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 don’t seem to assume this will happen until sometime around 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!