Transbay Blog

No Subway For You

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Streetcar queue at 12th and Market streets.

In the 1930s, when streetcars were alive and well — over a decade before any sort of BART planning occurred, and three decades before the start of BART construction — San Francisco planned a network of subway tunnels extending across the City that would serve as a rapid transit spine that streetcars could funnel in and out of on their trips to and from downtown. It was not the first time such a system was proposed, nor would it be the last, but it was a milestone of sorts in San Francisco’s transit history. Three older streetcar tunnels — the Stockton Tunnel (completed 1914), the Twin Peaks Tunnel (completed 1918), and the Sunset Tunnel (completed 1928) — were built not for the express purpose of providing rapid transit, but rather, to break through San Francisco’s famous hilly barriers. A fourth tunnel, the Fort Mason Tunnel, was also completed in 1914 in connection with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition the following year. Streetcars led the way in the development of new neighborhoods — or in the urbanization and densification of existing neighborhoods, by making them more accessible — much as cable cars had done a few decades earlier, though the streetcars often burrowed under hills in addition to climbing over them. Meanwhile, streetcars converged from all over the City onto Market Street — but on the surface. The surface of Market was equipped with two tracks in each direction, and it’s not hard to imagine what the chaos of Market Street in the early 20th century must have been like: hordes of pedestrians, and lines of streetcars. A Chronicle editorial from the 1930s once described Market Street as an “elongated four-track car barn.” Clearly, something needed to be done to relieve streetcar congestion. But that was not the only good reason to build a downtown subway.

The plans and studies for a subway coalesced into a formal proposal in 1936, around the same time as both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge were completed. These two bridges, by connecting the City to the nearby mainland, extinguished the need for ferry service, and they had a profound effect on the way people moved about the region. Even in the 1930s, when over two-thirds of San Franciscans were transit-dependent, there was a worry that transit riders would turn to the automobile and abandon the slow, congested streetcars, thereby only adding to the congestion problem. The traffic that the new bridges could dump everyday onto city streets made this worry that much more acute. The realization that an investment in rapid transit had to be made to keep streetcar service competitive led to this subway proposal. In that sense, their concerns back then were not all that different from our concerns today.

The proposed subway system was rejected. In 1937, voters quite definitively turned down the $49.3 million rapid transit bond measure. In fact, the measure failed to earn even a simple majority of the votes (just 42% voted in favor of the bond), probably because of concern and uncertainty in approving such a large bond issue during economically tenuous times. (The $5 million sewer bond on that ballot also failed. In contrast, the much smaller $2.9 million Airport expansion bond, and the $1.6 million hospital improvement bond — on the same ballot as the rapid transit bonds — both passed.) Like the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, the subway also would have had a profound, though quite different, effect on travel patterns — by reducing transit travel times, encouraging San Franciscans to stick with their streetcars, and offsetting the impending love affair with the automobile that was to truly set in just a decade later. But rapid transit was not yet to be.

If the proposed subway were built, here is a sketch of what it would have looked like:

The map only includes proposed construction. Then-existing surface streetcar lines that would have connected to the subway are omitted. Also omitted is the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which predates this proposal.

One thing that is immediately striking about this map is how of much of it we ended up building eventually — sort of:

But what major piece of this would-be subway system still remains unaccounted for? That would be Geary. The fact that a Geary subway was proposed as early as the 1930s testifies to Geary’s long-standing importance as one of San Francisco’s primary transit corridors. But its tale is one of unrealized promises. It has periodically entered the limelight, poised to finally receive the attention it deserves, only to be ultimately deprived of the favor. This pre-BART rapid transit proposal is interesting in its own right, and there is more that could be said about it. But one reason I brought it up now was to segue into a long-overdue discussion about Geary and its bus rapid transit corridor, currently being planned. (The other reason for writing this now is that a friend has been clamoring at me to post about transit history, so hopefully now he’ll get off my back.) The story of transit on Geary, for all intents and purposes, began in the year 1880 — and that is where we’ll take up the story, as well. Check back soon for further posts on Geary.

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