San Francisco

san francisco: frequent network map refined

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:

Sf cityscape map
The map is so cool that I feel liberated to nitpick.  Some other basic principles for maps of this type, worth considering:

  • 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!

bus signage can be beautiful

… so long as you find beauty in anything that conveys a vast amount of content in the least possible space, or with the least possible complexity. 

38 GEARY V A Hosp Crop

Perhaps this is a distinctly Zen sense of beauty, but it's also close to what mathematicians and scientists often mean by elegance

If you know San Francisco, you know where Geary Blvd. is and you probably have a sense that the VA Hospital is out toward the west end of it somewhere.  So this sign tells you a surprisingly complete story about what this bus does.  This makes it useful not just as information but also as gentle passive advertising.  Anyone can notice this sign out of the corner of their eye, and pick up a bit of information about the transit system ("there's a bus heading out Geary from here … good to know …")

For decades, San Francisco and Portland have used this simple style for all of their signage.  I discussed how it works in Portland here.  Even back in transit's "age of vinyl," San Francisco used separate roller signs for name and destination, so that they could present the same information in the same pattern consistently.  (Photos were also blurrier back then!)

35 EUREKA to Market

Many other cities, including Sydney and Seattle, habitually turn it upside down, so on the 38 above they might have said "38 VA HOSPITAL via Geary."  A Sydney sign might read "380 DOVER BCH via Oxford St."  I find that less intuitive, because the path the bus follows is usually more useful than the final destination in determining if the service is useful to you.  Still, it's understandable in Sydney where street names change so frequently that it's hard to associate bus routes with them, as "38 GEARY" does.

But this post is actually an information request.  Have you seen bus exterior signs that convey a lot of information briefly in an interesting way, either examples of the above or of other ideas?  If so, please link or send them to me.  I'm collecting them for a project. 

Meanwhile, for a more literary perspective on bus signage, see here!

should inaccessible employers subsidize transit?

800px-BishopRanchBldg3 Lisa Margonelli has a nice short piece in the Atlantic today on the sustainable transport achievements of Bishop Ranch, an enormous business park in suburban San Ramon east of San Francisco. 

The park was developed from farmland by Masud Mehran's Sunset Development Corporation in 1978 on the belief that San Francisco real estate would soon become expensive and companies would need cheaper space for their administrative services. His grandson, Alexander Mehran, describes the transit program as "a necessity that developed into a whole different animal." When the park started, it was simply too far from anywhere. "We were getting crushed by people going to work in Walnut Creek and Dublin," where the BART stations are. As a result, the ranch bought a fleet of buses and worked with the city and county transit agencies to subsidize both bus routes and bus passes for workers. There are now 13 different bus routes running to the park, and the connections to BART and various local train and express bus services are coordinated. On its website, the Ranch now pitches its transit program as a competitive advantage.

The most important word in that paragraph, of course, is subsidize.  Suburban business parks are expensive, per customer, for transit to serve, so a suburban employer can't expect attractive or useful service simply by demanding it.

The second most important word is cheaper, which in the suburban context is sometimes an illusion.  Bishop Ranch exists because it was perceived as a cheaper location for business.  It is, but partly because land value follows access.  The cheapest site will usually be the one with the worst transportation problems, and if a business chooses the site solely on those grounds, they're transferring the hidden cost of transportation onto their employees, their customers, and the transit agency.  Employees can quit, customers can go elsewhere, and increasingly, transit agencies, too, are pushing back against serving these cheap-because-inaccessible sites, by suggesting that employers take responsibility for some of the cost burden created by their choice of location. 

Finally, it's worth noting that Bishop Ranch is a fairly intense business park, with many multi-story buildings.  Effectively it was a single-use new town of considerable density, so while the location was difficult for transit, transit agencies still had a ridership motive in serving it.  If it were being built today, I hope Bishop Ranch would be mixed-use, with some residences mixed in, and also located with greater care in relation to existing and potential transit corridors, on the "Be on the Way" principle.  Still, for being what it is, Bishop Ranch deserves a lot of credit for taking responsiblity for the transit consequences of its site, and investing in services to help overcome those barriers.

beyond grey

San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) is, let's be frank, extremely grey.  Most of its above-ground stations feature vast expanses of exposed concrete, true to the prevailing modernism of the age.  (Most of the system was designed in the 1960s.)

