Sunday, November 2, 2008

Subways Expanded

I was going to write this comment in the last subways post but I thought it might warrant its own post.

Folks have been asking why we need subways or why surface transit expanded won't do the trick. I think Zurich, Budapest, and Vienna for example have excellent surface transit systems. As 295bus points out in the comments, Zurich has been very progressive with their que jumping tram systems. But I don't have that kind of faith in San Francisco to do it right. Everything seems to get messed up in engineering. But even if what they say about the signal priority is true on the T Third, something like a 10% increase in travel time on the whole line, that still doesn't do much for me. That trip from end to end is still makes you budget an hour for your trip. It still gets caught up in lights and there are way too many stops because of crossing streets. Same with the N, same with the L etc.

I know you all have probably heard me complain about this before, but here is the basic comparison and reason for my angst on this subject.

I live by the 24th and Church J Stop. It's exactly a half mile from my door to the 24th street BART. Now, in the morning going to work, I walk down the hill to BART and get on a train. They come every 4 minutes to Oakland which means I almost never have to wait very long. I take the train 18 minutes (almost never changes) to the 12th street station and walk up the stairs to my office. That trip of 11 miles takes me 30 minutes every day. That means I'm going 22 miles per hour.

Now let's say I'm going to Union Street to watch the game. I watch Next Muni to see when the J is coming, I go and hop on the J and take it to Church and Market. At Church and Market I switch to the 22 trolley bus which then travels down Fillmore. This whole trip is three miles and takes about 40 minutes.

Here's another trip I take. Take the J downtown then get on the 45 or the 30 to go into North Beach to meet friends. That trip takes me 40 minutes as well. That's about a 4 mile trip made faster by the Market Subway but I still have to crawl through Chinatown on Stockton Street. That is about 6 miles per hour.

But imagine if we had a subway. That trip to Union Street would take about 15 minutes. Wow. That would be amazing! I wouldn't have to budget an hour each way just in case a car stopped in front of the bus or the signals were having a bad day. It would be the same time every time we took it. I could go to the Richmond for Dim Sum or North Beach for Italian deli meat.

This is not Houston or Austin where we can say, 'we're not as dense as San Francisco or New York'. We ARE San Francisco. The city IS dense. We should have a Metro system just like DC or Vienna or Prague. I realize its expensive but so will be cleaning the air and allowing people greater mobility. Imagine not having to worry about places to park ever! When we make people have to budget an hour for what should be a short trip, we are making them choose thier car. Because our streets are narrow and we need to start thinking about giving bicycles and pedestrians space as well, our precious street space should be used for that and surface transit with many stops, and people should be able to get across town in a timely fashion underground. Just my opinion.


rhywun said...

When I lived in SF, my commute was from Geary & Presidio to Van Ness and then up Van Ness to Lombard--also usually a frustrating hour for such a short trip.

The big problem in SF is that it's too dense to rely on buses mixed with the heavy car traffic but (arguably) not quite dense enough to justify subways except in the central area, say, east of Van Ness and north of Market. The common European solution of putting streetcars underground downtown and above ground elsewhere would certainly work well but to be effective would require separation from traffic (i.e. reducing lanes available for cars) which is a very difficult sell anywhere in America, even SF.

295bus said...

I think the appeal that subways have (see for example BART-to-SJ) and the opposition people have to losing traffic lanes or parking to transit (see BRT in Berkeley) gets to the core of why transit sucks in the US.

Despite their complaints about taxes, people do not really seem to mind seeing gobs of $$ spent or misspent.

On the other hand, people have so little interest in actually using transit, they they are absolutely unwilling to make any allowances for it that might somehow affect their existence in the slightest, and are profoundly disinterested in actually seeing transit succeed.

Here is an excellent article on Zurich Trams and the city's rejection of subways.

An important point that the author makes is that metros allow transit oriented development at stations, i.e., at small islands widely spaced. Surface transit like trams encourages transit-oriented development along the entire route--and may actually provide better door-to-door travel times for more trips, since the lines will be so much easier to get to.

In your travel time comparison, it be useful to consider hypothetic trips on muni likes like the J and the 30 if they had signal pre-emption, dedicated lanes, and ran reliably--i.e., if SF actually cared enough about transit to make existing lines work well, instead of looking for fun big things to build like the central subway.

