Why transit is important

I spent my early life in a suburb of New York City, where I came to the conclusion that if you wanted mobility, you needed a car. Where I grew up, nobody really cared about pedestrians and so it was generally not safe to be one. Biking could work, but it was also not that safe. Even if you were willing to walk or bike somewhere, most interesting things were far away. Roads were for cars and that was just the way it was. You only took transit when you wanted to go into the city and didn’t want to be stuck on the LIE for an hour.

I went to school in Providence, where I learned that it is possible to get around without a car. You could walk to interesting places. There was a usable bus network. Cars were useful, but not necessary. I felt free to move around as I pleased for the first time in my life, even if only across a small portion of the city. During these years, I just about stopped driving altogether.

After I graduated, I moved to San Francisco. San Francisco is a fantastic city, and its transit network is more comprehensive and reliable than the one in Providence. As someone who does not own a car and has no plans to change that, this amounts to a huge quality of life improvement. The network serves just about everywhere in the city, and it’s frequent enough that I can go wherever I want in a reasonable amount of time, without relying on timetables. Thus, good transit is important to me, and I hope to show that it is important to the city as a whole, and that you should care about it if you want San Francisco (or wherever you live) to be even better in the future.

Getting to know the city: transit and land use

I had a friend ask me recently how he could find out what San Francisco has to offer. I told him to take the important transit lines.

Frequent transit lines exist where they are because they serve important corridors where lots of people want to be. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that parks, shopping districts, and other entertainment are laid out along these lines. The most important transit lines tend to run through mixed-use development where they can be as useful as possible to as many people as possible. To show this, we can look at how lines and zoning interact.

Where can you find things to do in San Francisco? I went through the zoning maps and mapped many of the areas with strong commercial development. Parks and several attractions are also shown.



How can we get to all these places? Let’s lay out the most frequent and important transit lines in the city. If you show up at a stop on one of these lines, you should see a bus or train coming in ten minutes or less from morning until evening.

All of Muni Metro, plus bus lines 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, 14, 22, 24, 28, 30, 38, 47, and 49.

Put the two together, and…



There’s a lot of overlap! Commercial districts, parks, museums, universities, and more are accessible by our frequent lines. If there’s somewhere you want to be, the chances are high that a frequent transit line is nearby. In a well-designed system, we would expect this to be the case, so that we could serve a wide variety of activity on our important lines.

This also means that even if you are not a transit user, you should probably still care that there is good transit in your area. Frequent, reliable transit running through a neighborhood supports more fun stuff.

A sense of direction

In my experience, taking transit is one of the fastest ways to get your bearings and figure out where everything is.

As you can see above, SFMTA tries very hard to lay out frequent lines in a grid-like pattern. This means that if you have some idea of what even just a few lines look like, you should be able to navigate those areas without much help. In addition, you are forced to pay attention to cross streets on the lines you take often, and you will be trained to think about destinations in terms of the closest intersection, which makes it easy to give directions.

People who rely completely on services like Google Maps to navigate will only know the address of the location and the path by which they are led to get there. In particular, suppose you are going to Bean Bag Cafe. If all you know is that it is at 601 Divisadero St, you might know to take the 24 line to get there, but you will still rely on your directions to know which stop is the closest. On the other hand, if you know the location as Divisadero St & Hayes St, then you will not only know which stop to get off while riding the 24, but also that it is accessible by the 21 line, which runs along Hayes.

If this sounds like a lot more effort than it’s worth, remember that your phone might be dead when you’re trying to get home one night, in which case this information is invaluable.

(As one last note, this is useful if you take a regular taxi. Your driver will appreciate knowing the closest cross street rather than the street number.)

San Francisco, more economically inclusive

Public transit is necessary in a city like San Francisco if we want to make sure people from all socioeconomic classes can live here. Owning or leasing a car is a huge financial outlay and generally a hassle as you need to find parking for it whenever you’re not using it. If there are areas of the city which are difficult to reach by transit, then we’re making it hard for our fellow San Franciscans to avoid owning cars. Ridesharing services are expensive, even with immense amounts of VC funding holding prices down.

Ridership and service improvements feed into each other. When ridership on a particular line is high, it tends to get slated for improvements that make it faster, more frequent or more reliable, which in turn draws more people to use the service. On the other hand, this same logic can work in the opposite fashion in a sort of death spiral. Service cuts make transit less useful for people, so ridership goes down, which can lead to more cuts.

