San Francisco MTA is hiring a manager of service planning. It looks like a great job for a seasoned transit planner and pays enough that you can actually live comfortably in wonderful but super-expensive San Francisco. Spread the word!
Is this kind of network the future of transit?
This map by Stamen Design shows the paths of the various Silicon Valley bus services that flood San Francisco each morning and evening peak. (Linewidth is proportional to frequency.) All these lines running around San Francisco extend south off the map, duplicating each other for more than 30 miles until they diverge to serve different employers in Silicon Valley. The colors indicate which employer. In general, these private buses are open only to the employees of the company in question.
These buses carry some of world’s smartest geeks between the manicured suburban headquarters of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, EBay and Electronic Arts and the diverse, interesting, crowded, messy city that these geeks insist on living in — a distance of 30-40 miles.
(Here is a great page showing the process Stamen went through to get to this map. As you’d expect from a design firm, it’s officially a work of art, called The City from the Valley.)
There is a public transit option in the same corridor, the Caltrain commuter rail line, but it can’t begin to compete with these buses for speed, directness, and certainly the number of transfers required.
How should we feel about these privately operated services, which are effectively employee benefits at these companies?
My favorite data design firm, Stamen, released a map showing all the private buses that run from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, the elite’s mass transit. Work in one of those places, and you have a wonderful travel experience. Everyone else gets the bus or an underfunded Caltrain. One way for our country’s elites. The car and a crowded highway for everybody else.
“The elite’s mass transit” versus “underfunded Caltrain.” Is this really a class divide, with all the perils that class-based thinking implies? These buses have to drive to San Francisco because the geeks on board aren’t willing to buy a big house in the suburbs of Silicon Valley. They want to live in a city, where they step over homeless people and deal with crowds but also have access to all that a city offers. So they’re an unusual elite.
If you love inner-city living so much that you’re willing to commute almost two hours a day, then I expect you’re someone who’s happy with the basic proposition of city life. That means that you’re used to being in close proximity to strangers, so I’d guess you’d be a willing passenger on a public transit system if that transit system were useful.
So the real story here is not the upscale demands of “elites” but the story of “underfunded Caltrain” and and more generally the way that infrequent, slow and poorly connected transit systems are forcing these big employers to run so much expensive service of their own.
The inadequacy of transit between San Francisco and Silicon Valley lies in several things. First, neither the employers nor most San Francisco homes are anywhere near the Caltrain commuter rail line, so using that line requires multiple transfers — often two at the San Francisco end. Second, the line is infrequent, designed for speed rather than frequency, which means that using shuttles between business parks and rail stations always involves the slight anxiety of the bus being late and missing the train.
Politically, the problem with this commute is that it crosses two county lines, and in California, where almost all transport decision-making happens at county-level agencies, a multi-county transit problem is orders of magnitude harder to solve. There is little doubt that if Caltrain were all in one County — maybe one the size of Los Angeles County — it would be a vastly better service by now: more frequent, probably electrified, probably extended to make better connections in San Francisco. But split between three counties it has always seemed peripheral to many county-level decision makers, so when its needs have conflicted with another pet project, Caltrain has been consistently shoved aside.
Most recently, Caltrain’s future has been made dependent on the California High Speed Rail Project, which will help improve and extend Caltrain only in the context of needing to share its track. It does appear that Caltrain will finally be extended to a downtown San Francisco terminal where most of the city will be one transfer away instead of two. Caltrain may also become a little faster if, as contemplated, some minor stations are closed. But Caltrain will probably never be frequent given the new constraints of track sharing.
But why should people have to commute such distances at all? In this case, it happened because a whole mass of companies decided that they all had to have vast corporate campuses that are too big to be in walking distance to anything. The critical mass of Silicon Valley congealed in the high-car age, as early icons like Hewlett and Packard outgrew their garage. Stanford University has always sat in Silicon Valley’s midst like a queen bee, happy to seem the indispensable center of the burbling mass of innovation. Since then every new breakthrough firm, from Google to Facebook, has felt they had to be there.
