more likely to have commercial districts or other amenities that attract people from outside of the neighborhood. Oakland nominally has a density of 7,514 people per square mile, but this is too reductive. Here’s a map of population density by census block group from the 2016 American Community Survey:


The reason Oakland has such low density when taken as a whole is that it includes a lot of more or less suburban space. The hills drag down this aggregate population density quite a bit. On the other hand, East Oakland has many areas with over 20,000 people per square mile, which puts it on par with lots of neighborhoods in SF which have much better transit. There’s even quite a bit of space in the dense area taken up by freeways and interchanges. If the I-980 spur is taken down, Downtown Oakland will likely densify as well.

If we look at Oakland without all the hilly bits and industrial area around the port, it has around 15,128 people per square mile.

Over 300,000 people in about 20 square miles.

What’s surprising about this is that even though East Oakland contributes a lot to this density figure, the people who live there don’t seem to take a lot of buses, and rely heavily on cars. This should be our first sign that something is up and AC Transit isn’t providing a great service.

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In most of the census blocks in East Oakland, people driving alone make up the majority of commuters, where bus riders end up in the single digits. Neighborhoods like Temescal have a much lower share of drivers, owing to some combination of better bus service and easy access to BART. Residents of downtown almost certainly take BART to work if they commute into SF, or walk if they stay in Oakland. BART is an important part of the transportation situation in downtown and northern Oakland, but the odd alignment and station spacing in East Oakland wastes a lot of its catchment area there. This means good bus service is all the more important unless BART is planning to fill in the gaps. (No serious proposal for East Oakland infill stations is in the works at the moment.)

So what’s the problem with Oakland bus service, then? There are plenty of high-ridership, frequent lines in the system. AC transit trunk lines can run at pretty high frequency. Line 1 runs at 10 minute frequency or better for most of the day. The 72, 72M and 72R put together achieve headways as low as 6-7 minutes if you’re at a stop served all three. But high frequencies among commute-focused routes during commute hours don’t make a good bus network by themselves. We have to consider lots of other things if we want people to use the bus network to get around in their daily lives—ability to make transfers, ease of understanding the network, frequency at non-peak hours and on weekends, and so on.

Understanding AC Transit’s decision framework

A lot of transit agencies divide their customers into two camps, the “choice” and “captive” groups of riders. Agencies that use this distinction are unlikely to improve service in areas where car ownership is comparatively low, because those areas are said to have a higher number of “captive” riders which will take transit no matter how poor the service is. “Choice” riders, by contrast, have other means of getting around and will only take transit when it’s more convenient or better for them. Plenty of articles and reports have been written about why this split is wrong-headed, such as this one. The short version is that this mode of thinking completely denies that incremental improvements in speed or frequency can have significant effects on ridership, and this leads agencies to send their money towards other “features” such as Wi-Fi which few riders actually care about.

I don’t think this is the framework AC Transit is operating under, because they tend to serve areas with lower car ownership better. Despite being denser and having more riders that might be considered “choice”, East Oakland does not see the same level of service as downtown and the north. San Pablo, Telegraph, Broadway, and College are all served well by AC Transit. Not all of this can be attributed to pressure from the university, either, though it surely supplies many regular riders.


I think the issue is more that AC Transit sees itself as a provider of transportation for commuting, and its responsibility largely ends there. Because the dense area of Oakland is fairly long and skinny, this means that a commute network can still provide service to a lot of the city. At the same time, it can’t serve most people for all-purpose trips which may not end downtown. This is apparent when we see the lack of frequent crosstown lines.

There are essentially two buses that function as frequent crosstown lines: the 57, which runs from 5am to midnight every day at 15 minute frequency, and the 80/81, which combined give a reasonably frequent crosstown line on Ashby, as long as it’s not a weekend or nighttime. The next major crosstown line is the 51B on University Ave in Berkeley. It’s over a mile from downtown to 40th St and around a mile and a half to Ashby from there, so a lot of people in between end up underserved. Frequent crosstown lines in East Oakland are basically nonexistent. The 20/21 combine to provide decent frequency on Fruitvale Ave until the 21 stops running at 10pm, and that’s about all there is. This poses a problem because BART stays close to the water, as does the frequent 1 for a good portion of its route. A lot of people between the water and MacArthur Blvd are left with few options outside of the weird buses that have complicated routes, mostly exist to take you to BART, and run at low frequencies outside of weekday commute hours.

This means that the bus network doesn’t function that well as a whole—as a way of getting people between arbitrary places. If you’re at San Pablo and Stanford, getting downtown is pretty easy. If instead you’re trying to get to 51st and Telegraph, your journey will probably take longer than you would expect. This ability to move well in one dimension but not in the other is often a problem even in good transit systems; my friends in Manhattan often tell me that they’d rather travel dozens of streets than, say, four avenues. In San Francisco, it is still generally easiest to get downtown from somewhere, but there are many more frequent crosstown lines, which makes this less of an issue.

If Oakland had frequent crosstown lines at a reasonable spacing, you could take advantage of the power of fast transfers and the grid to get anywhere quickly and reliably.

Complicated lines, weird service hours, downright bad maps

Instead, we get bus routes like the 14.

This is a bus which cuts right through some of Oakland’s densest areas near Lake Merritt. Car ownership rates in these neighborhoods are comparatively low. The bus has one terminus downtown and a BART station at the other, so it’s well-anchored. But it meanders around in between so the actual route is difficult to remember. If you don’t live or work in its immediate service area, I wouldn’t expect you to know where it goes. The line makes a U shape and the “middle” is anchored by the Laurel commercial district on MacArthur, but it doesn’t spend enough time on MacArthur to really serve that corridor, or any other. At best, this is emblematic of the direct service example from the Human Transit post about transfers I linked above. This bus also runs at 30 minute frequencies after 8pm on weekdays and at all times on weekends, and there’s no service after 10pm.