One of the easiest ways to ensure people at all income levels have reliable, affordable access to as much of San Francisco as possible is to take transit more. If transit lines important to lower-income neighborhoods are not nearby, advocate for them through voting, attending community meetings, and the like.

Why not put your faith in…


The thought here is noble. Bikes are one of the greenest modes of travel. You have the ability to come and go as you please at all hours. However, bikes pose problems for accessibility. Not everyone knows how to bike, is able to bike, or owns a bike, and thus relying on bike lanes to get people around will put them at a disadvantage. Retrofitting roads to include bike lanes is often a political quagmire. Some parts of San Francisco are not easy to reach on a bike due to steep hills. People come back to their bike locks to find that their bike has been stolen.

I appreciate making it easier and safer for bikers in San Francisco. It gives people more options to get around, which is the point of transit. However, focusing on it too much will leave lots of people out to dry.


As stated earlier, as cheap as ridesharing may be, it is still expensive for many people. The reasons why prices are low are also disconcerting: these companies often operate in legal gray areas with respect to labor laws, and investors bankroll protracted loss leaders in hopes that their company outlasts the others and can take all the users. This untenable situation means that prices can only go up in the long term. If you admit taxis are not a proper substitute for good transit, then the future looks similarly grim for ridesharing. One might argue that this will be a moot point once we have self-driving cars, but it’s unlikely that any such vehicles will be operated without any human intervention for some time. In particular, the California DMV is trying to require a backup driver in self-driving cars.

There are a few other interesting pieces to this argument. We start running up against geometry: in a city with a street grid like San Francisco, most paths between two points are about the same distance, as long as they don’t go the wrong way. Many frequent transit lines in San Francisco are or try to approximate straight lines connecting two areas, or connect three areas in an L- or U-shape. Using our grid arrangement, we can ensure the highest number of places are reachable by reasonably direct routes, requiring few transfers (if any) and a little walking.

You do save time if your hired car runs nonstop between your pickup location and your destination, but ridesharing companies have been trying to drop costs further by making stops that are reasonably on the way to pick up and drop off other passengers. This sort of flexible routing makes the trip slower and may make it longer. As the number of simultaneous passengers per car increases, you make more intermediate stops and go further out of your way, slowing down your trip even more.

So what benefit can a private car have? It saves you the walking time, for sure. It can route around traffic, though this is quickly becoming a non-issue as the MTA turns more street space into transit- and taxi-only lanes, while hired cars will have to divert onto smaller, slower streets to avoid congestion.

Recently, Uber tested out Smart Routes, which drop the price even more if your journey is along a high-demand street. Here we see the flexible routing go away in favor of fixed lines, essentially turning the car into a bus, albeit with less capacity. The demand required to support these fixed lines generally implies they are also on or near already-existing transit routes that are very frequent and have a long span of service. Indeed, the Smart Routes trial occurred on Fillmore St along the 22 line, and on Valencia St, one block from the 14 line. Both lines are among the city’s most frequent and run all night.

It seems strange that we are trying to make this service available to more people by emulating an increasing number of features of public transit. In this case, why don’t we just invest more in transit, so everyone can use it?

…walkable development?

As I understand it, there is a school of thought centered around the fact that transportation is only important when you don’t have most things you need within walking distance of your house. If people have fewer reasons to travel large distances, then the demands placed on the transit network are lower, and we don’t have to worry about it so much.

On some level, this is an analogous argument to the fact that sustainable growth requires infill development in cities, but on the scale of neighborhoods. But let’s see what happens when we consider large centers of employment. Does every person have to work close to their house? Does this mean every neighborhood needs an employment center? If so, what happens if you get a job in such a center that is not your own neighborhood’s? What if many people do this? Suddenly, we have huge everywhere-to-everywhere demand, and not enough transit to serve it. Even this pattern of development necessitates a strong transit network.

Furthermore, even if I have everything I need nearby, I might still have a reason to go somewhere else. I don’t require dim sum to live, but I still want it sometimes and will travel to the Richmond for it.

So what can we do?

I would like to ensure that San Francisco’s transit network serves everybody well. Everyone should be able to rely on it to get where they are going. I hope that this blog will get people to think about transit as a necessary part of San Francisco. If you take it a lot, what do you think it does well, and should continue doing? How do you feel that you, or other people, could be better served by it? If you don’t take it, why not?

You can’t hope to improve transit if you don’t use it yourself. Next time you go somewhere, take Muni or BART. San Francisco will be better for it.


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