Trying to build on what Adam said in his great post about station spacing, I want to look at the transit system with the farthest spaced stations, BART, and compare it to its “sister system”, the DC Metro, and talk a bit at what that might tell us about Link.
Christof Spieler over at Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, a transit advocacy organization based out of Houston, had a blog post comparing BART and DC metro, and he first noted the similarities between the systems:
San Francisco is in the 5th largest metropolitan area in the country. Washington DC is in the 4th largest. Both cities have old, urban cores with major employment centers surrounded by extensive post-war suburban development. In the 1960s, both decided to build a heavy rail system. And not only do those two systems use very similar technology, they are nearly the same length (104 miles vs. 106 miles).
There is one significant difference between San Francisco’s BART and Washington’s Metrorail, though: Washington has 2 1/2 times the ridership (902,100 average weekday boardings compared to 338,100.)
Mr Spieler sees three main reasons for the massive difference in ridership:
- BART serves the suburbs. Metrorail serves the suburbs and the urban core.
- BART saves money by using existing rights of way; Metrorail maximizes ridership by puting lines where the transit demand is.
- BART stations are where the cars are; Metrorail stations are where the people are.
The big result is that BART has ended up being a big commuter rail system, and DC Metro is both a commuter rail system and an urban Metro. What this means for the core city is that the DC Metro can be used to get to different areas around town, while inside San Francisco BART acts more like a single line on the Muni Metro, itself a sort of small-scale commuter rail system. Commuters who use BART have to transfer to local transit if the BART station isn’t within walking distance of their destination.
Obviously there are historical, geographical and political reasons for these differences. BART had to be passed through many levels of local government while the DC Metro was first created under Federal Law, and what the Feds want, they get. The DC Metro also received much more Federal funding than BART did. With more money, most of the DC Metro is underground, where as BART is underground only in San Francisco, in parts of Oakland, and in Berkeley. In the last case, the city of Berkeley had to pay for its tunnel. The city of San Francisco is also relatively isolated on a pennisula, with large bodies of deep water on the west, north and east, and hills throughout the greater metro area. DC is in the middle of a valley with rivers but not much else in the way of natural obstacles. Finally, BART had a system of sub-area equity, where all money raised in a sub-sections of the metro area is spent there, and because so much of the DC Metro’s initial money came from the feds, sub-area equity was not an issue.
Comparing the two, Seattle’s situation resembles BART a lot more than it does the DC Metro. We’ve been getting a significant federal contribution, but we still need to come up with most of the money ourselves. We have a lot of local governments involved in the process, and Sound Transit has even had to fend-off repeated attacks from the state legislature and initiative process. We have deep and large bodies of water throughout our metro area, and both the city and the region have hills throughout. And obviously Sound Transit has sub-area equity as well.
Taking an even deeper look, it seems that Seattle’s extensive bus system and burgeoning street car system are a direct analogy to San Francisco’s Muni buses and Metro. The Muni Metro is a European-style light rail-streetcar hybrid, with a nine-station subway (with more on the way), twenty four surface stations – which resemble Link’s surface stations – and dozens of surface stops that look about like bus stops or SLUT stations. The First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars are the first steps toward a system that requires an inter-modal transfer from light rail toward “surface” transportation. There are more streetcar lines in the works.
The bright spot in all of this is that Link already looks a bit better than BART in terms of its urban railway characteristics, and there are still opportunities to improve this further. There are just eight BART stations inside the San Francisco city limits and thus it only serves a small portion of the city, while Link after ST2 will have 17.5* stations that serve a much larger portion of the city.
In addition, if you take a look at the Long Range Plan Sound Transit’s board adopted in 2005, you can see a dashed-blue line from Downtown to Ballard and from Ballard to the University District (click on the image to get a better look). That blue line represents a potential rail expansion within the city limits that could be included in a future Sound Transit expansion package. The ST2 package that passed last November included money to conduct a study of high capacity transit in that corridor. Whether this would be Link light rail or a streetcar, and whether it could be built affordably and in a reasonable time-frame it’s too early to tell. But due to sub-area equity, any future ballot measure would have to include something in Seattle, and if it is more light rail, that might be the difference between Link resembling the DC Metro more than BART.
Even having said all of that, San Francisco’s transit system isn’t a bad one to emulate. BART may not be the second busiest “heavy rail” system, but it’s fifth. And the Muni Metro is the nation’s second busiest light rail system. San Francisco is also one of only a handful of cities, along with New York, Boston and DC, where most commuters do not travel by car. It’d be amazing if Link and our Streetcar network could combine the best qualities of both systems, but only time will tell.
* Central Link has 11 stations in Seattle: Rainier Beach, Othello, Columbia City, Mt Baker, Beacon Hill, Sodo, Stadium, International District, Pioneer Square, University Street, Westlake. U-Link has two: Capitol Hill, UW. North Link has 3.5 : Brooklyn, Roosevelt, Northgate and 145th st, which straddles the city limits with Shoreline and East Link has one: Rainier