Martin usually does the transit report cards. This time I’m posting about a place where I know transit fairly intimately.
Segments ridden:


Most Muni Metro Routes

The ‘F’ Heritage Line
Muni Buses

Scope: C+
BART covers the Eastbay well, parts of the San Francisco well, but only goes one station past the airport toward Silicon Valley in the Pennisula. Not only that, it doesn’t serve Marin County at all. In order to serve Marin, BART would need to be extended north and west across the city, and a bridge over, or a tunnel under, the Golden Gate would need to be built. So unless transit money gets a lot easier to come by, I don’t expect this to happen for a long time.

The Muni Metro’s six lines are something between Link and the SLU streetcar. They only cover the parts of San Francisco south and west of Downtown. The F Heritage Line does go along the Embarcadero waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf, but that route is mostly for tourists and has relatively low capacity. The planned E Hertiage Line will continue to all the way to Fort Mason. There is a future plan to put the T Third Street into a new “Central Subway” that would cross the Market Street Subway and extend to North Beach, but funding for that extension has only been partially secured. Even then, the entire northwest portion of the city is only served by bus, though a BRT route has been planned for some of that area, currently Geary and Van Ness

Service: B+

BART runs in the City and downtown Oakland with five or six minute headways, but the suburban commuter portions have much longer headways, sometimes as long as fifteen or twenty minutes. BART runs from 5am to a little after midnight. Capacity maxes at 1500 per train. Muni Metro runs on ten minute heads at peak times, and service is from 5 am to about 1am. A single-car Muni train can hold up to 250 people, and a two-car train can carry 500.
Caltrain runs 98 trains per day, most of them local trains that stop at nearly all 28 stations. Some trains, designated “baby bullets” make just four stops, and there are other levels of express trains in between. ACE runs four trains per day, and Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs 32 trains per day.

Routing: B

Much of BART in the Eastbay runs near or parallel to highways, partly because of cheaper right-of-way, but also partly because of how these communities developed. In the 1960s and 1970s, building next to highways was all the rage.
Muni covers the south and west parts of the city well, most on that area aren’t farther than ten blocks from a Muni line or Bart.
The Pennisula toward the south is only served by Caltrain, which stops far from job centers in the South Bay and in the City. Caltrain runs parallel to 101, but through the historic downtowns. This routing is not perfect, but surface-rail corridors are difficult to come by. Many reverse-commute San Franciscans are taken from their Caltrain station to work by company-shuttle, and into city commuters are forced onto a transfer at Fourth and King station in San Francisco

Grade/ROW: B-
BART, like all third-rail systems, is entirely grade-separated. In San Francisco it’s entirely underground, and it’s also underground in Downtown Oakland, in Berkeley, and in a couple of the cities south of San Francisco, outside of that it’s elevated.

The Muni Metro is underground in the Market Street Subway, which makes for nine underground stations. Some of the other portions run in there own right-of-way, the new T-Third street is almost entirely in it’s own center street right-of-way, much like Link in the Rainier Valley. Ironically, the right-of-ways and subway sections of the Muni Metro are the major reason the Muni Metro still exists: in the 1940s and 1950s when streetcars were being taken out, the five lines that had their separated right-of-way couldn’t be replaced by buses.
The commuter rail lines, Caltrain, Amtrak Capitol Corridor and ACE, obviously run in their own right-of-way with grade crossings.
San Francisco is the second densest city in the US, and easily the densest in the West. Many of the suburbs are also very dense: Oakland, Daly City and Berkley, among others, are in fact much more dense than Seattle is. Part of this is because of age of these areas, but there has been a lot of development around BART stations.
One of the main impetuses for the new T-Third street was the development of areas served by the line, including China Basin, Mission Bay, and Hunter’s Point.
Caltrain is running in a 19th-century rail corridor, so it runs through the historic downtowns of most of the cities it serves.