Anonymous said...

Not dense enough?! How dense does San Francisco have to be before subways are justified. SF is one of the densest cities in the world, much less the country. It is 50% denser than all three European cities mentioned in the post—Budapest, Zurich, and Vienna.

Jon said...

Very well said. I couldnt agree more about the need to build subway especially in a city like SF.

The Muni Metro has all the parts of San Francisco covered that are lower density (by SF standards) and probably only warrant surface rail anyway (SW SF by West Portal, Balboa Park, the Zoo etc). It also leaves the whole half of the city north of Golden Gate Park and north of Market street untouched, which I think is actually good since that is the area of the city most suited to real subway. They just need to get building. Even just 10 miles of subway in this part of SF would do miracles. The speed of the 30/45 is a disgrace but there is nothing that can be done other than go underground.

San Francisco is a very small size (7 x 7 miles) and abutted not by suburbs where the intense land use fades out but by water on 3 sides. Assuming the city is a complete 7 x 7 square you'd be talking about 49 sq miles and if you put a subway running through each square mile you'd only be talking 49 miles of subway and in this case everyone in the city would be at the most 1/2 mile walk to the subway. Nevermind that a good portion of the city is parkland, or mountain, so you wouldn't even consider subway there. And as mentioned, another large portion is lower density and already well suited and served by surface Muni Metro. So imagine one 6 mile subway line running the length of the city (leaving say 1/2 mile from both ends of the line) and you'd never have to extend it further. Consider a 3 mile line in the Van Ness/Mission corridor. By the time you get to 20 miles of subway in SF (while focusing it in the top half of the city), youll have incredible coverage. The amount of people 1/2 mile or even 1/4 mile from one of these subway lines will probably be at least half of the city's population if not more.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I'll point everyone to AC's excellent weighted density chart.

arcady said...

Any mode can be done badly or well, and that can make a huge difference. Remember when Muni was having its signal troubles in the subway and the F was actually faster? So a subway alone is no protection from Muni incompetence. And we have to be realistic here: subways would be nice to have, but SF is a tiny city, and has a lower population density than Queens, and unlike DC, the feds won't support the subway quite as much. So the realistic option is to get as much out of the system that's already there as possible. Maybe one day SF will have a streetcar system to rival Prague's.

That said, there are definitely a few corridors that absolutely demand some form of rapid transit, and I'd say that Geary is the highest priority, and getting fast surface rail in a few other places is important too. The way to deal with Muni incompetence is not to throw piles of money at them in hopes that subways will make everything all better, it's to find some way to make Muni run the system competently.

Jon said...

Another reason for subways in SF is how much it costs to operate surface buses stuck in traffic at a decent headway.

A Geary subway could probably serve the line very well with only a few train sets operating over the whole length of the line and in both directions with good frequencies.

arcady said...

And another thing: SF needs to lower its reliance on cars. Nor for the commute, but for everything else, and that's not a Muni problem, that's a zoning and planning problem, when people don't have a local supermarket that they can walk to, and any significant retail is required to come with parking. Or heck, how about some pedestrian crossing signals? SF is the only city that I've seen where the majority of intersections don't have pedestrian signals at all.

Alon Levy said...

And we have to be realistic here: subways would be nice to have, but SF is a tiny city, and has a lower population density than Queens, and unlike DC, the feds won't support the subway quite as much.

First, Queens needs several new subway lines, too - its existing 3.5 range from very crowded to crush-loaded.

Second, SF has a higher density than Berlin, Madrid, and Munich, all of which have extensive subway systems.

And third, a modern subway for the Bay Area should look more like BART than like Muni. It makes sense to add more intra-SF transit, but it makes just as much sense to add SF-Silicon Valley transit. That has all the problems of low densities, but all the benefits of making it easier for people who work in the Silicon Valley to live in the Bay Area and not in exurbs in Merced County.

njh said...

295bus: You're absolutely right.

New York would be much better if the streets were filled with street cars rather than taxis. Put the cars in tunnels.

And silicon valley is hardly low density.

Alon Levy said...

None of the cities in Silicon Valley is particularly dense. San Jose's density has just broken 2,000/km^2, Palo Alto's is just less than 1,000, Redwood City's is 1,500, and Mountain View's is 2,300.