The affordability balancing act

I apologize for the long break, but personal issues kept me from putting together posts or coherent thoughts of any reasonable length about transit recently. I decided to broach land use because we will vote tomorrow on a number of things that are going to affect it for the foreseeable future. This is always going to be a topic that consumes much of the political energy in San Francisco unless we have a miracle or a really deep recession.

A lot of my arguments for transit development rely on transit being the great equalizer. Everyone in the city should be able to get anywhere reliably, reasonably quickly, and inexpensively. This makes it especially tragic when transit access is a reason for gentrification or displacement. We have seen this in the past—a well-known recent example is the gentrification along the L train in Brooklyn. Many have argued that running BART through the Mission was one of the primary reasons for its gentrification, as well. Other efforts to expand and improve transit in SF, such as Geary BRT, have raised concerns because they might lead to gentrification in the western areas. But this seems to put us in a bind! If we don’t improve transit in low-income, minority and poorly-connected communities, we fail to enact the goal of transit, which is to serve those people as well as everyone else. If we do, then improved access is seen as a nice amenity for wealthy people who want to move in, and when that happens, we’re not serving low-income and minority communities anymore!

What this means is that transit activists must also be affordable housing activists, or transit activism won’t be worth nearly as much. Housing along high-capacity transit lines must be dense and include lots of affordable housing. A number of policy developments are taking shape in this area. Proposition C, which we will vote on tomorrow, seeks to push the inclusionary zoning (IZ) percentage up to 25%, grandfathering in current projects between 13% and 14.5% depending on when they were proposed, and allow the Board of Supervisors to change the IZ percentage without bringing it to ballot. We gain a lot of flexibility in housing policy by passing this, so if we find that 25% is too high, it can be dropped later after study determines what requirement produces the highest number of affordable units. The Affordable Housing Bonus Program is an attempt to give developers density bonuses in exchange for more affordable housing, and eligible areas are generally centered on frequent transit lines. It’s been reduced in scope in response to fears about displacement, but will still be useful. Aaron Peskin wants to expand Scott Wiener’s in-law unit legislation to the entire city, which could potentially unlock a new source of rent-controlled units, as well.

The other major policy statement has come from Gov. Jerry Brown. Mr. Brown wants to institute as-of-right development if projects meet existing zoning codes and have 20% of their units as affordable, or 5-10% if in a “transit priority area.” This is defined as the area within a half mile of major bus lines, trains, or ferries. I think as-of-right development is generally a good idea as it is what has allowed Seattle and Brooklyn to get a handle on their increasing rents, and the amount of process required to approve projects in SF is absolutely brutal. It seems like the lower IZ requirement near transit lines is meant to remove as many barriers as possible to transit-oriented development, which is well-intentioned. However, transit line catchment areas are exactly the places we should be building the most affordable housing, and I’m afraid that this might backfire as proposed. Without lots of upzoning or enormous density bonuses, both of which would likely face huge political battles, it would be difficult to ensure a meaningful number of transit-accessible affordable units are developed. And we might have an even bigger problem than that—depending on the definition of “major bus line,” most of San Francisco might fall into the transit priority zone, and the effective IZ requirement might drop precipitously across the whole city!

I imagine the insanity of the crisis and of local housing policy led Mr. Brown to propose something so sweeping. It’s good to see that people are not only thinking about simple, incremental changes that won’t ruffle any feathers. However, we need to make sure this doesn’t gut our ability to provide transit-accessible housing for everyone, or we’ve missed the point of having good transit to begin with.


The 19th Avenue Subway

The Market Street Subway is a bottleneck for the Muni Metro system, since each of its lines eventually merges into it. Early documents show plans for a four-track subway under Market; alas, we didn’t commit to that project and now we are stuck with a two-track subway. Combine this with the fact that the surface segments of each line force Muni to run one- and two-car trains where the stations could handle a lot more and it’s easy to see that we’re leaving tons of capacity on the table.

The Central Subway pulls half a line out of the Market Street Subway, which probably won’t improve the situation since we still have five lines in the subway at all times. In addition, the new Parkmerced developments are going to add thousands of daily riders to the M Ocean View line, which runs in mixed traffic on 19th Ave and is prone to some of the worst gaps and delays in the whole system. Muni decided to look at improving this line next. They did some studies, offered some suggestions that seemed lacking in the long term, and collected a bunch of community feedback.

