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Infrastructure Solutions for the Eastshore Freeway Corridor

This is the first post in a two post series about maximizing mobility along the Eastshore Freeway Corridor in the Eastern San Francisco Bay Area. In this first post, I will concentrate on the infrastructure improvements that could alleviate congestion and lack of mobility in the area. In the second post I will focus on service improvements that will help achieve these goals. 

The Eastshore Freeway Corridor in the Eastern San Francisco Bay Area is plagued by chronic congestion. Unlike most freeways, the I-80/580 Eastshore Freeway is congested for elongated periods – generally 11am to 8pm on weekdays and 9am to 8pm on weekends. Southbound is generally more congested than northbound, although northbound during the PM peak is the most severe congestion on the roadway. At 10 lanes wide, the Eastshore Freeway cannot feasibly be widened and the current approach to managing transportation in the corridor is not effective as evidenced by 9+ hours of congestion every day. The current drive to improve freeway congestion in the corridor is well-intentioned and will substantially reduce congestion for a very low cost using ITS (intelligent transportation systems). While this approach to improving mobility has its merits, the sheer density and demand in this corridor requires a big-picture, large investment focus in addition to intermediate steps such as the the current Integrated Corridor Mobility Project.

Based on the environmental documents for the I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility Project, almost 30% of traffic along I-80 West in the AM peak is traveling to and from Emeryville and Berkeley.  Most transit service currently serves the Downtown San Francisco and Downtown Oakland destinations along this corridor. Here I would like to present a radical re-imagining of mobility in the corridor to address this 30% (almost 80,000 AADT) of travelers whose origins and destinations lie within West Berkeley and Emeryville. This new look will address both local travelers and those entering the area from outside North Alameda County. First, local solutions.

Bounded by San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Freeway, this study area has existing, frequent, AC Transit bus transit service on San Pablo Avenue from north to south, and University Avenue fron east to west. In Emeryville, a municipally-operated shuttle, Emery-Go-Round, connects major employment destinations with MacArthur BART approximately 2 miles away. In addition, AC Transit operates routes 26 and 49, both of which pass through the area but run infrequently and do not directly serve high travel demand destinations. Amtrak operates the Capitol Corridor intercity train service that stops in West Berkeley and Emeryville, but peak frequency is one train per hour. Railroad right of way in the area is plentiful – existing condition is generally 3-4 tracks with between 10 and 30 lateral feet of additional right of way available.

To best provide local mobility along this corridor three solutions seem the most cost effective and realistic. First is constructing a true bus rapid transit line along San Pablo Avenue so AC Transit can provide more effective north-south service in the corridor. Current plans for a BRT corridor along International Boulevard in Oakland provide a great model for San Pablo – dedicated inner lanes over the corridor, signal prioritization and distinct, rail-like stations. Another shorter BRT corridor east-west along University Avenue would complement the San Pablo and Telegraph BRT services well, tying them together and connecting Downtown Berkeley and the dense University corridor to West Berkeley and Emeryville. Again, dedicated median lanes with rail-like stations would maximize ridership and transit effectiveness. The third and most significant proposed infrastructure investment in this study area is the implementation of a Bus Rapid Transit “Super-Loop” in the style of San Diego MTD’s SuperLoop service in La Jolla. Fully dedicated lanes and stations would begin at MacArthur BART and continue on a loop Emeryville, including a stop at the Watergate office tower complex. The short length of this corridor could allow for very frequent service, and prioritization would ensure speedy travel times. This type of transit service is exactly what sustains a transit oriented community, and it could help re-orient Emeryville towards transit instead of the current automobile-dependent model of its development.

Longer trips that begin outside the study area could also be greatly aided with the strategic addition of cost-effective infrastructure. Current express bus service generally caters to “traditional” commuters traveling to San Francisco in the AM peak and returning to the East Bay in the PM peak. AC Transit has, however, attempted to address the reverse commute to Emeryville and West Berkeley with the Z Transbay Line. This line is slow, runs infrequently and does not effectively serve many of the high travel demand destinations in the area. The BRT Super-Loop mentioned earlier would be key in a re-orientation of express bus service in the area. With HOV lane connections to the super loop from I-80 near Ashby Avenue and I-580 near MacArthur Boulevard, express bus service could rapidly and effectively serve travelers from as far away as Vallejo and Castro Valley. Current express bus services simply bypasses the area on the freeway – missing out on nearly 30% of the travel market that originates or is destined to West Berkeley and Emeryville. Some bus service that currently serves Downtown San Francisco from various East Bay destinations could be rerouted around the Super-Loop with a surprisingly small amount of delay (likely around 10 minutes), massively increasing viability of Transbay services that have seen a decline in ridership in recent years due to job fragmentation across the area.

