Transbay Terminal Demolition Set to Begin; Massive New Center Will Prioritize Multimodal Access

» Though rail will play an important role for the San Francisco center, the project’s bus focus sets it apart. The existing almost windowless building will be replaced with a blocks-long glass façade.

Cities have few opportunities to invest in new transportation centers, since they’re enormously expensive and usually require a complete reworking of the transit system during construction and after they’re built. For big metropolitan areas, a new transportation center usually means a series of multimodal connections focused around a rail link; in most cases in which they’re present, trains get the priority placement in the building whereas buses are frequently relegated to less desirable areas.

For example, Denver’s Union Station redevelopment project (recently financed with $304 million in U.S. government-backed bonds) will require bus passengers to wait in a underground passage, even as commuter and light rail users are presented with better-looking and better-lit spaces. This leaves bus riders in the lurch, losing out in terms of the general environment that surrounds them, despite often representing a larger percentage of overall passengers.

San Francisco has taken the opposite approach with its Transbay Transit Center, whose construction will get underway early next year, in time for an initial opening in 2017. The first phase of the project, which will cost $1.589 billion, will include five levels of concourses and platforms stretching four blocks in the center of the city, featuring a beautiful 5.4-acre roof park sitting on top. Buses will get priority, running elevated above the surrounding streets and accessible directly from the ground floor via escalators lit by skylights. People waiting on buses will be literally standing above the city streets, facing windowed panels. This will be no repeat of the all-too-familiar dark and confusing transit hub.

On the other hand, trains will be routed underground at Transbay; Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail trains will use the almost $3 billion downtown rail extension corridor, to be completed in 2018, to reach into the center city. That project is not yet fully funded but will be necessary to fulfill the goals of downtown connectivity for the high-speed project. In addition, its provision of easier access into the central business district will likely ramp up ridership on Caltrain, which currently terminates at an inconvenient station at the intersection of 4th and King Streets. That stop will be replaced with an underground through station.

100,000 passengers, mostly traveling on buses headed to or from the East Bay, are expected to use the facility everyday. They will do so in a far more friendly atmosphere than they’re currently used to. Buses to other parts of San Francisco will likely use drop off locations at the ground floor.

Over the course of the next seven years, bus riders will be required to use the Transbay center’s temporary bus terminal, which has been under construction since 2008. On August 13th, the existing building, called the Transbay Terminal, will begin to be torn down. The Terminal opened in the 1930s as the terminus of many of the streetcars of the Key System coming over from cities in the East Bay like Berkeley and Oakland. Those vehicles — and the Terminal itself — were converted in 1959 to buses both because of the sense that streetcars were an antiquated transportation technology but also because of the anticipation for BART regional rail services, which began in 1972. The Terminal hasn’t aged well; for the average user, it’s a complicated mess of corridors with little signage.

What’s exciting about San Francisco’s huge investment in the Transbay Center is that it seeks to integrate transportation into the community by routing it through a facility that will be a fantastic destination, even for occasional visitors. In addition to the building itself, the city plans to remake Folsom Street nearby to encourage streetfront cafes and a convivial pedestrian environment. Even more significantly, it has rezoned 40 acres in the immediate surroundings for major redevelopment, preparing for the construction of the city’s tallest building on site. Combined with the rooftop park, this will be a new center of life for the city — and buses will be at the heart of the program.

Cities that want to exploit their bus services to their full potential have an obligation to treat the transportation mode with spaces that are as high quality as are those provided for rail users, and that’s exactly what San Francisco plans to do here. If BART trains reach capacity over the next decade — a possibility if the economy improves and ridership increases — better bus service operating in and out of the Transbay Center could be a viable alternative for many passengers hoping to get to the East Bay. They’ll be more likely to ride thanks to the airy and magnificent nature of the new station.

