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!

A downtown subway grid

Recently, the SFCTA, SFMTA and various other transportation organizations released a website called Subway Vision. It aims to collect ideas from everybody about where to install new subways in SF. The Subway Master Plan is supposed to ensure that we are always building a subway, and we currently have the Central Subway under construction, along with planning for the M subway and construction hopefully in the not-too-distant future. Future expansion plans are also being considered right now, as the Rail Capacity Strategy report released back in February gives an outline of what Muni thinks its next steps will be.

People spend a lot of time talking about Geary whenever new subways are discussed. And that’s great! Having high-capacity transit on Geary is extremely important given that its bus lines ferry the same ridership as Caltrain. BRT will definitely help, and we’ll see how this develops in the future. However, I think the need for new subways downtown is often overshadowed by this discussion. Our current rail network has one subway that goes from downtown outwards, through which a large percentage of its 150,000 daily riders go. This is a huge bottleneck! Problems that occur in the subway here are liable to delay many people and cause lots of gaps and bunches. If there is one thing we can learn from New York here, it is that these problems are way more tolerable when there is some redundancy.

Having extra subways parallel to the Market Street Subway downtown is hardly a new idea. SPUR advanced the idea in this report and has implied it in various materials concerning a second Transbay Tube. By pulling together some ideas from these and the Rail Capacity Strategy, we can come up with a nice grid-like structure for subways in downtown SF.

First, if we look at the Rail Capacity Strategy, we find that Muni eventually wants to put LRT on Geary. LRT will improve capacity even more than BRT, but the most interesting part about the plan is the fact that it might be a hybrid subway/surface line. Muni gives cost estimates for all of the involved projects in the report, and the lowest estimate for Geary LRT appears to be the cost of installing surface rail along its entire length at a cost of about $1.4 billion. By using the estimated cost of installing other subways and doing some math, we can figure out that the $3 billion upper bound makes sense if Muni installs a mile of subway and 5 miles of surface rail. One mile of subway takes us from Market to about Van Ness along Geary, which is a reasonable option.

But why should we stop at Market? Merging into the Market Street Subway is probably not feasible, since it’s not possible to fit a flyover junction when there is already another subway below. Even if it were possible, it would probably be ill-advised, as we’d get one extra stop at the expense of subjecting the new subway to all of the same problems we get by combining the other lines. But there are other options—the report also has lots of figures for job and population density in various sections of the city, and we can use those to extend the route. 2nd St in particular has a very high density of both, and a subway in the Geary area could connect through Mongtomery Station and continue into SoMa along 2nd St. This line could be anchored at AT&T Park, which is surrounded by a commercial district, and which often relies on the easily-overwhelmed Muni Metro Extension to get people in and out on game days. 2nd St is also slated for an upgrade to LRT in the distant future, according to the Rail Capacity Strategy.

It might seem like overservice, and while the redundancy with the Central Subway is nice, that’s not really what we’re after. The grid really comes together when we install a subway along Folsom. Folsom is considered one of twelve high-priority corridors for expansion by Muni. By pulling a line out of the Market Street Subway between Church and Van Ness and instead sending it up Folsom, we solve a number of problems:

  • Fewer lines are merging at Van Ness, which means we can mitigate a bottleneck there
  • The already-existing flyover junction would make construction of the other one less disruptive, since we wouldn’t have to reconfigure the current subway
  • In the event of backups in the Market Street Subway, all KLM trains could reroute into the Folsom Street Subway instead, mitigating delays (J and N trains could stop at Church & Duboce for transfer) and still allowing decent access to Montgomery and Powell areas via the 2nd/Geary and Central Subways

In this proposal I choose the L train to be pulled out in standard service because we can’t pull out the J or N, as the new trains will leave the MSS before the J or N merge in; the M is going to improve capacity in the MSS after its subway expansion and use of longer trains, which is important; and the K can only run short trains at the time being, and may still be used to serve the Muni Metro Extension.

The end result is a grid-like structure centered on 2nd, 4th, Market and Folsom Sts, with additional transfer points along the Embarcadero and on King. Here’s what it looks like:

names
Above-ground stops are circled with gray, and Van Ness BRT is shown as the green dashed line.

There’s also room for further expansion: Leavenworth, Civic Center and 7th St stations all line up quite nicely, for instance (and would be easily connected by the bus I laid out in earlier articles). If the Caltrain railyard is rebuilt underground and the 280 spur is at least partially torn down, this could open up enough land that extending the Muni Metro Extension out to 7th St and building more rail along 7th St makes sense, as well. Some ideas for extending high-capacity transit along Van Ness send it down 11th St and Potrero Ave, in which case they would also fit nicely into this grid; extensions down Mission could also use the transfer to the new station at Duboce Ave. Sadly, I think the Chinatown T stop is too far north to have a really easy transfer, but a line down Sacramento St might be useful and connect Van Ness BRT with Embarcadero and Main St Stations. The T would be within reasonable walking distance of such a line.