Last month, something interesting happened: Muni greatly increased the scope of the project. The details can be found here, and I encourage you to go read those before I poison your thoughts with my editorializing.

If completed, Muni will have built its first fully grade-separated metro line, and it would improve the situation throughout the system. The M would be free of just about all gaps and delays, and it would use 4-car trains, greatly expanding the capacity of the Market Street Subway. West Portal will be able to handle many more trains and people. St. Francis Circle will be free of the crazy signaling, the intersection will be less complicated, and pedestrians will be able to make more use of the metro there. 19th Avenue will generally become more pedestrian-friendly and the line will better serve SFSU and Parkmerced. It’s a fantastic proposal, in my opinion. There are a few interesting details I’d like to point out as topics for further discussion or clarification.

J Ocean View

If this project completes as planned, the J will take over service in Ocean View. (We might need to rename some lines, but I digress.) The choice of the J to take over this part of the journey is interesting because it has a number of features limiting its capacity at the moment. One of the more frustrating issues with the J is the inability to run even 2-car trains along the line, because some of the stops would render the second car inaccessible. However, the plan explicitly talks about running 2-car J trains. Muni plans to remove one of the problem stops (Liberty St on the private right-of-way), but I’m not sure that this is the only one (21st St might be too short, and possibly Glen Park). This might boil down to adding a few square feet of concrete here and there, but it’s something that Muni hasn’t mentioned to date in its other Muni Forward plans.

This also means that the J will spend a much higher percentage of its time above ground and in mixed traffic, since it doesn’t look like there are plans to give it a red lane south of 16th St. This might not be an issue for Ocean View commuters trying to get downtown because I assume they will take the J outbound to SFSU Station and transfer over to the M, and it will probably be faster than what they have now. However, we have to be careful that we aren’t getting rid of delays on the M by simply passing them on to the J. The J will need extra reliability improvements so it can remain a useful part of the rapid network.

The Curious Case of St. Francis Circle

If you look at the rail map in the project details, you might notice the very strangely laid out subway station at St. Francis Circle.


At first, I took this to mean that the M trains coming through would always stop on the west side of the platform no matter which direction they are headed towards, and similarly for the K on the east side.


This seemed like a strange interpretation because Muni is making this immense capital expenditure to get rid of delays and yet this seems like it might cause a lot of them. This limits the maximum frequency of trains through St. Francis Circle because they must maintain stopping distance while a train from the other direction is passing through. It also means that the M and K have the same maximum frequency in the station, which is not the most efficient way to do things—as extra capacity is needed, it would be more useful to swap out K trains for M trains and have some K trains terminate at St. Francis Circle. Riders could then transfer to the longer M trains for the rest of the journey. The K seems to have the same problem as the J in that it can’t support trains longer than 1 car, so running more frequent M trains through seems like a no-brainer.

I did some digging around in NYC Subway track maps to see if I could find an analog for this sort of station, and the closest thing I found was Queensboro Plaza:


From the map alone it seems like Queensboro Plaza is structured the same way, with one track going through the station for the 7 and <7> and the other track for the N and Q. This doesn’t make sense when you’re running trains every two minutes in both directions. However, Queensboro Plaza is actually a two-level station, where the Manhattan-bound trains from each line stop on one level and the outbound trains stop on the other level. Each train has two tracks going through the station. It’s possible SFMTA is planning a similar structure for St. Francis Circle station!


The structure is a bit harder to see here, but the western side of the station would have M trains, and the eastern side would have K trains. This would allow them to run trains in both directions without a bottleneck, and would provide a way for the M and K to cross over each other without sharing a single switch. There are some drawbacks—building this station and track layout is probably way more expensive than the one-level layout, and the inbound and outbound tracks for each individual line don’t actually meet anywhere, meaning we couldn’t terminate K trains at this station like we wanted to. In the one-level world, we can pull a train into the station and just back it out when it’s ready to turn around. With the two-level design, we’d probably have to run them to West Portal and turn them around there, which defeats the point. (This might still help since we can pull the K trains back before the L trains merge into the subway towards Forest Hill, but M trains might be stuck waiting for K trains to turn around at West Portal anyway.)

I guess the moral of the story here is that I’m not really sure what they want to do with this station, but the track layout they’ve picked makes me a little worried that we will again run into capacity issues sooner than we’d like.