There is one significant problem with the project: It will not have adequate connections with the rest of San Francisco via the existing transit system. No BART or Muni Metro lines stop there, nor is the bus rapid transit system for Geary Boulevard expected to continue there. One solution could be a new Transbay tunnel for BART, combined with rail service under Geary. That, however, is so far off that no one’s ready to contemplate it seriously yet. We’ll have to content ourselves with using buses to get to and from the building. Here, that’s not too bad of a deal.

Image above: Transbay Transit Center, from TJPA

26 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • There is also the problem that it was designed more as a tri-modal transit center, for buses, long distance coaches, and Caltrain, and the mandate in the local proposition to design it as the SF HSR terminal was always honored more in the breach than in the reality.

    Since Caltrain was the poor cousin in the piece, the train design was always a mess, with off-center columns on the side island platforms, and poorly design access and egress, and the hasty retrofit to try to squeeze aside Caltrain services to make room from HSR is a bit of a hack.

  • Matthew

    Muni metro and BART are just a short walk away.

  • Danny

    I find the 100,000 figure both underwhelming and overly optimistic. Underwhelming because a city with a downtown core like SF should easily be able to top 200,000, and overly optimistic because transit in SF never meets riders expectations, let alone ridership expectations.

    San Francisco will always be an underperforming transit city despite having every geographic, political, and economic success factor already accounted for. The reason for this is that San Francisco (and the greater Bay Area for that matter) has always considered their transit systems as a gift to political insiders like transit unions and construction companies rather than an essential service for riders and residents.

    The Geary corridor alone could easily support a self sustaining, fully-paid-for-by-fares light rail system running 4 car trains every five minutes. But they went with BRT, despite knowing that the capacity they have planned for still wont meet demand, almost for the sole reason that it will employ more bus drivers. I wonder if they ever stopped to ask how much economic activity they are killing by forcing people to choose between driving and waiting for three or four buses to go to find a bus that you can fit in.

    I won’t be surprised if this station doesn’t top 50k passengers a day.

    • Glen

      Why BRT??? well every Nimby/shopowner had such a cow fit about the fact lightrail construction would be such horror!! There even whinning about the BRT

  • Currently, AC Transit carries around 25,000 across the bay on Transbay Express buses. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that double with the new facility. Also, Caltrain’s current 4th and King San Francisco terminus attracts 12,000 riders. With electrification and extension, Caltrain should bring around 20,000, minimum, into the Transbay Transit Center. CAHSR’s ridership, if it ever gets built, is anyone’s guess.

    The 100,000 number isn’t too high, especially if you consider the number of passengers who will board the 38 Geary and 5 Fulton at the bus plaza on street level.

    • Because of the need to make room for the actual factual HSR terminal platforms, only the Caltrain locals will continue on to Transbay, the Expresses will terminate at 4th and King.

      • No, the need for HSR is not the real reason for this. The real reason is that the current TBT design has a single-track bottleneck for Caltrain, because of the local belief that curved turnouts are impossible. Design the TBT throat more competently and Caltrain has no problem terminating all trains at TBT.

        • Evidently Caltrain does not have enough clout to swing this, and given that they don’t, within the confines of the present broken design, there is not the capacity to cater to both Express and Local trains, especially given the likely increase in Caltrain traffic with electrification.

          When the train box was originally designed, there was ample capacity, even given how badly it was designed … because it was clearly only envisioned that there might be a couple of HSR services per hour. The two 4th and Townsend platforms occupying the main access and egress lines and one a single bi-directional passing track point to an assumption of only a limited need to cater to services that would not stop at 4th and Townsend.

          • Bruce, there’s no connection between 4th and Townsend and the bottleneck. It would be nice to have more than one bypass track, but it’s not critical, and at any rate it’s okay for express trains to stop both there and at Transbay. Express doesn’t have to mean nonstop.

            It’s not even clear that the problem is Caltrain clout. Caltrain isn’t even making an effort. It could have asked for a redesign of the DTX tunnel, but it didn’t. All it got was an emergency turnout that can’t be used in regular operation because AREMA standards require turnouts to be straight. So far it hasn’t even thought to ask the FRA to change the standards to allow curved turnouts, on which trains operate safely in the German-speaking world.

