Bay Area Light Rail

In San Francisco, All-Door Boarding Catches On

» San Francisco fights to speed up buses and trains by encouraging customers not to buy their tickets up front.

Unlike underground metros or elevated trains, road-running streetcars and buses suffer from a significant slow-down: The time wasted waiting for people to board. The process is dreadfully sluggish in cities with well-used transit systems as large numbers of customers at popular stops are forced to line up at the front door and swipe their tickets or pay their fares in cash. In most cases, customers are forbidden from entering the bus at the rear door, even if they have unlimited ride cards.

In dense cities, the result of these boarding difficulties are buses and trains that practically crawl down the street, even on corridors without much competing automobile traffic. In San Francisco at least, a solution is being studied: Allowing passengers to board at all doors, starting with a pilot program on the Muni Metro J-Church light rail line, which runs from downtown south into the Noe Valley and Balboa Park neighborhoods.

There’s nothing particularly controversial or revolutionary about San Francisco’s proposal. Indeed, the concept of allowing people to get on a transit vehicle at any entryway is is not only standard on most rail networks and a basic component of most bus rapid transit investments, but it is also already in place for some customers on San Francisco’s Muni Metro lines, which operate in a tunnel under Market Street downtown but for much of the remainder of their routes operate in shared lanes like streetcars. What’s different here is the goal to extend the process to all customers on all services.

San Francisco has some of the slowest transit speeds in the U.S., with the average Muni train or bus moving from place to place at a measly eight mph. Those slow speeds are an impediment to easy mobility throughout the city and discourage people from taking advantage of transit.* The causes of the slow speeds are multifarious: The fact that most rail and bus corridors are shared with automobiles, the high density of stops, and, of course, the requirement to board up front. The result have been disappointing reliability statistics: Most services arrive at their destinations on time less than 80% of the time.

Municipal officials have for years been arguing that Muni’s services require an upgrade, and the recent Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) recommended a number of measures to speed vehicles. Though corridors were analysed differently, the recommendations for the J-Church line (which carries about 17,000 riders a day) were broadly indicative of citywide principles: Increasing the distance between stops — there are currently five stops along the 3,500-foot section of track between 24th and 30th Street, for instance — and allowing all-door boarding. In order to do the latter, Muni will install ticket machines on the sidewalk at stops and require customers to have a proof-of-payment once they get on board at any door. People holding the Bay Area’s universal fare card Clipper can already do as much by tapping their cards at fare readers near the back doors on all rail, though not bus, lines.

Muni has installed card readers at the back of its buses in preparation for a greater roll-out.

Though the agency has not articulated just how much time it expects these trains to save along their route, it does expect to increase reliability as vehicle bunching caused by passengers lining up to get on board and pay will be reduced.

Advocates in San Francisco have been arguing for years that similar measures be extended to all routes, including buses, but the extent to which the city can rely on installing ticket vending machines at every bus stop is questionable. Not only are these machines expensive, but they require constant upkeep and supervision. The question is whether all-door boarding must rely on such on-street machines or whether there is an alternative.

Indeed, one of the great advantages of the Clipper Card — intended to be the fare media for the Bay Area and already useable on BART and AC Transit, among other agencies — is its convenience. It can be purchased in drug stores or by mail. It can be reloaded in train stations or online. Why is it necessary to have ticket purchasing machines at every corner? From a cost-benefit perspective, is installing hundreds of outdoor ticket machines any better than the existing system, where you must buy a ticket in line at the front of the vehicle?

There are other options: Some cities have allowed local merchants to sell tickets one at a time to customers without fare cards, sometimes with a slight markup. Others have coordinated sales with ATM providers, a particularly in-touch approach considering those machines’ ubiquity today. Agencies have encouraged the sale of ten-packs of tickets sold at slightly reduced prices so that customers don’t have to buy a new one every time they get on. In any case, in a city with as many stores and as much pedestrian activity as San Francisco, it is possible to envision a situation in which customers are not provided ticket machines on the street and are not allowed to buy them on board and go about their business just fine.