A longer-term solution to mobility along the corridor lies in the vastly underused railway right-of-way currently used by Amtrak. The under construction eBART line in Eastern Contra Costa County and SPRINTER line in Northern San Diego County have set precedents for diesel multiple unit light rail service in California. As a first stage towards eventual electrification, DMU service could easily and cheaply be provided along the Amtrak right of way. Stations spaced between 0.75 and 1 mile apart along the corridor could support transit oriented development yet still allow for quick regional service. In fact, this DMU would be best utilized if it were extended outside the project area along the Amtrak right-of-way to Jack London Square or the Colosseum in Oakland, and to Richmond or further north in the other direction. Such a project would fulfill the requirements of the currently proposed wBART extension north of Richmond and also improve utilization of the existing corridor without requiring any new right-of-way. Even better, this line could connect to a future Transbay Tube, as suggested by Yonah Freemark over the the Transport Politic.

Many exciting options exist for serving this largely neglected portion of the Bay Area with transit. Improving mobility in the Eastshore Freeway Corridor is already underway with the ICM project, and it can only get better from here.

BART’s Future Washington Metro-Style

This is a map I composed my Senior Year in high school, cleaned up and updated for posting on here. It details the potential future configuration of rapid transit in the Bay Area, including running Caltrain as a rapid transit service with an integrated fare structure. The graphic style invokes the classic Washington Metro map, where uniformity takes precedence over geographical accuracy and scale. A metro map, after all, is intended to help you get around the metro system, not drive around the area. I hope you will find this map as enjoyable to view as it was for me to create.

Wilshire & Geary: Two Streets and Two Subway Projects

Like many other things, California was the birthplace of modern rail transit in the United States. BART in the San Francisco Bay Area was the first complete, publicly built, rapid transit system in the United States and represented a paradigm shift in the mentality of transit planners. BART ran from the Outer East Bay (Fremont and Concord) to San Francisco and Oakland’s Downtowns. The line to San Francisco is a branch, and the system is rooted in Oakland. This stands in stark contrast to the New York City Subway or Chicago L, which serve the center city extensively and end in the inner suburbs. These cities have heavy rail, diesel commuter systems which use existing freight tracks without grade separation.

The Bay Area got BART instead of a traditional commuter rail system because of politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson was supporting his Great Society idea, injecting a large amount of public spending for grand, shiny projects like heavy rail systems. Diesel locomotives, or even traditional electric locomotives used on the Northeast Corridor, simply were not as cool. Now, the problem when the “cool” factor gets into transit planning is cost. BART continues to expand at the insane cost of 200+ million dollars per mile. More significantly, BART is the only heavy rail (subway) technology that is feasible to build in Northern California due potential to connect to the current network. BART’s trains are over 700 feet long, with far too many seats and too few doors for urban service.

Los Angeles has a heavy rail service also, but it is entirely different than BART. Los Angeles’ Subway, the Red and Purple Lines, only serve the City of Los Angeles and they travel the most dense areas in all of Los Angeles County. This distinction is easy to see in ridership per mile, where Los Angeles has about 9,000 riders per mile, while BART has 4,000. Train lengths in the LA Subway are 450 feet, and cars have three doors and far fewer seats than a BART train. This is the type of true subway both Los Angeles and San Francisco Need.

The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast two streets in two big, dense cities, that both need heavy rail subway lines under them. Also, I will go into the reasons why one of these subways will be built in the next ten years, and the other won’t.

These two streets are Geary and Wilshire Boulevards in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Both streets carry the two busiest bus lines in the United States, the 38-38L in San Francisco and the 20-720-920 in Los Angeles. These lines carry over 60,000 passengers a day, a huge amount for a bus line. Metro cannot physically run more buses on Wilshire during peak hour because of intense bunching. Both of these transportation corridors are East-West with parallel bus service also carrying over 100,000 passengers a day on the 1-2-5-31 in San Francisco and the 2-4-14-16-316-704-714 in Los Angeles. Obviously transit demand in these corridors is huge.

The legacy of BART and the Red Line have dictated the progress on high capacity transit alternatives on Wilshire and Geary. Both Metro and SFMTA are implementing exclusive bus lanes on these streets. In neither situation are exclusive lanes sufficient. Underground, high frequency, heavy rail transit is sorely needed in both situations. Since Los Angeles began with a legitimate urban subway system, instead of a suburb-centric heavy rail system, extension along Wilshire Boulevard is (relatively) cheap and feasible. Under Measure R’s schedule, the Westside Subway Extension will reach Westwood by 2036, although with the 30/10 plan, the entire project may be complete 15 years earlier.

This situation leaves us with Geary Boulevard in desperate need of heavy rail transit. The organization of the BART District, with equal power shared across Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties, essentially requires equal geographic distribution of BART dollars and extensions. When Contra Costa County got the extension from Concord to Pittsburg/Bay Point, Alameda County got the extension from Bay Fair to Dublin/Pleasanton. San Francisco essentially gained nothing during this time, but that is due to Proposition K, San Francisco’s transportation sales tax, not including any funding for BART extensions. In a new round of extending BART, Alameda County is getting the Warm Springs Extension, and potentially BART to Livermore, while Contra Costa County is getting eBART. Again, San Francisco County is doing its own thing with the Central Subway, Van Ness and Geary BRT and the Transbay Transit Center Program receiving the bulk of the funding.

