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!

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.