World-class Public Transit for San Francisco

San Francisco has public transit facilities that work, but frequent users of them are accustomed to a great amount of variability in journey times, and dubious reliability.

San Francisco itself is projected to have one million residents by 2032, and it’s estimated that the number of people in San Francisco grows by at least 20% during conventional working hours, with workers and visitors arriving from all over the Bay Area. Today, these visitors often arrive by car via the Bay Area’s freeways.

San Francisco itself is served by at least a dozen different public transit agencies, including Muni, BART, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, SamTrans, PresidiGo and WestCAT Lynx. Each of these has different fare structures, branding, schedules, and designs for wayfinding material. Those unfortunate enough to have a daily commute spanning multiple agencies are likely to find themselves paying much more than those commuting within a single territory, since free transfers between agencies have become rare.

As San Francisco’s density increases, efficient public transit will be critical to accommodating the daily routines of its residents and visitors. Public transit, combined with efficient walking facilities, taxis, and car sharing, are essential to efficiently use space and resources in a dense city.

Unified Public Transit: A Thought Experiment

What if San Francisco, just like New York City, London, and other world-class cities, had an “umbrella” transit agency that was responsible for coordinating transit over a broad area? London demonstrates that there can still be multiple operating companies beneath this façade, but the public sees a standardized fare structure, frictionless transfers between agencies, and wayfinding plans that include aspects of the entire system rather than just the local operating agency.

The Clipper Card could provide the operational glue for such a system, since it already aggregates ticket data from many bay area agencies into a single backend system. With some adjustments to this software, a single bus pass issued to a resident in Daly City could be used to ride buses both in Daly City, San Francisco and Alameda County, with the trip data collected behind the scenes used to distribute the resulting revenue proportionally to the relevant agencies.

With the walls between agencies broken down, we can begin to construct a transit system that efficiently delivers people to San Francisco, and helps them get around once they arrive.

The imaginary transit system illustrated in the above diagram shows one such configuration. This is intended as a three-tier system, with heavy and light rail services (the solid lines) carrying people over longer distances, modern streetcars (the hollow lines) connecting neighborhoods to the core rail network, and local bus services (not shown in this diagram) connecting neighborhoods to one another.

Although the schematic presentation and the altered station names may obscure it, this network is built on today’s rail infrastructure. The yellow and green lines use the existing Muni Metro subway, the purple, pink and red lines are existing BART, and almost every other line illustrated builds on either an existing rail line or a proposed plan for one.

In the remaining sections I’ll delve into some of the details of this map, and describe the ideas that went into it.

(This imagined system builds partially on the existing design work by Nexttransit for the M-Market, and this article uses some photos and diagrams from their proposal for illustrative purposes. Images from other transit agencies and from SFMTA plans are use for further color.)

Modernized Rail Vehicles

The illustrated system has three different kinds of rail vehicle: heavy rail, light rail, and streetcars.

The heavy rail vehicles are successors to BART’s current rolling stock, optimized for the long-haul routes with highly-spaced stations, where carrying lots of people comfortably in a single vehicle is a priority. These lines are built with BART’s non-standard rail gauge in order to extend the existing BART network.

Light rail vehicles can be longer than streetcars and are designed for high-platform boarding.

The light rail vehicles service shorter routes or routes where the right-of-way is within the city grid with level crossings. These vehicles are spacious, light, and are optimized for people making short trips. They are standard-gauge rail vehicles compatible with the existing Muni Metro tracks in San Francisco and can also accept the streetcars.

Finally, the streetcar lines (with the exception of the historical streetcar line on The Embarcadero) are served by modern, low-floor vehicles. These allow level boarding for those using wheelchairs, as well as easier access for those with baby strollers and bikes. These vehicles are optimized for short trips, with a much higher density of stops (summarized with small dashes between stations on the map) than the primary rail services.

Improving Muni Metro

The existing Muni Metro system was built on fragments of the city’s historical streetcar system that were saved from the chopping block by a number of historical accidents. The original plan for the Market Street subway was that its top tunnel would carry a further BART line, but a change of plan led to it becoming the new home for Muni’s J, K, L, M and N streetcar lines that had previously run on the surface along Market Street.

