A couple weeks ago, the author of The Overhead Wire blog lamented the Bay Area’s lack of a true urban metro system and offered some ideas for what his dream subway might look like for San Francisco and Oakland. I thought that it might be fun to do a response to those posts. In the more obvious corridors, our maps overlap quite a bit, but there are of course differences. His lament is one that I share, and so regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that drawing fantasy subway maps has long been a personal pastime. The earliest models of a dream subway for the Bay Area were based on real needs and ridership patterns, with an eye toward future development potential, but they were also quite expensive — the goal there being to saturate the Bay Area urban core with subway lines in the way you find in New York, Paris, and many other cities around the world.
Since those early versions, I’ve become a strong proponent of bus rapid transit and other more cost-effective solutions. While some corridors really do require rail in order to both properly address current high ridership and to maximize future ridership potential — in San Francisco, Geary is right at the top of this list — in other cases, BRT can work quite nicely, presenting the advantage of flexibility that you lose out on when laying down track. The trick, of course, is to find the solution that is the best fit for each corridor in need. For instance, you can certainly make the case that Van Ness deserves a true subway, rather than the BRT solution currently in planning, but Van Ness itself is only a portion of the 47 and 49 bus lines. Building BRT on Van Ness presents the opportunity to improve travel speed and reliability in this high ridership section of the 47 and 49 lines, relatively quickly and at low cost, even if we lack plans to build additional infrastructure for the non-Van Ness portions of those lines.
Those early dream subway maps have since become considerably less dreamy — in fact, most of the subway tunnels have disappeared altogether — partly because comparing the maps to a seemingly unchanging reality was a bit disappointing, but largely in response to the torturous process required to obtain funding for new projects, and a desire to spread what funding could be obtained into creating a holistically superior system in a reasonable time frame. It was more gratifying to aim for a goal that realistically could be achieved within my lifetime, even at the expense of perhaps more impressive infrastructure.
Still, one can’t help but wonder what the Bay Area would be like had BART originally been built as a true subway system. Even in the urban areas, BART stations are often quite far apart, with trains speeding through neighborhoods that come frustratingly close to receiving direct service. What if we were to add infill stations, thereby allowing more people to walk to their neighborhood station, rather than driving and parking to a station a couple miles away? Although BART has five routes, those routes share so much track that there are really just two legitimate lines that serve the urban core, and these two lines do not serve the majority of neighborhoods. Instead, what if we had several interconnected lines? The geographic area under consideration here is not that large; with such a system, you could get most places rather quickly. Under that model, transit would be a more viable option for a greater number of people than under BART’s current configuration. With this proliferation of stations and subway lines, we would most likely have a much denser, more livable Bay Area, a place in which walking and transit would be a prevalent lifestyle choice — the rule, not the exception.
At this point, this discussion about subway fantasy concerns more what could have been, rather than what necessarily should be — at least, to the extent that you will see in the fantasy maps. Certainly, the cost of building out these dream maps would be significantly reduced by replacing tunnels with BRT or a streetcar, and in a few cases, that is exactly what is currently being planned. But it’s the holidays, after all. Why not indulge a bit? For the transit geeks and rail fans among us (and if you’re reading this post, you’re probably one too), the thought of a bona fide subway network is tantalizing. Despite the significant effect that a cost-effective BRT network would have on improving our local transit system, buses can never be quite as cool or as appealing as trains, nor do they present the same opportunity to provide really rapid transit. I’ll have some expensive dream subway maps posted in the next two days — the San Francisco map in just a little while, and then the East Bay half of the map tomorrow. Admittedly, I am regressing into an old dream; these will be Google Maps versions of old pencil sketches. But hopefully it will be a fun thought exercise.