At stations like MacArthur, where the grey station infrastructure interacts with the surround grey ramps of the freeways, one can wonder if the original BART planners were so obsessed with competing with freeways that they deliberately chose freeway-like lines and colors, especially where real freeways were nearby.  This, of course, would be competition by resemblence rather than by differentiation.  At one stage, that probably made sense.

And yes, cool grey can be beautiful, but only if there's color to throw it into relief.  Modernism sometimes drew encouragement from the coolness of classical Greek and Roman architecture, but of course the ancient world seems colorless to us only because paints, fabrics, and other vehicles of color don't survive the centuries. 

So it was fun to open my mail this morning and find this painting by Alfred Twu, reimagining the freeway-dominated landscape of MacArthur BART station with a more tropical sense of color.  Why must we go to Germany to see bright colors and strong choices in design?


UPDATE:  I can't resist highlighting a comment from jfruh:

I always think that BART is what someone in 1969 thought the future was going to look like.

If you're too young to remember 1969, I strongly recommend reviewing Stanley Kubrick's great film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1970).  When I rode BART for the first time in 1976, I felt like I had arrived in the world of that film. 

on casual carpools, or “slugging”

Emily Badger has a useful article on casual carpools, though it would be a little more useful if she — or her editors at Miller McCune — didn't keep implying that public transit is somehow the enemy.

Casual carpooling — or "slugging" as some of its partisans like to call it — is a perfectly rational response to very congested freeways with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.  At informal queues, usually located near an onramp, motorists who want to use the HOV lanes meet up with other commuters who want to ride the lanes as passengers.  These passengers fill the empty seats in the motorist's car so that they can all travel in the HOV lane.  The phenomenon appears to happen where and when an HOV lane offers quite dramatic travel time savings, as it does on certain Washington DC freeways and on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.  It happens only in intensive commute periods, because that's when the HOV lane's advantage is substantial.

For many, it's fun to think of casual carpooling as some sort of revolt against conventional transit.  The term slugging, Badger explains, arose as an insult uttered by "bitter bus drivers" who saw their waiting passengers disappearing into private cars.  Miller McCune's headline describes slugging as "the people's transit," as though conventional transit is something else.

In fact, casual carpooling or "slugging" is largely compatible with conventional transit.  Really, the two are mutually beneficial.  The casual carpool markets in San Francisco and Washington are both parallel to rapid transit lines, but the trains are still full.  As for competition with peak bus services, the long one-way commuter bus run is one of the most expensive services a transit agency can operate.  Often, each bus can be used for only one run during each peak, so all the costs of owning and maintaining the bus must be justified by a single trip.  Drivers for these peak buses are also expensive, because there are costs associated with the short shifts that peak-only service requires, and because drivers must usually be paid to get back to where the shift began before clocking out.     

Long commuter bus runs can still make sense, but they are very expensive compared to conventional two-way, all-day transit.  If casual carpooling reduces the demand for them, the effect on transit is to flatten the overall peak that transit has to serve, increasing its potential cost-effectiveness and improving the utilization of fleet.  It's especially helpful on the AM peak, which is usually the sharper of the two.

So slug away, if you need to feel that you're attacking something.  I prefer to call it a casual carpool, because that term describes what it really is.  And I see no reason not to welcome them.  In fact, when new HOV lanes are developed, the casual carpool phenomenon should be planned for, both by ensuring that there are safe and logical pickup points and also by counting casual carpool trips in the mobility benefits of the lane.

Of course, such planning would contradict the libertarian fantasy — heavily stressed in the Miller McCune piece — that casual carpooling is a "government-free" form of spontaneous social organization, a kind of Tahrir Square for the cul-de-sac set.  In fact, "slugging" is a freely chosen response to the design of the government-funded transport infrastructure — just like everybody else's commute.   

basics: branching (or how transit is like a river)

A short draft chapter from the book, overlapping the content of this recent post but with an extended BART example that I hope readers will enjoy and have comments on.