The 14 has about 3,000 weekday boardings. This is lower than the number of boardings on Muni’s 18-46th Avenue, despite the latter being one of its system’s most far-flung crosstown routes. It primarily goes through areas of lower density and high car ownership, the overwhelming majority of which is purely residential area. A good deal of its potential catchment area eaten by the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Park. It has worse weekday midday frequency than AC Transit’s 14. Why is this?

The 18 is a well-designed route. It is simple and most of it occurs on or close to the street for which it is named, so it’s easy to find and figure out where you can go with it. It runs on the same hours as just about every other bus in the Muni system (5am to midnight, every day) despite having relatively low ridership, serving a lower-density area, and having its ridership mostly concentrated between the AM and PM peak hours[1]. It does not closely duplicate service found on more frequent lines. Most importantly, it connects riders to several very frequent east-west or downtown-oriented routes. This means it is a critical component of the entire network and benefits from good network design as well as good line design. So, the 18 is simple, reliable, and useful.

Frequent transfers available from the 18. All of these are listed on the Muni system map as 10 minute frequency or better.

As we mentioned before, the 14 is complicated. It can’t be easily boiled down to one major street. Its service hours are relatively narrow and it has poor frequency at times when people may still even be using it to commute. In the densest areas of the its route, it is 2 blocks from the 40 and 4 blocks from the 1, both of which are among the most frequent lines in the entire system, and which I would be more likely to take once I knew they had better service.

It’s harder to get information about AC Transit routes compared to Muni routes because of the way the maps and schedules are made. For example, the route map for the 14 can be found here. This map is not very helpful if you are trying to figure out how it can get you around Oakland as a whole, because the map displays very little context outside of the streets themselves. It shows connecting routes, but does not show where they go and instead simply identifies them by number. It also does not distinguish which of the connections are frequent and important routes. Some of the connections listed will never happen in practice, such as with the 800 (owl) routes, which run at disjoint hours with the 14. (Depending on where you are going, such a transfer could happen at around 7am on a Saturday or Sunday morning, but it is impossible at all other times.) I would also argue that it’s easier to remember when Muni routes are around as they have a short name which describes where it goes. AC Transit buses are often described by the route number and every street they use; on the signage they often just display the terminal. I find myself having to check the maps anyway to make sure they go where I’m trying to go.

Some maps will just make your head spin. Try making sense of this route map, which lays out the 40 (one of the most important lines in the system) in an incredibly confusing way.

The system map has similar problems. For Muni, the system map uses progressively darker and bolder lines for more frequent routes, so you can tell how much service an area receives just by looking at the map and don’t have to inspect in too much detail. Express services and other routes that are not usable all day, while few, are marked to appear less important. AC Transit’s system map uses all manner of colors and symbols to draw routes. It does a poor job of teaching general characteristics of the network at a glance. One symbol is used for “all-day service,” but this does not describe a consistent set of service hours, and the map legend tells you to look at the timetables anyway. In addition, Muni lists frequencies for each route on the maps at bus stops. AC Transit prefers to lay things out in terms of schedules. Certainly, at least some of their routes are frequent enough that they could be listed in terms of frequencies as well, but the choice of using timetables makes it difficult for people to decide whether or not using or connecting to a particular route will result in them waiting a while. Transbay buses other than the F, NL, and O only run during commute hours in the commute direction (assuming your job is in SF), so they are not useful for all-purpose transit and so I think they should be kept to a different map to avoid clutter.

All-purpose trips require uses at all hours

Suppose we could wave a wand and fix the network design, such that we have high-frequency crosstown routes at regular intervals. The network as a whole might have higher ridership than it does now, but maybe not by much. The new routes mainly see a lot of riders at commute hours and are underused at other times of the day. AC Transit might consider this experiment to be a loser as it spends a lot of money on what it considers to be overservice, and it would be hard to blame them for that. What’s the whole point of doing this, then?

Well-designed crosstown routes may still mostly be used to get to other bus lines, which will actually take riders somewhere interesting. This will provide them some level of service even after commute hours, and does make the network more useful for everyone. But they are most effective when they are useful in and of themselves—that is, when they are used for other purposes than just getting people to and from their houses. This is part of the reason why a crosstown route like the 24-Divisadero is able to support such high ridership throughout the day. Other than being useful for getting around, it goes directly through mixed use areas of Divisadero and Cortland.

This means some of our network design should be supplemented by zoning changes. We shouldn’t take this too lightly, though; zoning changes without strong renter protections could lead to displacement of the very communities we are trying to serve by improving the transit network.

Oakland has a general plan which guides its decisions around zoning and transportation, among other things. The last general plan was adopted in 1998, and its high-level strategy separated neighborhoods or corridors into two categories: “maintain and enhance” (meaning little change in style or intensity of land use) and “grow and change” (meaning upzoning, mixed-use development, or the like). A map can be found early in this section of the plan. Some major crosstown corridors did fall into the latter category but it’s not clear how much they have affected zoning decisions since. For example, MacArthur Blvd, West Grand, and 14th Ave are all labeled as “grow and change” areas. These are prime corridors for major crosstown bus routes and AC Transit has, to some extent, paid attention: MacArthur is close to the 57, and Grand is served by the NL.

Obviously, high density around the corridor can be a key component of high ridership, but more important is having a mixture of uses along the corridor itself. This opens up the potential base of users for the route from just those who live near it to everyone who’s served by the network, and if that allows us to turn the frequency up on those routes, then the people who live there end up with better service as well. So if MacArthur is the corridor that the city of Oakland wants to “grow and change” in the direction of more mixed use, then one appropriate change might move the 57 to MacArthur from 40th St. Another option could be to zone 40th St for mixed use instead. High frequencies will make sense on these corridors even without big changes to residential density; SF achieves some of its highest ridership numbers on routes which are surrounded by 3-story buildings.

