Central Subway, Muni / SFMTA, San Francisco

The Northwest Subway

Washington Square: next stop on the line?
Top image courtesy of House of Orion;
bottom image courtesy of Streetsblog.

There have been two flavors of discussion lately about the Central Subway — one, which exposes the unsurprising revelation that this exercise in burrowing underground is already going over budget; and the other, as at SPUR’s recent forum on the Central Subway, which pushes forward, dreaming for a bigger, and hopefully better line. (By the way: many thanks to Tom Prete for his Twitter coverage of the SPUR event, and be sure to also check out his excellent recent piece on Muni’s express buses.) Is bigger always best, or is it better to be short and sweet? Thanks to the subway’s somewhat awkward stub end at Chinatown, both might be partially true. That we would expand rail to Chinatown, daylight the tunnel-boring machines near Washington Square, and then not bring rail service to North Beach would indeed seem to be a missed opportunity, even for Central Subway skeptics like yours truly. But then, where to extend the tracks? To Fisherman’s Wharf, as some suggest — or to Fort Mason, the Marina District, the Presidio, and even the Golden Gate Bridge, as others have suggested? Surface light rail through North Beach might be more than Columbus Avenue streetscape planners have bargained for, but our hunch is to side with the Fisherman’s Wharf supporters on this one. Not because we feel a pressing need to add a third track connection between Union Square and the Wharf, on top of cable cars and the F-line — but because it is a natural point of extension that would add value without requiring too lengthy an extension; we might dare even to call it “damage control.” Van Ness will have dedicated bus lanes by this point in time, and terminating the rail extension there near North Point would facilitate a transfer to more robust service on that corridor. Besides, we would rather see historic streetcars go to Fort Mason, and we’re not convinced that both services are needed. As for the Presidio, an extension of the 30-Stockton trolley — and perhaps, eventually, historic streetcars as well — to the Presidio Transit Center strikes us as the more reasonable plan. The benefit gained by extending the Central Subway from Chinatown to Washington Square is considerable; but a westward extension, into the Marina and beyond, seems to carry much less benefit per dollar spent. For one, try convincing certain Marina folk that, really, more overhead wires might not reduce their property values. Okay, we jest (sort of), but setting that aside, ridership in the northwest corner of town is less than well-demonstrated: the 30 and 45 buses are not thoroughly used in the Marina and Cow Hollow. They sometimes run largely empty until they arrive at crowded Chinatown stops on Stockton Street, which suggests that building such an extension would not yield the best bang for buck. The peak hour 30X Marina Express buses to the Financial District are well-used, but — short of the SFMTA cutting popular express bus routes to increase Central Subway ridership — why would downtown-bound Marina commuters choose to ride the Central Subway and then execute a several-minute transfer at the inexpertly designed Union Square/Market Street station, when a one-seat express bus ride could take them directly downtown? We don’t know, either. And, to be frank, there are other corridors where the transit capital dollars would be a better investment.



18 thoughts on “The Northwest Subway

  1. I didn’t know there was any consideration for extending the Central Subway line beyond Van Ness and to top off your point about the 30 ridership dropping off in the Marina, not all 30’s even go to the Marina. The short line uses the 60′ articulated busses and only goes as far as Van Ness, while the full line runs the white 45′ busses.

    Historic service (I sit on the Market Street Railway board of directors which has partnered with the NPS on this) is more in keeping with ridership levels and is much more practical since the trains will turn around in the existing Fort Mason center parking lot (no wires or streetcars on neighborhood streets) and there’s already a single track tunnel that’s in good shape.

    Posted by Jamison Wieser | 18 March 2009, 5:33 pm
  2. Hi Jamison, I agree that extending historic streetcar service to Fort Mason makes a good deal of sense for both practical and aesthetic reasons, and it would be wonderful to see the old tunnel rehabilitated and put back to use.

    Thanks for also mentioning the short vs. long line 30’s – it’s another good point to keep in mind. Even running that more minimal level of service for the full route, there’s been little to suggest the need even for more robust bus service in the Marina, let alone rail.

    Posted by Eric | 18 March 2009, 5:42 pm
  3. Another good reason for not building in the Marina – why on Earth would you want to build multi-billion capital infrastructure inside congealed mud and landfill that is just awaiting for the next quake to liquefy (again).

    I agree entirely about the Geary corridor. Were it not for the fact the Richmond and Sunset are predominantly Asian and not as involved in City politics as other louder groups, they tend to get short shrift. At least some effort is belatedly being made to redress the disgraceful situation of the Stockton street corridor.

    It’s amazing to see how in the 1860s, a mere dozen years after being turned from sleepy fishing village to a thriving gold-driven metropolis, SF had a world-leading transportation network. Contrast this with the current situation, where even fairly simple projects like replacing Doyle drive take forever and absurdly expensive levels of expenditure.

