The recent article on the Metro 604 website titled “From San Francisco to Surrey: Lessons on Light Rail prompted me to look into San Francisco’s transit situation a bit deeper, as could probably be expected from me as a person concerned on Surrey transit matters.

In San Francisco, California, this is what the transit system looks like:

The region-wide BART subway system has 8 stations within the city, while the commuter CalTrain service has 2 stops in San Francisco. The City’s Municipal Transportation Agency runs the MUNI bus system and Metro LRT within its borders. The MUNI Metro began operation in the 80′s, a modern light rail service replacing former streetcar routes. (Metro 604)

What Hillsdon (writer) wants us to take away from his write-up on the San Francisco transit system, and – particularly – the MUNI Metro LRT, is that:

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

And most of this is based on sight, with a few numbers thrown into the mix here and there.

Now, I’m not trying to point fingers at any of the conclusions or numbers in this article here. No one’s misleading anyone. Indeed, 32% of San Francisco residents commute around by transit to work (2011 CLIMATE ACTION STRATEGY for San Francisco’s Transportation System – page 10) – This is even slightly higher than the latest number I can find in Vancouver that describes transit trips within the city. Indeed, the flexibility of LRT in San Francisco has led it to be able to serve multiple purposes fairly well. I think that there’s a certain depth that might have been left out in his takeaway here, however – and that’s why I’m writing in response to this article. I think there are more lessons we can learn on Light Rail in San Francisco.

My nitpicks with the MUNI Metro? 4 topics below:

1. Active transportation in SF vs. Vancouver

San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver's 78
San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver’s 78

Let’s take San Francisco versus Vancouver. San Francisco is like Vancouver in several ways, from the climate to the hilly terrain down to the fact that like Vancouver, down to that is largely on a peninsula. For a somewhat similar city with a walk score of 85 – which by far outranks Vancouver’s 78 on the same system (which is the best in Canada) – it surprises me that San Francisco has a lower walking and cycling mode-share at 14.3% of trips.

When walking/cycling and transit are combined, the mode-share for active/sustainable trips beginning and ending in the City of San Francisco is 48.3%. This isn’t any better than the 2006 Vancouver numbers I usually quote (Vancouver Transportation Plan update, which reported a 52% mode-share for walking/cycling/transit trips, against a 48% auto mode-share for the same trip-type). So, I’m not seeing how San Francisco’s flexible use of modern Light Rail technology makes it any more (or less) remarkable. There’s not a lot about Light Rail that makes San Francisco’s transit outshine similar cities for any particular reason.

2. The Muni Metro stops at stop signs.

There are probably not a lot of other light rail transit systems around the world that have to do this, but it does happen on the MUNI Metro. The above is just one of several examples around the city. In this one, the lack of any controlled traffic priority means that a train has to wait until every pedestrian and cyclist crosses – a cause of scheduling delay throughout the system. In this case, the system is no better than a local bus.

The fact about mixed-traffic streetcars and light rail is that they must obey the rules of the road they share, which presents such a service to a lot of weaknesses and drawbacks. It seems like many of San Francisco’s Muni METRO lines (like the K and the N) travel on minor streets, and so they face stop signs and other local-street obstructions, to the nuisance of many commuters that might otherwise be choice riders. Light Rail’s flexibility is nice, but I don’t see how using its flexibility is necessarily “better planning”. With flexibility comes a cost; I see TransLink’s mandate that Light Rail be kept in a dedicated-right-of-way with traffic signal priority investments at all times as a very good thinking, because it ensures that transit is consistent, more reliable, and more competitive as a transportation and mobility option.

In case anyone forgot, with the amount of automobile use growth rate Surrey has been seeing, that is something Surrey is going to need.

3. Light Rail line needs more…. buses?

NX Judah Express

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

But, the existence of this bus route throws that claim somewhat out of whack. As a “very efficient transit solution”, Light Rail shouldn’t need to be complemented with an express bus service on the basis that the express bus service adds to the usability of that corridor – but, that’s exactly what’s happening, in at least one situation in San Francisco.

