Why is San Francisco Public Transportation So Bad?

I've been a frequent rider of Bay Area public transportation my entire life. "It works" in the sense that it tends to get passengers to their desired destination, but it often leaves much to be desired.

This is what our transportation system could be:


This is what it is:


Caltrain, for instance, runs a fleet of aging diesel locomotives that are often plagued with mechanical problems and delays. BART's systems face similar problems. In San Francisco, as of 2013, Muni was losing $320 million per year, had deferred $2 billion in planned maintenance, and had an on-time percentage of just 58.7%. Those numbers have improved somewhat in the past year, but I continue to believe the fundamental problem with our public transportation is that it often does not provide a compelling alternative to driving, taking Uber, biking or even walking for most people. As one example, consider this:

Duboce Triangle

It is about 3 miles from the historic Ferry Building in San Francisco's Financial District to Duboce Park, near the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The trip takes about 10 minutes on the N-Judah Muni Metro light rail/streetcar line. Great!

It is also roughly the same distance, 3 miles, from Kezar Stadium to Ocean Beach, but the trip takes more than twice as long (22 minutes) on the same N-Judah line:

Judah Line

Things really get crazy, though, if you want to travel north-south. Suppose that, rather than heading west to Duboce Park from the Ferry Building, you'd like to head 2.8 miles northwest to the Marina District. Well, in that case, you're looking at a 40+ minute ride on a bus and probably a transfer or two:

Marina to Downtown

It seems that if your commute involves anything other than a trip down Market Street, you're in for a painfully slow, outdated and potentially dangerous ride. It is significantly faster for me to bike from the Ferry Building to Fort Mason than to take Muni.

Why is San Francisco public transportation so bad?

The Beginning

The other day I was walking through Fort Mason and noticed this interesting sight:

Fort Mason Tunnel

Despite having spent countless hours in the park, I never realized that there was actually a tunnel beneath my feet (and a shortcut to that pesky hill I ride my bike over most days). The tunnel connects the Marina to Ghirardelli square (Marina Boulevard to Van Ness) and was built as part of a wave of construction following the 1906 earthquake. The discovery led me to explore what other surprises might be hiding in plain sight.

As it turns out, at the turn of the century, San Francisco was in the midst of a public infrastructure renaissance. In 1890, for instance, there were no fewer than 7 different cable car companies operating in the city. The city was devastated by the 1906 earthquake, but in response, sought to build one of the best public transportation systems in the world. The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, though technically a celebration of the newly completed Panama Canal, provided a catalyst for the new infrastructure projects.

1912 San Francisco Tunnel Proposals

Construction for the exposition began in 1912 and the city quickly realized that it would need to improve its public transportation system in order to accommodate the nearly half-million visitors that the expo would attract. San Franciscans looked east to Boston and New York and wondered if the City by the Bay might be able to develop similar transportation systems. A newly formed Tunnel Commission advocated for 5 new tunnels to be built along Broadway, Stockton and Fillmore, as well as beneath Fort Mason and Twin Peaks. As the San Francisco Call read in August of 1913:

Manhattan island is now honeycombed with tunnels and all the suburbs are closely connected with the central part of the city. This has resulted in a tremendous rise in real estate values and an increase in the population and volume of business. It is believed that the same thing will happen in San Francisco in the next few years. The hills will then be no longer barriers to traffic, but will be more than ever prized for home and apartment sites while all the lower levels will take on added values for business purposes. The indications now are that the end of 1913 will see three tunnels under construction on San Francisco, the Stockton street, Twin Peaks and Fillmore street. It is not expected that the Twin peaks bore will be completed by 1915. But there is time to build both the Stockton and Fillmore street tubes before the fair opens and have streetcars running through them at that time.
San Francisco Muni ~1915

At the same time, the city dramatically expanded its municipal railway system. Most current San Francisco residents are probably familiar with the F-Market streetcar line. The F-Market line, though completed in 1995, pays homage to the many streetcar lines that crossed San Francisco in the early 1900s. The A, B, C and D lines traversed from the Ferry Building west down Market and Geary, while the E, F and H lines ran to Fort Mason, the Marina and the Presidio. By 1915, San Francisco finally had the infrastructure to transport large numbers of people to the northern shore where the fair would take place, an area that had previously been a mishmash of the Presidio military base, tide pools, landfill and industrial buildings.