Transfers and fare structure

A few years ago, AC Transit made some significant changes to their fare structure. They creating a day pass, but removed discounted transfers. This was done in the name of speed and preventing “transfer fraud.” While the day pass automatically activates if you board 3 buses in a day and are using a Clipper card, the people who are most likely to be affected by this change are also the least likely to have Clipper cards, so they might be paying double the normal fare if they are using cash. Even with the day pass, there ends up being a slight surcharge for transfers if you take a round trip. This is a problem—if we are trying to reconfigure the network so it uses transfers to make it easier to get around, people should not have to think about taking a transfer. Transfers should always be free.

AC Transit attempted to enforce a number of rules around transfers, namely that they could only be used for a certain amount of time (which is reasonable) and only in “one direction” (which is not reasonable, let alone clear). Fare evasion also captures an outsize amount of attention from transit agencies. If we accept that there will be some level of fare evasion and we actually want to speed up buses, there are better ways to do it. Muni has implemented some of these, such as all-door boarding on all buses at all stops. If Clipper users are allowed to board through the rear doors, then the bus does not have to wait for everyone to file in through the front, which significantly reduces dwell times. AC Transit’s fare structure makes this somewhat more difficult, since it also has a concept of local vs. Transbay fares on Transbay buses. I suppose you could board through the rear if you are paying the full Transbay fare, but if you are taking the bus locally, you could still board in the front to tell the driver. You would also have to pay 25 cents when using a (local bus to local bus) transfer, forcing you to go in the front and stop while you put change into the farebox. If transfers were free and used a proof-of-payment system, then people with paper transfers could still board in the rear. In some sense, it seems like their speed problem was self-inflicted.

Fare evasion is definitely not a big enough deal to justify punishing people who need to transfer, or who don’t have Clipper cards. This fare structure may also inform some of their network design decisions, such as having duplicated and branching service (like the 20/21, 80/81 or 72/72M) to avoid transfers, or why so many lines go well out of their way to terminate at BART or downtown. If AC Transit adopted policies similar to Muni, they would be able to fix several of these problems at once.

Improving the grid

One of the first areas I’d like to explore is how to take the area in inner East Oakland and give it better connections to the rest of the network. We’ve already gone over the 14 and why it’s not a very useful bus. The 62 has a similarly odd route and falls off in frequency after commute hours. The 96 acts sort of like a true grid line, but is never frequent enough to be useful at 30 minute midday headways during the week.

First, I’d like to separate the 40 and the 1 a bit. Their catchment areas overlap almost completely in this area, and since they are both trunk lines this seems to be a wasteful decision. (If we do need this extra capacity in the area, we should run more 1 buses, perhaps with a short-turn during peak hours.) I chose to stick to E 21st St because that seems to give a good middle point between the 1 on International and the 57 up on MacArthur. Also, most buses in this area go around the south side of Lake Merritt; I chose to route around the north side, and use 20th St (for the transit center/BART connection) and Grand downtown.

The 40-E 21st/Foothill.

We can also think about some crosstown lines. First, we should identify important crosstown corridors. In East Oakland, this is probably Lakeshore or 5th Ave, then 14th Ave, 23rd Ave, Fruitvale, 35th, and High St, to start out. North of downtown, we could have 27th, MacArthur/40th, something in the 51st-55th area, perhaps Alcatraz, and then Ashby Ave. To the west, we have Market/Sacramento, then Adeline, then Peralta St or Mandela Pkwy. We might be able to stitch some of these together into a nicer layout.

Generally, I’d like to do the following:

  1. Make a frequent grid, with the spacing between adjacent in the neighborhood of half a mile, or maybe closer together in denser areas.
  2. Avoid moving existing high-ridership corridors, especially ones that get lots of people downtown
  3. Lay out gridlines on mixed-use streets where possible
  4. Keep lines simple; that is, avoid unnecessary detours and try to make lines straight and stick to as few streets as possible
  5. Avoid streets that are too narrow or otherwise adverse for buses (i.e. lots of speed bumps)
  6. Simplify duplicated service, especially if it’s duplicated across more than 2 buses
  7. Simplify branching service (which usually dovetails with #6)

My hope is that this will produce a grid where people can travel all over Oakland with at most one transfer. For this to work really well, we need high frequencies on all of the grid lines. I think that we can get some extra frequency without making huge capital and operational investments through line simplification—buses that don’t have to travel out of their way will have shorter routes that the same number of buses can cover more frequently.

This map is taking some time to put together, as it involves shuffling around a lot of currently existing lines. Changes made in one place often require cascading changes in other places. While working on it, I also realized that I would like to be able to explain some of my decisions, rather than just finish up this post with a map with a lot of lines and no justification for any specific part of it.

I’ll finish this up with maps and rationale in a follow-up post.

[1]Old data on ridership broken down by time of day was gathered as part of the Transit Effectiveness Project, the precursor to Muni Forward. This data can be found here. As the fundamental situation of the 18’s service area has not changed much in the past decade I figured that these data were still largely relevant, but I would urge caution when using TEP data to talk about other routes.

State bills and private tunnels, again

Seems like some things are happening in the state legislature. Also, Elon Musk continues to make a fool of himself. Let’s go over what’s happened lately.

Housing-related transit bills

Since last time I took a look at SB827, the bill has gotten some amendments. Mr. Wiener did largely amend the bill as he told me he would. The new version of the bill instates some demolition controls where they don’t exist and protects rent-controlled units that developers might otherwise try to remove in areas where SB827 is applicable. It explicitly defers to local inclusionary zoning laws as well, though it doesn’t instate any if IZ doesn’t exist already in the area, which seems like an oversight. However, the bill is moving in a direction which I think is good and which tenants’ rights advocates should be happier with. The list of amendments can be found here.