The Daly City Extension

The plan leaves room for the extension of the subway to Daly City BART. BART and Muni already have plenty of connections at Balboa Park, but this one would be pretty useful because data from the Transit Effectiveness Project/Muni Forward on how people use the 28 and 28R (formerly 28L) show that Daly City BART is a good anchor for the line. Linking SFSU with Daly City by a direct subway connection is probably a really good idea since those are the busiest stops along the corridor.

This would also offer a kind of redundancy with BART in that there would be two discrete grade-separated lines from Daly City to Embarcadero, which would improve the resilience of the whole system in San Francisco. If BART is having problems in the city, the M might be a good substitute for people commuting up from the south. Of course, this might cast the lack of integrated fares into sharp relief, but that’s a much more complicated issue for another post.

Similarities to New Muni Metro

Back at the end of 2014, Nextransit published the first part of their New Muni Metro plan. The principles behind the Ocean View plan and the New Muni Metro plan are similar, though New Muni Metro didn’t expect to launch into multi-billion dollar capital projects for a long time. But they realized that we already have a fully-grade separated line if we end the Market Street Subway lines at West Portal. All of the other lines are streetcars only and people transfer to the Market Street Subway at West Portal (K, L, M), Church (N, J), or Embarcadero (T). The New Muni Metro plan also involves some line fusion, with the J taking over the surface portion of the K, and the L taking over the surface portion of the M. This means we could run all of the surface lines more often without worrying about whether we’re overloading the subway, and the subway will be able to run longer trains all of the time because there won’t be any short stations along its path. Higher surface line frequencies plus long, extremely frequent subway trains will mean way more capacity and generally shorter trips, even if you have to transfer.

I think the most interesting part about the similarity is that it means Muni could probably experiment with this same kind of service, should capacity become an issue. I alluded to this in terms of substituting K trains for M trains in the St. Francis Circle station design, but we could theoretically do this with any type of train. Forcing people to transfer probably wouldn’t make everyone happy, but the trains would be less crowded this way, so it might work out!

However the details fall out, this is incredibly exciting news. Transit agencies often avoid making grand plans like this because the funding for grand plans has dried up, but if we know that we’ll be getting something this useful out of it, the political situation might be workable after all. We shouldn’t be afraid to dream big—even if these projects seem expensive, they’re necessary, and nobody will look back on it in the future and think it was money poorly spent. Let’s see how Muni builds on this in the coming years!

Missing the point with a second tube

I figured I’d talk about BART some more because they’ve made it into the news recently. They’re currently fighting a lot of issues, and people are understandably mad, but I don’t think the absurd set of constraints the agency has to operate under gets enough airtime. It’s made even worse by the fact that people are demanding more and more of them as time goes on. Please be patient with them!

As I wrote about last time, talk of running BART around the clock seems to be reaching a fever pitch. One of the big topics here has been the second Transbay Tube, and it seems like people believe that this is necessary and sufficient for 24-hour BART. I think we badly need the second tube, but for completely different reasons. It also seems unlikely to me that this is all we’d have to do to get the trains running all night and we’ll be sorely disappointed if we use this as a justification.

The second tube is an absolutely necessary capacity upgrade, and we can see why from BART’s planning documents. Right now, the Transbay Tube carries 24 trains per hour during peak commute time. This means we can put about 23,000 people across the Bay in one direction in an hour. Unfortunately, it seems like we’re coming close to hitting this number already! This is a huge problem, because we won’t be laying another tube for decades. In the meantime, BART has some ideas to squeeze a little extra capacity out of the current tube. One is to make all Transbay trains 10 cars long. They currently don’t have enough train cars for this one, but the Fleet of the Future promises a massive expansion. They’ll also have to work out those crazy voltage spikes and power issues. When all is said and done, it’ll allow a modest capacity increase to 25,000 or 26,000 people per hour. Another relies on signal upgrades which should be included in the next BART bond. The benefits include an increase in frequency from 24 trains per hour to 30, pushing the capacity further up to around 32,000 people per hour. This is a big help, and is definitely the best short-term strategy, but the Bay Area is expanding so quickly that this will only help for so long.

Enter the second tube: BART projects we’ll be approaching the 32,000 passenger per hour limit in about 35 years, so we should probably begin planning this tube now. It will roughly double Transbay capacity and keep BART humming along even if it surpasses 1 million daily riders. It would also provide some badly-needed redundancy in case something goes wrong with the current tube or a station approaching it. Because of the improvements to capacity and robustness of the whole system, it’s definitely a worthy investment.

