Sunday, August 2, 2009

Alternate Universe

An article on NBC 11 ponders what would have happened if the Bay Area never would have constructed BART. It's an interesting thought, especially considering the alternative they paint in the article.

We'd certainly have an electrified Caltrain running to downtown San Francisco at a faster speed than the current Baby Bullets -- and perhaps running on the Bay Bridge or in a new tunnel under San Francisco Bay to Oakland and beyond. We'd also have real commuter rail from the East Bay to Silicon Valley, the region's most vital employment center -- not the paltry ACE and Capitol Corridor services people have to make do with.

We'd have light rail, a modern version of the Key System, crisscrossing the East Bay. And we'd certainly have faster service in San Francisco, the city most dependent on public transit.

While its a pretty picture do we really think that alternatives to BART would have gotten traction without the existence of BART or a core program? In San Francisco, the construction of BART was also the time that the Muni Metro Market street tunnel was constructed. I often wish that we had built a center cities metro and connected the edges with commuter rail to places like Walnut Creek and Pleasanton. It perhaps could have lowered the cost and increased productivity of the system. But as usual hindsight is 20/20. We won't really know either way.

One thing the article points out that really hits me and should hit everyone in San Francisco.
Isn't it ridiculous that transit commuters take less time to go from Walnut Creek to downtown San Francisco than it does to cross the city?
Yes, yes it is.


Winston said...

I don't really see why the author thinks that the Key system would have continued to exist had BART not been built. At the time when the Key System's transbay line was dismantled BART was still at the idea stage (about where California's high speed rail system was in the late 1990's, meaning that an authority existed that had enough funding to do studies but not enough to actually build anything). The real decision to build BART happened in 1962, 4 years after the Key system had been dismantled and replaced with AC transit. If that vote had gone the other way it is much more likely that the Bay Area would have gone for a Seattle and Los Angeles like Bus Only solution. It also seems likely to me that without BART downtown SF would be a much smaller center of employment, that the Bay Area would have more suburban office parks and that residential development would have spread further east. On the whole BART doesn't seem so bad as a result.

Also, the author of this article claims that the stupid extension to San Jose is the result of BART's imperial agenda. This is about as far from the truth as possible. BART tried just about everything to discourage the BART to San Jose project in its early stages, only giving in when Santa Clara threatened to build a BART compatible rail line to Warm Springs and operate it themselves.

Anonymous said...

Typical Gawker Media crap. Inflame the readership with few facts, ignore history, ignore reality and revel in self satisfaction

Fuck NBC11 and Fuck their bullshit, recruited from the dregs of Web "2.0". Lying bullshit is still lying bullshit, no matter how hip or how "controversial" it is.

Owen can take his false jourmalism and shove it up his well paid ass. As can NBC.

Unknown said...

Though had BART been built with the rails 4 feet 8 1/2 inches apart and to a regular railroad loading gauge, much like the RER in Paris, things might have been a lot less complicated over all.

ian said...

amen to standard gauge.

as for commute times:

with a legitimate subway, 7 miles takes how long? half an hour in NY. less than 20 mins on RER A. not the hour and a half it takes to traverse the city on MUNI.

we're a pathetic excuse for a transit-first city.

Unknown said...

Well how many stops are there on that 7 mile journey?

As for loading gauge, the oldest parts of the London Undergraound were built that of regular railways.

The Metropolitan Railway and thus "Metro" today, they even operated freight trains.

Jon said...

how do we know these other proposed transit options would have been built by now? plus in the 1960s and 1970s they only considered suburban focused metrorail systems so LRT and high quality electrified conventional commuter rail would have been out of the question. then there was the reagan era when proposed rapid transit systems became merely proposed single transit starter lines (at best). bart was built in an era when people were willing to spend money on infrastructure and be ambitious, if bart didnt pass when it did then these transit alternate options would have been caught up deep in the anti-spending era and a time where large construction projects get dragged out for generations.

A better thing would have been a hypothetical question of what transit would you build in the bay area NOW (or last 10 years) assuming bart or any other rail transit was never built, my guess... probably some traditional subway lines in SF (including geary, van ness, mission, stockton lines), the muni metro market street subway, a transbay transit tunnel, electrified caltrain, new key system in oakland, berkeley connecting to SF (probably a very similar route to the proposed BRT line), reactivated Sacramento Northern line commuter rail from SF/Oakland to Concord, and richmond-san jose UP line commuter rail. - this would have been many different modes constructed at different times and run by different agencies and would have required even more transfering and different fares.

i know its fashionable to bash bart especially amongst most transit advocates but i think the bay area is much further ahead in the game with BART than without it. and dont forget people will ride bart who wont ride other transit including other local rail systems.

crzwdjk said...

The Key System was actually a fairly advanced system for its time, and even for the 50s: among other things, it had a cab signal system which was more or less the direct ancestor of BART's ATO. One possibility would have been to build something BART-like on top of the Key System, much as PATCO built upon the existing bridge train line and extended it out into the suburbs. One other possibility is that instead of forming a special-purpose district just for running rapid transit rail, BART would have become the Bay Area Transit Agency, and unified all the local transit, or at least, all of Muni and what would become AC Transit, plus the commuter line of the Sacramento Northern. There would definitely have been much more pressure to preserve the trains over the bridge if not for the promise of the BART tunnel, and maybe the Key System could have evolved into the first true "light rail" in the US a decade ahead of San Diego.

wburg said...

arcady took the words out of my mouth: in 1940, someone could get on a train in Sacramento, Marysville or Chico and get off the train in San Francisco a few hours later. Today we're struggling to regain the high water mark of passenger rail (local and interuban) that our great-grandfathers saw.