Culture: A-

San Francisco is one of the few cities in America where driving is not the majority. More than 35% of commuters take transit, and another 20% bike. San Francisco is also one of the few cities where nearly everyone knows where the transit lines are. East Bay commuters have been pushed away from driving by $4 tolls across the Bay Bridge, and reliable BART commutes. However, Marin County is only served by Golden Gate Transit, which runs relatively few buses, and most commuters along the Pennisula, in and out of San Francisco, still drive.
San Francisco’s rail network is far suprior to Seattle’s, but the major modes are relatively analogous. Caltrain is like Sounder, BART is what Link could be with expansion, and I think the Muni Metro is a major inspiration for Seattle’s Streetcar network. One thing Seattle can learn from Muni is that two-train stations are worth it; you never know when transit demand will out-pace supply by huge amounts.
BART can also be a lesson: make sure to get commitment early when building transit systems. Marin County to the North dropped out early in the BART planning process, making it virtually impossible to extend BART there now, and Santa Clara county, to the south, now wants BART, but is forced to build it through the East Bay because San Mateo county was so opposed to BART. Also, duplicating highway corridors by may be the best way to serve current population and residential centers, but does not create future transit-orient development to the same extent new corridors might.
Also, Caltrain has 98 runs per day compared to 18 for Sounder. But Caltrain gets just 37,000 riders per day compared to 11,000 for Sounder. How can you run more than five times as many trains, through a far more dense corridor and get fewer riders per run? It’s simple: charge a a reasonable amount to ride (fares top at $11 for Caltrain), go to downtown job centers (Caltrain stops at few), and provide adequate parking (I know, I know: more parking is heresy). ACE and Amtrak Capitol Corridor show that suburb-to-suburb rail can work, but it needs to go through job centers, and again, parking is hugely important.

Finally, density is important. San Francisco is dense, as are a number of the older suburbs. But the South Bay, where a lot of growth has been over the last twenty years, is very low density and sprawling. Same thing goes with the areas East of the hills in the East Bay. San Francisco could have absorbed more of that sprawl, but, like Seattle, made a choice to try to “perserve” the 1960s way of life. What happened? The 1960s way of life was lost, but along the way so was affordibility and scope. Now there’s a huge region that is difficult to serve easily by transit, has chronic “natural” challenges like wild fires and floods (we just get floods here), and surprising congestion. Our area still has a chance to avoid sprawl and geographic expansion on the level seen by the Bay Area, let’s hope we can get everyone on board.

I contemplated whether to write about the South Bay’s VTA system, but I decided that system was worth a post of it’s own.

21 Replies to “Transit Report Card : San Francisco”

  1. What’s with the B- for Grade/ROW? From what you describe, I’d call it an A or A+.

    I like the Bay Area analogy to Seattle and density, but I’m afraid we already have our Silicon Valley. It’s the Eastside, and it’s just as bad. Fortunately, it looks like local leaders in Bellevue, at least, have found religion on this subject.

  2. I assume the B- in Grade/ROW is because MUNI exits the tunnel and is on-street. Some places the lane is designated transit only, some places not. But, even where the LRV supposedly has its lane, there is little enforcement of such.

    Similarly, the F historic streetcar on market could be more worthy if its transit only lane was enforced or completely separated with a curb.

    The Eastside may be Seattle’s version of Silicon Valley, but is a long way from being Silicon Valley. The Bay Area itself sprawls on for days pushing your travel time to get out of the urban areas over an hour (without traffic) and return traffic for all the weekend warriors back into the urban areas far away from the city centers (I remember when growing up often sitting in traffic near Gilroy coming from the south and Vallejo coming from the east).

  3. The Eastside is Spokane, et al.

    One major hurdle with the Bay Area is the separate fare systems.

    When I lived there, only SF BART rides and MUNI rides could use a single monthly pass. Outside SF (and inside for non-pass holders) BART has a staggered fare system based on distance traveled. Same with Caltrain.

    I have a Flexpass here, albeit the best transit pass EVER, and it means I can take Sounder (or even Amtrak) from Everett and I can transfer with my pass to a bus that takes me to First Hill. Nicely integrated.

  4. And, more on-topic, why don’t these transit report cards focus a little bit on bus access more? For example, how well integrate is SF’s bus system and does it serve areas that rail doesn’t?

    I imagine a Seattle report card would get really flimsy marks if we ignored bus access — all we have is Sounder, the Monorail, and the SLUT. :)

  5. rizzuhjj,

    Generally, when I visit cities, I don’t take the bus, because bus systems are really hard to figure out for visitors, they’re generally uncomfortable and unreliable, headways tend to be very long, etc.

    If my only option is bus commuting on a trip, I’ll rent a car. Simple as that. So I’m not at all qualified to comment much on the bus system.