There are definitely some negatives related to the use of fully off-board ticketing. Fare evasion is already apparently a major issue in San Francisco, with many people either not paying to get on the bus or simply getting on through the back doors, no matter the law. These problems are likely to get worse as it becomes acceptable to board without paying. Either the city steps up vigorous on-board enforcement by police of Clipper Card validation and proof-of-payment from external ticket machines, or it will experience increasing criminality when it comes to fare payments. Considering the speed benefits the other riders are likely to experience, that may not be the worst thing in the world.

These are important issues for San Francisco because as the city works to improve its transit system, it will need to find ways to discourage ticket-buying on buses and trains. A roll-out to the entire network of buses is planned for later this year, if the trial on the J-Church goes as planned. If Muni develops a reasonable and cheap way to do so, it would be the model of every other city working to speed up its own transit network.

* It is interesting to note that while transit speeds are quite low on Muni, regional rail provider BART features some of the fastest speeds in the country thanks to the long average distances between its stops and an entirely dedicated right-of-way.

Image above: Route of Muni Metro J-Church Line, from Flickr user jdeeringdavis (cc)

Bay Area Metro Rail

New BART Station Brings Infill Thinking to the Bay Area

» A new stop at West Dublin/Pleasanton could attract new riders and transit-oriented development without requiring further line extensions.

With 104 miles of track and just 43 stations, the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system may have the most widely-spaced stopping pattern of almost any rapid transit system in the world. One wonders whether those huge inter-station distances reduce ridership by making it too difficult for people to get to and from stops by foot. Washington’s Metro, which was built in essentially the same period, has almost the same track length but twice as many stations — perhaps that is one of the primary reasons that it also has nearly twice as many daily riders?

Today, BART has taken a step forward to remediate the matter, opening a new stop at West Dublin/Pleasanton in the median of I-580, near the freeway’s junction with I-680. It is the first infill station — a stop constructed along an operating rail right-of-way — for the system and fills what had been a 10-mile gap between Castro Valley and Dublin/Pleasanton stations in the far southeast section of the region. The station cost $106 million to build and is expected to attract 4,300 daily users. $20 million of the construction funds were sponsored by Jones Lang Lasalle, a developer that plans 210 housing units, office space, and a hotel within walking distance.

The station was originally planned as a part of the Dublin/Pleasanton Extension, which opened in 1997, but implementation was delayed. The project also added 1,200 parking spaces for the large car-commuting population expected to use the stop. Reverse commuters, however, may also be expected to use the stop: It is within close distance of the Stoneridge Shopping Center and the Safeway Grocery Store headquarters.

Like Washington’s New York Avenue Station, which opened in 2004 — 28 years after the rail line on which it is located was constructed — the West Dublin/Pleasanton Station represents a new way of thinking about the right way to plan transit investments. Though BART continues to focus on suburban extensions — projects to Livermore, San Jose, and Antioch are either under construction or planned — it has plenty of room for infill stations.

These have a number of significant advantages over line extensions. For one, it costs less money to build a new station along an existing corridor than to extend the same line further out. In addition, by adding service to a neighborhood that has been overlooked by initial investments, the new station can encourage new transit-oriented projects in-town instead of encouraging further suburbanization. When done right, these sort of infill projects can bring welcome improvements for neighborhoods that suffer from a dearth of walkable urban areas — and they can be very popular, as has been proven by the new construction around the BART Fruitvale Station in East Oakland.

From an investment perspective, building infill stations could be an appropriate response to limited funding for new transit capital projects, especially since it appears private developers may be interested in helping to chip in for construction costs. There are good reasons to build new transit lines in dense sections of the Bay Area, but especially in the East Bay, there are plenty of opportunities for infill stations to fill the 2 or 3-mile gaps between stations. Though these would marginally slow down services from the far suburbs, they would more than make up for that loss by greatly increasing the number of people living in already developed areas within easy walking distance of rapid transit.

It is too bad, however, that apart from the West Dublin/Pleasanton Station, BART has no infill stations planned. Nor is it alone on this matter: Cities with extensive commuter rail and subway networks in the United States, including New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, have been more interested on extending their lines out into the suburbs than filling them in. One notable exception is Boston, where four new stations are planned to be added to the Fairmount line to add to the transit options for people living in underserved neighborhoods south of downtown.

Image above: BART’s new West Dublin/Pleasanton Station, from BART

Bay Area Bus

In Cutting Bus Stops, San Francisco Points Towards a More Efficient Bus System

» Faster bus services, the mainstay of this city’s transit fleet, could reduce operations costs for a stressed transit agency.