In 2011, cartographer Daniel Huffman thought it would be interesting to draw river systems as though they were subways.  Figure 1 shows part of his sketch of the Lower Mississippi.[i] Continue Reading →

basics: expertise vs. activism

The planning professions work in a grey zone between expertise and activism, and managing these competing impulses is one of our hardest tasks.

As a transit planning consultant, I don’t worry much about being perceived as an advocate of transit in general.  Experts in any field are expected to believe in its importance.  But I do try to keep a little distance between my knowledge about transit and the impulse to say “You should do this.”  A good consultant must know how to marry his own knowledge to his client’s values, which may lead him to make different recommendations than he would do as a citizen, expressing his own values. Continue Reading →

san francisco: transit and endangered species

San Francisco artist Todd Gilens has four major works now on display in that city.  To find them, though, you'll need a special bus tracker:


From the Muni Diaries:

Instead of thinking about buses an advertising space, Gilens wondered if buses can be a vehicle for visual impact. “We use buses without thinking, like using a paper towel, but what if we used images to transform the bus, to give an emotive quality to buses?”

Gilens raised money to wrap four buses in photographs of the Brown PelicansCoho SalmonSalt Marsh Harvest Mouse and Mission Blue Butterfly.

They're quite beautiful:

Gilens bus

Images of all four buses are here.  Just click the little forward and back buttons.

Todd lays out the background for his work in a short statement here, and in a longer article in Antennae (PDF here).  Here's his conceptual bridge from transit to endangered species, by way of urban form:

A way to think of settlement patterns would be: how can mutual needs or living space be courteously accommodated?  Just as we do when crowded around other humans (as on a bus for example) being close enough to all fit while everyone gets at least somewhat of the space they need.  In the framework of regional settlement, this means checking to see if the streams, the coyotes, the polliwogs or ferns are not getting trampled, and if they are, maybe shifting over a bit to give them some room.

It was courageous of Todd to even tell me about this project, given what I've written elsewhere about advertising wraps.  I also long to see bus exteriors used for the primary mission of helping people figure out the bus system.  I especially like simple color-coding schemes that distinguish fundamentally different kinds of service, such as the simple Los Angeles paint scheme where red means Rapid and orange means Local.

But as a temporary exhibit, which is what this is, I'm all for it.  These buses operate through surprise. (True beauty is always surprising, which is why it can be hard to appreciate in a museum.)   So even if the bus wraps were permanent, their beauty would diminish as people got used to them.

The four buses will be wrapped through the end of March and a bit into April.

deadly journalism alert: “planners say” tunnels cost money

James Fallows of the Atlantic has been pushing back on the habit of journalists to resist all statements of objective fact:

In today's political environment, when so many simple facts are disputed, journalists can feel abashed about stating plainly what is true. With an anticipatory cringe about the angry letters they will receive or the hostile blog posts that will appear, they instead cover themselves by writing, "according to most scientists, the sun rises in the east, although critics say…."

How does this play out in transit journalism?  Very, very often, journalists present a transit expert stating a fact and someone else expressing a desire, as though this were a "he said, she said" disagreement.  For example, here's Mike Rosenberg of Bay Area News Group, about the routing of California High Speed Rail through the suburb of Burlingame just south of San Francisco.

Burlingame officials want their entire stretch of planned high-speed rail track buried underground …  State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks, which locals fear would tower 30 feet in the air, produce more noise and create a physical divide.

Note the tension of the two stem verbs.  "Burlingame officials want" and "state planners say."  It's set up to sound like "he said, she said." 

But these two sentences don't describe a disagreement at all.  Burlingame city officials are stating a desire, to have the line underground, to which state rail planners are responding with information about consequences, namely that undergrounding would be more expensive.   That's not a disagreement; that's staff doing its job.

The disagreement is actually about who should pay for the undergounding that Burlingame wants.  The state says that if a city wants high speed rail to go underground, it should pay the difference.  The article quotes Burlingame mayor Terry Nagel's response:

Nagel said Burlingame could spend the city's entire $33 million annual budget on funding the tracks and barely make a dent in the price tag.