The essence of the issue with a Geary Boulevard subway is it requires a New Transbay Tube, a mega project on the scale of East Side Access and Access to the Region’s Core Projects in New York City, with a cost that could exceed 6 billion dollars. The issue for BART and the Bay Area is finding a sustainable funding model for this huge project, in my opinion a three way split between San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa, so that San Francisco has a platform on which to build its new heavy rail service to the Richmond District.

Maybe, after enough pushing, BART will become more of an urban network, with higher stop frequency in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, and large transit villages outside the urban core.

BART to Livermore: A Costly Proposition

BART opened in 1972, completed its entire base system in 1976 and only began to expand nearly twenty years later in 1994. In 1994 the extensions to Pittsburg/Bay Point and Colma began to open. The former is an 8 mile extension from Concord, the center of Central Contra Costa County to outer Pittsburg, a sprawling suburb. To give you an idea of the surroundings of the stations on this extension, check out this picture:

That’s right: the station is in the middle of a freeway, surrounded by oceans of surface parking and low-density or no-density parcels, many of which aren’t even developed. This extension does serve 15,000 passengers a day, but it is exactly the kind of passengers a rapid transit system like BART is not designed to serve. These passengers mostly make the one-hour journey to San Francisco in the morning and return in the evening, driving to and from the station. BART is currently planning to extend its system further east into the sprawl of far Eastern Contra Costa County, but that’s a topic for a different post.

The point of mentioning the Pittsburg/Bay Point extension is to provide a considerable contrast for the recently announced locally preferred alternative (LPA) for the upcoming BART extension to Livermore, another outer suburb.

BART to Livermore’s LPA makes no cost compromises and has been designed with high ridership as the first priority. Trains will whisk by traffic on 580 at 70 miles per hour until the Portola Avenue exit in Livermore. From there, a cut and cover subway under Portola Avenue will take trains to an intermodal station with the Altamont Commuter Express system. Trains will emerge from the subway and share their terminal station, Vasco Road, with ACE.

Preliminary ridership estimates are in the 30,000-40,000 range, fairly impressive for an extension into essentially the exurbs. Cost, however, is projected at over three billion dollars, over three times as much as the Dublin/Pleasanton Extension which brought BART to the Amador Valley.

Cost aside, BART has avoided its past habit to turn stations into seas of parking with no development in sight by placing the two stations on this extension far (relatively) from the freeway and in currently urbanized areas. Other alternatives for this extension called for a station at Greenville Road, miles from Livermore’s current urban growth boundary.

Now about the cost:

In the grand scheme of government spending, or the GDP of the United States or California, 3 billion dollars is chump change. When it comes to transportation funding, however, three billion is huge. BART has yet to commit any funding at all for this extension, except a small trickle for engineering studies. The Federal Transit Administration, despite its recent pattern of funding huge projects (East Side Access, ARC Tunnel, Transbay Transit Center), is unlikely to provide much funding for a project of questionable short term cost effectiveness.

I say short term cost effectiveness because this project’s capital cost per rider is very high, and these ridership estimates are questionably high (50,000+ riders in an area with only 120,000 residents??) Of more significance is the basis of this project, just like every BART project since the Embarcadero Infill Station was built in 1976: extend BART out further, and further into the suburbs and exurbs.

The bottom line is that the 3 billion for BART to Livermore would be a brilliant down payment for a second Transbay Tube, or a heavy rail line under Geary Boulevard, or even infill stations on current lines in key locations like Solano Avenue (Albany), 58th Street, San Antonio, Melrose and Temescal (Oakland), 30th Street/Mission (San Francisco) and Oak Grove (Concord). These stations would increase ridership, allow for a dramatic increase in transit oriented development and make BART a more effective system for the areas it already serves. 3 billion dollars could likely construct all of these stations with funds to spare for BART’s sorely needed fleet replacement program.

In the end, yes, BART to Livermore is a better thought-out project than previous suburban extensions, namely Pittsburg/Bay Point. But, 3 billion dollars in the scarce climate of transportation capital funding should be put to better use. To reiterate, the priorities and organization of BART forces a suburban focus upon the system, at a negative benefit to most riders. Disbanding BART, MTC, and many of the other agencies that have botched Bay Area transit priorites for the last twenty years and building up a new, consolidated agency, like bamta (see this post) could put the Bay Area on the right track. Just look at New York’s MTA. They may not be a pristine example of a well run transit agency, but they ensure that funding is fairly distributed between the urban and suburban areas they serve. If only the Bay Area realized that a focus on our vibrant urban areas could improve life for all, and money down the toilet for exurban extensions of BART is just that: money wasted.

The Bay Bridge’s New “Congestion” Tolls

A New Era in Bay Area Tolling, from the MTC.