But now, that critical mass is in the wrong place for the needs of the next generation. A few of the area’s suburbs are trying to build downtowns that will give a bit of the urban vibe that younger geeks seem to value, but many of these suburbs are dominated by people who want nothing to change. So it comes down to how the next generation of internet employers choose think about how to attract top employees. Twitter made a courageous choice, moving its headquarters right into San Francisco, but Apple is digging itself deeper, building an even larger and more car-dependent fortress in its corner of the Valley.
Finally, this joke is on the lords of Silicon Valley itself. The industry that liberated millions from the tyranny of distance remains mired in its own desperately car-dependent world of corporate campuses, where being too-far-to-walk from a Caltrain station — and from anything else of interest — is almost a point of pride. But meanwhile, top employees are rejecting the lifestyle that that location implies.
Geeks whose brilliance lightens the weight of our lives have bodies that must be hauled 70 or more miles every day, at a colossal waste of energy and time. Is this really the future?
You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use. This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.
This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended. In this one image you can see that:
- Bike racks on buses (and most other transit) can never be more than a niche market.
The rack on the bus in pic #1 carries two bikes, which is great for those two people. But if all the bikes in pic #2 try to get onto the bus in pic #1, we have a geometric impossibility. Bike racks are already as large as they can be if the driver is still to be far enough forward to drive safely. A non-folding bike inside a transit vehicle takes the space of several passengers, so could fairly be accommodated only at several times the fare. In the ideal sustainable future, you will have to park your bike at the station, or return your rental bike, just as Europeans do. If transit does accommodate your bike, you really should pay a fare premium that reflects the rough number of passenger spaces displaced, or the supply/demand ratio for 2-3 bike racks vs 20 people wanting to use them.
- "Personal Rapid Transit," or small demand-responsive buses, or driverless cars that work like taxis, will never, ever, ever substitute for surface transit in high-demand urban settings, such as where all these people want to travel.
Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit. But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would. The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.
(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents — especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance — is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)
To make the same point more generally:
- In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.
We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space. That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones. If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 — as the techno-futurists claim to do — you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like. These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do. Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?
UPDATE: A reader points out one other key point, which is that
- the photo understates the space requirements of bikes compared to the other two.
Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension — forward and back. However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely. This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing. Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.
In San Francisco passengers will be able to board through any door of any city bus, as they have long been able to do on light rail and streetcars. Nate Berg has a nice piece on this at Atlantic Cities.
This could be a very big deal.
No more of the silliness pictured at right, where passengers who could all board the bus in 10 seconds instead spend a minute or two outside in the rain. No more tired exhortations to "move to the back of the bus!" because people will naturally distribute themselves evenly throughout. No more delays due to fare payment problems and disputes. Fewer angry and threatening signs, like the "stop" sign on the back door in this image.
Obviously this change requires Proof of Payment (POP) fare collection, which has been routine on most North American light rail and commuter rail for a generation (though it arrived in San Francisco relatively recently.) POP means that you're responsible for having a ticket, pass, transfer slip, etc., called a "proof of payment", and a roving fare inspector can ask you to show it at any time and nail you with a big fine if you don't have it.
If you want to dig down into why so some people hate the bus-riding experience, well, the congestion and delay of front-door fare payment has to be a big factor. It is a major reason why buses are so slow and unreliable. It also produces inefficiency, hassle, and discomfort that everyone can see: the huge lines to board at the front, the crowding in the front of the bus while there is space of the back. The whole experience is both unpleasant and an objective cause of delay.
There's also a subtle emotional thing here: We're required to have a brief interaction with a (quite properly) impatient driver, which can give a subconscious feeling that we're being judged or dismissed. With all-door boarding, we feel free to move through the system by paths that feel direct to us, and we're much less likely to be waiting in line. If an observer chose to interpret my dislike of this experience as a stigma, front-door boarding might turn out to be part of why some people think there's a cultural stigma about riding the bus.