  6. Martin,
    Well, BART is an A+, but Muni is a C-, so it averages to a B-.

    I didn’t comment on the bus much. It’s about like the single and double digit routes in Seattle: crowded, sometimes, trolley-buses with payment as you board. The coverage is very good though.

  7. My point is that Bellevue hardly speaks for the Eastside.

    Aside from Bellevue, the Points, etc, the Eastside is a very, very blue place, and very likely to be pro-transit.

    Take about 3 mins to look at the political representation here, and you’d see that.

    The stereotype is just that… a stereotype. It’s not true.

    If you mean sprawl, say sprawl. But the Eastside is not the definition of sprawl. Been to Lynnwood, Marysville, Dupont or Puyallup lately?

    Those places have just as much sprawl AND are all demographically much more likely to be anti-transit.

    Give the Eastside a break. Without Eastside pro-transit votes, Sound Transit would not exist.

  8. I agree with Brad, most of the Eastside is not as bad as Sillicon Valley, especially from a sprawl perspective. Puyallup, Enumclaw, Spanaway, Marysville, that’s where the sprawl is happening right now.

  9. I was just in San Francisco two weeks ago, and never had to wait longer that 5 minutes for a bus, streetcar or Muni Metro. In fact, I never did see timetables anywhere on the vehicles. Muni is not perfect, but it worked for me.

  10. Yeah Muni doesn’t post timetables at stops, it just says something like “7am-9am, every 7 minutes, 9am-11am, every 9 minutes”, etc.

    The biggest contrast was returning here. On the way to the airport I had a short walk to the T Muni, a transfer to bart to the airport, picked up a newspaper and a coffee in montgomery station. Bart dropped me in the terminal for my airline.

    Touch down in Seattle, waiting at a zoo of a bus stop under the terminal. Bus was way late, it took six minutes for the bus to empty (I have no idea why), and another ten minutes to fill again (again, no idea). BART has 20 second station dwell times, and the 194 has 20 minutes. We get a highway and then on city streets and it takes 27 minutes after the posted time to get me to convention center.

  11. Daimajin:

    You should fly out of OAK (Oakland), and it is somewhat similar to the experience waiting for the 194, although the AirBART links up to BART in about 15 minutes. I sure hope that OAK gets the people mover system. I think that Seattle will be at least competitive to Portland with LRT to/from the airport. However, I think that with the high gas prices we will see much more transit systems reverting back to fix lines (see Karma strikes back, thus GM is feeling the pain). LOL

  12. The reason many of the East Bay BART lines run parallel to highways is 1) they were built in conjunction with highway reconstruction projects, i.e. Highway 24, I-580, Highway 4 and 2) due to topography, these were the only available routes.

    As far as getting early commitment, Marin County dropped out of the original BART plan when told that the Golden Gate Bridge couldn’t carry BART trains (which unfortunately eliminated the Geary Street subway that would have carried BART to the Golden Gate). Santa Clara County had no interest in joining and San Mateo had their commuter trains and didn’t see any reason to pay for a “duplicate service”. With the benefit of hindsight, decisions both counties now regret. And perhaps a lesson, pay for rail now or pay a lot more for it later.

  13. A couple thoughts:

    At first glance, I’d have doubted that Oakland was denser than Seattle, but I see now that Wikipedia agrees with you. I can’t think of anything as dense as Capitol Hill in Oakland, but I guess the average neighborhood density must be much higher.

    As I understand it, the big issue with Muni buses is that they’re painfully slow. Even though they arrive frequently, they get crowded, stop at nearly every block, and have to wait a while at each stop because they’re so crowded. I think this is why the BRT plan for Geary and Van Ness has such support — most people would rather have light rail, but the current state is bad enough that an interim improvement is still worth it.

  14. I’d like to know where you got your numbers for “culture”? 20% biking is astonishingly high for a U.S. city. According to the gov’ts own data, transit has 31% and bikes < 4% of commute trips (2006).

  15. Damaijin,

    It’s not totally correct to say that all third-rail systems are totally grade-separated. For example, the Yellow Line in Chicago/Skokie was converted from overhead catenary to third-rail a few years ago, but grade crossings remain. The Brown Line also has numerous grade crossings in more remote areas.

    The LIRR, has many grade crossings on third-rail operations, including some still in NYC proper.

Comments are closed.