Airlines charge more for tickets when demand is highest, baseball tickets are more expensive when the Yankees come to town and even rail fares (Washington Metro) are higher during peak hours. By charging more, these entities are giving consumers an economic incentive to consume their goods and services when demand is lower, spreading out usage and improving overall efficiency of their operations. Why then does is terrify Bay Area drivers that the Bay Bridge is instituting a form of this very same system? My response would be: it must be because of the MTC’s half baked implementation of congestion tolls.

Starting at 5am on July 1st, tolls increased to six dollars during peak hours, 5am-10am and 3pm-7pm. At other times on weekdays the toll is four dollars and on weekends toll is four dollars. Fine. Great. Unfortunantely, by giving drivers specific times that the toll will increase and decrease, the new system creates new, perverse incentives to change the time you drive to 10am or 2:45pm. Plus, isn’t the idea of congestion pricing to reduce congestion? The Bay Bridge is not most congested on weekday rush hours. During that time over 100,000 people take transit either on the bridge itself on in the Transbay Tube, vastly reducing car volumes. No, the most terrible time to be on the Bay Bridge is the weekend, which this toll increase and “congestion” pricing doesn’t really address. Systems like the I-15 HOT Lane in Southern California are prime examples of how congestion pricing should really be done.

In the I-15 HOT Lane in Northern San Diego County, congestion is constantly monitored by a central computer. Roadbed loops detect vehicle speed and volume. With this data, the computer automatically sets tolls ranging from 1.50 to 9 dollars. This toll is linked to an algorithm that ensures that traffic in the facility is moving at at least 45 miles per hour. To keep traffic moving that fast, it raises tolls during peak demand, and therefore reduces congestion. Why not implement something similar for the Bay Bridge? Vehicles just end up waiting at the metering lights past the toll plaza anyway. If the Bay Area Toll Authority introduced true congestion tolls, traffic volumes would massively decrease, transit usage would go up, and toll revenue would skyrocket. No one loses in this situation. Transit riders continue with their status quo, but drivers suddenly no longer have to deal with traffic congestion. Yes, they may have to pay much more to cross the bridge, but hey, in Staten Island they pay 12 dollars to cross the Verranzo Narrows Bridge. So quit complaining. Time in this case is money.

The system would work like this. MTC/BATA would have a website with minute to minute updates on the current toll. Your family is going to see a movie in San Francisco and you are debating driving or taking BART. You look on the website and see that the toll for the Bay Bridge is 15 dollars and decide to take BART. Those who MUST drive to the city get a freely-moving freeway and those who have alternatives, like this family, choose the most effecient alternative. Hell, some of this extra toll revenue could be funneled into lower prices for AC Transit Transbay Buses or BART Transbay Service, making transit truly competitive with driving.

Realigning the economic incentives of transportation to reflect land use and climate change concerns is good for all of society in the long run. Unfortunately, current trends in transportation have led to an archaic, perverse incentive system which inherently encourages inefficient, sprawling development, and transportation by the least efficient mode possible: the single occupancy automobile. Congestion pricing on a single bridge will not immedietely change these sad realities, but over time the equalization of prices in transportation could revolutionize American urban form and life for the better.

As a final note, I neglected posting to Wilshire/Vermont for about two weeks in order to become oriented with my new job as an Intern for the Transbay Transit Center Project. I hope you will forgive me. For the foreseeable future, posts will be up on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week. I can only manage two posts a week for now; when I get back to school it will again increase to three on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for reading.

San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center: A New Approach

Cross Section of the Transbay Transit Center, courtesy of transbaycenter.org

San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center is an ambitious project consisting of a train and bus terminal, several gigantic high rise buildings and an elevated park above the terminal. The Center will replace the current Transbay Terminal bus facility, a relic of streetcar service across the Bay Bridge. The current facility has low ceilings, low capacity and is seismically unsound. It is also unable to accept underground train platforms.

With the understanding that a new transit center is needed, several options were explored regarding the train box under the station. In the original plan for the center, the bus platforms were to be built first, opening in 2015, with the train platforms and subterranean mezzanine being built later, under the functioning transit center. Such a plan contains the obvious fallacy that building a massive train station under an operating building is massively expensive, especially when the building was not conceived in the first place to accept such underground facilities. This argument was one of the main reasons why a new transit center is being built in the first place.

A stroke of fate has enabled the designers of the Transbay Transit Center to change their approach from top-down to bottom-up. High speed rail money from the Federal Railroad Administration and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) is paying the 400 million dollar cost of installing the train box at the same time as the rest of the transit center. 400 million may be difficult to stomach for a train station, but given the status of infrastructure spending in the United States, leaving the train box for later would likely have been its death knell. Estimates for the future cost of a train box under the completed transit center were nearly double the cost. I applaud the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) and its consultants for bringing together this funding and ensuring that the transit center will fulfill its potential.