San Franciscans, like the denizens of every great transit city, enjoy denigrating their bus and rail system, accusing it of inefficiency, overcrowding, and slow speeds. Despite the overall excellence of the public transportation offered in the Bay Area, those criticisms ring true — especially on Muni, the city’s local bus and light rail operator.

Unlike BART, which rockets commuters from one side of the region to the next, Muni vehicles crawl down San Francisco’s congested streets, lumbering behind traffic and stopping all too frequently. As of 2008, buses ran on average at only 5 mph downtown, with the overall average speeds of the system depressed at a miserable 8 mph. Meanwhile, costs per passenger are higher than those at peer transit agencies elsewhere in the country. There are plenty of reasons to plan for improvement.

Thus the announcement last month that Muni would be seriously evaluating a plan to consolidate bus stops comes as excellent news. Though a reduction in the number of stops made by local buses would not radically speed up services, it would point towards a gradual improvement necessary to put the system on solid footing.

The general plan will be considered over the next few weeks by public officials but is sufficiently developed to be implemented as soon as the Board of Supervisors agrees to the change. Five high-ridership routes (the 9, 14, 28, 30, and 71) would be altered through the elimination of roughly 10% of stops; in general, distance between stops would increase from about 800′ to 975′ or more. Each line is projected to see a roughly 5% decrease in overall travel time, with much largest decreases in travel periods in the most congested zones. For instance, the 14-Mission bus would see travel savings of 11-14% on the stretch of Mission Street between 16th and 24th Streets; this happens to also be one of the line’s heaviest concentrations of riders.

The positive effects would be consequential for the transit agency’s budget: The increased speeds made possible by the reduction of stop locations would allow Muni to run five fewer vehicles during the peak periods, a not-insignificant reduction over the long-term considering the costs of the bus itself, energy, and labor in driving and maintenance. Other transit agencies currently running on a shoestring should examine San Francisco’s proposals and evaluate whether similar changes to their own systems could result in similar cost savings.

The improvements in service that would be made possible through the elimination of bus stops could be expanded if the agency were to implement other parallel improvements. Muni bus services — unlike the agency’s light rail operations — require riders to enter the bus at the front, rather than allowing them to use the back doors to board (the agency performed a pilot of that idea in 2008, but went nowhere with it). If tickets could be purchased at the stop, customers could simply scan their receipts in the back entrance of the bus without having to interact with the driver, a procedure that is common in Europe. This could dramatically reduce dwell times at station by eliminating the queues that form of people waiting to get on at the front of the vehicle.

Nationwide, bus operators are coming to understand that there is value in running a tighter, more efficient ship that favors quicker running speeds. Many of these suggestions have been made by San Francisco’s Transit Effectiveness Project, whose recommendations for bus and rail improvements were made in 2008. That advice, however, has not been appropriately followed due to a lack of funds and community opposition to some components of the plan.

When the transit agency was considering how to handle a $56 million deficit earlier this year, it was willing to reduce service by 10% — but it wouldn’t eliminate stops, despite the potential to save the agency $3 million a year. That’s because, as BART Supervisor Tom Radulovich has put it, “every bus stop has a constituency.” People who live or work next to a stop that is to be eliminated will feel as if their lifeline to the rest of the city has been removed.

And that resistance is not unfounded: There would be some negative effects stemming from the reduction of stops: Namely, 10% of riders would be subjected to a longer walk to the bus if the stop consolidation plan is pursued. This could impair the ability of some elderly or impaired people to get to and from work or leisure activities. It could also theoretically reduce ridership in some areas where convenience to a stop is prized above all else.

But there are times when the concerns of the hyper-local must be moderated by the needs of the city as a whole. The minor reduction in bus stops proposed in San Francisco is so limited that the vast majority of people will see no change in access whatsoever, but could experience incremental but important improvements in running speeds. Combined with other measures to improve the quality of the bus lines, stop consolidation is essential in working towards that goal.

The city is planning the introduction of two bus rapid transit lines — on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard — by 2016. These corridors would receive dedicated lanes, special buses, and unique stations, allowing service practically on par with rapid transit. But the up-to $449 million price tag of the two projects combined is underfunded. For now, minor improvements to the local bus services such as is being proposed here is the cheap step forward for the city.