  • The temporary, ground-level facility is nice and simple, naturally lit, and accessible directly from the sidewalk. No elevators, escalators, or fancy glass shingles needed. Make it permanent (expand it one block closer to Market Street if needed), add a few more canopies, then put the train station on the site of the old terminal (or where the ramp are now, up in the AIR). Plant palm trees in the GROUND and be done with it.
    The planned new facility is just a shinier NYC Port Authority Bus Station, a piss-poor train station (ditto Bruce on the off-center columns).

  • Jonah, Geary BRT service will terminate at Transbay. If you’re referring to the bus lanes not extending to Transbay–that is correct.

  • Sorry, Yonah–please pardon the typo.

  • david vartanoff

    @Kurt here are AC’s figures from their website
    Ridership—FY 2008-2009 information
    Daily (weekday) 236,000*
    Annual 69 million
    Paratransit (annual) 689,000**
    *Includes 60,000 school children and 14,000 Transbay commuters

    As with most agencies this is total riders. Given that many use AC both ways actual ## of individual riders is likely closer to 10k. (making a wild guess as to car pool riders WB who use AC EB)

    @Ben The Temporary Terminal has two major lacks. Nowhere to get out of the rain, and no access to toilets. Ridership will plummet come the winter.

  • CE

    That Geary/Oakland/Berkeley dream line would be much more useful with a terminus in downtown Berkeley rather than El Cerrito. The University of California is a far more important destination than El Cerrito Plaza.

    A rail line down University Ave could also spur development along a currently blighted but potentially vibrant street. It makes a lot of sense regionally to have this connection down University Ave, Berkeley political obstructors aside.

  • OctaviusIII

    I couldn’t see myself using the terminal if I still lived in the Bay Area. It’s good, but with this much investment I would have hoped the building could have served as fully unified transit hub. Then again, the Bay Area has so many transit deficiencies already that anything that knits it together, even imperfectly, is a step forward.

  • J

    There are no plans for an underground tunnel to connect to BART/MUNI?

    Perhaps they should look to paris for inspiration on lengthy underground tunnels with high speed walkways.

  • Wad

    I think it’s funny that the illustration for the modernized Transbay Terminal still uses RTS buses in the old AC Transit livery. :)

  • poncho

    I can’t get excited about this new airport terminal, er, I mean, transit hub design. It feels like every post-1990 airport terminal/pseudo airmall I’ve been in with the all glass and white structural members on a long endless building.

    The entry is practically hidden in the shadows of the tower, mixed in with the tower’s lobby, the Muni drop off is also hidden away deep under the building. So much for a grand entry. The facade is deadenly repetitive with its trendy swooping “skin” repeated ad nausium for 4-5 blocks. Despite all the glass and airy feel, where the natural light and openness is really needed down is down at the track level which instead will have all the atmosphere of the Montgomery BART station.

    I think the rooftop park and the random forest trees throughout the terminal are a ridiculous “green washing” gimmick. And the funicular railway is goofy impractical theme park ride.

    Lets be honest about the new Transbay Center, its all about maximizing return for developers. Developers search all over to get their hands on large continuous parcels with a single owner and they found their golden goose here. Hence why they are in a rush to start construction without having the train situation all sorted out, kind of a big issue if you ask me.

    What happens with future expansion? This is, afterall, being designed as a stub terminal… you kind of need a lot of tracks (at least all other major rail terminals do). Problem is the whole neighborhood is being developed at the same time so plans for track expansion are now or never, and they aren’t now.

    And yeah, nice going with the two 90 degree turns in the tunnel, because you know trains really work well with sharp turns. Instead of the high capacity, gently curving, relatively fast bus loop that existed until early this morning, the new one is a slow, easily congestable, tight loop.

