Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Rail Is Not a Rail Is Not a Rail

In Utah they're planning a streetcar network to feed their light rail system.

SFMTA planners might be forgiven for being confused about the difference between the two systems. Here in San Francisco the mention of "light rail" evokes the N-Judah or the T-Third. We think we have light rail and we think that "light rail" means a rail car that has to straddle the competing restrictions of an underground tunnel and on-street operation.

In my opinion, Utah is doing it right. Build a robust rapid rail system (Utah's TRAX) and then a completely separate feeder system. Tailor each system to fit the role it fills.

San Francisco has done it wrong, we've built a system that switches from unreliable rapid rail downtown to overbuilt local feeder service at its extremities. Because the same equipment must fill two completely different roles, it's encumbered by 'features' that may be advantageous in one mode but reduce efficiency in the other.

Muni recognized the problems of transitioning its LRVs from high-platform underground stations to surface-level boarding and operation in mixed traffic. Their solution was to build every station on the T-Third line with high platforms at a massive expense and to separate train platforms from passengers on the sidewalk by lanes of auto traffic. Neither of these solutions do much to improve the system, and the T-third has had a tepid reception at best.

Given my druthers, San Francisco would have a rapid rail network that was built to be just that, and would serve the parts of town with a demand for a rapid network. Augmenting this network would be another network or feeder lines. Those lines, like the ones proposed for the Beehive State, would be
An electric rail car that can run through a lane of traffic. In many ways it's similar to TRAX, [UTA's assistant general manager Mike] Allegra said, but it's lighter, so laying the tracks doesn't require such fortification. The result is a lower price tag, partly because underground utilities aren't affected.
A car on this network would be
Low to the ground and requires no station platform -Salt Lake Tribune
If you're following along I expect you'd be wondering if I've ever noticed Muni's bus network. Our (arguably unmatched) bus network serves this role for most of the denser parts of the city. Along the Market Street tunnel and BART line, Muni's busiest bus lines filter residents from their homes to the rapid rail stations and back every day, many all day.

But a bus is not a streetcar. The 38-Geary and 14-Mission are frustrated by private auto traffic and long dwell times at stops. Buses can only be so long, so if you need to carry more passengers you need more buses - and more drivers. The diesel and electric trolley buses that run down these lines endure a beating from uneven streets and must be replaced much more frequently that a typical streetcar. The bumpy, jerky, slow and unpredictable service these workhorses provide is a turn-off for a large chunk of people who would otherwise ride them.

Running buses on these routes costs Muni in maintenance and operating costs in addition to the opportunity cost of potential riders (many of whom drive instead, competing for space and compounding the problem).

Don't get me wrong, buses fit an important niche in a transit network. Buses can reach into low-density neighborhoods and run less-frequent local service cheaper than a streetcar, especially in hillier parts of San Francisco. But where buses are run like streetcars, they fail to perform as well.

Furthermore, the lack of differentiation between a rapid network, feeder network and local network leads good people to make generalizations about transit service that I fear hurt its image, reduce expectations and ratchet down service in the end. Gripes about slow bus lines could be more easily rebutted if we all understood that bus lines were slower, more infrequent, and more local whereas grade-separated rail lines are fast, frequent, but require a longer walk or connecting ride.

It's a sad state of affairs when Muni can't get funds to expand service or make capital improvements because the average San Franciscan doesn't trust Muni with the money. That's a death spiral. Poor service begets lower budgets beget service cuts. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

We need leaders to imagine and realize a future for Muni, like they have in Utah. And if our leaders won't do it then we need to do it ourselves.

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