San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA
population 8,370,967 (2012)
The San Francisco Bay Area is schizophrenic.
San Francisco itself, is the most East Coast of West Coast cities, 49 square miles of dense, walkable neighborhoods surrounded by water on three sides. In 1970, it had the only rail transit system west of the Mississipi, and it has bus routes that carry more people than most rail systems. Today ____% of households don’t even own a car. Across the bay, Oakland and Berkeley have old streetcar neighborhoods and traditional downtowns. Most of the Bay Area, though, consists of suburban sprawl, built around freeways. San Jose, the center of Silicon Valley, is less walkable and less dense than Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta.
The Bay Area’s rail transit system is similarly schizophrenic. In the city itself, MUNI Metro is one of the busiests light rail systems in the united states, carrying 160,000 boardings on an average weekday on routes that date back 100 years. In San Jose, a light rail system that ‘s __ miles longer carries only 35,000. BART, the heavy rail system that spans the region, is a mix of both: in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, it’s a heavy duty urban subway. In the suburbs, it runs fast along freeways and freight rail lines, serving stations that are little more than park-and-ride lots. The fundamental challenge throughout the region’s post-WWII transit history has been the prioritization of resources: should money go to urban areas to improve service where transit is already crowded, or to suburban areas to draw commuter out of their cars?
San Francisco was the first city in the United States too have publicly operated mass transit. The San Francisco Municipal Railway was formed by voters as a city agency in 1909 and operated its first streetcar in 1912. In 1944, it took over the private streetcar system, and by 1952 it has acquired all of the remaining cable car lines (three of which have survived and been refurbished, including the oldest rail transit line still operating on its original route and technology in the United States.)
San Francisco was one of the few cities that did not entirely eliminate its streetcar system. Many lines were converted to bus starting in the late 1940s, but a combination of political pressure (from residents who preferred streetcars to busses) and expediency (three lines of the four lines saved used tunnels that could not easily be converted to bus) saved four of the lines. Into the ’70s, 1940s-era streetcars still rolled down the streets of San Francisco. San Francisco also had the only surviving commuter rail west of Chicago, a single line that ran south, though bedroom suburbans on the Peninsula with small town downtowns clustered around the rail stations, to San Jose.
Meanwhile, work was underway on the transit system of the future. Bay Area Rapid Transit, BART, was the first ground-up post-interstate rail system in the United States. It was deliberately designed to be the opposite of older rail systems. Its riders would arrive by car from their suburban homes, park at the station, and speed to their Downtown jobs. They’d pass through well-lit, airy, clean, modern stations and all find seats in the wide, carpeted, streamlined trains. The trains would be controlled by computer, and the tickets would be collected with magnetic stripe fare cards.
Where San Francisco’s streetcars were urban, BART was fundamentally suburban. The scope of the system — Concord is 30 miles from San Francisco — and the spacing of the stations resembles commuter rail more than it does pre-war heavy rail systems. The stations were designed for easy car access, not for pedestrians. The lines followed freeways and rail lines for speed, bypassing urban neighborhoods and entering subways only to reach employment centers in San Francisco and Oakland. Notably, two of the highest ridership stations on BART — Downtown Berkeley, near the UC Berkeley campus, and Embarcadero, on the redeveloped San Francisco waterfront — were not in the original plans and were added only at the request of those cities.
Within San Francisco, old and new met. In the 1970s, plans for the subway that carried BART through San Francisco included a second level, above the BART tracks and below the station mezzanine. San Francisco decided to use that level for the streetcars, taking them out of street traffic in the city center. At the same time, the system was reequipped with modern light-rail vehicles and renamed MUNI Metro. The light rail vehicles now run up to 5 1/2 miles in tunnel, averaging 20 miles per hour. Once they emerge on the surface, though, they revert to the ways of a traditional streetcar. They run in lanes shared with cars, down the center of residential streets and shopping areas. Most stops are nothing more than an orange band painted around a streetlight, and the stops are spaced closely. Nobody would design a light-rail system like this nowadays but it works. This is the second-busiest light rail system in the country, and the N-Judah line alone carries 41,600 weekday passengers — more riders than half the light rail systems in the country can claim . In the dense residential and commercial neighborhoods that grew up around the streetcar, light rail is indispensable.
After initial hiccups, BART has become indispensable, too. San Francisco is separated from its eastern suburbs by the bay; only BART’s transbay tube and the __-lane Bay Bridge connects them. A third of the people crossing the bay at rush hour are on BART.
Starting in the 1990s, MUNI expanded the system with surface lines built to modern light-rail standards. First came a short extension from the formerly dead-end downtown subway to the surface and along the southern waterfront, a formerly industrial area redeveloped with apartments, offices, and the new baseball stadium. Next, that was extended southwards as the T Third, through the Mission Bay redevelopment area (offices and a University of California medical research campus) and into Bayshore, San Francisco’s poorest neighborhood. A second downtown subway, now under construction, will provide the T a more direct route, with stations serving then convention center, the Union Square shopping district, and Chinatown.
Some transit activists, have questioned the need for those lines, pointing to more congested corridors elsewhere in the city (including the Geary Ave. bus, with 50,000 weekday riders). MUNI’s supporters point out that the new line serves the areas where San Francisco can accommodate growth. Light rail will encourage that development to be the dense, transit-driven style, like the old streetcar neighborhoods —not the suburban sprawl created by freeways.
Meanwhile, MUNI has also revived the traditional streetcar. The tracks that carried streetcars down Market before the subway was built have been rebuilt, and restored streetcars from Philadelphia and Milan provide local service, stopping more frequently than the subway. Thus, Market street has three levels of rail transit: BART on the bottom, connecting the city to the suburbs, MUNI Metro above, connecting downtown to the outer neighborhoods, and the historic streetcars, serving the inner core. The historic streetcar line has also been extended along the northern waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf. The antique vehicles, an integral part of the transit system, carry more than 20,000 locals and tourists on an average day.