The inclusion of the train box at the beginning of the project brings many issues with its design to the forefront of discussions on the transit center. The CAHSRA has required platform space to run trains at five minute frequencies. This requirement is ridiculous. Not even Japan’s Shinkansen High Speed Rail Service, the busiest in the world, runs at such frequencies. As you can see in the image above, this mandate by CAHSRA robs platform space and tracks from Caltrain. The current train box arrangement would only allocate Caltrain two tracks and one island platform, limiting capacity into the Transbay Transit Center to less than current peak hour headways on the line. Any future service increases to cope with the inevitable increase in ridership due to electrification and direct service to Downtown San Francisco could only run as far as the current 4th & King terminal due to capacity constraints at the Transbay Transit Center platforms. This artificial constraint would defeat much of the purpose of the Caltrain Downtown Extension Project to connect Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center. The train box will fit six tracks and three island platforms. Instead of a 4/2 split in favor of CAHSRA, the spilt should be the oposite with Caltrain being allowed use of 4 tracks. The demand and frequency for Caltrain’s local service along the peninsula will be much higher at all times of day, hence it should have more track space.

Another concern I have with the current design of the Transbay Transit Center is the lack of coordinated planning between the TJPA and BART about a possible future BART station in or adjacent to the complex. The need for a second Transbay Tube is widely recognized and a station at the Transbay Transit Center would be ideal, permitting a direct connection between high speed rail, Caltrain and BART. Provisions for a BART station could include simple, low-cost fixtures like entrance bellmouths, locations for fare gates and a larger mezzanine to accommodate future BART riders to the transit center. Like the train box, these (relatively) inexpensive inclusions to the project would eliminate future costs and integrate a future rapid transit station into the transit center.

My final concern about the current iteration of the Transbay Transit Center project is the slow speed at which construction on adjacent development is proceeding. Over six high rise buildings are planned as part of the project and much of the revenue TJPA is counting on is from the sale of currently vacant land owned by the authority to developers. Many of these towers were supposed to have begun construction in 2009 or earlier this year. Obviously current economic conditions have depressed property values and made large real estate developments less attractive. Fortunately, the towers near the Transbay Transit Center are transit oriented development in its purest form, with no limits on density or height. Hopefully developers will acknowledge this fact and gamble that the market for housing in urban areas will rebound, otherwise a large chunk of TJPA’s revenue will be lost.

With a nod to the future the Transbay Transit Center has refocused its priorities and now will be built in a more cost effective and timely manner. Hopefully this forward looking strategy will be further adopted, designing the terminal to be BART-ready for the time when the second transbay tube will be built. Regardless of this outcome, the Transbay Transit Center will be one of the most exciting transit stations in the world, connecting all parts of the Bay Area to the rest of California and providing the massive, Grand Central Terminal-style transit station that the Bay Area has always lacked.

Caltrain’s Amazing Waiver With the FRA

Caltrain commuter rail already provides a critical link in the San Francisco Bay Area by connecting San Jose, San Francisco and many transit-hungry towns on the peninsula. With bare-bones hourly service outside of commute hours, Caltrain still attracts around 38,000 riders per day, nearly as many as BART’s Fremont Line across the bay. In this context, the news of the Federal Railroad Administration granting Caltrain a waiver to operate non-FRA compliant electric multiple unit (EMU) trains on its line is brilliant news. For the first time in the history of the United States, modern, metro-like rolling stock will be allowed to operate alongside heavier diesel passenger units and even limited freight trains. Caltrain is a great laboratory for the FRA to test its newfound flexibility because Caltrain is one of the few commuter rail lines in the United States that could justify operation at near-metro frequencies. Also, Caltrain owns the tracks and right of way from San Jose to San Francisco and limits freight operations to hours when the passenger trains are not running. With this waiver, the electrification of Caltrain has a full green light in the regulatory sense. Unfortunately, funding for the project and Caltrain in it’s current iteration is paltry. Following is a short history of Caltrain and an explanation of its structural deficiencies that have decimated its budget and could drastically reduce service.

Passanger service along Caltrain’s current right of way has been continuously operating since the 19th century. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran commuter service itself until the 1980’s when the operation ceased to be profitable. The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) began to subsidize the operation, still run by SP. Finally in 1985, CalTrans fully assumed control of the commuter railroad, purchased new locomotives and rolling stock and branded the operation as Caltrain. The current governance of Caltrain was established in 1987 when the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB) was formed, composed of representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Unlike BART, the PCJPB lacks powers of taxation in its jurisdiction and is relies solely on contributions from member transit agencies, SamTrans, SCVTA and SFMTA. All three of these agencies are faced with massive funding shortfalls for their own bus and rail operations and have threatened to massively reduce subsidies for Caltrain. SamTrans has threatened to reduce its contribution by 23 million dollars. Such a reduction would cut all non-peak trains, including all trains on weekends. It is difficult to describe how tragic such a reduction would be.