The MUNI route “NX Judah” is an oddity: it’s a peak-hour express standard-length bus service that supplements the local stop portion of the N Judah Light Rail line, then operates non-stop into downtown on mixed-traffic streets. It’s an interesting oddity for me, because while the local portion makes the same local-style stops as light rail, the express portion is actually trying to compete with its subway portion. The NX (detailed paper at CLICK HERE) was introduced in June 2011 as a six-month pilot experiment with express bus service supplements. According to transit schedules (N Judah / NX Judah Express), it runs every 7-8 minutes, alternating the N Judah Light Rail line on the outer end portion of it from 48th Avenue to 19th Avenue and providing a 3-4 minute corridor frequency west of 19th.

It was a resounding success. The NX was voted permanent in December 2011 in merit of its genuine benefits. Get this – MUNI is thinking of doing it with more of their LRT lines (“The apparent success of Muni’s NX-Judah express bus service could offer hope to riders on other crowded streetcar lines.”). There may be a future in which peak-hour express buses are complementing every LRT line in San Francisco.

Above is a video on the NX Judah, which compares it directly against the N Judah Light Rail Line. According to the racers’ stopwatches, which were set to time from trip-start to trip-finish, the NX doesn’t win the race here. At 29 minutes, in this video it was slightly slower than the N-Judah which manages a 26 minute commute to 19th and Judah. As can probably be expected with a mixed-traffic bus, results may vary.

However, other reports generally put the NX as faster than the N – alongside being less stressful to ride on, because the NX adds important capacity. The fact in itself that LRT-like travel time can come so close on a bus that, while express, runs with at-grade mixed-traffic, is pretty amazing.

Why not more trains?

The interesting thing that makes me wonder is why Light Rail service could not have simply been increased on the N Judah. It definitely could use that; the Judah Street corridor is one of the busiest transit corridors in the city, carrying some 38,000 daily transit boardings – though that is still less than Vancouver’s Broadway. The at-grade corridor seems to certainly be capable of handling 3-4 minute frequencies, because the express buses and light rail combined operate at those intervals when their schedules are put side-to-side.

A MUNI Metro train exits the downtown tunnel
A MUNI Metro train exits a tunnel, another one close behind. Photo: Flickr – CC-BY-NC-ND – Frank Chan

I initially suspected that it may be due to the fact that the inner, interlined segments in the MUNI subway are constrained by the very high train frequency of interlining 6 different lines together.

The Market Street Subway, where the six MUNI Metro light rail lines interline under Market Street into downtown San Francisco, is using the same Thales SELTRAC automatic train control system as the Vancouver SkyTrain in its underground portions. In fact, the MUNI Metro pioneered the application of SELTRAC outside of ART technology and linear-induction motor trains, which has since been applied to several other systems worldwide. This was put into service in 1998, after MUNI found that coupling trains from different lines where they converged in order to maintain headways that could be sustained safely by driver-manned operation was infeasible and unreliable. With automatic train control, the shorter trains from the individual lines can be run at the higher frequencies safely.

However, according to this report [LINK HERE], the Market Street Subway (where the 6 MUNI metro lines interline) is not operating at its capacity. It is currently running at a throughput of some 33-37 trains per hour, whereas the design capacity is 50 trains per hour, and the current throughput is lower than averages seen in 2003-2004 (where throughputs reached 40 trains per hour).

Cost

The NX Judah Express pilot implementation was estimated to have an annual cost of $1.8 million, for six months of service. This translates into an annual cost of some $3.6 million.

Whereas expanding N Judah service could have required the purchase of additional light rail vehicles at significant capital cost (whereas it appears that the NX is using repurposed reserve buses from 1993), implementing the NX Judah avoided (or had reduced) capital costs. With that reason, plus having the opportunity to provide a faster service as well as improve capacity, I can see why the NX service has a great business case. The NX provided the same mobility benefit as an N service increase; while, at the same time, it has not cost a lot.

Service disruptions: A Light Rail weakness
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas

What happens when there’s an accident on an LRT line? Well, you could probably expect the obvious. Emergency vehicles are everywhere, and the scene is probably closed to public. But, most importantly, if you were riding transit that day, you would probably be forced off some stations down and forced to board a crowded shuttle bus, because that’s it for Light Rail service through that area.

It appears that another key reason for the addition of the NX over the increase of N service, is the controversial reliability of the N as a light rail transit line at surface-level. Apparently, the N is, for whatever reason, the most disruption-prone Muni Metro line; a reliability issue, which might be a collision or a derailment, happens on average of every 13 days.