Front-door boarding is one of those indignities that people associate with buses but that is not an intrinsic feature of them. The idea that POP could be done on rail but not buses is just a North American (and Australasian) industry habit. It makes sense where loads are low, because front-door boarding doesn't involve much delay in that case, but it's never made sense at higher levels of crowding that are now routine in our transit-starved cities. Sure you need to have an expensive fare collection crew, but you are also saving so much running time, getting people where they're going faster, and so dramatically improving the sensation of civility and freedom in bus riding, that it's definitely worth it.
You do have to get over a hump. Many people are very upset about fare evasion, and the public usually thinks that it's a bigger problem than it is. With all-door boarding, you as a passenger can't tell whether others have paid their fares, and when you see a guy who looks shady to you (whatever that means to you in terms of race, class, dress or behavior cues) jumping on the back, you'll now have to assume that he's paid his fare. It's up to a fare inspector, not you, to verify that. The reality is that the cost of bringing fare evasion down from, say, 5% to 1% costs vastly more than the fares you'd collect, because you have to hire vast hordes of inspectors to catch those last few hardest-core offenders. We're better of tolerating a somewhat higher fare evasion so we can spend our money on service.
So all-door boarding on buses is hard to get to, and you tend to do it when, as in San Francisco, the overcrowding and slowness of buses is perceived as real crisis. (That means two things: overcrowding and slowness are severe and lots of citizens and elected leaders are demanding a solution.)
Don't expect every transit agency to follow San Francisco's lead at once, because there's a startup cost and risk that's hard to face in the middle of a recession, not to mention the whole public education struggle about tolerable levels of fare evasion. But I expect this to spread rapidly in the major metros if San Francisco MTA has the fortitude to keep it going. (I suspect all-door boarding is actually irreversable in San Francisco, because all-door boarding will create more capacity that will be instantly used, to the point that going back would require adding more service that MTA can't afford.)
And once it does, the experience of riding buses will a bit more like riding rail, in a way that matters to almost everyone. Greater speed and reliability. Less waiting in line. Less crush-loading The freedom to board where you want. Who doesn't value those things?
Photo: Tom Prete.
Major San Francisco transit lines take longer than they did a century ago, as they have been obstructed by traffic and slowed by heavy passenger loads using (until recently) inefficient pay-as-you-board methods. A New York Times piece by Zusha Elinson lays out the statistics.
(It's important to clarify, right away, that this has nothing to do with streetcars as a technology. You could easily be misled by this subtle bit of anti-bus bias:
In 1920, the F-Stockton streetcar carried passengers from the Financial District at Market and Stockton Streets all the way to the Marina at Chestnut and Scott Streets in a zippy 17 minutes. Today a very similar trip on the 30-Stockton, the successor to the F-Stockton, takes a half-hour if the stars are properly aligned.
In general, streetcars replaced by buses have slowed down more, over the last century, than those that remained streetcars, but that's an expression of how much more was invested in streetcars than in buses. The main lines that use the Market Street Subway — J through N — have picked up or shed just a couple of minutes from their 1920 times, even though back then they ran on the surface along Market St (about 3 miles) while now they're in a subway, effectively functioning as rapid transit. No such improvements were made for streetcars that became bus lines, so of course their performance deteriorated more. In fact, the 30-Stockton relies heavily on maneuverability in unpredictable Chinatown traffic; a streetcar in exactly the same traffic, unable to move around obstacles, would be even slower and less reliable.)
The real message of this story, though, is the need to have a conscious intention about the speed and reliability of transit. Highway planners ruled the late 20th century with their clearly defined notion of "Level of Service" or cars, which mowed down opposition through its simplistic A-F letter-grades. Just after 2000, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual sought, at first, to claim this same authority-through-simplification for transit. But while the TCQOS is a spectacular reference guide, few in the business believe that a single A-F score can capture the many important ways that transit succeeds and fails.
My own work in this area has always advocated a stronger, more transit-specific approach that begins not with the single delayed line, but rather with the functioning of an entire network. Don't just ask "how fast should this line be?" which tends to degenerate into "What can we do to make those forlorn buses move a little faster without upsetting anyone?" Instead, ask "What travel time outcomes do we need across this network?" Or turn it around: How much of the city needs to be within 30 minutes of most people? – a question that leads to those compelling Walkscore travel time maps, which are literally maps of individual freedom.
