This is the last part of a five post series on the Central Subway project. Click here to navigate the table of contents for these posts.
The 30-Stockton and 45-Union/Stockton buses are undeniably crowded, with an especially dense crush load in the mile-long stretch between Market Street and Chinatown. The current situation — in which buses are entangled in congestion caused by private autos, delivery trucks, heavy pedestrian traffic overflowing from bus stops, and narrow sidewalks filled to capacity — must be amended. Here is a miniature pictorial representation from the last time I dropped by Chinatown (click through for full size images):
These pictures do not necessarily show Stockton Street congestion at its worst, as they were taken in the evening, but they do provide a fair representation of the problem. Stockton is clearly in need of substantial transit improvement, but the last post gives several reasons why we ought to be skeptical that the Central Subway will be the envisioned cure-all — particularly for its immense price tag — and that list was not even really comprehensive. What are the alternatives?
Back in the summer, Howard Strassner put forward the idea of eliminating the Central Subway altogether and building bus rapid transit instead. Of course, we already have so-called “bus only” lanes in this corridor, but they are neither respected nor enforced. In order for BRT to provide time savings comparable to a subway tunnel, you would need to go the whole nine yards: a complete dedicated lane, use of low-floor buses with multiple doors and implementation of Proof-of-Payment to facilitate faster boardings. Of course, you would also need to implement signal priority to minimize the time that buses spent stopped at red lights. Strassner’s plan suggests the usual BRT characteristics, so I won’t go into a full description here, but you can read more about the plan through articles posted this past summer on Rescue Muni and the Examiner.
I’ve already pointed out that over long distances, particularly for trips between Visitacion Valley and Chinatown, the T will bring little (if any) time savings over the current 9X bus. That said, the time savings are more apparent for short trips between 4th/King and Chinatown. Currently, depending on the time and day, a ride on the 30 or 45 bus from 4th and King to Chinatown takes a solid 15-20 minutes, a trip that would be reduced to 6-7 minutes in the Central Subway, if we make the unlikely assumption that there are no delays associated with passing through the 4th and King intersection. For the stretch between Market Street and Chinatown, in which the 30 and 45 buses turn into claustrophobic sardine tins, a 6-8 minute trip would be reduced to about 2 minutes. For either short trip, you’re looking at a 60-70% time savings. Of course, this figure only includes travel time. Once you add in the time spent walking to the station and accessing the deep underground tunnel, the time savings do not look quite so impressive, particularly over such a short distance.
For a route of similar length (just one-half mile longer), a center-lane BRT on Van Ness would reduce travel times in that corridor by 30%, from about 19 minutes to 13 minutes; this figure assumes 11 stops, but if Muni operates different versions of express BRT, as I’ve recommended before, travel times would be further reduced. Strassner’s guesstimates of BRT travel times in the Central Subway corridor suggest a comparable level of time savings to Van Ness BRT. Even so, the subway travel times might look better, but at what cost? The Central Subway will cost us $650-700 million per mile, while Van Ness BRT will cost about $45 million per mile. For these short stretches, the Central Subway might offer double the time savings over BRT, but at 15 times the cost. And in the greater T-Third corridor, the time savings are nominal or nonexistent.
A BRT implementation in the Central Subway corridor might work fairly easily on wide South of Market streets, but surely it could not work on narrow, congested Stockton Street — right? Well, no, not necessarily. It could work, but it would require a redesign of the street. Currently, the space on Stockton Street is occupied by the following uses: (1) pedestrians, (2) buses, (3) commercial delivery vehicles, (4) private auto lanes, and (5) private auto parking. Really, though, there are three main things that add to the liveliness of Stockton Street: the businesses, the pedestrians, and the buses that deliver more pedestrians. Private automobiles occupy space, but they do not really contribute much vitality, and parked cars definitely do not add any vitality — so car priority is automatically bumped down to the bottom of the list. In such a dense environment, something has to give, and on-street parking is, quite frankly, a criminal waste of very limited space. Two nearby garages, Portsmouth Square and St. Mary’s, combined offer 1,143 parking stalls. I have no idea about the extent to which these parking garages fill up. If they do not fill up, this would be a natural place to direct Stockton parking, but even if they do fill up, building replacement off-street parking would be preferable to having parking occupy valuable space on Stockton itself.
The first step — no matter what transit you put on or under Stockton — is to widen the sidewalks. Stockton is such a thoroughly pedestrian-oriented street, more so than almost any other street in the Bay Area, and yet the sidewalks are so narrow, a situation that is not helped by the merchandise of various markets overflowing onto the sidewalk. The width of Stockton Street is 68 feet, which could provide ample space for pedestrians, BRT lanes, and commercial deliveries. You could probably even fit in a single southbound lane for car traffic. In any case, the street setup needs to be revisited. Whatever we do with Stockton, the key is to get out of the political rut and demonstrate some actual leadership and creativity.
There is no doubt that Chinatown is in need of much more efficient, streamlined, and faster transit service than it now receives, but we have gotten so locked into this subway tunnel that we have suspended common sense. With Chinatown’s density, a subway serving the neighborhood should be investigated, but there is nothing to say that such a subway should take the politically-driven alignment that the Central Subway has now assumed. For better or for worse, we are pretty much stuck with the Central Subway, but there are some lessons to take away from this experience already, even though we are still a few years away from beginning construction. Fundamentally, it comes down to this: once the Central Subway is completed, sure, we’ll have a “sexy” subway underneath Stockton Street, and riders traveling between Chinatown and 4th/King would enjoy substantially shorter trips. But what about riders on Geary, Van Ness, Mission, Fillmore, Haight, 19th Avenue, Potrero/San Bruno, Geneva, and other corridors? Where’s the love for them? The quality of service in those corridors would remain unchanged, or even deteriorate in time as traffic increases, unless we actively take steps to improve service. By putting a huge sum of money into a short stretch of Stockon and Fourth Streets, we are putting long-overdue improvements to the rest of the system on hold. Even if we ignore for the moment the federal matching funds that will be applied towards paying for the Central Subway, $700 million of local and state funding would buy a lot of BRT and streetscape improvements — not just on Van Ness and Stockton, but also Geary, 19th Avenue, and other congested streets with intolerably slow bus service — and those improvements could be implemented much more quickly.
75% of Muni’s ridership is focused on the rail lines and ten key bus corridors. By contrast, the 30 and 45 lines carry about 6-7% of Muni’s daily ridership. If substantial time and reliability improvements are carried out on all of the key corridors, we would capture a greater number of new riders than the 15,000 new riders that the Central Subway is projected to pick up by the year 2030. We would also have a holistically superior system on which people could trust and rely to transport them throughout their day. And in the process, we would touch far more people than we ever could with a short subway tunnel under Stockton Street.