This expansion provides a lot of extra options for people to move around on corridors that Muni considers important, and getting them into a shape where they work well together. Having redundant infrastructure makes the system more resilient and also makes it easier to justify arbitrary planned service changes, which people will need to deal with if we ever eventually want 24-hour rail service.

But don’t just take my word for what subways are worthwhile to build. With Subway Vision, Muni is giving all of us an opportunity to influence the evolution of the city. We should use this opportunity to tell them what we think!

The one-seat slowdown

In the article about the 19th Avenue Subway, I wrote briefly about the plans for the J to cover the portion of the M route in Ocean View (Randolph, Broad, and San Jose). Residents of Ocean View are now faced with a trade-off when trying to get downtown. They will experience a faster ride if they take the J to SFSU Station and transfer to long, fast M trains to continue inbound. However, some people are not happy about the loss of a reasonably quick one-seat ride, since their current route will be replaced with the J coming all the way around through Balboa Park. The J is going to spend a lot more time in mixed traffic than the M does currently, and so taking it downtown from Ocean View is likely to be a slow and unreliable ride. While we should think about what will keep the J reliable, we might also want to consider doing something else to mitigate the concerns of Ocean View residents.

Let’s take a look at the N. A large percentage of this route is at-grade, and getting from one end to the other is very slow. This sounds familiar! During commute hours, when subway space is limited and people from the forties need to get downtown in a reasonable amount of time, Muni runs an express route along this line. The NX-Judah Express aims to get people from further out to downtown quickly by skipping lots of stops in the middle and using faster one-way, timed-light roads where possible to keep the buses moving. Plenty of bus routes have matching express routes during commute hours. The 1-California and 38-Geary each have two express routes which use Bush and Pine to get downtown quickly. The 7X-Noriega Express uses Oak, Fell, Franklin, Gough, Golden Gate, and Turk. Express routes for the 8 and 14 use freeways. But most light rail lines do not need an express route since the subway generally obviates the need for them. To support a light rail express line, we need to be able to get people from far-flung areas onto fast roads and keep them there until we get close to downtown. With the J extension to SFSU, the line might become eligible for such treatment.

280 and 101 can be used to transport people express from the Glen Park areas to downtown more quickly than it would take to crawl all the way around and finally get into the subway. Stops between 19th Ave & Randolph St and San Jose Ave & Santa Rosa Ave would be serviced by the express bus, after which it would take 280 via Baden and either Circular Ave or Monterey Blvd. From there, it can get on 101 via the Alemany Maze interchange. The Central Freeway will allow the bus to exit on Mission to service Van Ness & Market. The bus can make normal J stops up Market from there. (Other designs might make different stops downtown or use a different route to get there, as the NX tries to serve the Financial District more specifically. I tried to make this serve existing downtown J/M stops as closely as possible.)

map

Now that the JX services stops up to Santa Rosa, we can turn around more J trains at Glen Park. This already happens during commute hours, but it’s rare, and with the JX to supplement service past Glen Park we will be able to get away with turning some trains around more quickly than we would be otherwise. This would help keep the route more reliable for residents further inbound on the route.

Of course, there are other concerns at play here. I don’t normally like introducing express buses, because they are an expensive proposition with regard to how much service they actually provide. Muni will be forced to increase its peak bus fleet to accommodate the extra commute-time load. The J station at Glen Park is somewhat confusing if trains are turning back there, since trains can’t cross over to the inbound track from the outbound side. I’m not sure how expensive installing this extra track would be. Furthermore, extremely heavy traffic on the freeways may mean the bus won’t save any time after all! However, if this idea gets more people on board with the 19th Avenue Subway by assuaging concerns over the reliability of the J and preservation of a somewhat quick one-seat ride to downtown from Ocean View, then I think it’s worth studying.

The Tenderloin gap, part III

The last two parts (12) of this series focused on a north-south bus north of Market, but we never laid out the remainder of its journey further south. I think there are two major strategies for such a route—bring it into a major connection point or continue with the north-south gridline. What would these look like?

The most easily accessible major connection point is 3rd & 20th, with connections to the T, 22, and 48. With such a design, this route would effectively be participating in a secondary downtown radial pattern along with these routes. The T brings people in from the north and south, the 22 from the west and far northwest, and the 48 from the southwest. This bus would then bring people in from between the 22 and the T. This is even more prominent once the T is sent through the Central Subway.