A network speed standard would identify necessary speed standards for each service type, but especially for the Frequent Network, because high frequency means greater impact of delay — both on passenger freedom and the agency's bottom line. We* used this approach in a Seattle Transit Plan study about 7 years ago:
1. Define the Frequent Network (every 15 min or better, all day, every day), including any segments that are "Rapid" (faster with fewer stops)
2. Define the policy operating speed standard for each product (frequent local vs rapid)
3. Map the existing scheduled speeds on each segment against this standard, creating a map with screaming red segments meaning "deficient."
4. Prioritize interventions to improve transit speed based on those deficiencies.
This is quite different from a classic cost-benefit approach in which we count the riders currently on a segment and assign value based on their total travel time saved, because it acknowledges that (a) a dysfunctional segment is probably driving away customers regardless of how many are on it now and (b) the outcome is the network, not just a single line.
We had a lot of success with this in Seattle at the time. Once the deficiency map was drawn, engineers noticed segments that they hadn't identified as problems before, and went to work on fixing them. Note too that the method cleanly separates problem from solution. Don't start with what you think is possible. Start with what you need. Define the absence of what you need as a citywide problem that affects the whole network. Then fix those deficiencies. If you're going to go to war with three businesses over "their" strip of on-street parking, you're more likely to break through the "big agency attacks struggling small business" frame if you're defending the entire city's transit system.
Remember: a line is only as reliable as its least reliable point, and a journey through a network is only as reliable as the least reliable of its lines involved. So one localized problem affecting speed and reliability (such as stops too close together) actually affects a vast area, and drags down public expectations for an entire network product. If it costs the agency money (as slower service always does) then it's also a direct detriment to the overall abundance of transit service. That's the frame in which you win battles over three on-street parking spaces, a signal phase, or even an entire tranist lane.
San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is, to a great extent, the culimination of exactly this thought process. I remember in the 1980s or early 90s a time when Muni proposed to eliminate just one consequential bus stop; 17th & Mission. The story became: "Big, bad transit agency launches personal attack on the people and businesses at 17th & Mission." The TEP has worked to change that conversation, emphasizing that on high-frequency services, the speed of every segment is part of the whole city's transit outcomes. The same process has made it easier to do a range of other locally-hated citywide goods such as removing parallel routes that were too close together.
Does your city's transit system have a similar project underway, one that moves beyond route-by-route analysis and looks at how every speed/reliabilit deficiency harms the whole city's transit system?
*I was with Nelson\Nygaard at the time. The project was the City of Seattle "Urban Village Transit Network" study of 2004, which became a foundation of the Seattle Transit Plan.
Lanes that protect transit's speed and reliability are only as good as their enforcement. San Francisco, like many cities, has long had a few lanes whose enforcement was so spotty as to render them advisory. Now, the city is getting serious, with camera enforcement and significant fines.
I think another feature will eventually be necessary: Full painting of bus lanes in the same way that we usually paint bike lanes, along with signage on approaching intersecting streets, so that there is no "I didn't know" excuse. Sydney, for example, paints its bus lanes deep red, with gaps at the points where cars can cross for turns.
In addition, if you approach as a motorist on an intersecting street, you will see a sign with a lane diagram of the street you're approaching, so that there's no excluse for turning into a bus lane. Fines (stiff) are often advertised prominently.
A traumatic memory from my old neighborhood, still exactly as I remember it:
The California Street cable car still doesn't influence traffic signals, even in the era of GPS. Here at California & Hyde, the car stops in the median of the street, requiring passengers to cross a traffic lane to board or alight. Note the green traffic signal to the right, which tells motorists it's ok to speed past the cable car as people get on and off. The man in the black coat and cap, waiting to board, must stand in a traffic lane that has the green signal. To the motorist, he appears to be crossing illegally, yet it's the only way to get to the cable car.
This is not a high-traffic intersection. Surely all lights should turn red when the cable car is present.
I lived a block from this point for seven years (1987-94) yet almost never used the California St. cable car. This was why.