Image above: Bus in San Francisco, from Flickr user Mike McCaffrey (cc)

Bay Area Commuter Rail Metro Rail

eBART Now Under Construction, Extending Rapid Transit Far from San Francisco

» Effort to extend BART across the region continues, even as roadway expansions pursue their course.

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the nation’s case studies in regionalism, with one metropolitan planning board determining local transportation spending in cities from San Francisco in the west to Antioch in the east, from Richmond in the north to San Jose in the south. The existence of Metropolitan Transportation Commission, while theoretically designed to distribute resources to the most effective projects, has in fact erred in the opposite direction, prioritizing geographic equity over efficiency or high ridership.

The groundbreaking of the eBART line from Pittsburg to Antioch, in east Contra Costa County, is indicative of this trend that also includes the extension of BART to Livermore and San Jose. eBART would bring diesel multiple unit (DMU) train service from the existing BART Pittsburg/Bay Point Station to Hillcrest Avenue in Antioch, via a new station at Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg, providing customers new rapid transit service along 10 miles of track wedged into the median of Highway 4. The $462 million project is being built in conjunction with the expansion of that road from four lanes today to six and eight. Completion is expected by 2015.

10,100 daily riders are expected to use the line by 2030, up from 3,900 in its opening year. This is expected to relieve the current crowding at the Pittsburg/Bay Point terminus. Including a timed transfer between DMU and BART trains across a new platform, customers hoping to get from Antioch to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Station, the first in that city, will have a 68 minute ride. Thus the region’s ambitions for transit connectivity stretch far into the suburbs.

How worthwhile is this project? At a cost of less than $50 million a mile, it is relatively cheap compared to most recent rail programs; forty miles away, the 3.2-mile Oakland Airport Connector, for example, will be three times as expensive per mile. The choice of DMU technology rather than BART, which requires more infrastructure because it is electric, seems like a reasonable choice, since extending the latter would have likely come in at about $1 billion. The cross-platform transfer already works well across the BART system, so customers shouldn’t be much inconvenienced by the need to change modes in the middle of their ride. Moreover, the project offers the possibility of relieving the terrible traffic congestion along Highway 4.

The eBART line could eventually be extended 13 miles further east to Byron. A three-mile extension to Laurel Road in Oakley alone could increase ridership by 40%.

It is clear, though, that the primary motivation behind the line’s construction is the need to serve a part of the region that has contributed to metropolitan transit funds for decades but has received no rapid transit in the process. Considering the need to maintain unity in political support for public transportation, extending rail out to areas that have low densities may be the reasonable course of affairs — even when investing the same amount of money in, say, a bus rapid transit line in center-city San Francisco would result in much higher ridership.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s decision to coordinate investment in eBART even as Caltrans (the state department of transportation) expands the adjacent highway is counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Streetsblog San Francisco quotes Bijan Sartipi, a staffer for the agency, claiming that “We need major improvements to address the growth in East Contra Costa County… It will take a multi-modal approach, also being mindful of the environment and smaller carbon footprint.” While that sounds nice, unfortunately expanding highway capacity will increase car trips in the corridor substantially and limit the ability of eBART to compete effectively. In this part of the region, though, it may be politically infeasible to invest in transit without spending a corresponding amount on roads.

The project is intended to spur a great deal of transit-oriented development — massive parking lots to be initially constructed around the Antioch station are eventually planned to be replaced by a project that includes 650 to 2,500 residential units and 2.15 million square feet of commercial space. At the new Pittsburg Station, a similar amount of new construction is proposed. These aren’t drops in the bucket and they collectively reaffirm the Bay Area’s intent to push much of its new growth into areas near public transportation.

The questionable decision to limit new stations along the ten-mile line to just two, however, puts in question that goal. The majority of people using eBART will be driving to the stations. The corridor will encourage the growth of sprawling land far from the center of the region and make hour-long commutes standard among people living here. Is that the right way forward for the Bay Area?

Remember to vote!

Image above: eBART alignment, from BART

Bay Area Bus Elections Light Rail Los Angeles Tampa

The Politics of Mode Choice

» Choice of transportation mode for new transit capital projects is often just as much a reflection of politics as it is a statement of “objective” technological benefits.