3rd-20th-option

If we were to do this, land use at the nexus would need to support this anchoring of many frequent lines. Mission Bay is nearby, but the neighborhood is somewhat concerned about its expansion southward. The area is already zoned “urban mixed use” (UMU), which is a conversion from old industrial land use types to support more residential and commercial development. Think lofts built in old warehouses with ground-floor retail, and the like. While we like mixed use zoning, most of the parcels in this area have height limits of between 40 and 68 feet. This does not allow for very much density, and surely would not be able to support a second radial pattern. Perhaps the new Warriors stadium will provide the Planning Commission with a reason to raise the height limits in the area, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that. Given that the T and 22 are such high-frequency and high-capacity lines and we plan to add another one, we’d probably want to raise height limits to at least 100 feet to take advantage of this. The AHBP might have been useful to provide taller buildings with more affordable housing in the area. While raising the height limits is a possibility, it is a remote one and we might be overserving this area quite a bit in the meantime.

If we were to continue the gridline to the south, we have a perfectly nice candidate already available—the 19-Polk! Given that the 19 is already bracketed by this bus and the 47/49, all of which are designed to be more frequent, we can scrap the 19 and use its southern leg for this bus instead, which leads to an increase in service for those riders. Since the 19 hits Market so close to where this bus would, it seems duplicative to try and fit an extra gridline in Potrero Hill, and we would probably have to introduce some confusing hopscotch to serve 6th St instead of 8th. This isn’t ideal because 6th St doesn’t cross over into Potrero like 7th and 8th do, but 8th St would be overserved if we ran both this bus and the 19 on it.

19-option

Muni Forward

SFMTA’s Muni Forward plan has a number of service changes planned which, if implemented, change the calculus for the two options outlined above. Under the proposed changes, there will be a lot of rerouting on the east side. The 9R-San Bruno Rapid has added a stop in front of San Francisco General Hospital, so the 33-Ashbury/18th will no longer turn down Potrero Ave and go down to the hospital. Instead, riders will be expected to transfer at 16th St and take the 9R one stop south. The 33 will instead continue eastward and take over this current leg of the route for the 22-Fillmore, which uses 17th and 18th Sts to eventually end up at 3rd & 20th. The 22 will then be rerouted to use the current route of the 55-16th St, and serve Mission Bay. The 19 is also rerouted to serve SFGH under this plan, with the 48-Quintara/24th taking over its route to Hunter’s Point. A new 58-24th St will take over the eastern part of the 48’s route and go to 3rd & 20th.

This would break up the 3rd & 20th radial hub, as the frequent 22 is replaced with the less frequent 33, and the fairly frequent 48 is replaced with the infrequent new 58. Add all this to the zoning changes needed to maximize the benefit from creating this radial hub, and it looks like this option will not work for us in the long term.

On the other hand, replacing the 19 south of Market is still a good idea: our frequent gridline has an anchor (SFGH) and the route is fairly straight. Thus, our bus can take over for the 19 no matter how many of the Muni Forward recommendations are implemented.

19-option-muni-forward

This new route also has the advantage of getting rid of that confusing bit it encounters as it crosses over Cesar Chavez, although the route is shorter, so some riders will have to take the post-Muni Forward 48 to 23rd & De Haro or Rhode Island to get on the new bus. In any case, this is still better than the other option should the Muni Forward recommendations come to pass. The pain of making this connection will be ameliorated by the increase in frequency.

Overall I like rejiggering the 19 instead of creating an entirely new line, since I think it works better with the land use. The other option looks nicer from a network perspective, but it is viable only if Muni does not follow through on some of its proposed changes, and if we get some help from the city to upzone the 3rd & 20th area. In effect, this ends up being a change of the 19 route, which shouldn’t be such a big deal—Muni Forward is already full of big route changes!

The 19th Avenue Subway

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

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

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

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

J Ocean View

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

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

The Curious Case of St. Francis Circle

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

st-francis-circle.png

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

one-level-platform

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

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

queensboro-plaza

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

two-level-platform

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

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

The Daly City Extension

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

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

Similarities to New Muni Metro

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

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

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

Completing the grid: The Tenderloin gap, part II

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

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

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

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

Designing the line

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

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

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

jones-simple

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

side-by-side-1.png

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

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

jones-full-route

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

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

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

leavenworth-initial-route

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

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

southbound-options-map

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

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

Here are our possible alignments:

southern-area-final-options

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

Stop selection

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

full-map-final

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

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

Completing the grid: The Tenderloin gap, part I

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

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

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

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

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

ns-lines-map-full

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

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

Let’s update the map.

ns-lines-map-no-19

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

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

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

ns-lines-map-frequent-only

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

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

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

ns-lines-map-frequent-no-cable-cars

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

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

ns-lines-map-frequent-distances

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

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


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