The redundancy aspect has people setting their sights on 24-hour BART. After all, if you can run the trains in one tube, you can close the other one for maintenance. If you switch off between the tubes on consecutive days, you should always be able to keep one of the tubes open, and we can run trains all night, every night!

There are a number of problems with this line of thought. For example, just because we have four tracks crossing the Bay doesn’t mean we have four tracks anywhere else in the system (save MacArthur, but that’s not really useful for this aspect). The new tube could play out in one of two ways. One is that it crosses the Bay, connecting up to the existing Market Street Subway in San Francisco. Another is that it creates a new BART line within SF city limits with some connection to the current subway. The most popular formulation of this concept has the connection at Montgomery and the new line running down Post or Geary.

Both of these plans have choke points that aren’t the tube itself—namely, they dump out into two-track subways, and if you close those down, you still won’t be able to run trains. While studying the New York City Subway, I realized that the decision to quadruple-track the trunk lines was one of the most brilliant decisions they made, as it allowed them to run trains along those lines no matter what happened. Unless we have quadruple-track subways, we’ll never reach that same level of availability.

Of course, New York City runs the trains all night on every line, not just the ones with four tracks. Plenty of lines run on two tracks when they leave Manhattan. Some lines, such as the L, have only two tracks the whole way through! I wasn’t sure what to make of this, so I asked my dad (an ex-MTA employee) how it was possible. He gave me two answers: Bus substitution, and the dreaded Planned Service Changes.

Anyone who has been in a subway station in New York has likely seen the enormous boards detailing all of the ways in which service will deviate from the official patterns in the near future. Trains might skip particular stops or there might be breaks in service along the line, requiring free bus bridges along the gap, or transferring to other trains. Trains from one line might use tracks from another line for some duration of their trip to allow maintenance on their own tracks. These service changes allow the trains to run all night, every night, but they have some cost. First, they rely on the network’s massive amounts of redundancy to continue functioning. Second, they make everything really complicated. The NYC Subway is already this huge, complex system with many lines and hundreds of miles of track, and remembering the standard service pattern is hard enough. It must be impossible to keep up if they have to change it all the time!

In either of the scenarios for the second tube, this same strategy of service changes to avoid maintenance areas isn’t going to cut it. The system simply doesn’t have enough redundancy to support the kind of service changes the MTA can pull off, and building that infrastructure now would require many billions of dollars. Let’s look at what we’d have to do even if we only built extra tracks between MacArthur and 24th St Mission, which is basically the smallest area for which it makes sense. We’d be paying for an extra 3 miles of two-track subway on the SF side and 2 miles of one-track subway on the Oakland side, and we’d have to rework the wacky subway-to-elevated transition as the C tracks move into the 980 median. This would add at least $4 billion to the total, and that’s in the absolute best case scenario. Reworking the transition and construction in the stations would probably cause service outages. It would also only grant us 24-hour service on a very limited section of BART. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since we may only want to run trains all night in the areas dense enough with the kind of activity to support them. I assume demand for all-night BART to Pittsburg-Bay Point is pretty low. It is meant to highlight the immense expense of adding this infrastructure.)

What can we do? I know I was something of a killjoy last time when talking about the problems with running BART all night on weekends, but I think the conclusions there are valid here as well. If we can’t rely on service changes and we don’t have the infrastructure to do maintenance concurrently with service, then we’re going to have to turn to our old friend, bus substitution. As I stated before, even the NYC Subway resorts to this, so it shouldn’t feel like a cop-out. Bus substitution isn’t ideal because it drops capacity and doesn’t provide service as rapid as with trains. If we’re going to provide 24/7 service, we might need to do bus substitution at any hour, even during the commute rush. This could be really painful for a lot of people, especially while BART is already having capacity issues! We can do a little damage control by adding more switches in between stops so we’ll only have to substitute over one station, but this requires some extra infrastructure and is probably a ways off if so. We can see examples of this in the wild, though: Chicago’s L has switches between most stations on the two-track segments of its Red and Blue lines, and this is no doubt an integral component to their ability to run trains all night on those lines.