D3 supervisor Aaron Peskin put up a resolution that would enjoin the city government to officially oppose SB827. I had the opportunity to go to City Hall and listen to public comments on the issue. It seemed like the people who were speaking out against SB827 were largely older residents, many of them from neighborhoods which were already too expensive to be touched by the latest rounds of gentrification, and had a lot to say about the destruction of neighborhood character. One younger speaker worked with the Housing Rights Committee and drew on personal experiences with eviction to express opposition to SB827. Another compared the lack of infill development to climate change denial. It’s clearly a very personal issue to many people.

I still believe this bill has the right idea, because it acknowledges the interplay between transit and housing. Greenfield development and adding housing in car-dependent areas is unsustainable. Not adding any at all risks the continued displacement of neighborhoods and communities that are already being pushed out by gentrification. If we think SB827 will fray the fabric of existing communities, we should try to get amendments for further protections and inclusionary zoning. But we’re going to need to produce more housing.

In that vein, another transit-oriented housing bill that has come up recently is AB2923, which was introduced by David Chiu (AD17) and Tim Grayson (AD14). the full text of which can be found here. It is a bill which would give BART more control of zoning on land it owns within a half mile of a BART station. This seems to be aimed at BART stations further out in the system, where such parcels are generally used as parking lots. I’m not sure that this will do much to mitigate the housing crisis in absolute terms, but it enshrines a commitment to use public land for people rather than cars.

Leave your car home

Congestion pricing is a policy that makes motorists pay for use of heavily-traveled downtown streets. It made the news last year as a subject of dispute between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing around a decade ago for environmental sustainability reasons, but that proposal didn’t go anywhere. Mr. Cuomo reintroduced the idea recently, and Mr. de Blasio, who notably does not ride the subway much, was not too pleased with the idea.

Cities in California are not allowed to impose their own congestion pricing programs unless they existed prior to June 1, 1989. AB3059, introduced by Richard Bloom (AD50), seeks to change this and allow for pilot programs to go forward in four cities. This can raise money for transit improvements such as red lanes and BRT, and it’s an effective mechanism to counter the externalities of having so many cars in dense downtowns without actually closing them off to cars altogether. Policies like this could shift the mode share in SF by quite a bit.

A friend of mine was worried that fees like this might be regressive. I don’t think we need to worry about this, because people who own cars drive into downtown for work are usually well above median income for the area. (Mr. de Blasio similarly defended his rejection of NYC congestion pricing by claiming it was regressive, even though most of the cars in the project area are taken by the bridge and tunnel crowd, and middle- and working-class people in the city overwhelmingly ride the train.) Improvements to bus riders’ commutes and better funding for public transit more generally will make for better mobility for many more low-income folks.

More Boring ideas

I wrote a post about how the Boring Company was pursuing some very backwards ideas for regional transportation, and didn’t seem to want to allow for the possibility that they could be used for higher-capacity transportation. Elon Musk tried to respond to this type of criticism a few days ago:

This thread brings up a number of issues I had already talked about in the earlier post. For one, the video does show merging and other features of freeway traffic which are going to be an operational nightmare at headways of 3 seconds. It’s still not clear how the pods will remain evenly distributed throughout the system given non-uniform demand. Moving between the tunnel and street also takes a long time, so loading vehicles into the tunnel will be slow. Furthermore, there will only be one spot per station, so multiple vehicles trying to get out at this station are going to have to queue—this will cause further congestion in the tunnels themselves. Stations close to particular attractions or job centers will be clogged like this frequently, so this is definitely going to be a problem. These are obvious and well-known consequences of the freeway-style design, so I’m not sure how Mr. Musk thinks he will avoid them.

Many people have compared the new system to a bus, but more expensive to build and use. This is correct in some ways, as it’s a fixed route with frequent stops. However, it is going to run into other problems that buses do not have. Because the pods are presumably going to try and engage in some kind of carpooling, they are going to be weaving in and out of the tunnels quite frequently, popping up at street level, letting people off and on, and going back down. This forces the dwell times for the pods to be much longer than they would be for buses or rail. Buses and rail can tolerate longer dwell times because they have the potential to ferry so many more people at a time, so it is still efficient. For the smaller Boring Company pods which need to operate at incredibly high frequency, this will instead take a big bite out of capacity.

But another interesting development is the shift in stance on door-to-door transportation, and what it means for the basic idea behind the project. Wasn’t the whole point of this project that you would be able to travel directly to your destination quickly? If Mr. Musk is now willing to admit that he is only taking people “very close” to their destination, why not invest in infrastructure that can get us the same benefits with lower costs, higher capacity, and better efficiency? Viaducts are going to be cheaper to build and maintain than tunnels even if Mr. Musk achieves his stated cost per mile, and they can be used for busways and rail, so you don’t need to build so many. And if the tunnels are supposed to meet “all personalized mass transit needs” (highly unlikely), then who needs to take their car at all?

In any event, 2018 is shaping up to be an interesting year for legislation about housing and transit. Get involved! Your representatives in the state legislature will be sponsoring these bills, and you should let them know if you support them, or go to public comment sessions if you have the time. The future of San Francisco, the Bay Area, the whole state rests on whether or not we can tackle these issues.

You cannot afford to ride Boring Company tunnels, either

Last time I brought up the Boring Company, I discussed some of the issues with the silver bullet thinking behind the project, similar projects that failed in the past, and the effect that the project could have on its urban environment if it were built. Since then the plans for the first phase of development have been revealed to the public. Today, I’d like to delve into the technical reasons why the Boring Company can’t solve LA’s traffic woes, and what the service is likely to look like in the future assuming it is built as advertised.

