» 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