Key System

The East Bay had its own streetcar system as well. The San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Railway began in 1903 as a consolidation of several existing streetcar lines and quickly expanded into Berkeley, Piedmont and Oakland. The hub for the system was a causeway and pier extending from Oakland into the bay towards Yerba Buena Island from which riders could take the ferry to San Francisco. The three loops, combined with the pier, had the appearance of a key, and thus the railway earned the name "Key System." It is no coincidence that many of the San Francisco streetcar lines emanated from the Ferry Building. Indeed, the Ferry Building was the connection point to the East Bay Key System. It was the BART of its time.

Key Ferry Pier

Ultimately, the Stockton and Fort Mason tunnels were completed in time for the fair. The Fillmore project, however, was tabled on the basis that it would" destroy the beauty of the exposition background and be a detriment to the exposition." The Twin Peaks tunnel was completed a few years later in 1918.

The vision for the Twin Peaks tunnel is, perhaps, the most interesting of any of the San Francisco tunnel projects. Even in 1918, San Francisco anticipated that it might become a Manhattan-like commuter hub and the Twin Peaks tunnel was to be the gateway to the city. In March of 1912, the Call wrote:

New York about ten years ago, finding things congested and almost at a standstill, undertook the construction of a great subway system, leading from the downtown districts way out to the vacant country. At once the city took on a new growth. So successful were the first subways that tubes were bored under both the north and east rivers and the adjoining state of New jersey and a large part of Long Island were practically annexed to the city. As a result New York's growth during the last decade has been a world's wonder, giving her a present population of 5,000,000 people within the city limits, and 6,000,000 within the rapid transit zone. In all other large cities where tunnels have been built, transportation systems have quickly followed giving rapid transit to the surrounding country. The plan for the Twin-Peaks tunnel which has finally been adopted provides for a tunnel 16,000 feet in length, or about 3 miles, making a straight extension of Market street to point near the junction of Sloat boulevard and Ocean avenue. From this western portal of the tunnel car lines will naturally radiate in all directions with one main line running out to the ocean and another line in all probability running down Junlpero Serra boulevard to San Mateo county. This would make a direct route from the peninsula into the heart of the city.

Not Quite the New York Subway

Ridership of the Key System and Muni continued to increase throughout the 1910s. However, streetcars were already beginning to encounter their first headwinds to additional expansion. Jitneys were essentially a standard automobile that operated as a hybrid of a bus and taxi. Typically jitneys would follow the routes of streetcars, though they offered the advantage that they could stop anywhere along the line and were often faster. A fare for the service was usually a "jitney," the slang term for a nickel. Not surprisingly, streetcar operators took exception to their new competition, and by 1917, were able to push a ban on jitneys in San Francisco. The ban was lifted a year later, but increased regulatory pressure ultimately put most jitney operators out of business.

Public transportation in the Bay Area saw a second run up in ridership during World War II and in 1939, the Key System began service across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge into San Francisco's Transbay Terminal. However, the rise of the private automobile would soon make streetcars obsolete. As ridership declined following the end of World War II, many of the Bay Area's train systems faced an uncertain future.

A commuter train on the Bay Bridge

There is some controversy surrounding what happened next. In 1936, General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum bound together and made a large equity investment in a transportation company called National City Lines. They then reorganized it into a holding company with the goal of purchasing streetcar companies across the country and replacing them with bus lines in what came to be known as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy. Among the acquisitions was the East Bay Key System in 1948. Despite political opposition, National City Lines immediately began to cut back train service in favor of busses. National City Lines was convicted a year later and ultimately lost on appeal in Federal court for "having conspired to monopolize part of the interstate trade and commerce of the United States, to wit, that part consisting of the sale of busses, petroleum products, tires and tubes used by local transportation systems." However, they were acquitted on the more serious charge of conspiring to monopolize transportation services in major American cities. The ruling was a watered-down slap on the wrist, and National City Lines continued with the "motorization" of the Key System.