The tunnels have low capacity

We can start by estimating the ideal capacity of a single tunnel. There are two things we need to know to figure this out—the sled speed and a safe stopping distance that should be kept between adjacent sleds. Stopping distance is dependent on the sled speed and the g-force that riders are willing to sit through. (Normal stopping distances as on a freeway also need to include human reaction time, which we presumably don’t have to worry about here.) Mr. Musk claims that the sleds have a top speed of 120 mph, and for the following discussion I’ll assume that the sleds will stop by decelerating at a constant 1 g. This means that our sleds could go from top speed to complete stop in a bit under 5.5 seconds, and our stopping distance is 480 feet.

For now, we will also ignore how cars enter and leave the tunnel. We are just looking at maximum possible capacity given an operating speed of 120 mph and without having to make passengers uncomfortable (by potentially stopping very quickly) or unsafe (by not leaving the full stopping distance between adjacent sleds). 120 mph is 176 feet per second, which means that with a distance of 480 feet between sleds, we can put one sled through the tunnel every 2.73 seconds, for a total of 1,320 cars per hour per tunnel. Compare this against realistic estimates of freeway capacity: Caltrans estimates that one lane on a multi-lane freeway has a capacity of around 2,300 cars per hour.

There are other complications we haven’t considered yet in order to make the math easier. Our model basically assumed cars appear at one end of the tunnel, go straight, and disappear at the other end. In real-world use, cars will need to be loaded into the tunnels and taken out of them, and these processes are likely to take longer than 2.7 seconds. It’s also not clear from the plans whether cars all enter and leave at the designated “stops” or whether there are frequent exits and on-ramps, as in current freeway design. If it’s the latter, we are going to have big issues with merging and this is going to reduce the sled speed from the promised 120 mph. If it’s the former, then not only this is not the panacea for traffic that Mr. Musk claims it is, but it’s also going to have all of these problems anyway when the system expands beyond the two “stations” planned in the first phase. The supply and distribution of sleds will also be difficult; bikesharing companies are already running into similar issues today and need to do out-of-band redistribution of bikes to ensure that people won’t arrive at a dock and find that there is no bike to take, or that sleds have somewhere to go when they arrive. This means the company will probably have to deadhead sleds around, which reduces the capacity even further.

Mr. Musk claims that we can fix this problem simply by building more and more tunnels. One mile of six-lane urban freeway costs around $11 million according to ARTBA. To get similar capacity out of Boring Company tunnels, we would need to build at least 11 tunnels. The 405 which Mr. Musk wants to build under can have as many as 12 lanes. Even if he achieves his goal of reducing costs by a factor of 10 and boring tunnels at $100 million per mile per tunnel, that’s still over $2 billion for one mile of equivalent capacity. (I estimate that the proposed network covers about 60 miles, putting the cost in the hundreds of billions even in the best case.) Given that the 405 is already way over capacity, we are going to be making absolutely massive capital expenditures for little ability to move people around. But is Mr. Musk actually trying to solve issues of mobility?

Users pay for entry either in money or in time

High-speed, low-capacity transportation isn’t a new idea for Musk as he has proposed essentially the same thing with Hyperloop. This technical discussion of capacity issues on Hyperloop was an inspiration for the post you’re reading right now. If we open up a new system which allows you to get somewhere twice as fast as the current system, we should expect that lots of people will want to use it. Given the state of LA’s freeways and in particular the 405 as stated above, I think it’s safe to assume this demand will quickly surpass the low capacity of the tunnels.

Freeways already have capacity problems and work around them in one of two ways—either by charging tolls, or by forcing people to wait to get on and sit in traffic when they have managed to do so. In other words, given that the freeway has limited supply and high demand, we can either raise the cost or “ration it” and pay in time instead. If the 120 mph ride would save people an hour, they’ll be willing to wait almost that long if the price was low. Given that Mr. Musk first proposed this idea because he was frustrated about sitting in traffic, he would probably bristle at his company gaining a reputation for simply exchanging one type of waiting for another. So, we should expect the price of entry to a Boring Company tunnel to be very high.

This might be a great business plan, but it is a very bad way to move around large numbers of Angelenos.

Personal vehicle use and high capacity are at odds

The ultimate issue here is, of course, that we are still trying to move people around in cars. At 1.3 people per vehicle, a freeway lane moves about 3,000 people per hour. Boring Company tunnels will move around 1,700 people per hour in absolutely ideal conditions.

Our other option is obviously real high-capacity transit, which LA Metro is currently studying along the corridor that Mr. Musk wants to build his tunnels under. Metro is considering both light and heavy rail for this corridor. The Kinkisharyo P3010 has 68 seats and Metro assumes a load ratio of 1.3, so they would expect a typical 3-car train to hold 265 people. During commute hours, the number of people per car can be higher. At a full load, we might expect 150 people per car; at crush load, perhaps 200. Since this corridor is so heavily traveled, we can assume they would run on headways of at most 5 minutes, bringing us to 12 trains per hour. This is 5,400 people per hour at full load and 7,200 at crush load. Without building any extra tunnels or track, we can trivially decrease headways to 2 minutes, putting us over 13,000 people per hour. If Metro goes with heavy rail, train length goes up by a factor of three, and capacity goes up by at least that much.

Mr. Musk thinks that the big issue with grade-separated transportation is the cost of building tunnels. Even if he achieves the cost savings he promises, we would still get less capacity per dollar than we can now. Ironically, in (correctly) identifying that our current capital projects waste a lot of money, he has managed to find a way to make them even worse.