    Posted by Fazal Majid | 18 March 2009, 5:43 pm
  4. For 20 years VTA has been saying that its light rail system — the worst-performing in the world as far as anybody knows, and constructed entirely for political reasons and the financial advantage of its consultants and employees — is under-performing since “the network” hasn’t been “completed”.

    Just a few billion more and you’ll see! Trust us!

    Third Street Light rail may be a scurvy dog — less reliable, slower and more costly than the buses is “replaced” — but that was only Part One of our cunning plan to run to Clay Street. Just you wait for Part Two! Oh. well, yeah, nobody uses the less reiable, slower and nose-bleed costly one-effective stop subway to The Most Cgronically Underserved and Downtrodden Transit Area In the Entire Universe (if you ignore the 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 12, 15, 20, 30, 41, 45 and Mason lines, that is) but wait until we extend it to Crissy Field in Part Three .. .THEN you’ll see ridership and THEN you’ll see how wise we were.

    The first rule of holes is to stop digging.
    What we lose on each sale we make up on volume.

    Fundamentally any capital “investment” that INCREASES operating cost — which ALL, repeat ALL of Muni’s scams do — is not one any even remotely public-serving agency would conceive of, promote or approve. Muni’s capital investments are pure frauds, designed to take public money and divert iti into the pockets of its contractors, contractor-captive management, and we-get-paid-whether-the-bus-is-moving-or-whether-the-train-costs-20-times-as-much-as-the-bus-so-bring-it-on operating unions.

    PS SPUR and its employees do an excellent job at the job that they do.

    Posted by Richard Mlynarik | 19 March 2009, 10:21 am
  5. @ Richard, I disagree than any capital investment that increases operating costs is not worth considering. I think the responsibility that transit agencies have it to service levels for its riders first and foremost. If higher service levels are needed, that will very likely increase operating costs. There are times when the most effective service increases require capital investment and increase operating costs.

    It’s not a sin to spend money on transit, I promise.

    Regarding the CS and hypothetical extension, I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Add one more stop in North Beach and you increase ridership even more than that one station’s share of existing projections, since you’ve created new service that induced new demand.

    If we could build the political will to properly fund Muni (while increasing efficiency and oversight – I’m not against that by any means) we could realistically conceive of a CS project that will serve SF well for decades to come. I think that would mean going underground all the way to Van Ness.

    I have a google map set up for my brainstorming, pure fantasy of course: http://tinyurl.com/den4t7

    Posted by Josh | 19 March 2009, 12:37 pm
  6. Josh: increased operating costs might make sense if you’re talking about expanding outwards. But that’s not what this is: this is expanding in an already very well developed transit corridor. Any capital investment really should decrease operating costs, for example by using higher capacity vehicles (thus fewer operators), and making them go faster (thus fewer operating hours). And by the way, I agree that something needs to be done in the Stockton corridor, because the current service really isn’t adequate. I would recommend starting by banning car traffic from Stockton, leaving it to buses and delivery trucks only, which would increase speed, and continuing by building a surface extension of the Third St line up 4th, Stockton, Columbus, and North Point to Van Ness, which would increase capacity from articulated buses to two-car light rail trains, thus letting Muni move more people for less money.

    As for the VTA light rail: the VTA is actually right, the network really isn’t complete. They’re missing the one most logical line, which should probably have been built before most or all of the rest: the Downtown-East Valley line. Which, by the way, would also decrease operating costs by replacing a well used bus service with light rail.

    Posted by anonymouse | 19 March 2009, 9:40 pm
  7. I don’t think we’ll see the end of a need for surface improvements to Stockton, though actually implementing them is another, thornier question. But consider this: the biggest chunk of riders are between Market St and Chinatown — it’s this joint section of the 30/45 route that inundates the buses — even the artics — with more riders than they can handle, and it’s this section of the route that so many people point to, to justify the subway. In executing that trip from Chinatown to Market St, your choices will eventually be:

    (1) walk 0-1 blocks to the bus stop, wait for one of three frequent bus lines that serve that stop, ride the bus without having to go underground, and get off bus at street level.
    (2) walk, potentially a few blocks, to the Chinatown station, go underground, wait for only one choice of light rail line (though short line T-Third service would reduce headways at Chinatown), ride the train for a shorter ride than the bus, but then you have to emerge from the UMS platform some 9-10 stories below Market Street.

    For that trip, which many people will be making, the CS does not offer great time savings, and it’s a more stressful trip (more walking, elevation changes) for elderly and disabled. Not only that, but for folks coming to Chinatown from Vis Valley, the T won’t save time over the 9X, even with the subway. Given this, just how many people will pick the bus over the train? I guess we’ll see.