About 18 years ago, when I was chairing the Citizens Advisory Committee of the San Francisco County Transporation Authority, I remember a day when staff effusively advised that they'd gotten budget to put up green signs around the city to help motorists better identify the streets. The green sign in this picture, for example.
This is on Jones St. northbound approaching Sacramento St., but there are many similar cases. (Trivia note: One of these signs appears in Gus Van Sant's fine film Milk, which is set in the 1970s. It was the film's most glaring anachronism.)
Nobody asked my committee's opinion when these signs went up. And today, briefly touring my old neighborhood, I find that these signs are still there. Has nobody questioned them in all this time?
Most readers will see the issue at once, but if you don't, here we go:
The motorist faces a stopsign. That means they should be looking at the crosswalk in front of them, and the other traffic approaching. What's more, they should be stopped, or stopping, which means that their focal length should be short; they don't need a sign that's meant to be read at high speeds. Yet high speed is implied by the green sign's large typesize, high position, and "freeway font"; the green sign has the same color, font, and typesize typically used on California freeways.
San Francisco's standard black and white streetsigns are the most legible I've encountered anywhere in the world. They are a global model for simplicity, clarity, and grace. There's one right below the green sign in this pic, in front of the tree. The text on these signs is over 1.5 inches high. If you can't read that black-on-white sign while stopped at a stopsign, or decelerating to it, your vision is so poor that you shouldn't have a drivers license. Only seriously dangerous drivers need the green sign.
Then there's the question of focal height. A sign placed very high, like the green sign here, is pulling the driver's eye away from the ground plane, which is where the squishable pedestrians and cyclists are. Extreme type size also encourages reading the sign from further away, which means focusing further away, which means a greater risk of not seeing the pedestrian in front of you.
In short, the message of the green sign ("read me from a distance, like you're on a freeway, driving fast") contradicts the message of the stopsign and crosswalks.
Motorists choose their speed and focal length based on a range of signals, not just explicit commands and prohibitions. These signs may be appropriate on high speed multi-lane streets, where you may need to change lanes to turn once you've recognized a cross-street. But what are they doing at stopsigns?
I'm sure there are manuals that say this is compliant to standards. But many bad ideas are endorsed by manuals. Does the green sign make sense? Argue with me.
PS: "Wait, Jarrett didn't say he'd be in San Francisco, and he didn't call!" Sorry, it was just two days, and I'll be back soon.
SF Cityscape has done a refinement of their excellent frequent network map for San Francisco, one that highlights the basic structure of the network that's useful for impatient people at all times of day. You can download the full GIF and or PDF here. A slice:
- Limited stop service (numbers with an L suffix in San Francisco) is substantially faster than local-stop, so I think it deserves its own color, possibly shading gradually to the local color when the limited segment ends, as 71L does west of Masonic. A separate color would also clue in the viewer that those lines stop only at the points indicated, while locals stop at more stops.
- To further clarify the previous point, I'd come up with a really tiny stop symbol to mark all stops on local-stop services — maybe labeling them in smaller print or not labeling them at all. This would give a visual indication of frequency of stops that would give an accurate view of relative speed. You really do not want to ride all the way across the city on Line 1, which stops every block or two. Such a notation would help the limited stop services — which really are useful for going all the way across the city — stand out more effectively.
- The mapmaker has followed the transit agency's practice of marking only wheelchair-accessible stops on the surface streetcars such as N. In fact, these line stop every 2-3 blocks, so I would be inclined to mark all stops, maybe using a notation like that above. I'd also advocate separate maps highlighting issues that matter to disabled persons. (Has any transit authority published special maps or online map layers specifically for people in wheelchairs etc, as an alternative to including all this information on a main system map?)
- I would also be inclined to emphasize that surface stops around a rapid transit station are indeed AT that station, so for example I would extend the Van Ness and Civic Center station bullets to encompass the adjacent bus stops rather than giving those stops separate coordinate names. This is especially important on schematic maps because the user is wary that a small space on the map might be a large distance.
But again, I can nitpick usefully only because it's a really great map!