"It's not even a possibility," Nagel said Wednesday.

Note that mayor understands that building the line underground through his city will cost more than building the line on the surface.  In fact, he's clear that it will cost massively more, more than his entire city budget.  The cost is not in dispute.  So why did we need "state planners say" in this sentence?

State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks …

All other things being equal, underground construction is more expensive than surface.  This is a fact about the universe, readily found in any transport engineering textbook, so it's misleading to describe it as a claim or allegation. 

Even if the journalist were thinking like a divorce lawyer, for whom there may be no verifiable reality outside of the fevered imaginations of the two parties, he still could have said that "all parties agree that undergrounding costs much, much more than surface."  The journalist knows this, because he has quoted the Mayor of Burlingame displaying a complete grasp of that fact, even though the fact is inconvenient for his side.

So let's read that whole passage again:

Burlingame officials want their entire stretch of planned high-speed rail track buried underground …  State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks, which locals fear would tower 30 feet in the air, produce more noise and create a physical divide.

Look again the three main verbs:  want – say – fear.  Emotion – alleged fact – emotion.  And both emotions are on the same side!  It's as predictable as the structure of a pop song.  The people of Burlingame get their emotions recorded twice, while in opposition we hear only a fact about cost, presented as though it were the voice of some oppressor, crushing these honest folks who are trying to defend their homes.

Journalists!  If you want to help people form coherent views that bear some relation to realty, ask yourself these questions:

  • What facts are agreed on by all parties to the dispute, and by experts in the field?  State those as facts.
  • If facts are not agreed to by all parties, are they agreed to by people expert in the subject?  If so, say "experts generally agree that …"  This can still be wimpy, like "experts agree that the sun rises in the east," but even that is vastly more accurate than "state planners say …"
  • Are there widely shared values motivating both sides?  If so, make them visible.  You may or may not agree that High Speed Rail is a good policy, but its motivating purpose is not to torture the people of Burlingame.  Drop in a standard sentence about the larger economic and environmental purposes High Speed Rail advocates claim the line will serve.  We know what values the burghers of Burlingame are defending — "home" — but what values are those on other side defending, and might these also matter to the reader?
  • Are there strong emotions on both sides?  If so, describe them.  In this case, don't just quote "state planners," who are professionally compelled to be balanced and judicious.   Quote a committed and informed High Speed Rail advocate making a stronger, more vivid statement about the actions of cities like Burlingame, and the cumulative burden they place on getting a line built.  In today's world of expert blogs, you don't even need to pick up the phone; just quote Robert Cruikshank off his California High Speed Rail Blog, for example …

[Burlingame expects] the rest of the state to essentially subsidize their property values. I cannot emphasize enough how absurd and out-of-touch that view is. At a time when property values have crashed hard in other parts of the state, why on earth would anyone in Riverside or Stockton or San Diego or East LA believe that Burlingame property owners deserve state aid to maintain their land values?

Bottom line:  If your story sounds like passionate people are in conflict with soulless bean-counting bureaucrats, you probably don't understand your story yet.  You may in fact have a story about venal, conniving bureaucrats, or about frightened or lazy bureaucrats blowing smoke, but the rules above will help you figure out if that's the case.  You may also have a story about expert public servants doing their jobs, and if you want any honest and dedicated experts to be willing to work in those jobs, you owe it to them to consider that possibility.

I would welcome some push-back from professional journalists on this.  (Email link is under my photo in the next column to the right.)   Please forward a link to any journalists in your life!   Me, I'm just a consumer of the product, and often not a very happy one. 

The Peril of Low Base Fares

Are transit fares in Los Angeles cheaper than in San Francisco?  That’s the impression you’ll get from a direct comparison of the base adult cash fare.  The travel blog Price of Travel just compared the base fares of 80 major tourist cities around the world and noted that, while San Francisco Muni’s base fare is $2.00, that of the Los Angeles County MTA is $1.50. Continue Reading →