The result of this change is a hybrid system that acts as a streetcar on city streets in outlying areas, but becomes a light-rail-style service as it moves downtown. While an inventive use of the available infrastructure, this design has some drawbacks. Most notably, all of the lines converge on a single congested subway tunnel, while the uneven traffic patterns caused by the streetcar portions of the service prevent the subway from being efficiently managed, making its capacity much lower than it could otherwise be.

These concerns are addressed by establishing a strong separation between rail and streetcar services. Areas of Muni Metro that already have high-level platforms (the subway, along with some newer construction on the current M line and N, T lines) are upgraded to full light rail with longer trains and dedicated right of way, and the remaining portions are upgraded as modern, curb-level-boarding streetcar services.

Modern streetcar vehicles are optimized for quick and easy boarding by those using wheelchairs and those with baby strollers and bikes.

The streetcar lines in the west of San Francisco continue to be operated from the existing facility at Balboa Park, with the Parkside service (between Fleishacker and West Portal) borrowing the green line right-of-way in the mornings to reach its service area. Meanwhile the Muni Metro East yard near Islais Creek becomes the home of the light rail services.

A notable casualty of this change is the loss of local rail service to many stops along today’s Third Street line. Given that this just creates a redundant connection to the airport, it could be argued that neighborhood streetcar service would be sufficient along this corridor, but that would imply the removal of the high platforms already present in favor of curb-level boarding for the streetcars.

A Second Transbay Tube

BART too has a choke-point on San Francisco’s Market Street and in the single tunnel that crosses the bay from Oakland. The existing Transbay Tube is BART’s most congested section of track, so relieving it with a second tube is key to increasing passenger capacity between San Francisco and Oakland.

The new Orange and Blue lines run via a new tunnel from San Francisco’s South Beach neighborhood to the Alameda Naval Base, with the disused runway section of the base partially converted into a new rail yard to support the new lines.

From a new West Alameda station near the College of Alameda, the line branches: one track goes north under Oakland Inner Harbor to Jack London Square, and the other runs along the former Alameda Beltline route (with the East Alameda station at the north end of Park Street) before crossing the tidal canal to connect with Alameda Ave south of Fruitvale.

These two new routes provide a second connection from Downtown Oakland and remove the Dublin line from the original Transbay Tube.

The underpass at Geary Street becomes a rail terminal, with automobiles diverted above the underpass, removing the street parking along the ramps to double capacity.

At the San Francisco end of the line, an East SoMa station provides a connection to the Transbay Transit Center, where customers can board Caltrain and California High Speed Rail services, and then runs along Geary Street to Masonic Ave. The new Laurel Heights station is created by converting the road underpass at Masonic into a train station structure, with an entrance and other station facilities added within the adjacent Muni Presidio Division lot. Road traffic is be rerouted to use the roadway on top of the underpass.

Altogether this new rail link provides connections to both the San Francisco Geary Corridor — one of the most in-demand transit links in San Francisco — and to Alameda, which is becoming increasingly popular with city commuters who currently use either the ferry service or drive across the Bay Bridge.

The Yellow Line: Downtown Circulator

The Yellow Line connects the primary interchange stations.

The Yellow Line is a circular line that aims to help travelers move easily around the downtown area, connecting together all of the other rail lines that serve San Francisco.

Although it’s rendered as a loop in the plan, it has a terminal at Duboce Triangle where the vehicles can “change ends”.

This line is created via a new trackway from Duboce Triangle, alongside the existing Market Street Subway entrance. It tunnels under Market Street and along Duboce Avenue, emerging under the freeway overpass on 13th Street. It then continues under the freeway to Division Street and around to King Street. A final tunnel under 7th Street allows the line to connect with the existing N Line tracks on King Street. On Duboce and 13th the rails run along the median of the roadway. In the low-traffic area served by Division, the rails replace the roadway altogether, with the 8th and Townsend roundabout removed to make room for a significant Showplace Square station building that also adds retail and commercial property to this up-and-coming neighborhood.

Aside from that small new connection, the line uses pre-existing Muni Metro tracks in the Market Street subway and on The Embarcadero. The connection at 4th and King Streets allows the rail vehicles to reach the yard in Dogpatch via the Brown Line.

