Thursday, May 28, 2009

How I Learned to Love the B...Geary

A number of San Francisco websites including SFist and Curbed have posted on the Draft alternatives screening report, which I suppose is a pre-alternatives analysis analysis to get the project into preliminary engineering for either small starts or new starts funding.

SFCTA, or TA throughout this post, has basically closed out all hope of getting new starts funding for a rail line instead opting for a process for which they already have one project in and which under the new administration is likely to get changed back into a streetcar fund with more projects that got pushed to BRT under Bushco likely to get hopped by rail projects such as the recently funded Portland Eastside Streetcar extension because of their livability component. The next administration isn't going to be looking for projects on cost effectiveness alone but rather on what that project contributes to the community. When we take a long hard look at each of the things we hold important below I think that we'll come away with a sense that this is a project that could be better and should take the high road instead of the current low one.

But you all know I have a bit of a bias. I like riding the rails and advocating the construction of lines I think are worthy, especially those that others seem to contend should be BRT lines or Bus Repackaged Transit but should really be rail. The TA has tried to lay down some reasons why they can't build rail but really it just comes out looking and sounding like a little kid saying "It's just too hard". Since when did something being hard have anything to do with doing what is right? No is not the right answer here. Kind of reminds me of the SF Chamber.

Now this isn't to say that I don't have multiple thoughts going through my head about this stance. For one thing, BRT on the surface and a BART subway might not be such a bad thing for Geary. But then again my thoughts on that have some, as SFCTA puts it, "fatal flaws" (who uses that type of framing and language for a transit report anyway? Apparently the TA). The biggest one being the Geary Merchants who in their own self interest have (Again, similar to Market) opposed any kind of rapid transit whether it be BRT or rail for fear of the construction effects . So if they let it happen once, what is the likelihood of them letting it get ripped up again? What is the likelihood of going back with more funds to an area that already got an improvement of any kind? Likely never. My hypothesis is that if rail doesn't get built on Geary this time or an agreement is reached to press regional agencies to push it to the front of their priorties, rail will not be constructed in the corridor where it makes the most sense out of any other in the city for another 40 years. Perhaps when I'm 70 they'll consider it. That is just not acceptable and I'll tell you why.

There are a number of things I believe are important considerations that we are leaving out of the discussion when we just think of this BRT line as a transportation project. In fact, that's the sick math that is done in every city around this country when considering transportation impacts. It's often siloed away from land use and the people themselves and its impacts on quality of life are not really considered. A five minute decrease in travel time from end to end doesn't really matter to average joe (a 20 minute decrease would) but what does matter to him is money in his pocket,clean air to breathe, and the ability to step off of transit at his destination every day without hating Muni, which is often the case when you read the twitter feed for Muni. It's usually followed by "sucks" or another complaint. Instead of being the ones that own the system, we the people are often seen as customers to be served with a place setting of whatever the waiters are looking to serve on that day. Don't like it, go to the other store. The problem here with public transit is, there is no other store, but in fact, we the tax payers own this store.

So as owners of this store, what are we getting in return? Are we getting 5 minutes reduction in travel time or are we getting a healthier environment, a return to the greater community, more money in our own pockets for spending? Let's look at what WE should get out of this.

1. Environmental Impact

The Geary line currently carries ~55,000 a day on a number of limited and local bus lines that run under the number 38. Because the TA report doesn't actually give us ridership estimates on the alternatives because BRT is a foregone conclusion in their minds, we have to somewhat guess. They do give a clue as to what the percentages are for ridership in the subareas (p14) along the corridor and they are pretty low to what they should be. 28% of trips non auto is really good for any other part of the country. But can you believe that 72% of trips in the Outer Richmond are still made by car!? 61% of trips on the corridor are to other areas within San Francisco. That should tell you something about people feeling that they need to take the car because transit and their neighborhood sidewalk won't do it for them.

But with center running BRT, the prediction is that there would be 3,400 new riders on the corridor(including taking from the 5 and other parrallel lines) by 2015 (p26). This seems like a rather small number if the service were to be so much better. But if we're looking through the lens of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and particulates, pulling from other corridors and increasing your ridership by such a minimal amount doesn't seem worth it when you're talking about continuing to run on diesel instead of electricity.