    What about a non-BART rail tunnel continuing under the bay to Oakland linking into the Capitol Corridor line… Caltrain extension to Richmond via Emeryville??? Routing some Capitol Corridor trains SF-SAC and SF-SJ via Hayward & Fremont? Its certainly been talked about and we all know its eventually coming sometime in the future. Shouldn’t this be at least planned for now?

    • Poncho, there is no longer a feasible way to extend trains from Transbay to Oakland. It has to do with the building foundations directly in front of the Transbay site.

      The station throat can still be done well, but it won’t be. The main problem is not just the sharp turns, though those can be eased as well; it’s that the throat is configured with three tracks, with two HSR tracks connecting to four platform tracks and one Caltrain track connecting to two platform tracks. The single-track bottleneck combined with the slow speeds limits Caltrain’s capacity.

      The terminal configuration is not by itself bad. Terminals can turn trains around fairly quickly. It’s normal to turn 15 tph on two tracks in Tokyo, and even 25+ tph can be done if you’re really constrained. Through-stations still have a higher throughput than terminals (for one, they’re capable of 25-30 much more easily), but in the US it’s magnified by various FRA mandates and union rules that lengthen a turnback from 2 minutes to 10.

      • Nathanael

        In the long run, if humanity survives long enough, they’re going to have to dig a deep underground tunnel underneath the entire mess (starting from probably S. San Francisco) with a deep underground (one-platform) station in downtown SF, connecting to the new pair of Transbay Tubes, and then a deep underground Oakland station, before surfacing on the route to Sacramento.

        The number of constrictions on the rail routes in both San Francisco and Oakland are sufficiently substantial that eventually this is going to become necessary. If they hadn’t misdesigned the Transbay Terminal approaches it might have been avoidable.

  • Adirondacker12800

    Routing some Capitol Corridor trains SF-SAC and SF-SJ via Hayward & Fremont? Its certainly been talked about and we all know its eventually coming sometime in the future. Shouldn’t this be at least planned for now?

    As near as I can tell they proposed all of what you propose back in the 90s. They bought up lots of land to do it. Lots of things happened and they decided that the peons in the rest of the Bay Area could forever and ever take the bus. Also decided they would wedge everything into the land the old terminal is on.

    The trains are never going to go to Sacramento, there’s no place to put them when they arrive in San Francisco. They’ll go to Oakland where people can transfer to overcrowded BART train or hop a bus that gets stuck in traffic.

    • poncho

      At least extending the rail line under the bay to the East Bay would allow them to get away with fewer platforms in SF given that the station would then become a thru-station and not a terminus station.

      You gotta give the old Transbay Terminal credit, it could easily handle many trains arriving and departing at once due to its full one way loop… all through trains, no turning around. Given its design, it was probably one of the highest capacity/highest throughput stations in North America, unfortunately it never really was able to live up to anywhere near that potential except maybe a few years during WWII.

  • Dexter

    Well, while the old Transbay Terminal did have a full one way loop, it had little space to store trains for future departure. Once a train unloaded, if no outbound service was scheduled it had to deadhead back across the bridge to the Bridge Yard. Sacramento Northern was well known for doing this. There was a lot of deadheading of equipment between Transbay and the Bridge yard.

  • Nathanael

    The Denver project choices were based on funding; I was reading the documents at the time.

    It makes more sense to put the rails underground and the bus on the surface, and that was the *original* plan, but putting the buses underground turned out to be (1) somewhat cheaper, and (2) able to attract additional sources of funding. Weirdly, there was more funding available for new bus centers than for new railroad stations. So there you go.

    In addition, the historical preservation people wanted the tracks to be visible from the “train room” in Denver Union Station, and keeping them on the surface therefore made them happier.

    • Nathanael

      Note: on the plus side, keeping the tracks on the surface allows for possible future extension west to connect to the southbound rails, even though nobody is planning it. This would have been completely impossible with underground tracks due to the location of a nearby creek.

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