I think the new tube and 24-hour service are often tied together needlessly in discussions about the future of BART in a way that makes it hard to talk about what the former is actually necessary for, and what is actually necessary for the latter. My position on it is:

  1. If we want to be running trains all night, every night, then we do need to wait for the second tube, but that’s not even close to everything we need. Miles of extra subway and lots of new infrastructure will need to be built. Whether or not that’s a worthy investment is beyond the scope of this post, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking we can build the extra tube and be done with it.
  2. If we’re comfortable with bus substitution, then we can mostly already get 24-hour service, if we are willing to tolerate substitution across arbitrary segments of lines and possibly at arbitrary times. This is, again, a value judgement, but given the outcry over the recent issues on the PBP line, I think this would be unpopular.

It’s great to see the Bay Area taking aim at New York here, but we do have to realize that their system is much better suited to 24-hour service than ours is, and we have a lot of work to do if that’s something we want as well. Either way, we are going to need the new tube. We simply shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing it will solve our 24-hour issue as well.

The all-night compromise

As the Bay Area grows, I’ve been hearing more and more talk about how we need all-night BART. Running trains all night, every night is a complicated problem that requires a lot of extra infrastructure to solve, so people are asking what it would take to enact a less ambitious proposal: running the trains 24 hours on weekends only. This seems like a reasonable middle ground, since there will still be time for overnight maintenance during the week, and people will be able to use BART to get in and out of the city on weekends.

BART makes a number of claims about why it doesn’t run all night:

  • Every hour of scheduled maintenance is necessary to keep the system in a good state of repair;
  • This work has to be done every night;
  • The longer maintenance windows on the weekends allow them to perform more complicated maintenance work that can’t be done during the week.

Even if we could postpone the night work on weekends, we would need to move those hours somewhere. Trains are still running along Pittsburg-Bay Point tracks until about 1:30 AM every day. During the week, they start again at about 4 AM. On Saturdays, they start at 6 AM, and on Sunday the line opens at 8 AM. This means our weekend maintenance window totals 11 hours each week. We can distribute these hours almost evenly throughout the week, though I’d suggest extending the Sunday night maintenance window with the leftover hour in order to try and make up for the backlog on the weekend. This means we’ve got 4.5 hours of maintenance from Monday night to Thursday night, and 5.5 hours on Sunday night.

It turns out we can’t really postpone BART’s opening, since the 4-5 AM hour is an unexpectedly big commute period. This means we’ll have to pull those maintenance hours from night service, and close BART at 11:30 PM five nights a week. It’s likely this service change will have a much bigger and more negative impact than the addition of late-night trains on weekends. It will almost certainly fail the Title VI analysis that requires BART to study the impact of service changes on minority and low-income riders. Past attempts by BART to extend weekend service were nixed for this very reason.

It’s also worth asking if this service change is going to help a lot of people. Boston’s MBTA recently voted to wind down its late-night subway hours, citing maintenance backlogs that are piling up, high expense, and low ridership, as expected. However, I think this article brings up one of the most overlooked points in this discussion:

“There aren’t that many jobs that are only two nights a week. We think this late-night service is not a broad solution to economic access because it’s not a seven-night-a-week service.”
Charles Planck, MBTA Assistant General Manager

If transit is supposed to be a great economic equalizer, then this plan for weekend-only 24-hour service isn’t what we want. People will be able to stay out later on weekends, but we pay for it by getting rid of late weekday service that people are probably using to get home from work, and we’ll likely need extra maintenance windows during normal service hours when more people need BART.

This isn’t to say late-night transit isn’t important—it is! The question I’d rather consider is whether it should be on rails, and I don’t think we can justify that. AC Transit’s 800 and 822 bus lines provide owl service along BART lines, but they come once an hour. I know late-night ridership is low, but if they’re that unreliable, people might act like they’re not even there!

Muni runs owl bus service on a number of lines. Some of them are not very frequent, but the most frequent show up about every 12 minutes. The N-Owl substitutes for an important rail line and shows up every 15 minutes. Philadelphia’s SEPTA runs owl buses on weekends along its subway lines, and these buses also come every 10-15 minutes. Why do the BART owl routes have such poor frequency in comparison?

