Oakland deserves better

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

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

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

Oakland can support high all-purpose ridership

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


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

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

Over 300,000 people in about 20 square miles.

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

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

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

Understanding AC Transit’s decision framework

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

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


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

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

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

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

Complicated lines, weird service hours, downright bad maps

Instead, we get bus routes like the 14.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All-purpose trips require uses at all hours

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

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

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

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

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

Transfers and fare structure

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

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

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

Improving the grid

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

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

The 40-E 21st/Foothill.

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

Generally, I’d like to do the following:

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

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

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

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

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

State bills and private tunnels, again

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

Housing-related transit bills

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

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

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

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

Leave your car home

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

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

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

More Boring ideas

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

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

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

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

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

SB827, transit, and land use

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

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

Let’s look at another map:


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

Contrast those maps with these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design will not save us

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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!