To reduce operation costs and overhead the electrification of Caltrain is a necessity. The cost of running heavy, FRA-compliant, diesel locomotive hauled trains at 10 minute headways, as Caltrain currently does during peak hours, is astronomical. The bottom line with this FRA waiver is that Caltrain has received the first green light of many that will be crucial toward saving comprehensive service on the line. In the end, electrification and new rolling stock will be the saving grace of Caltrain. Who knows, with BART purchasing rolling stock soon we could see a unified look for rapid transit in the Bay Area with a joint purchase.

Transit Oriented Development and an Albany BART Station

Future BART infill stations must be in locations where development is already dense or opportunities exist for transit oriented development. An Albany Infill BART Station fulfills both of these requirements. Such a station, in correlation with a rigorous policy of dense development, would create a livable, walkable community in central Albany. This new outlook on infill BART stations, combining  transit and land use decisions, would be a huge change for BART and would set a great example for future BART stations.

Albany is unique in its relationship to the BART system. It is a small, relatively dense town that BART passes through without stopping on an elevated guideway. North Berkeley and El Cerrito Plaza Stations are fairly close to Albany’s borders but from central Albany and Solano Avenue, either station is a 20 minute walk. Solano Avenue represents a significant draw for BART patrons due to its pedestrian scale and variety of boutique shops and hosts frequent AC Transit bus service from Line 18. These two considerations already make Albany an attractive location for an infill station. If the City of Albany puts together a package of zoning changes, developer incentives, and a removal of the parking requirement around the future BART station the package would be complete and an infill station would be worth its cost, likely around 150 million dollars.

The development changes I have highlighted on the map above are mostly centered around increasing residential density, while retaining mixed use growth patterns around Solano Avenue and immediately adjacent to the two station entrances. Essential life services like dry cleaning, grocery and childcare should be included in the development. Other retail and some office space could easily be included on the relatively tall buildings noted in pink. Albany could add over 2,000 units of housing in the area of this new station with the density and height limits I propose here.

Also important is station access for pedestrians. Nearly all of the City of Albany is within a 10 minute walk of this proposed station, parking is not included at all in my vision of this project, and bus service will be provided at Solano and Masonic Avenue, nearly 200 feet from the entrances, so pedestrians and cyclists are the only customers designers need to consider when completing a plan for the Albany Station. In the triangular strip of land around the north entrance to the station, a large pedestrian plaza could be encircled by the high density development I call for there. This entrance would open up to Key Route Boulevard where bicycle parking facilities could be included on the wide median and new bike lanes could be striped all the way to El Cerrito. Sidewalks on Key Route, Masonic and Solano could be widened to 15-20 feet in order to handle increased foot traffic.

Obviously the construction of 7 to 10 story towers in a neighborhood of largely single occupancy homes will stir up controversy. Residents will worry about increased traffic congestion, building shadows and demolition of homes to make way for more dense development. Arlington County, Virginia’s Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor is an ideal example of how to integrate high density, high rise development into a neighborhood of detached homes. Like on my map, Arlington’s tallest buildings are within 500 feet of Washington Metro station exits. From there, buildings dramatically decrease in height until 1500-2000 feet away from a station entrance, low rise homes are again the predominant building class. For the Albany Station, I have included a similar pattern, limiting very tall buildings to Solano Avenue and a revamped Key Route Boulevard. Surrounding these tall buildings would be smaller 3-4 story residential buildings followed immediately by a return to the single occupancy home building stock. Such a development pattern would better integrate the new development into the city’s urban fabric and give Albany’s brand new skyline a more unified look and feel. Traffic congestion will be a non-issue for this new station due to a lack of parking and dramatically reduced (or eliminated) parking requirements for new development around the station. That said, Albany must carry out improvements in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure if this station is built.

Done right, Albany BART could become the center of a new downtown for Albany. Thousands of new residents and a large increase in commercial space, all within a five minute walk of rapid transit service to San Francisco, will help Albany’s tax revenue to continue to grow and allow the city of 18,000 to occupy a more prominent role in the San Francisco Bay Area. I hope to see serious consideration of an Albany BART station in my lifetime, along with an equally serious proposal to accompany the station with very dense development. It also wouldn’t hurt to finally have a hometown BART station for me.

New Urban Metro Lines for the Bay Area’s Dense Core

In my last post I discussed a new future for the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART System, using current lines and a new subway in San Francisco to turn BART into a more urban rapid transit system. These ideas were less drastic than the one I will propose here.