Would it be an indictment of the political system to suggest that most political leaders making decisions about what kind of technology to use in new transit corridors simply don’t care about the relative merits of various transportation modes? If someone were to develop a definitive formula that established, once and for all, the most appropriate technology for any possible corridor, would it matter?

I raise these questions because when put it in the context of actual decision-making by politicians in the United States, the seemingly endless debate between proponents of rail and buses can sometimes appear downright irrelevant.

Bus rapid transit may provide the same capacity as light rail or light rail may be more effective in producing ridership increases or busways may be cheaper to construct or trains may be better transit-oriented development generators. But if there isn’t significant political support for a transportation technology, it doesn’t matter; the only proposals that are built are those that capture the hearts of the people who decide how public funds are spent.

Last week Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, her region’s biggest cheerleader for better transit, suggested that for new transportation routes, “Bus rapid transit is not acceptable.” The regional transportation agency HART has yet to determine whether it will promote light rail or faster buses for one of the many potential corridors for better transit service. But the Mayor’s statement, backed up by similar nods of approval for trains by HART President David Armijo, suggests that the only politically feasible option is light rail. When voters in the Tampa region go to the polls on November 2nd to determine whether to increase their sales taxes, they will be considering whether to fund rail, not just any sort of improved transit.

On the other hand, up in Maryland, Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. has suggested that he would replace the current (Democratic) governor’s plans for light rail in Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C. with bus rapid transit projects. Mr. Ehrlich has cited what he claims are the cheaper costs of bus investments, an opinion that may have more to do with reorienting transportation funding towards highways but which still could point towards efficiency in spending, important for any government program.

There are plenty of seemingly reasonable explanations for the rock-hard support of both Ms. Iorio and Mr. Ehrlich for their preferred transit technologies, but the fact is that their statements in favor of one mode or the other are based on emotional responses, not some kind of well thought-through assessment of their communities’ specific needs.

For many politicians in the United States, light rail has attained something of a mythical status, and they’ve been able to transfer the excitement about the mode to their constituents, as proven by the recent proliferation of successfully passed transit sales tax increases usually founded on the assumptions that trains are coming. There’s some good logic to this fact: Trains are sexy and different: For metropolitan areas used to only bus operations, light rail is appealing to the popular imagination in a way that bus rapid transit is simply not because of its similarity to existing services. Even if it is possible to imagine bus lines that are just as performing as light rail, it is hard to communicate that potential to the average person before a vote.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s successful campaign to advance the Measure R tax increase in 2008 and now his 30/10 transit plan, both of whose products will primarily be new rail lines, is arguably founded on both general enthusiasm for rail services in L.A. and the coinciding promise that the plan will bring those offerings to everywhere in the region. Similarly, the increase in local taxes to fund the extension of the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART rapid transit system into San Jose was endorsed by more than two-thirds of voters in the 2008 election cycle, likely because of the emotional appeal people in the area hold for the BART rail system. There are cheaper and arguably more appropriate alternatives, like a bus rapid transit line or an improvement of commuter rail services in the East Bay, but they weren’t considered because of a lack of political will to advance their development.

The fundamental question for proponents of better transit stuck asking themselves what transportation technology to support is this: Is it more important to argue for a mode that is more technically efficient or one that is emotionally appealing? Could Mayor Villaraigosa have found enough support for his plan had it promoted a series of busways? Is Mayor Iorio’s argument in favor of light rail a response to her recognition that only it will be exciting enough to appeal to voters?

More directly: If it is necessary to intrigue both politicians and the public about a new transit system in order to get it funded, the necessary corollary must sometimes be choosing the wrong transportation mode from a technical perspective in order to satisfy political demands.

All this said, I do not want to imply that the continued discussion about what transportation modes work best is a silly matter; if anything, more research is necessary to answer the questions that continue to enliven debates about the various benefits of different types of transit. If planners can demonstrate conclusively that light rail really does produce higher ridership and more transit-oriented development than bus rapid transit, then they have an obligation to push for its implementation. If, on the other hand, they can show that bus rapid transit can provide all the benefits of light rail at a lower price, then they must do the opposite.

But planners will only be able to make their argument effectively if they are able to frame it in terms that are appealing for the people who control the public’s purse strings, both in the voting booth and behind the mayor’s desk.