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.

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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.

downtown-map-stations.png
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:

washington-square-park.png

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.

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 assume this won’t happen until 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!