Why San Francisco’s Light-Rail Is Such a Mess
This post, originally published by The Bold Italic, helps explain the evolution of light-rail service in San Francisco.
A recent article by Chelsea Iversen provides a historical overview of public transit in San Francisco with an emphasis on how light-rail service was first established in the city and has changed during the past 150+ years.
The post is a nice complement to an article we published last month featuring an interactive map of San Francisco’s past and present streetcar routes.
Note: This article was originally published by The Bold Italic on August 22, 2016.
Here’s Why San Francisco’s Light-Rail Layout Is Such a Mess
By Chelsea Iversen
The US Army built a secret underground tunnel in 1914 connecting Fort Mason with Aquatic Park. Through it passed streetcars filled with supplies and, occasionally, troops, unseen by the public above.
The tunnel was closed in 1975 and hasn’t been reopened, but Rick Laubscher, CEO of San Francisco–based nonprofit Market Street Railway, has called for it to be revitalized as a passageway for historical streetcars.
It would be a great way to honor the city’s transportation roots while accommodating growing numbers of residents and utilizing resources already available. Plus, a secret tunnel is cool.
The Fort Mason tunnel is a symbol of San Francisco’s struggle with transportation. For over 150 years, old and new forms of public transport and people-moving have battled for coexistence.
Today, 46,000 people board the N-Judah each day and chug their way into downtown or out toward Ocean Beach. Among all the light-rail and bus lines, this is the Muni line that sees the most passengers.
According to a profile by the San Francisco Planning Department, the population of the Sunset District is roughly 72,000, making it the most populous neighborhood in the city. And assuming that those 2010 census numbers have grown during the last six years, the daily crush on the N is no surprise.
The Richmond District, with about 65,000 residents, is not far behind. More than 50,000 people ride down Geary Boulevard on the 38, 38AX, 38BX or the new 38R line. However, despite the popularity of this route, there is no light rail running along Geary.
There’s also no light rail in plenty of other areas of the city, including the Marina (23,000 residents) and the rapidly developing Hunters Point and Parkmerced areas.
To understand the messy situation of the current-day San Francisco Municipal Railway, we have to go back to the beginning (or you could skip the whole thing and just take a look at this awesome interactive, historical Muni map created by local app designer Chris Arvin).
The first form of public transportation in the city was a horse-drawn stagecoach line that operated on rails following the gold rush in the 1850s.
At the time, the Red Line was a collective of 11 miles of track and was operated by the Omnibus Railroad & Cable Company. These tracks connected South Park, North Beach, Rincon Hill and the Mission, but they faced competition, even within the city limits.
The North Beach and Mission Railroad Company gave Omnibus a run for its money with the competing Yellow Line. By the mid-1870s, eight railroad companies transported San Francisco’s 150,000 residents across the city.
Basically, the city was covered with railroad tracks heading this way and that, all owned by competing companies. And it was around this time, too, that Andrew Hallidie threw the iconic cable car into the mix in San Francisco, with Clay Street service operating by 1873.
Soon, cable cars replaced the horse-drawn omnibuses, and then electric streetcars with their more durable technology led to the demise of cable cars. The earthquake of 1906 shook up neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, but it was the sneaky monopoly formed by the railroad companies following the earthquake that made the most impact on transportation in the city.
The competing railroads joined up to create United Railroads. In 1909, residents voted to construct a city-run streetcar line built along Geary to fight the transportation monopoly.
Founded in 1912, the San Francisco Municipal Railway was the first publicly owned transit system of its kind. The first Muni streetcar lines were finished three years later and connected the eastern and western edges of the city by way of Geary.
Good, Great, Geary
Geary was the heart of San Francisco’s municipal railway when it began over 100 years ago.
There was the A Geary, which traveled from Market and Geary to 10th Avenue and Geary and then turned south, ending at Golden Gate Park.
There was the B Geary, which traveled from Market down Geary (which turned into Point Lobos Avenue) all the way to Ocean Beach.
The C Geary started at Market and extended down Geary, crossing over to California at 2nd Avenue and ending at 33rd Avenue and California. Finally, the D Geary traveled down Geary from Market to Van Ness.
In 1912, there were four streetcar lines that traveled down Geary, but now there are none. So what happened?
Because of the nationwide focus on mass transit that followed WWII and the proliferation of more efficient buses in most cities in the US, buses took over most of SF’s Muni lines.
The J-Church, K-Ingleside, L-Taraval, M-Ocean View and N-Judah were the only Muni streetcar lines that were spared. Without the benefit of streetcar-only tunnels or straightaways, the Geary rails were torn up to make way for buses and cars.
As the demographics of the city change dramatically, the SFMTA is taking steps to keep up with the shifting landscape. The San Francisco Planning Department has projects on tap, with more than 50,000 new housing units going up mostly in Bayview, Mission Bay, Parkmerced and on Treasure Island.
Treasure Island aside, there are SFMTA plans to update light-rail service and rapid-bus routes throughout the city. Shifts in neighborhood densities, road congestion and public opinion are driving these updates.
The Central Subway Project will extend the T-Third Street line by 1.7 miles, connecting SOMA, Union Square, Chinatown and possibly even Fisherman’s Wharf by light rail.
In the more distant future, the M-Ocean View line will be moved completely underground to accommodate higher volumes of crosstown traffic, particularly coming from the growing Parkmerced neighborhood.
And though Geary won’t be seeing a light-rail line anytime soon, it will be seeing dedicated transit-only lanes for SFMTA buses, which will cut commute times by 10 to 15 minutes.
Current-day San Francisco is a jumble of historical railroad tracks and modern bus routes. The history of transportation along the Geary corridor and even the quest to bring back the army’s secret subterranean railroad in the Marina are just two examples of the eclectic personality of this city.
Muni is just the start. Throw in Lyft, Uber, Scoot, Flywheel, Getaround and bike lanes, and transportation in SF is just as much of a hot mess as it’s always been.
But if there were ever a consumer-first city, this is it! At least you’ll never want for a ride.
Feature image is an illustration by Cory Mendenhall