BART has failed the Bay Area if one were to think of it as a metro system standard in other parts of the world. Stops are widely spaced and dense areas are bypassed using freeway medians or railroad right of ways. To remedy this situation, the Bay Area could build a new set of urban subway lines unlike any currently existing BART lines. Taking as inspiration the Metro Red and Purple Lines in Los Angeles, two new BART lines in the inner East Bay, one along MacArthur Boulevard in Oakaland and another along Broadway and College Avenue to Berkeley, could dramatically improve mobility in the densest parts of the East Bay and reduce traffic and crowding on AC Transit’s busiest bus routes. Unlike previous BART lines, stops would be spaced every 3/4 of a mile or less to cater to riders who will walk, not drive, to stations. These two lines would join together onto the new Transbay Tube I proposed in my last post then diverge again after the large station at the Transbay Terminal. From there, a third trunk line in San Francisco would carry trains from these new East Bay branches. To capture the most ridership, I chose Folsom Street in the South of Market neighborhood and then a sharp turn north onto Van Ness Avenue continuing to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Together with my previous post on a second transbay tube, this Urban BART project would allow riders from the densest parts of both sides of the bay to connect to each other quickly and without transfers. A new track connection between the old tube and the new could facilitate the introduction of many new service patterns and give BART flexibility to short turn trains from all branches of the system for rush hour services. As shown on my google map, I believe a renewed BART system with a second Transbay Tube, several infill station and three new urban subway lines could approach or surpass the daily ridership of the Washington Metro to become the US’ second busiest heavy rail transit system. On the Geary and Van Ness Lines in San Francisco, over 250,000 riders use parallel bus corridors every day on San Francisco’s Muni. Along the College Avenue and MacArthur Lines, AC Transit’s buses carry over 50,000 riders per day. The demand for high capacity rail transit exists in the corridors I’ve highlighted in this Urban BART proposal, and the two corridors in the East Bay provide great opportunities for transit oriented development around the many new stations. This new Urban BART service will facilitate a transit lifestyle, not just a transit commute, because of its increased frequency and pedestrian-scaled station spacing. Indeed these new lines, along with infill stations on current BART lines, will dramatically increase the utility of a system that is already mostly built. With this investment, especially in the second Transbay Tube, the Bay Area will finally realize the full potential of its BART System.

Politically these two massive BART projects (Urban BART and the second Transbay Tube) are potential disasters at best. All previous extensions of BART, excluding BART to SFO Airport, were built to placate residents of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties who paid the BART sales tax but did not have local BART service. This political reason was why the unproductive Dublin/Pleasanton and Pittsburg/Bay Point extensions were built in the first place. In order for these multi billion dollar projects to have a chance of seeing the light of day, politics must be dropped and MTC and all Bay Area transit agencies must put down their arms and accept that a reinvention of BART is in everyone’s best interest. On that note, I will present again my idea for a consolidated Bay Area transit agency, bamta.

BART’s expansion policy has been warped by the system’s focus as essentially a beefed up commuter rail operation. Yes BART has grade separated right of ways with no frieght traffic (freight trains don’t even operate on the same track gauge), but distances between stations of over 5 miles in some locations and frequency no greater than 4 trains per hour on four out of five lines really sounds like Metra in Chicago or New York’s Metro North Railroad. Ridership for BART is similar to these two systems. BART’s suburban extension craze of the 1990’s was a result of politics, as mentioned above, and interestingly the lack of investment in San Francisco by BART is also political. San Francisco owns and operates its own rail system, Muni Metro. As indicated in the name, Muni Metro functions as a subway/metro system for much of its length and connects much of the city to BART and Caltrain regional rail services. San Francisco’s direct control over Muni provides a disincentive for any investment in heavy rail BART in the city. Indeed since BART fully opened in 1976 not a single additional mile of track has been built in San Francisco. Muni Metro has built three large extensions and is in the process of building a subway line through downtown (see this article). If BART and Muni were to be merged into the regional bamta transit agency, this disincentive would disappear. On corridors where ridership merits heavy rail subway technology, such as Geary Boulevard, San Francisco will get the transit service it deserves instead of having to endure the reality of current transit governance.

For a second Transbay Tube and Urban BART to become reality, BART will need to shift its focus from getting people to and from work to being a full time, pedestrian-friendly transit system. For this breakthrough to be feasible a large change in the Bay Area’s transit priorities and governance is likely necessary. Hopefully when the last drops of capacity on the current tube dry up such options will be taken more seriously. For now, I wait.

What BART Should Look Like in 2030.

The San Francisco Bay Area is an interesting transportation case study because of its geography. Several mountain ranges and a large body of water present challenges in building new infrastructure and often create bottlenecks on bridges and tunnels. Such a situation increases the attractiveness of high capacity transit. Luckily, the Bay Area has BART, the first of the modern heavy rail systems built in the United States. In areas where BART parallels a congested bottleneck freeway, such as the  Transbay Tube and Berkeley Hills Tunnel, ridership is high. Unfortunately, because BART was the first of its kind, a modern system designed to be compatible with driving, BART does not work as well as other systems of the same age, especially the Washington Metro in DC. In this post, I’d like to address the reasons why BART does not work well as an urban transit system and how in 20 years with a large investment BART can grow into a true Metro system for the San Francisco Bay Area.

Two main issues plague BART’s ascension to a great rail transit system. The first is a lack of political backing for transit oriented development (TOD) near BART stations. The second is the actual design of the system, especially the large distances between stations and choices of right of way for several lines. For the purpose of this article, I am going to refer to the lines by color even though BART lines are commonly named by their terminus.