The reason may be the length of the line. The 14-Mission has a route length of about eight miles. The N-Owl clocks in at around nine and a half. SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line is just under 13 miles long. By comparison, the 800 route is almost 27 miles long! This means that service at a certain frequency on the 800 will require roughly twice as many buses (and drivers, and so on) as on the MFL, or three times that of the N-Owl. (This is a fuzzy approximation since about eight miles of the 800’s route are spent on freeways, but that still takes time.) As such, huge frequency increases on these routes might be expensive, but they are definitely much cheaper than the work required to bring all-night rail to BART. I would also argue that it’s wasteful to build that infrastructure if we can’t get decent ridership on buses with 20-minute headways or better. Not only that, but this liberates us from the weekend-only stipulation, and that probably serves everyone better.

The all-night BART discussion is often framed as a question of how to run trains all night. This tunnel vision has prevented us from looking at other modes of transportation that are better-suited to solving the problem in the near term. When you think about this problem, I urge you to instead look at it as a question of how to provide service to the areas covered by BART, regardless of the kind of vehicle that does it.

Completing the grid: The Tenderloin gap, part II

Last time, I talked about what I felt was a gap in Muni service. I’ll try and sketch out a line that would fill in this gap.

Since we are talking about a gap in service between Van Ness and Stockton, the best way to start would be to try and send a line right down the middle. As they are nine blocks apart, the middle lies between Leavenworth and Jones. We’re going to want to pick one of those streets to serve as the base for our line. A bus along this corridor will serve:

  • Civic Center Station
  • Boedekker Park on Eddy
  • Tenderloin Playground on Ellis
  • St. Francis Hospital on Bush
  • Grace Cathedral and Huntington Park on California, bordering which are many large hotels as well
  • The Pacific Ave neighborhood commercial district
  • Michelangelo Playground on Greenwich
  • The squiggly bit of Lombard for tourists, Yick Wo Elementary, and George Sterling Park if you’re willing to hike up to it
  • Fay Park and the San Francisco Art Institute on Chestnut
  • Russian Hill Park on Francisco
  • Conrad Square, Aquatic Park, and Fisherman’s Wharf

We should also allow easy transfers to east-west lines in the area, which would be the 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 12, 30, 31, 38, 45, and 47. Of these, the 1, 5, 30, 38, and 47 are part of the frequent grid, so connections with these are especially important.

Designing the line

Our first instinct might be to use both streets in a one-way split, but one-way splits have a number of drawbacks. They make lines more confusing, as I talked about last time. They also reduce the area that is within walking distance of both directions of the line—a good explanation of why (and why we want to avoid this) can be found here, with diagrams. Our hope is to minimize use of one-way splits where possible.

Leavenworth and Jones are zoned similarly in Nob Hill and Russian Hill, so that’s not going to inform our decision. Since the 19 exists on the Van Ness side, and northbound buses south of Geary are further away than Stockton, let’s try Jones first.

North of California, Jones is a two-way street, so we’ll use it for both directions of this new bus line. Most buses in this area go up to North Point, so that’s our main destination, and then riders will easily be able to transfer to the 47 to head east and west. The 30, E and F are also very close to North Point & Jones. We’re also going to need to turn the bus around, and we can do so with a small one way loop like on the 19, extending from North Point to Beach.


If we look closely at this map, though, we’ve done something impossible—Columbus Ave has a median in some areas, and one such place is right where Jones would cross it. We can’t go through here. Our proposal might include breaking up this median and only allowing Muni vehicles to cross. This would require a lot of extra signaling and would complicate traffic patterns on Columbus that the median was presumably intended to simplify, so I’m going to consider this unsatisfactory. We can look at some changes in routing that avoid this problem section of Columbus.


Both strategies take us to North Point. Each one has its own complication: the first suggestion makes the line a bit wiggly, and the one-way loop terminating the second option is needlessly large. I’ll choose the first option for now.

Below California, Jones is a one-way street running south. We can make the bus use Leavenworth for the northbound leg, turn right on California, left on Jones, and continue up with the path as mentioned before. We’re trying to avoid one-way splits as much as possible, but here it seems justified. These streets are one-way, and since they are less than 500 feet apart, the one-way split doesn’t affect the service area too much.


For now we are running the bus down to McAllister, which is right before it hits Market. Let’s try out our route. We send an imaginary bus up from Market on Leavenworth, where it turns right on California, and left up Jones. We get to Green St and start going down a huge hill… in fact, this hill is so steep that our bus goes into free-fall!