Matt Fisher said...

In the past hour, I arrived home from my long day of being in the car (I don't have a driver's licence, by the way, although I would still like to, but I wouldn't want to drive all the time) from Syracuse. That was a long day of driving through Upstate New York.

But then again, on to the point: If BART hadn't been built, transit would certainly never have been better than it is now, or as good as it is. Nevertheless, it was really bad that they closed the Key System down and turned the tracks on the Bay Bridge into more room for cars, which was overall worse.

To close, it may probably have been better if BART was standard gauge. I say the same thing about streetcars in Toronto, as well as the subway, which was built to the TTC's broad gauge of 1495 mm.

Unknown said...

That's the strange thing, there was already a rail link east-west, though using the Bay Bridge. What's missing is a rail link north-south in the axis of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Unknown said...

BTW, Matt at one time the New York Central Railroad ran trains from Ottawa to Cornwall, over the St.Lawrence River to New York state, then on ward to Syracuse & New York City.

crzwdjk said...

One important point about the Key System: the rolling stock on it, while moderately nice from the passenger's point of view, was complete junk in terms of technology. The bridge units were built with the innards from 1910s-vintage streetcars, so their guts were not only obsolete in the era of the PCC, they were actually a generation behind the Peter Witt cars of the 1920s. This had some significant effects on the operation: it meant that the cars were high maintenance, which couldn't have helped. It also meant that they were slow. Those things can reach 35 mph, and that's going downhill with a tailwind, which puts them at a significant disadvantage compared to BART. The Sacramento Northern and Interurban Electric both had more conventional interurban style cars with a top speed around 55mph.

Bob Davis said...

Regarding the SN and IER: they both abandoned East Bay service in 1941. A few SN cars went to Key System, most of the IER cars went to Pacific Electric. A note on top speed--IER cars were good for 35-40 MPH; PE added field shunts to boost them to 45 (still slower than PE 1000's and 1200's). Someone who rode Key System commented that the cars looked faster than they ran. The comment about their technology is quite accurate; KSTL 167, preserved at Orange Empire in Perris, CA has controllers that look like something from a wooden "el" car. The resistors, trucks and motors are mid-1920s designs, and the air brakes are similar to the IER cars. The IER cars at OERM have automatic acceleration, the KSTL cars (at least those that survived) have manual acceleration. Another factor in the disappearance of Key System was the condition of the track, most of which was way overdue for rebuilding, long before Federal assistance for rail transit was enacted (same situation prevailed for much of Pacific Electric.)
Regarding BART and its oddball wide track gauge--it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but French and Japanese trains go over twice as fast on standard gauge track with no problems.

Bob Davis said...

One more comment: If you want to see a real "alternate universe", go to Melbourne, Australia. With about two dozen tramway lines (ranging from traditional street-running to light rail style private way), and at least ten electric-suburban lines (which I liken to Pacific Electric without some of PE's fatal flaws), it's hog heaven for electric railway fans.

crzwdjk said...

One possible sketch of how things would have happened as an alternative to BART: rather than forming a new Rapid Transit District, the metropolitan area formed a Metropolitan Transit Authority, which initially encompassed Muni and what would have become AC Transit, and later included the bridges and SamTrans as well. Rather than abandoning the Key System, it was kept running at least partly running, with bridge units being replaced by PCCs and other rolling stock bought from dying streetcar and interurban operations, and eventually by Boeing LRVs. The Market Street subway would still have been built, but with only one level, and instead of going to Embarcadero and the Transbay Tube, it would turn and head to the Transbay Terminal and a connection to the bridge line. On the Oakland end, the main new construction would be a grade separated line from the bridge to where the SN ROW started. Possibly there would have been a new tunnel through the hills, possibly not, but there would still be a mostly rapid transit style line to Concord. The eventual system may still have looked something roughly like BART, with a line up to Berkeley and Richmond, another over the hills to Concord, and a third to East Oakland. Rather than BART's big bang approach, it would have been an incremental process of upgrades, including eventually building a Mission St line to Daly City, and maybe even the Airport extension. We'd probably have a Central Subway too, because a huge part of the expense there is just crossing Market Street with its many levels of tunnels.
I expect this agency to also have taken over the Peninsula Commute line, and eventually added an East Bay service as well. Rather than extending BART even further east and planning eBART, there would be a commuter rail service to a cross-platform interchange with the bridge trains, either at the old Oakland Station or at Emeryville. Perhaps they would even have gotten around to electrifying Caltrain sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s.

Of course this whole fantasy is based on one rather implausible notion: that San Francisco and Oakland could have actually cooperated and given up their respective local transit systems, rather than creating a third government (the BART district).

Adirondacker12800 said...

Key System could have evolved into the first true "light rail" in the US a decade ahead of San Diego.

...except for those pesky Bostonians, Phildelphians, Clevelanders and I know it's a small system, pesky Newarkers....

Anonymous said...

Much of BART's problems stem from dumb decisions since its inception, and the incompetent hacks with no rail experience who made them, and continue to make them.

Who in their right mind picks 5'6" gauge and a tiny loading gauge to build a new rail based transit system? Did they not get the memo from 1860 that standard gauge (4' 8.5") won? Or all the proprietary technology they used, leaving them dependent on a small group of companies, namely Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff.

We could have had electrified, standard gauge rail around the entire Bay decades ago, given how much we've already spent, if they made the right decisions. Instead, we have a completely balkanized transit system. And the biggest operator, BART, is the most bloated and expensive by far, and sucks all available taxpayer dollars.