The tunnels combine the worst features of freeways and railways

We’ve already gone over how these tunnels are quickly going to run into capacity constraints, like freeways. They also contain vehicles that move on rails, and incur all of the maintenance issues that come along with that. The most obvious is rail maintenance; they will probably have to shut down the tunnels every night until there are several of them, at which point they might be able to stay open with reduced capacity.

Additionally, the Boring Company will have to design freeway structures on rails, such as interchanges. If they don’t want sleds to stop, they are going to have to build interchanges at every junction. This is much more complicated if they plan to have multiple “lanes” because they will either have to create flyovers connecting each “lane” to one in the perpendicular direction, or will have to allow sleds to move between “lanes,” creating all of the problems freeways currently have with people merging into the right lane to take an exit. This has further implications for capacity and speed, especially since sleds can’t merge at arbitrary points. They have to wait for a switch, just like a train.

They will also have to build station cavern equivalents to accommodate all of the cars moving between the surface roads and the tunnel network. Because the headways are so short and the dwell times of the sleds are comparatively long, these station caverns will have to be many times the size and complexity of current rapid transit station caverns. Commuter rail terminals for large networks already suffer from this issue, as showcased by Penn Station for the Long Island Rail Road. There is no through-running and trains dwell for a long time, so they come in faster than they leave during morning peak hours. As a result, Penn Station has to have an incredible number of tracks to handle the load. Additionally, Musk wants to build tunnels layers deep when he needs to increase capacity. Station caverns are perhaps the most expensive and time-consuming components of building subway lines right now, and they only get more expensive and complicated to build when you make them bigger and deeper.

We shouldn’t expect good ideas from someone who owns a car company

If Mr. Musk truly thought these tunnels were a cost-effective and sustainable way to get people around LA, it would show that he hasn’t done his due diligence. (Perhaps he’s too busy getting into Twitter fights with people who actually study and work on transportation issues.) But while I personally don’t consider most of Mr. Musk’s ideas that interesting or forward-thinking, I have a hard time believing that he’s stupid, and he does have good business sense. It should be clear that the aim of the Boring Company is not solving urban transportation problems. It is a member of the car industry digging its heels in and trying to stay relevant in a world where people are realizing cars can’t provide us with the transportation we need.

Mr. Musk owns Tesla Motors, which manufactures electric cars. Tesla’s claim to fame is that the cars have a good deal of range, and a lot of people like them. To ensure the success of Tesla, Mr. Musk has to ensure that the car industry continues to survive—it’s now well known that he has a personal hatred of public transit, but he also has a powerful financial incentive to stem the tide of transit development in places like LA. This is also why he is investing so heavily in self-driving technology. I’ve talked about this in a prior post: self-driving cars would not help move more people around, either, but it would make people willing to tolerate much longer commutes. The owner of a car company is trying to come up with “new” ideas for transportation, and it should come as no surprise that he thinks the biggest problem is that he’s not selling enough cars.

Consider that one of the ways Musk plans to reduce drilling costs is by reducing the diameter of tunnels to 14 feet. This makes them unusable for mass transit vehicles, which are almost that tall on their own. If we try to use the tunnel as a busway, we will probably need around 11 feet of flat “lane” for the bus to drive over. The bus itself is also at least 8 feet wide. A reasonable estimate of tunnel wall thickness would be 8 inches, and so this works out to a usable clearance of at most 8 feet, which is not enough for a bus. Narrowing the lane to 10 feet provides an extra 8 inches of clearance, but this is still not enough, and trolleybuses are right out. The aforementioned Kinkisharyo P3010 cars stand 12.5 feet tall and along with the tunnel walls, floor, track, and overhead wires, they will easily exceed the 14 foot diameter of the tunnel. (For comparison, Central Subway tunnels meant for similar light rail vehicles are 20 feet in diameter). Breda A650 heavy rail cars stand at 12 feet and will not be able to fit, either. These tunnels will only ever be useful for cars.

In the past, private transportation infrastructure could be acquired and run by the municipal government, increasing the availability of affordable rapid transit. Many New York City Subway lines were at one time run by the private Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company and Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) Corporation. Mr. Musk has effectively prevented the same thing from happening to the infrastructure he wants to build, ensuring that it won’t have the opportunity to become widely useful.

The Boring Company claims it will be able to provide cheap, fast, and convenient transportation for everyone. This isn’t possible given its technical details, but it was never the point, either. Musk is in this for the money. He wants people to continue to buy his cars, and to pay lots of money to ride around in his tunnels. The obvious consequence is that we will have a two-tiered transportation network where the vast majority of Angelenos won’t benefit, but a small group of very wealthy folks will be able to move around at will.

If you are not one of these wealthy people, you will not see any improvement in mobility if the Boring Company builds out their proposal. Elon will make lots of money while the streets fill up with even more cars. We risk keeping LA from getting the quality mass transit system it desperately needs if we let him distract us any more.

How bad is the last mile problem in San Francisco?

The “last mile problem” is often invoked by Uber and Lyft to justify their attempts to cannibalize public transit ridership. From this article in the Examiner:

Both Lyft and Uber offer bus-like services for their vehicles, Lyft Shuttle and Uber Express POOL. The Uber Express POOL service is set to launch in six more cities nationwide Wednesday, though it has operated in San Francisco since November 2017.

Kate Toran, head of taxi services at SFMTA, who also helped craft the rules around private mass transit, said Lyft Shuttle is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, not the SFMTA, because it seats so few passengers in each vehicle.

While SFMTA officials have expressed concern about Chariot potentially competing with Muni, Uber staff argued Tuesday that the company’s new carpool service also may address routes public transit may not serve well.

In a Tuesday briefing with reporters, Ethan Stock, head of Product at Uber, said he viewed Uber’s Express POOL service as a solution to the “last mile problem,” where public transit doesn’t bring people to their destination doorstep.