The steepest grade any Muni vehicle negotiates is 22.8%, which is along the 24-Divisadero as it travels on Noe St between 26th St and Cesar Chavez. The 24 uses trolleybuses specifically because this hill was too steep for motorcoaches to climb at the time. Modern motorcoaches can do the job, as you might find when a Castro street fair closes off a whole bunch of streets and they can’t use the overhead wires anymore. The buses and trolleybuses might be able to transit steeper grades, but we’ll consider it an upper bound for now, since we don’t actually know if anything steeper will work. Jones between Green and Union is a 26.2% grade—even if we could get down this hill, it’s immediately followed by a 29% grade between Union and Filbert, and going back up later is definitely out of the question. (You can find official grade maps here.)

We can try and route around this hill as well, but we risk making the route too complicated. I’d rather move the base of the route from Jones to Leavenworth. The steepest part of the line north of California is a comfortable 22.2% grade between Union and Filbert, and the end of our route already moves over to Leavenworth anyway. This generally serves the same area while keeping the line as simple as possible. We’ll still try to use Jones south of California because Leavenworth is one-way northbound during that segment.


Let’s try the imaginary bus again. We send it up Leavenworth, where it makes it all the way to North Point, loops around and starts back towards Market. We come down to California, make a left and then a right around the odd guard rail… and promptly bottom out on the crest! Jones has a 24.7% grade between California and Pine, so putting a bus on it is not a safe bet. This means we can’t use Jones here, either! We have to explore some backup plans.

  1. Use Hyde to get to Bush or Post, take it to Jones, and use that to go towards Market.
  2. Use Mason to get to Pine or Sutter and take it to Jones.
  3. Use Hyde the whole way down to Market.
  4. Turn one lane of Leavenworth into a contraflow bus lane.


Option #1 recreates some of the leapfrog one-way splits we saw in the confusing 27 route, which we’re trying to avoid in creating this line, so that’s not a good idea. Option #2 entails a 3 block wide one-way split, which is one of the problems with the 8 and 30 that we are trying to work around by having a mid-Tenderloin line. Option #3 is workable, but risks nudging the service area a little too close to the Van Ness bus brigade. It does not require drastic infrastructural changes, so we can keep it on the table for now.

Option #4 is very interesting. Contraflow bus lanes are often used to turn one-way streets into two-way streets for transit purposes. Other traffic will only be able to go northbound on Leavenworth, but buses will have exclusive access to a southbound lane. I don’t believe they are currently used in San Francisco. This requires a little bit of infrastructure work such as painting the lane red and adding proper signage, as well as adding traffic lights at each intersection. An intermediate proposal might use a contraflow lane for a short time until the bus can get over to Jones, probably via Bush or Post. However, Leavenworth is a large street south of Geary. If we are going to use the contraflow lane north of it to avoid the California crest on Jones, we might as well take a lane out of the wide part to improve simplicity and speed.

Here are our possible alignments:


Through any of these options, we can connect Fisherman’s Wharf with Market at Civic Center Station.

Stop selection

Local buses in San Francisco stop every two to three blocks, so we can follow this model when picking stops. Ideally, we want to line up the stops with the east-west lines, so we can maximize its usefulness as a grid line.


If both the northbound and southbound trips use Leavenworth, then all of the stops north of Market are marked here. If we use Hyde for the southbound leg, we can use the same set of cross streets, but we’ll want an extra stop on Grove before continuing southeast on 8th St. The McAllister and Grove stops are very close to Civic Center Station. I also added an optional stop on Bush to serve the hospital more directly, since hospitals are destinations that you might want to add stops next to even if there are other stops nearby. For precedent on this in the current Muni network, check out the 9R-San Bruno Rapid, which stops in front of SF General Hospital on Potrero Ave even though it stops again one block away on 24th St.

Unfortunately, we are not done—this route only takes us to Market, and grid lines are more useful when you don’t have to think about where they start and stop. In the next installment, I’ll draw the rest of the line south of Market, and we can decide what a good anchor for the other side of this frequent line would be.

Completing the grid: The Tenderloin gap, part I

If you look at a transit map of San Francisco, you might find some surprising holes in the coverage. Perhaps we can learn something about network planning by trying to fill them in.

One of the more confusing examples of this is the lack of north-south lines running through the Tenderloin, Nob Hill, and Russian Hill. The Tenderloin is one of the densest areas in the city and has a lot of below-market-rate housing, so adding service would increase mobility for a lot of people. Nob Hill and Russian Hill are also very dense and poorly connected by transit, which means we have a big opportunity here.