Transit Oriented Development is essential to the success of any rail transit project. The availability of frequent, quick service to employment centers allows dense housing and retail development within 1/4 of a mile of a rail station, while drastically reducing the amount of parking needed. BART has two TOD projects that have already opened, Fruitvale Village in Oakland and a project at the Pleasant Hill Station. Both are mostly housing, ignoring the need for grocery stores, dry cleaners and other essential services, and are not as high density as TOD in other parts of the country. BART has no excuse to not further promote TOD around its stations. BART owns surface parking around many of its stations and could easily sell the land to developers to build large, dense projects. Local government has been getting in the way of this density. A classic NIMBY (not in my backyard) argument against density increases is that density increases crime, traffic and noise. All three are mitigated by proximity to frequent rail transit. Stations like North Berkeley and Orinda being surrounded by single family detached homes and surface parking are detrimental for ridership numbers and waste the investment of rail transit. BART must encourage local governments to allow more dense development and provide land for developers on which to build.

More importantly, the design of BART’s first 104 miles is conducive to suburb to downtown commuting and largely ignores the needs of urban riders in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. Long distances between station, especially in Oakland, and the routing of four routes onto a single San Francisco subway line limit ridership and utility to the huge pool of potential riders in the most urban areas of the Bay Area. One immediate solution is the construction of infill stations. On the map above, I have detailed several infill stations that could attract a large number of riders. On the Red Line I suggest building an station at Solano Avenue in Albany and a station at 58th Street in North Oakland. For the Green Line I’ve added infill stations at 15th Avenue in Oakland, at 54th Avenue in Oakland, and at 98th Avenue in Oakland. All three will serve people without access to an automobile and dramatically increase ridership along this portion of BART. On the Yellow I included an infill station at Oak Grove Road in Concord and a station at 30th Street and Mission Street in San Francisco. Feasibility studies have already been conducted on this 30th/Mission Station and construction could start soon if the 700 million dollar cost was allocated. Also, studies have stated that a 30th/Mission Station would be an ideal short turn station for the Green Line, hence its termination there on my map.

Part of the issue with BART is capacity in the Transbay Tube. BART’s automatic train control (ATC) can only handle a frequency of 27 trains per hour (a train every 2 minutes and 13 seconds). BART already runs this frequency during the peak hour in the peak direction. This limitation also reduces frequency on outer branches of the system to 4 trains per hour (a train every 15 minutes), even during rush hour when demand is highest. This limitation will become a huge issue if opportunities for TOD are explored further and reverse peak and suburb to suburb commuting become more common on BART. I propose a dramatic, expensive, but necessary solution. Build a second Transbay Tube.

A second tube could include Oakland Wye (the main switch between BART lines) bypass track segments that serve important destinations in the East Bay. The Red Line could split immediately after MacArthur Station to an underground Emeryville Station then follow the Union Pacific right of way to the new tube’s portal. The Blue Line could split after the new San Antonio Station and travel along the Union Pacific right of way, dipping into subway for a Jack London Square Station, then emerging to join the Red Line and cross under the bay. Once in San Francisco, this line would stop at the new Transbay Transit center then follow Geary Boulevard all the way out to the Richmond District. This corridor’s bus ridership easily merits heavy rail transit with over 200,000 bus riders on and near Geary. This Geary route conforms with the general consensus of transportation planners regarding the routing of a second BART line through San Francisco. Around 18th Avenue, the Red Line would diverge from Geary Boulevard and travel south under 19th Avenue, serving the Sunset District and San Francisco State University. Just before the Daly City Station, the Red Line would rejoin the Yellow Line and continue along its current route through San Mateo County to Millbrae Station. A beachside terminal for the Blue Line would allow a shorter route for the line and complete the entire length of Geary Boulevard, from bay to breakers. Such a proposal is dramatic not only because of its cost (likely 8 billion dollars or more) but because I estimate that over 300,000 riders would use this new tube and urban subway, nearly doubling BART’s ridership.

Finally, I have added three suburban extensions of current lines on my map. The Green Line extension to San Jose is already under construction to Warm Springs and Santa Clara County has sales tax revenue to cover the rest of the line. An extension of the Blue Line to Livermore is under serious study right now, and I’ve included alternative 2a from the planning process, BART along I-580 then a short cut and cover subway to Downtown Livermore where a new intermodal terminal with ACE commuter rail service would be built. The Red Line extension on my map has not yet been studied nor is funded in any way, but completes a deficiency in the BART network by connecting Northwest Contra Costa County to the rest of the Bay Area. These suburban extensions would fill out BART and, with adequate policy, encourage transit oriented development around stations. The increased frequency of trains on outer branches due to the second Transbay Tube would allow for more opportunities in density growth around these new stations.

The San Francisco Bay Area is lucky to have BART, but a large injection of capital and a change in priority could change the system from a commuter rail-like operation to a true urban rapid transit system. If you want a more geographically accurate map of my 2030 BART plan look at the bottom of the article. Again, stay tuned for my post on the politics of transportation in Los Angeles.