The station adjacent to the Caltrain Terminal on 4th Street is eliminated in favor of a Caltrain connection at the Transbay Transit Center via the Orange and Blue lines at the East SoMa station. The development of a new Caltrain station at the Transbay Transit Center is expected to result in reduced service to the 4th and Townsend station, reducing the necessity of a separate station so close to the Yellow Line’s South Beach station.

Yellow Line trains pass AT&T Park, near South Beach station.

The Brown Line: Central Subway Extension to Marin

The Brown Line extends the existing third-street line south to San Francisco airport, and then north to Marin. The northern part of this line largely follows the original plan for BART to Marin, including a new rail deck on the Golden Gate bridge.

Rail transit to Marin was planned in the 1970s, including an extra deck on the Golden Gate Bridge, but the plans were cancelled due to funding difficulties.

The original BART plan called for rail all the way to Santa Rosa. Since this new plan focuses mainly on San Francisco itself it does not run that far north, but it does run to San Rafael to connect with SMART, which is a proposed regional rail service from Larkspur to Santa Rosa.

This rail service replaces the Golden Gate Transit services that cross the bridge, allowing Marin bus services to focus on city connections within the county.

At the south end of the line, the Muni Metro T line is slightly rerouted to enter the Caltrain right-of-way at Blanken Avenue, where it shares the Bayshore station with Caltrain. It then serves a new set of platforms connected to the San Bruno BART station via a pedestrian tunnel.

The diagram shows a connection to San Francisco Airport. While this connection could be useful, it actually presents an infrastructure problem since it would require both broad gauge (BART-style) trains and standard gauge (Muni Metro-style) trains to share the same trackway. In practice, a transfer at San Bruno may be necessary to reach the airport via the existing line as long as the heavy rail lines remain at a non-standard track gauge.

Downtown Streetcars

The existing Market Street streetcar line (F Market & Wharves), along with a new streetcar service on Broadway in Oakland city center, form the new Downtown Streetcar services, shown as hollow turquoise lines on the route plan.

The goal of these services is to make the two city centers easily navigable by those who have arrived without a private automobile. They provide spacious, low-floor streetcars that provide additional stops between the main rail stations.

For Oakland, the new streetcar line serves to connect the Old Oakland district with the up-and-coming Jack London Square neighborhood and the city center.

For San Francisco, the goal is to replace the many separate bus services that converge on Market Street with a single reliable, frequent streetcar service. A Market Street built around streetcars has more room for plazas, beer gardens and other such public gathering places, making Market Street into a destination in its own right.

A streetcar-oriented Market Street has plenty of room for wide sidewalks and public gathering spaces. While private cars are no longer permitted to drive down the whole length of Market Street, single-block access roads allow taxi and private car drop-off at hotels and other businesses, while space on all cross-streets is reserved for accessible parking.

To increase carrying capacity and accessibility for those using wheelchairs, the historical streetcars on Market Street are replaced with modern, low-floor vehicles. However, the historical streetcar service is retained along the special streetcar service that connects the various attractions along the Embarcadero (shown on the plan as hollow dark blue).

Neighborhood Streetcars

While the downtown streetcar services help people move around the downtown commercial area, the neighborhood streetcar services (shown as hollow grey lines on the plan) serve to link neighborhoods to the core rail services:

  • The Lakeside-Ingleside Streetcar uses the former tracks of the M and K Muni Metro services to connect the Ingleside, Oceanview, Parkmerced and Ingleside Heights neighborhoods to the Green, Purple and Red lines, all providing connections to downtown San Francisco.
  • The Taraval Streetcar uses the former tracks of the L Muni Metro service, connects the Parkside neighborhood to the Green Line, and provides access to the San Francisco Zoo by rail.
  • The Sunset Streetcar uses the former tracks of the N Muni Metro service, connecting the Sunset and Cole Valley neighborhoods with the various services available at Duboce Triangle.
  • The Richmond Streetcar uses new tracks along Geary Street, along the route of the 38-Geary bus line, to extend the Blue and Orange line services to the Richmond neighborhood.
  • The Fillmore-Church Streetcar uses the former tracks of the J Muni Metro line, along with new tracks along the 22-Fillmore bus line, to make a new connection to the Marina neighborhood. This line is not strictly a neighborhood streetcar, since it serves as a core north-south connector. The trackway from this line allows streetcar vehicles to reach the Richmond Streetcar tracks.
  • The Potrero Streetcar uses new tracks, largely along Potrero Avenue, to connect the Potrero Hill neighborhood, along with the eastern parts of The Mission, to the yellow line at Showplace Square.
  • Finally, the Emeryville-Piedmont Streetcar uses new tracks, some along the former right-of-way of the Key System C line, to connect the Emeryville and Piedmont neighborhoods to various rail lines at Temescal (formerly Macarthur) station.