“One of my favorite examples is my own commute,” he said. “I would love to take Caltrain up the Peninsula and have a seamless Caltrain ride to the Uber office (in San Francisco).”

Yet, he said, “the amount of time and frustration” he has trying to get from Caltrain to his offices at Uber on Market Street is a barrier to using public transit.

“I think this is an example of a gap in the public transit system I think Uber is in a position to fill,” he said. “Public transit works really well on core, high volume routes, but in the diversity of moving all over the city, it doesn’t.”

I’d like to answer both the specific and abstract arguments made by Mr. Stock. I can’t tell from his statements alone whether or not he takes Uber to his office from his house or from the Caltrain station at 4th & King. In the former case, it’s not feasible for everyone to have a one-seat ride from far away to their destination. If you want to know what happens when we try to give everyone a one-seat ride, you need look no further than awful 101 traffic. Either way, since he brings up the “last mile problem” I assume he’s proposing Uber as a solution for the latter.

The Uber office is at 11th & Market, so getting there from the Caltrain station is a direct ride on the 47. This is an incredibly frequent bus—one of the most frequent in the entire system. Ridership on this line is over 10,000 per weekday, and it shares a significant portion of its length with the 49, which has much higher ridership. By all means, this is the kind of “core, high volume” route that Mr. Stock thinks transit works well on. It picks him up where he gets off the train and delivers him to a point about a minute’s walk from his destination. More generally and as I talked about in my first post, the frequent grid covers San Francisco with these high-ridership routes, and this is especially true downtown. So why does Mr. Stock consider this frustrating and difficult, and what part of the last mile problem really remains unsolved?

Mr. Stock does not consider taking the bus, and the last mile problem is only bad in San Francisco if you do not take the bus. SFMTA has designed the bus network to have nice grid properties and help people within the city commute downtown, but it has also created a system with high connectivity at all of the rapid transit stops. Because rapid transit stops are so busy, it makes sense to serve them heavily with buses, so people can make many different connections more easily. Accounting for this when designing your network makes it useful for as many people as possible, even when those people are coming from far away. From Caltrain alone, we can connect directly to almost every downtown subway stop. Embarcadero is accessible by the N or T. Montgomery is along the 10 and 12. Powell can be reached by the 30 or 45. Van Ness is on the 47. Civic Center is a bit harder as the 19 is a few blocks away, but Muni runs the 83X during peak hours to bridge that gap. The 81X and 82X also provide additional commute service from Caltrain to other destinations like the Transbay Terminal. The Central Subway will make moving people to and from the Caltrain station even easier when it is completed next year.

This is still true, if not to the same absurd level, with just about every other rapid transit stop in the city. I talked with a friend who works out in the Bayview and he revealed that his company is part of the Lyft corporate program, which helps people take Lyft from nearby BART stations to the office. His office is also accessible from Glen Park BART via the 23 and 44 buses. The 44 is especially frequent during commute hours.

Further discussion centered on the fact that buses are slow. I won’t argue with this, but we can fix it, and getting people into cars is not the right way. One part of the solution could be expanding the rapid network, as I wrote in this post. (If the 44R proposed in that post existed, his office would be a 4-stop ride and short walk from Glen Park.) Another could be installation of more red lanes, which would speed up the buses we already have. For some people, taking their bikes along or using bike-sharing services might provide a reasonable solution. But we can’t ferry everyone to their jobs from busy BART or Caltrain stations via cars, even with carpooling. The more efficient your carpooling is, the slower your ride gets, and the more it approximates standard bus service. As we take more cars, everyone’s ride gets slower. And this speaks to Mr. Stock’s final assertion—it is not mass transit that performs badly when people in a city are trying to go from anywhere to everywhere, but car-based transportation such as that provided by Uber.

In places which have less useful local bus networks, the last mile problem is worse, and car service might be the best option for people once they arrive at a nearby mass transit stop. It certainly is a more sustainable practice than driving the whole way yourself. But in San Francisco, we can do better, and tens of thousands of people already use buses to get around after taking BART or Caltrain in. It might take some investment to make them more useful, but in the end everyone will have better and faster service. Uber and Lyft have again tried to position themselves as a supplement to public transit, but it looks like they are continuing to interpret “public transit” solely as rail and if they supplant bus service, we will all lose out.

Making connections with station placement

I recently read this article about some potential development near downtown San Jose, and this along with the news of development happening around Diridon Station reminded me of the BART extension that’s supposed to come to San Jose in the mid-2020s. The San Jose subway has already been watered down from the initial proposal, in that there were two stations in the downtown area that have been consolidated into one to reduce the cost. However, the location of this single downtown station has not yet been finalized.

VTA presents two options for this station, both of which can be found here. The station will sit underneath E Santa Clara, which makes sense as that’s the main thoroughfare. The west option has the station spanning Market through 3rd, and the east option 2nd through 6th. The east option seems clearly worse: the west option is much closer to the center of downtown, and will also provide a more direct connection to the northbound buses and light rail that run on 1st and 2nd Streets. The west option would bring much higher benefit to the whole network.

Map excerpt from here, with the west option in purple and the east option in yellow.

The west option also leaves more room for an infill station between the Downtown and Alum Rock stations, which we might want to reconsider if the areas east of downtown densify significantly. An infrastructure project which has so much potential impact on San Jose should leave future options open as much as it can. Why would VTA even consider the east option, if it doesn’t fit as well with the current network and land use?

It’s likely that they would make concessions like this to avoid political battles. The west option—being closer to the middle of downtown—might engender more short-term resistance from merchants, since construction can lose them foot traffic and customers. Though this is clearly worth it for them in the long-term, merchants may not believe they will survive to get the benefit. Remember that Winter Walk SF, which shows up every December on Stockton St, is a compromise made with Union Square businesses that were afraid of losing customers. Central Subway construction in the area is suspended while this is going on, which makes it take longer and cost more.