    The point, though, is that the subway doesn’t address the entire corridor (indeed, the point of this post is that addressing the entire corridor might not be that great of an idea). For those people who don’t have easy access to the subway portion of the corridor, they will be riding the bus, and the transfer to the subway may not be worth it. And even for people who are directly on the T, there are reasons to believe that many current bus riders might not bother switching to the subway. All of which points to the conclusion that even the Central Subway will not eliminate the need for surface improvements to Stockton. And if the buses are still very well used, that surface transit will remain critical notwithstanding the rail redundancy — but with increased costs, to what extent will surface transit be put on the chopping block?

    Posted by Eric | 20 March 2009, 12:15 am
  8. It occurs to me that improvements on the 30 Stockton corridor would be a very useful excuse when the Central Subway ridership numbers start coming in way below projections.

    Reason enough to prioritize it.

    Posted by theo | 20 March 2009, 10:56 am
  9. I agree with Eric in that the Chinatown to Market stretch is too short to make a subway optimal, but short of putting moving sidewalks on Stockton between California and Grant, there is not much that can be done. Stockton street is simply too crowded for buses to move efficiently, and too narrow for BRT.

    Posted by Fazal Majid | 20 March 2009, 11:54 am
  10. Subways represent the final hegemony of the car.

    Other than increased profits for contractors, there is nothing that will be accomplished with subway that could not just as easily be accomplished with at-grade solution (whether it be tram or even BRT).

    Posted by bikerider | 21 March 2009, 3:12 pm
  11. I’m originally from the east coast and loved living in NYC and DC and riding their subways. I would love to see more subways in SF through downtown, along Geary, down 19th Ave. connecting important commercials districts…getting people not only out of their cars, but getting rid of their cars.

    MUNI light-rail is a joke. The historic streetcars look cute rolling along the Embarcadero and Market St., but one can hardly call that mass transit. I would like to see a subway up 4th St., Stockton through Chinatown/North Beach around the bend and down Van Ness. Why shouldn’t I want to get from Point A to Point B is the least amount of time.

    Posted by Mark | 23 March 2009, 12:51 pm
  12. Why shouldn’t I want to get from Point A to Point B is the least amount of time.

    Because I’m paying for it by degraded service throughout the entire city and the entire region, and paying for it for decades to come.

    Enjoy your ride!

    Posted by Richard Mlynarik | 23 March 2009, 1:10 pm
  13. Don’t be so quick to dismiss historic streetcars as being some cute novelty.

    The F-Line carries more passengers than any bus line on Market Street and more passengers than the J or K line as of spring 2007. I don’t have more current figures at hand, but last I checked the F-Line was still in the top 10 highest ridership lines.

    There are options to speed up transit along Stockton short of a subway and even BRT. Low floor busses, all-door boarding, ticket vending machines, loaders (light-duty workers helping direct people) would all make contributions to boarding speed. It doesn’t make the busses move any faster, but reduces the time they spend standing still.

    Posted by Jamison Wieser | 23 March 2009, 3:12 pm
  14. Of course the F-line is popular…I don’t discount that fact. However, it simply didn’t work for me as a means to commute to and from work. I just don’t find it reliable. But, that’s just my opinion.

    Posted by Mark | 23 March 2009, 8:01 pm
  15. The F-Market suffers from the reliability issues that are inherent to having surface transit operate in mixed flow with automobiles. The purpose of the F (and really, of streetcars in general) isn’t to be rapid transit; it’s to enhance mobility in an urban space, particularly for relatively short trips where it’s unnecessary to go underground.

    Surface redundancy can be very important, especially when you have a subway as troubled as Muni’s. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I’ve relied on the F when there were delays underground.

    It doesn’t mean that subways aren’t worth the investment, but realistically, even a long-term scenario in SF won’t involve nearly as many tunnels as NYC. I’m certainly not against subways in principle, though I remain highly skeptical of Central Subway planning, in particular.

    Posted by Eric | 23 March 2009, 8:12 pm
  16. Eric, I know your pain. I had to rely on the F-line at Castro when the underground had its frequent morning meltdowns. I also am not a fan of the Central Subway project because the current plan does not seem to serve any real purpose. However, if we are going to be stuck with it then make it something worth the investment like extending it to the wharf/end of Van Ness (as in the map above). First, I don’t think the extension would be a redundancy of track. The F-line runs around the perimeter of the city before heading up Market St. Second, the extension will connect major commercial areas that will be easier to access.

    Posted by Mark | 31 March 2009, 11:14 am
  17. Maybe a future plan for the t-line central subway would be a much needed city loop like this: http://lh4.ggpht.com/_EJHLmXOyIRY/Sfyw3Fu7-wI/AAAAAAAAAOU/tAQVl7K52mc/s912/muni.jpg

    Posted by jt | 2 May 2009, 1:45 pm
  18. If indeed light rail through the Marina and Presidio is determined to be promising through ridership projections, then such a line can be built in phases, as appropriate. But I can think of no good reason to fast-track it ahead of other, truly “much needed” improvements. Marina/Presidio LRT is not the 1st, or even the 8th, priority.

    Posted by Eric | 3 May 2009, 9:43 am

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