Fisherman’s Wharf employers have trouble filling positions because the area is out of the way, and having more service there could bring in more employees and tourists. Because it is such a big destination and it just north of Russian Hill, it can serve as an anchor for one end of the line. Another important point on this line would be a connection to Muni Metro and BART.

Lastly, if we want a frequent grid that functions well, we have to make sure the grid lines are not spaced too far apart, or our reliably-covered areas will have huge gaps.

Let’s look at the current map of north-south lines to see what we’re up against.


You might look at this and say, “Coverage seems fine!” That’s true, but for such an important area, there is startlingly little frequent transit, and the lines aren’t very simple. If we evaluate each of these lines, the picture comes out much bleaker.

First, let’s look at the 19-Polk. North of the Tenderloin, this bus is basically a less reliable Van Ness bus. It runs less frequently, there is no owl coverage, and any speed problems plaguing Van Ness buses will be put to rest by Van Ness BRT in a few years anyway. I’d wager that any time the 19 saves by going faster is cancelled out by the extra wait. The portion in the Tenderloin has one-way splits, and they cross over each other a few times, making the route harder to remember. Perhaps it is useful for connecting some areas to Civic Center Station, but it seems to me more like the old 26-Valencia, which was an infrequent bus next to a bunch of really important and frequent lines running on Mission. The 26-Valencia was discontinued in 2009 for this reason.

Let’s update the map.


Next, let’s talk about the 27-Bryant. This bus has a number of problems. First and foremost, it does serve the Tenderloin, but its route is plagued with so many leapfrogging one-way splits that it’s impossible to remember where the stops are! It seems like planners were trying to follow an imaginary extension of 5th St northwest on the other side of Market. Dragging this diagonal line across a normal grid is a recipe for disaster and the incredibly confusing route proves this.

This line also has a poorly-anchored terminus at Van Ness between Washington and Jackson. I don’t know of anything there that will attract riders other that the connection to the 47 and 49 lines and possibly the Academy of Art. It seems like the decision to terminate the line there was an attempt to keep Tenderloin bus riders out of Russian Hill, especially when you compare the route of the 27 to its neighboring cable car routes (which we’ll get to in a minute).

In addition to problems with the alignment, the bus is not that frequent. I don’t think this is a suitable north-south line in the frequent grid. One more time:


The cable cars are interesting, because they are actually quite frequent. They are anchored at both ends by Union Square in the south and Fisherman’s Wharf/Aquatic Park and North Beach in the north. However, they are specifically routed around the Tenderloin, likely to avoid serving its residents. This shows they are aimed at wealthy Russian Hill/Nob Hill residents and tourists, and aren’t a useful part of the grid, either.

It is important to note that the Tenderloin used to have more cable car routes, and the cable cars used to be a more equitable mode of transit. This fell apart in the mid-1950s when the city government was trying to dismantle the Tenderloin. One of their weapons was removal of cable cars that went through the neighborhood, which city officials claimed were “dragging down” the city. The city said the cable cars were slowing down automobile traffic in Union Square, which it was desperately trying to expand into the Tenderloin. They also promised to replace the affected lines with buses as part of a “modernization” effort.[1]

It’s clear that this was a move to contain the Tenderloin and its people rather than improve the transit network. It wrecked transit access in the Tenderloin and we can still see the effects today. Here’s what we’re left with.


This is the north-south component of our frequent grid in this area. It looks a little bare, doesn’t it? This, too, has problems for anyone living in the center. The one-way splits on the 8-Bayshore and 30-Stockton are extremely wide (4 blocks apart!) and so the area which you can really call “covered” by those buses is greatly diminished. The 8-Bayshore is split all the way up to Columbus, making it especially useless in the middle area.

The distance between the Van Ness buses and the Stockton buses is also very far:


Keep in mind that all of the northbound Stockton buses use Kearny when they are south of Sutter. That means your nearest frequent bus might be half a mile away, and south of O’Farrell, it might be even worse! In the average case, it’s still 8/10 of a mile between routes. Noted transit planner Jarrett Walker often talks about frequent grids in network design and says that parallel lines should be generally 1/2 mile apart and at most 3/4 mile apart, so a gap this large means we are underserving the middle area.

I think we’ve laid out the case for having another frequent north-south line here. Next time I’ll discuss what we should think about when we design it.

  1. The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco by Randy Shaw, pp. 96-98

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.