But its not just the lack of skyrocketing ridership. It's the lack of access that keeps the demand for increased density on the corridor depressed. With greater access to downtown you're actually shifting the market outwards to an area that can support greater density on the commercial parcels that make up parts of the Geary corridor. And while it might look like it's all packed up on the corridor there are lots of parking lots and parcels that can change with the right incentives while preserving the surrounding neighborhoods. But with the shift in the market comes another reduction in GHGs. As Ed Glaeser often states, with our rather temperate climate and lowered energy use, it's actually more efficient from an energy standpoint to have greater housing unit allocation to places such as Geary and Broadway in Oakland than more to Antioch and Livermore.

Concentrating more jobs on the corridor(perhaps by getting the base of a Geary metro through SoMa) and granting faster access through a metro only reduces this further. With an increase in population also increases the specific base needed for neighborhood retail and restaurants including grocery stores. I know personally that the grocery store/dinner run is one of the trips that I take more than others. Perhaps not as much as the work trip but still a considerable percentage of trip making.

2. Resident/Merchant Impact

Aside from the carbon savings that would come with not having to use your car for more trips out on the Geary Corridor, there would also be greater incentive to get rid of a car all together and use a car sharing service such as Zipcar. Many more residents getting rid of their cars and pooling into zip cars would be a realistic result of more efficient rapid transit. Not only does this reduction allow you to cut your carbon, you're also moving around $10,000 a year into your wallet from insurance companies, auto repair shops, and those evil oil companies.

Consider the increase in ridership discussed above for BRT. About 3,400 new riders for the BRT option. Since we don't have subway or Muni Metro numbers I don't want to speculate too much as to make you roll your eyes at my point but with a Subway, I would guess a rise of at least 10,000 riders. Now I feel as if that is being conservative. And it's likely that if you built a BART line under Geary you could get that many more very easily. So think about all the money those people are saving and all the money that pumps back into the local economy. It's not going offshore to some oil country or to that insurance company in another state. It is likely that a large percentage of it will stay on Geary boosting local merchants and giving the city what Joe Cotright called the Green Dividend. This dividend increases when there is greater walking, biking, biking and transit.

The money that isn't spent on the Green Dividend can also be spent on housing. We all think of subsidized housing in the sense of inclusionary zoning and fee based funds for affordable housing but with such a great number of people saving money through quality transit, this investment we make in the city also acts as a subsidy for more affordable housing. It doesn't necessarily open up the market and lower prices but it does allow a renter or first time buyer to meet a greater threshold for what is affordable to them on their income. If we are giving people quality access, we're allowing them to have choices in where they live that allow them access to work.

Let's not also forget the neighborhoods as well. Many residents could feel threatened by such an investment providing better access to their neighborhood. The access granted will increase property values and shift/increase demand up the corridor from closer to downtown where transit access is better. It will also bring more density which people often equate with more traffic. But if we look at places like Arlington County in the DC region which chose to build a Subway, they were able to protect the surrounding neighborhoods on the corridor by defining a strict zone for dense development. The pattern has also created almost no new traffic on many of the streets because people have such great access to services and a direct line downtown and to other parts of the corridor. In fact, 72% of people who use metro in the R-B corridor get there by walking.

3. Access to Jobs

There is also the issue of connecting citizens to jobs. The faster you can get them to jobs in other parts of the region on transit, the more likely they will be to use transit to get there. Much of this was addressed in a post on San Jose's BART to San Jose project and another post that featured a report by Strategic Economics that I'll post the most interesting information about below again:
A preliminary analysis of transit ridership by industry and occupation in Portland, Oregon indicates that fixed guideway transit connects to more diverse employment opportunities than local bus. An Entropy Index was used to measure the diversity of incomes for occupations in industries with the highest percentage of transit ridership in the region. Entropy index scores are stated as a decimal and the lower the number, the more concentrated the occupational and income mix within that industry.