Most of these services are based at Balboa Park, in some cases borrowing rails from the rail lines to enter and leave service. The Potrero Streetcar is based at the rail yard adapted from Muni Metro East facility, sharing storage with the Brown Line light rail vehicles. The Emeryville-Piedmont Streetcar is based in a new yard near Berkeley Aquatic Park.

Bus Services

The plan shown above is focused on rail services, but buses are an important part of the network too.

While the rail system is focused on getting people into and around the downtown areas, the bus system serves to connect the outer neighborhoods. Bus lines stop approximately once every four blocks, with greater stop density in hilly areas.

During peak hours, some bus lines feature “Rapid” service, which stops approximately every eight stops, focusing on high-traffic areas and connections with rail services.

Each bus line connects with at least one — and ideally more than one — rail or streetcar service.

Branding, Fares and Way-finding

The expanded system is presented to the public as a single, unified system.

The Muni, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, and PresidiGo agencies run services under common “Bay Area Buses” and “Bay Area Streetcars” branding. These all share a common flat-rate fare, and free transfers are permitted between all bus and streetcar services for 90 minutes.

All of the full rail services illustrated are operated by the existing BART agency, under the brand name “Bay Area Rail Transit”. The rail network has a zone-based fare system, charging more for longer journeys.

All services accept Clipper Card for payment, and the Clipper Card system automatically determines the cheapest possible fare for any journey, including transfers, and charges the customer appropriately.

Travelers may pre-purchase weekly and monthly passes. These passes are accepted across all bus, streetcar and rail services, with the Clipper Card backend automatically dispersing proportions of the pass revenue to the different agencies through analysis of journeys.

The system also offers a daily pass, which permits unlimited travel within a single service day at a slightly higher rate than that afforded by the weekly and monthly passes. As a convenience to riders, a daily pass is automatically issued once a passenger’s total fare payments exceed the price of the daily pass. This effectively places a upper limit on fare payments for a particular day, and removes the need for passengers to predict their travel patterns.

Transfers between rail vehicles within the system are always made without leaving the proof-of-payment area, so rail transfers are as frictionless as possible. Passengers must tag in and tag out with their Clipper cards at the start and end of each journey, and the fare system automatically charges the customer for the cheapest possible route between the two endpoints.

All maps and other passenger way-finding materials are not agency-specific and present the network as a single system, with inter-operator connections shown identically to those within a single operator. As part of this effort, bus services are re-numbered to remove duplicates, with letter prefixes identifying added to routes that do not serve San Francisco to identify which county they (primarily) serve. For example, AC Transit line 51 is renumbered as A51 (for “Alameda County 51”), while Golden Gate Transit line 22 becomes M22.

More Opportunities to Expand

The plan above describes a particular set of changes focused on San Francisco and Oakland, but the general direction is towards integrated transit over as wide an area as possible.

Other Bay Area bus agencies would be invited to join the Bay Area Buses brand and adopt the common fare structure, as long as they accept Clipper Card as payment and adopt the system-wide standards for way-finding materials.

While the initial plan has the existing BART agency running all affected rail lines, this could grow to include the VTA light rail service in San Jose, the planned SMART rail network in Sonoma and Marin, and possibly even Caltrain commuter rail under the common Bay Area Rail Transit brand. This would create a single rail network covering much of the bay area, and hide from passengers the complexity of multiple agencies running different parts of the service.

The end goal is a system that is very simple for riders to understand. If you take the bus, all trips (under 90 minutes) cost the same. If you take a train, your fare depends on distance traveled but the cost per fare zone is always the same. Once pedestrians arrive in a city’s downtown area, standard signage leads them to nearby attractions and to other public transit links.