I have no idea whether it’s a result of a more clumsy population along the corridor, but it is true that high risk of service disruptions for whatever reason can be a weakness of any Light Rail line. The NX, on the other hand, can simply reroute to avoid these disruptions, in the case of one ever occurring – making it a very valuable backup indeed.

It could be something as simple as a double-parked car, or a vehicle running an intersection where it thinks it has the right of way … Sometimes accidents happen simply from people being stupid.

What the N and NX remind me of

The whole issue of the N and the NX reminds me of this line I once read on the Human Transit website, written by Jarrett Walker, on what could happen if a streetcar line were built along 41st Avenue in Vancouver:

From Human Transit – Is Speed Obsolete?

Let’s imagine 41st Avenue 20 years from now in a Condonian future.  A frequent streetcar does what the buses used to do, but because it stops every 2-3 blocks, and therefore runs slowly, UBC students who need to go long distances across the city have screamed until the transit agency, TransLink, has put back a limited-stop or “B-Line” bus on the same street. (Over the 20 years, TransLink has continued to upgrade its B-Line bus product.  For example, drivers no longer do fare collection, so you can board and alight at any door, making for much faster service. Bus interiors and features are also identical to what you’d find on streetcars, just as they are in many European cities.)

Suddenly, people who’ve bought apartments on 41st Avenue, and paid extra for them because of the rails in the street, start noticing that fast, crowded buses are passing the streetcars.  They love the streetcars when they’re out for pleasure.  But people have jobs and families.  When they need to get to a meeting on which their career depends, or get home to their sick child, they’ll take the fast bus, and the streetcar’s appearance of offering mobility will be revealed for what it is, an appearance.

When a Light Rail/Streetcar service can become less useful as a transportation service than a mixed-traffic express bus that complements it, that’s not a good sign.

4. There’s better transit where people are driving the least.

Better transit mission district

This is from page 6 of the San Francisco Climate Action Strategy study I quoted earlier when I was looking at San Francisco transportation mode-shares. It’s a map.

It’s a map I haven’t seen for many other cities, and it’s a very good map that I think I would like to see more of. Here it is again, overlayed onto a Google Maps representation of San Francisco:

San Francisco Proof

I’ve always been adept at pointing out the many examples of the simple philosophy that “better transit wins better ridership”, and this is an absolutely great example of just that. The rainbow coloured ribbon on this map represents the Bay Area Rapid Transit system‘s 8 subway stations in San Francisco, which connect to the district that has the thinnest red line from downtown. If you zoom into this map (click the image), the slightly thicker and darker outlines represent the MUNI Metro network. While they also provide some limited connections to this area, I think the real highlight here is the BART.

BART provides a high-capacity, rapid, fully grade-separated service that can outpace other service options. It truly competes with superior modes of transportation in terms of convenience and reliability, and – as a result – it gets the popular vote.

Despite that the Mission District is also arguably one of the better places in San Francisco to live if you drive to work (it’s on the I-280 expressway, whereas of the other four districts measured, only one of them is along a limited-access expressway of any sort), fewer people drive from here to downtown than from any other area in San Francisco.

That’s right. Whereas the MUNI Metro is trying to compete against surface streets and losing, the BART is directly competing against an expressway and winning.

The takeaway

Sometimes when other cities are thought to have great examples for other cities, there are certain examples that are not exactly “what you see is what you get”. A great example is the perceived transit-oriented development success in Portland, OR – which might have been more a result of development subsidies from 1996-onwards, than the actual transit. Many of the biggest Light Rail fans in Surrey, including our City Council, are mesmerized by the presence of so much transit-oriented development near the MAX Light Rail system, only to not know about the subsidized reality of it.

It seems it happens to often: we look to other cities for vague examples thinking they could play into our future here, and in d0ing so some vague assumptions are made, some vague take-aways are gotten. It happened when Surrey City Council visited Portland, Oregon… it appears to have happened with Metro604 blogger Paul Hillsdon’s recent visit to San Francisco… and it could happen with a lot more transit gurus.

It’s not that all of this looking for inspiration from other cities holds no value whatsoever. I just think there is really no way that we can properly conclude planning mandates about our own transit system’s future just by looking at other cities and taking from the things we see. Sights might say one thing, but numbers might say another. And, on some occasions, perhaps that might be the other way around.

To end this, here’s a great timelapse compilation of San Francisco. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful, rich, and diverse city indeed:

From San Francisco to Surrey: More lessons on Light Rail and transit planning