Others have argued that streetcars were on their way out regardless. Whereas prior to 1920, the economics of streetcars were competitive with automobiles and busses, bus technology improved dramatically in the coming decades. By 1950, it was widely believed that busses would be cheaper to operate and maintain than streetcars. During this period, most of San Francisco's streetcar system was converted to busses. Geary Street in particular, once a streetcar thoroughfare and the birthplace of electric rail in San Francisco, ultimately became the 6-lane mega-roadway that it is today. Some routes were spared, however, due to the tunnels and stretches of private right-of-way that the lines occupied. The 5 current Muni lines (J-Church, K-Ingleside, L-Taraval, M-Oceanview, and N-Judah) owe their existence to their unique topology, winding through San Francisco in a manner that would be nearly impossible to replicate today.

Regardless of the impetus, by 1958 most of the streetcar systems in the Bay Area had been removed and converted to busses. Once removed, they were gone forever.

Though the 50's marked the end of the streetcar era, there were many new ideas on the horizon. The concept for BART, for instance, arose from the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission, which formed in 1951. Originally, BART construction was to be financed through increased property taxes and bonds in the 5 member counties -- Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo. The original proposal included transit down the peninsula and north to Marin. However, San Mateo country withdrew in 1961, citing the high cost of the new system and the existing Southern Pacific commuter trains that would ultimately become Caltrain. Marin withdrew a year later.

Original BART Proposal

The Future

The history of Bay Area public transportation is one of starts and stops, grand visions that were never fully realized and the economic booms and busts of the region. Perhaps most interestingly, it seems as though many of the same themes that arose in the early 1900s bear a striking similarity to those playing out now. I can't help but liken the jitney craze of the 1910s to the Uber craze of the 2010s. I can't help but compare the vision for the Twin Peaks tunnel in 1914 to the vision for the new Transbay terminal in 2014.

Indeed, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of Bay Area public transportation. Construction is already underway on the central subway project to connect the 4th and King Caltrain station with Chinatown. Looking at the streetcar map from 1920, the central subway route will run up Stockton in much the same way that the F-Stockton once did. San Francisco will finally have its first modern subway route north of Market street. Though the central subway won't run all the way to the Marina as the D, E, F and H lines once did, the subway may eventually extend to North Beach or Fisherman's Wharf.

Central Subway SF

There is another proposal to extend the F-Market streetcar through Fort Mason using the same 1914 tunnel that was originally built for the Panama Expo. With the extended route, it would then be possible to get from, say, the mission to Fort Mason by rail, a feat that hasn't been possible since the H-Portrero line was dismantled in 1950.

BART is being extended to San Jose via the East Bay. San Francisco demolished the old Transbay terminal and is replacing it with a new transit center that may one day rival Grand Central station and serve as a hub for California high-speed rail. Caltrain is slated to finally go electric in 2019. Will all of these improvement projects ultimately come to fruition? It's hard to say.

If history is to be any indicator, I won't be holding my breath, but perhaps history provides some other lessons to consider. Looking back, San Francisco abandoned the H-Portrero line, only to build a parallel line in the T several decades later. San Mateo county abandoned the original BART proposal and has been stuck with a mediocre diesel locomotive to get into the city for 40 years. BART ultimately extended into San Mateo County anyway, and now Caltrain is spending $1.5 billion in order to modernize and to look a lot more like BART. It seems as though the Bay Area has simply had too many cooks in the kitchen for too long.

Meanwhile, the streetcar lines that did survive are, for the most part, the fastest public transit in the city. For all its faults, the Muni Metro is usually significantly faster to get across the city, into the Mission, into Downtown and into the West Portal than any Muni bus. BART is faster to get from Downtown San Francisco to SFO, the Mission, and most of the East Bay than any other public transportation option I'm aware of, particularly during rush hour. When we've managed to get most factions of the Bay Area on the same page, we've managed to do pretty well!

What if San Francisco hadn't mothballed its streetcars and had instead continued to build a subway system in the image of Manhattan? What if the Peninsula and Marin had signed on to the original BART proposal? Well, for one thing, you'd be able to get from downtown San Francisco to Palo Alto in 40 minutes while making nearly all of Caltrain's local stops along the way. Perhaps more idealistically, we might have more competitive alternatives to driving cars everywhere. More people from all walks of life might consider public transportation a realistic option to get around the Bay. The commute into San Francisco from the suburbs might look and feel a lot more like the futuristic trains of Tokyo, and less like a relic left over from the industrial revolution.

The Bay Area is as desirable a place to live as ever. Its technology companies and innovative spirit are the envy of the world. Why shouldn't its public transportation systems be world-class as well?