Central Subway, Muni / SFMTA, San Francisco

Central Subway: Thinking Outside the (Station) Box

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.



9 thoughts on “Central Subway: Thinking Outside the (Station) Box

  1. Thanks, Eric. This is a great post about better alternatives for this corridor.

    If we are indeed forced to swallow the subway ideology there are surely better solutions than integrating it with the T-Third (as you had mentioned in earlier posts).

    The proposed underground route is so short that other crazy ideas might work better. Consider the Atlanta Airport’s people mover. It has headways of about 2 minutes and operates over a mile span.

    It pains me to think this will be another T-Third boondoggle and with such advanced notice! It’s as though the City is saying to its residents, ATTENTION RESIDENTS, WE’RE ABOUT TO MESS UP YOUR CITY’S TRANSIT A WHOLE BUNCH MORE! Nobody seems to be hailing the warning.

    Posted by kfarr | 20 November 2007, 7:14 pm
  2. Really, the justified section to put underground here, if we insist upon putting something underground, is the portion between Market and Columbus, and as you mentioned, there are any number of people-mover-like alternatives that would do this job at lower cost. The 2 minutes travel time that the MTA is projecting from Market Street to Chinatown stations — which is the precise trip that many people will (supposedly) be making — looks great until you factor in the 2 minutes it takes to get underground, the 2 minutes it takes to get above ground again after the ride, and maybe a couple minutes walk to your destination. In the end, the total travel time will be about the same as with the bus. The train ride might be more comfortable than the bus, but then again, it might not be, depending on the (actual, not theoretical) headways.

    It really does pain me to see so much money being thrown at a subway tunnel that was drawn on the map for political reasons rather than transit-related ones. And in the end, we’re still left wondering if we’ll ever see Geary rail within our lifetimes.

    Posted by Eric | 20 November 2007, 8:34 pm
  3. during 2002, the APM accommodated more than 64 million passengers

    That’s substantially more than the Central Subway will carry. Substantially more — in fact it’s more than the entire Muni Metro now carries.

    Posted by Steve | 21 November 2007, 1:05 am
  4. Steve – wow the ATL people mover ridership figure didn’t jump out at me like it should have upon first reading. That is pretty amazing.

    From my napkin math that’s like 20 million more passengers than the entire MUNI Metro system (at least from this article’s numbers).

    I wonder how much the ATL people mover costs.

    Posted by kfarr | 24 November 2007, 5:13 pm
  5. Steve,

    64 million per year is far less than Muni. Muni carries ~ 700,000 per DAY not per year.

    Posted by Brian | 24 November 2007, 5:20 pm
  6. Brian: Steve was referring to just the Muni Metro system, not all of Muni. Muni Metro carries about 45-47 million passengers per year.

    The context is important. The ATL people mover is a short, simple, free line that performs a specific purpose in isolation — not the same thing as a citywide transit system. Still, the lesson there is that if the goal is to move more people more efficiently (as it should be), we can do this much more reasonably than with this subway tunnel.

    Posted by Eric | 24 November 2007, 5:44 pm
  7. so do we the people of SF have a voice in how this money is spent or is it too late? I hear over and over again that we need Light Rail on Geary from downtown to the ocean yet this tunnel to Chinatown is receiving top priority. If we attempt to reroute the government funds from Chinatown to Geary will we lose the money altogether?

    Posted by charles | 27 November 2007, 10:50 pm
  8. From the perspective of transit need, Geary really should come first, but Geary is not as attractive politically. The funds cannot be rerouted. They apply to the project as proposed, and only that project, so unfortunately, the valuable federal funds cannot just be applied to more deserving causes.

    At this point, I don’t see how it can be stopped, with the funding lined up, and political will so bent on building the subway tunnel. Did you happen to see Amy Hough’s piece in the Bay Guardian today? (link) It summarizes the whole project on a pretty general level, but it does make clear just how much support there is for the tunnel, at all levels. Tom Radulovich is the sole voice of reason quoted in this article.

    Posted by Eric | 28 November 2007, 7:29 pm
  9. Here is an email I just wrote to Amy Hough, author of the Guardian’s article “SF Underground…” Any innovators out there? Let’s propose a better system at a fraction of the cost. There’s plenty of precedent around the world to support alternative ideas. Thanks, Transbay Blog –


    Hi Amy,
    Thanks for your important article [“SF Underground.”] hyperlink: http://www.sfbg.com/entry.php?entry_id=5058

    I am a young up-coming product designer with big-ideas and nothing to lose. To my surprise and excitement, taking this attitude has already won me some attention and support, and I want to push that momentum towards developing some innovative ideas about San Francisco’s mass-transit systems.

    Before I read your article about the proposed Central Subway, I had been doing some casual research on “wild” public transportation ideas. After I read your article, I realized how important it was to share with the public that these ideas are not actually “wild” or “crazy” at all. Many above-ground mass transit solutions are implemented all over the world and have the real potential to be a much better, cheaper alternative to a light rail or subway system.

    For some reason, in the United States we cannot get over the misconception that systems like a monorail are impractical or merely amusement park rides. But in places like Japan, these are

    [widely implemented] hyperlink: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monorails_in_Japan

    and have proven to be a great success. There is little precedent for above ground systems in the US, however these few systems have been successful. Seattle’s 1.2 mile monorail system for example was built in 1962 for only $3.6 million. At about $20 million in today’s dollars, that’s about 2% of the proposed cost/length of the SF proposed Central Subway system. Some people argue that you can’t build a monorail through a city, but that’s simply not true. In places like Japan and Germany it happens all the time, and in fact, Seattle has voted to extend their monorail system to
    [go right through the city center.] hyperlink: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/transportation/171827_monorail04.html?searchpagefrom=1&searchdiff=43

    If we are serious about the green movement, the United States has to start making serious improvements in public transportation. Our immediate perception might see piece-meal subway expansions as the best solution, but there are better technologies, and we need to start looking ahead. Even if we dig deep in the pockets for this subway expansion, what do we do 5 years later when we need another?

    San francisco is a hotbed for innovative thinking. I think this project needs to step back, reach out to that innovative resource, and get inspired to plan much farther ahead for a more sustainable mass-transit infrastructure.

    I have started my own modest call for innovation: http://web.mac.com/ericchaves/AirTram_Concept/The_Problem.html Please understand the whimsical feel of it, I just put it up last week, and its purpose is to attract free-thinking engineers, not to communicate ideas to the public. If you are interested, you can find more of my ideas on my Sketch Blog which is listed here: ThinkSketch.blogspot.com

    Thanks, Amy


    Posted by EC | 20 December 2007, 12:41 pm

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