As Table 1 shows, industries with high percentages of bus ridership also tend to have low Entropy Index scores for an overall average of 0.54. For the most part, these were industries with a high percentage of low wage jobs. However, industries where workers use fixed guideway transit and/or bus and fixed guideway transit to get to work had a much greater diversity income diversity with an average index score of 0.89. This analysis demonstrates that fixed-guideway transit provides connectivity to jobs with different income opportunities, and possibly greater opportunities for advancement, while bus provides the best connectivity for workers in predominantly low-income industries with little opportunity for advancement.
This means that the broader group of incomes that lives in the Richmond would likely have better access to jobs outside of San Francisco without having to drive their cars. The difference is made in the speed that would be attainable underground from this area rich with residents to areas outside of the city.

4. City Fiscal Impact

Another reason for pushing for a subway would be the shifting of greater expense to the capital of this project rather than the corridor operations which as we all know around here tend to be stolen or used as an ATM machine. If this line is a Muni Metro subway, then operations costs on the corridor should go down with the allowance of 3-4 car trains. Two cars will not do it with the current fleet operating as we've seen from the recent data that shows the cost per passenger mile being higher for Muni Metro than the city buses.

With lower costs on the corridor than for buses or BRT, this should mean that more service can be obtained for less money. With BART you would likely see a similar finding but an even greater operational cost savings. In addition, greater density provides way to capture greater receipts from sales and property taxes for the city.


These are just a few of the reasons why I think we should start earlier rather than later on a Geary Subway. As I continued to write this ridiculously huge post (mad props to the Urbanophile who writes posts like this all the time), I started to think no one would read. Congrats if you got this far. I imagine that BRT on this corridor is a done deal because all the TA and everyone else for that matter is cared about is the up front costs instead of the long term value created by such an INVESTMENT. I'll have to get around to how I think we might be able to pay for this, and I have some ideas, but its definitely doable...hopefully before I turn 70. Let's stop neglecting the urban corridors in this region for the suburbs alone.

I was also going to go into the whole issue of how the TA's estimates for the current project are BS, how the BRT is underestimated and compared to a light rail line that they likely estimated based on reconstructing the whole street. But I'm not sure that's a detailed fight I want to get into right now. I'm sure it will come up later. My only comment today is that we need new people to do cost estimates and design these things, because it shouldn't cost this much to put back something that was there just 50 years ago.

Some fun reading:

TA Memo
Enviro PPT

Finally, my long term dream for the corridor which makes me think that BRT on the surface would be perhaps ok if we actually got a Subway from UC Berkeley to Geary.


arcady said...

One thing that continues to be a mystery is why they completely ignore even the possibility of electrification. SF already has a very well developed trolleybus infrastructure, and there's even a trolleybus depot right ON the line, but the official TA report doesn't even mention it. And it really seems like they think the important part of BRT is having appropriately "stylized" buses, sorry, BRTVs, rather than anything like speed, passenger convenience and comfort, operating efficiency, or other actually practical concerns. And their cost estimates for rail seem absurdly high, compared to, say, LA's Gold Line.

TexasOski said...

Well...I read the whole thing and understand your frustrations. Your thoughts are well articulated. I hope you have lots of readers for this post, including some who may be able to influence a change in thinking.

Alon Levy said...

The argument about entropy and income diversity seems to get it backward. There's no mechanism proposed for why buses promote low-income jobs and rail promotes more diversity. There are many mechanisms explaining the opposite effect, with low incomes encouraging bus travel and high income encouraging rail. First, areas with higher incomes are likelier to get investment in rail infrastructure. Second, placing rail on an inner city corridor leads to gentrification, increasing average incomes. And third, middle- and high-income workers are also less likely to be willing to take the bus than they are to take rail. The first two factors ensure that high-income and mixed-income spaces will be more accessible by rail, while the third ensures that low-income spaces will be accessed mainly by bus.

arcady said...