It would also sit directly underneath the light rail tracks on 1st and 2nd Streets, which means construction on the station will probably disrupt light rail service. The city can work around this by stopping trains at Convention Center Station if they’re coming from the south and Japantown Station from the north, and running a frequent bus bridge between the two. Customers won’t be happy, though! By contrast, the east option would not require digging up 1st or 2nd Streets and light rail service could continue during the construction period.

This issue is based on the current locations of switches, and with some extra track along E St John and E San Fernando they could run trains to St James and San Antonio Stations. This would mean only Santa Clara Station would go out of service, and might provide some extra flexibility for moving trains around in the future. Additionally, these stations are less than half a mile apart and both are a short walk from downtown, so it might require less capacity on the bus bridge. I’m not sure this is enough upside for VTA to invest in something that involved, but it’s worth considering.

Unfortunately, this means the easy option is the one that does not serve the needs of riders quite as well. This shouldn’t be surprising—it’s the reason we see a lot of BART in freeway medians or why rail systems tend to expand interminably into the suburbs when they would benefit more from core capacity improvements. It should serve as a reminder that if we want a transit system that works for everyone, we’re going to need to make some noise. The VTA website lists some upcoming meetings here, so if you live in the South Bay and are interested in this, you might want to check them out.

SB827, transit, and land use

I’d like to show a few pictures to kick off discussion about this bill.

These are height and bulk maps for the areas around Glen Park BART, West Portal station, Noe Valley, and the Inner Sunset. The first two have rapid transit stations. The other two are central neighborhoods at the crossroads of several important surface transit lines—for Noe, the J, 24, and 48, and it’s also close to the 14 and BART; for the Sunset, the N, 7, and 19. These are also upscale neighborhoods and the people in them do not want to include more housing, even though they have a comparatively large amount of transit infrastructure.

Let’s look at another map:


This is the area around Washington Square Park, which is the most likely location for the next subway station along the Central Subway when that is extended through North Beach. Many frequent transit lines (8, 30, 45, the PM cable car) are already present here. It, too, is in an area that has abjured density in the past.

Contrast those maps with these:

These show the areas around 16th & Mission BART, the Fillmore neighborhood between the 22 and 24 bus lines, and Chinatown, particularly around Stockton & Washington where the Central Subway will terminate for the time being.

Recently, State Sen. Scott Wiener introduced SB827 in the state legislature. It is a bill which proposes minimum height limits on parcels close to major rapid transit stations and near frequent transit corridors. It would upzone just about all of San Francisco and large swaths of other cities like Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Long Beach, and LA. It’s a very interesting entry into the pool of solutions for the housing crisis, and I do think that transit-oriented development is the way forward here if we want to house everyone in a sustainable manner.

Other attempts at streamlining housing construction in the past include Jerry Brown’s 2016 housing plan, which I talked about a little here. SB827 avoids some of the problems I saw with that housing plan by largely leaving local protections and programs in place; that is, it doesn’t touch demolition controls, inclusionary zoning or the like. All it does is remove requirements on floor-area ratio and parking, and install a minimum height limit. I think this is an incredibly useful tool for making the neighborhoods in the first set of pictures take on more responsibility for the housing crisis that they have in part created instead of foisting the problem onto the neighborhoods in the second set of pictures. It is a crime that Noe Valley’s segments of 24th St and Church St have 40-foot height limits, and that West Portal has height limits as low as 26 feet. Areas this accessible can be put to better use and we need tools to do that even when their communities try to close themselves off.

Housing advocates have expressed concerns about this because upzoning has ended up causing displacement in the past. I had the opportunity to chat briefly with Mr. Wiener about where he thinks this bill is headed and what he will do to reassure those groups that this bill will not cause such massive displacement and gentrification. He said that, at least in SF, demolition controls are strong enough that we shouldn’t worry about neighborhoods being covered in cranes, and the process will be more gradual. (There are ways around these laws, of course. The spate of fires in the Mission over the past few years has been attributed in part to landlord arson, an awful practice which allows these laws to be sidestepped and right-of-return to be waited out.) He did say that this could be an issue in other cities, and in order to meet those concerns he would work out adding stronger demolition controls and right-of-return laws. He also noted that he would like to see IZ requirements added to the new development if the jurisdiction does not already have them. This would ensure affordable housing is created but avoid superseding stronger local regulations as Mr. Brown’s housing plan would have done.

I had another set of concerns which I tweeted about a few weeks ago, where communities which would like to retain their exclusivity will simply ensure that they don’t improve transit to the point where they fall under the purview of this law. For example, Mountain View can’t avoid zoning for more housing around its Caltrain station and El Camino Real if SB827 passes. However, it can try to prevent VTA from increasing the frequency of bus lines that go through it so that new areas don’t fall under this increased height limit. It may take concerted organizing by transit advocates to make sure that their cities continue to provide good public services regardless of this second-order effect. This would be especially bad in Bay cities who would be promoting sprawl and car-dependence while otherwise claiming to be committed to ecological sustainability.

This bill is unlikely to pass in its current state, and Mr. Wiener does have some ideas for how to mitigate its impact on communities. But I think the bill is a good starting point because it acknowledges the link between transit and land use. This bill does not provide any immediate and direct assistance to transit, but it does ensure that in the long term there will be more people taking transit and committed to getting it the resources it needs. As always, increases in transit ridership get agencies to improve service, which in turn makes the system better for everyone and itself increases ridership. Understanding this interaction is key to creating a Bay Area where everyone can live and get around in the coming decades.

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.


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.