Alon, is that really the argument they're making? Or are they just saying that of the entire population, buses only attract the low-income segment which has no choice, whereas rail attracts both? Because from my experience with LA, this is exactly the case: during peak hours, rail has a very diverse ridership with a significant upper class component, whereas off peak when roads are less congested, rail riders (both Metro Rail and Metrolink) tend to be predominantly minority, while bus riders are predominantly minority all the time.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

The point isn't that bus or rail are promotional of different job types. The issue is that together they serve a greater diversity of income levels than would happen if you didn't have more rapid transit. It means that you have access to transit to get to a larger number of job types. This is not to say that some of your points aren't correct, but what it does say is that rapid transit allows people greater mobility to get to different kinds of jobs.

If you make a bus connection to a rail connection, it's likely that your 30 minute commute shed will greatly increase, thus increasing your access to other types of jobs. If you have a bus only system, it makes it harder to reach that diversity in such a timeframe. That's what I get out of that index.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Yeah Arcady, I don't get why they can't do ETBs either. Its very strange to me.

arcady said...

PT: I'd venture a guess that the study was done by consultants who are not from SF and have never ridden on or seen a Muni trolleybus. But then again, the Van Ness study, or at least the simulated pictures, show overhead wires and trolleybuses. It's really a mystery, especially if they're supposed to be making Geary "rail-ready", as overhead support poles, feeder cables, and substations would also be useful for a rail line.

Michael D. Setty said...

If Perata is elected Mayor of Oakland, do you suppose he could get Bates to go along and propose a study of the idea for a Geary to UC Berkeley line like you show, plus the 3rd & 4th track for regional rail and HSR? Your idea is in the Regional Rail Plan adopted by MTC in 2007, but there is no one currently pushing implementation of that blueprint, at least not anyone with any influence.

Michael D. Setty said...

Oh, yeah.

Why not another billion or so for a grade separated line along the MacArthur corridor to East Oakand? This would be far more cost effective than that silly $500 million Airport people mover...

Ian said...

great post, i made it all the way through!

i would love a subway from berkeley all the way to geary... i guess it won't happen until much after i graduate though. it would only be that fast in china.

Andy said...

Good job on the post.

Steve said...

I wonder if they didn't consider trolley buses because trolley buses have a hard time passing each other and they're assuming the BRT will need to deal with bus bunching (which it seems plausible that it will, given the expected ridership).

Of course, that makes the argument for grade-separated rail even stronger...

arcady said...

Steve: it's highly unlikely that the reserved lanes will be wide enough for two regular buses to pass each other, given the constraints of the corridor. And the very similar Van Ness corridor will definitely be trolleybus (it would look bad if they were to take down the existing wires). So it continues to be a mystery, or maybe a potential hook for questioning the competence and local knowledge of the consultants.

Matt Fisher said...

As somebody who just got back from Toronto, a "streetcar/subway city", I will say that, being a resident of what is heralded as a Mecca for BRT, BRT is a worse idea. Sure, it appears cheaper, but doesn't appear better. They're just calling it "train like". They would prefer to think short term like they'll say, "We can't do it". And they do it too much.

I can't even get why they're using trolleybuses on this! The 38 Geary doesn't have trolleybuses! I will actually say that a Geary subway is a good idea after all. The TA is apparently afraid of investment.

F.Y.I., on my trip to Toronto, last night, I was on the 501 Queen streetcar from Neville Park Loop in the Beaches to Long Branch Loop in Etobicoke, on the border with Mississauga, with a length of 24 km long. The plan to modernize by upgrading from Humber Loop to Long Branch Loop to make it LRT should be done. This is fine, but could be made better. A subway on Queen Street would work longer term, but there should be LRT on Eglinton more so, with a subway on part of its route.

I agree. Putting BRT on Geary would indefinitely delay any possible form of rail transit until when I'll be 72 years old. This is the same with other busway proposals, i.e. I-35W in Minneapolis (which I think should be LRT) or Independence Blvd. in Charlotte. I'll only be 22 years old - 50 years less than what I said earlier - on Canada Day, July 1st! And they say BRT is supposedly a "stepping stone" to light rail.

Arcady: The "very well developed trolleybus infrastructure" you're talking about is extensive in Vancouver, but it's bad in Edmonton that they're ending trolleybuses. They say that it's a choice between those and LRT extensions. To me, this is a false choice. Besides, in Edmonton, they're opting for LRT extensions to the north and the west instead of busways.