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US Travel Diary – San Francisco

This is the first of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US

I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.

I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.

San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco proper is relatively small and dense – less than a million people concentrated in approximately 120 square kilometres at the end of a long peninsula – but it anchors a vast metropolitan region containing around seven million people. The Bay Area includes a complex, shifting mix of communities, including a thriving university town (Berkeley), a suburban tech centre that now has to bus in workers from SF (Silicon Valley), poor inner city areas (Oakland and Richmond), wealthy suburban sprawl (Marin and Contra Costa Counties), poor suburban sprawl (northern Contra Costa), outlying farm communities, and America’s second-densest city after New York, Baghdad by the Bay itself.

The view down San Francisco’s Market Street on a beautiful early spring day

The view down San Francisco’s Market Street on a beautiful early spring day

 While the Bay Area is more economically and culturally complex than any Aotearoan city, it contains many elements that would be familiar down here. It is often compared to Wellington due to its steep hills and harbour views, but the similarities run a bit deeper. Like Wellington, it has developed along several distinct corridors defined by the sea and by ranges of hills. In the 1960s, the region’s planners recognised that this made a good fit for commuter rail, and developed an extensive electrified heavy rail system that links the region. While BART only opened in 1972, it’s now the fifth most heavily used rail system in the US. 

San Fran BART patronage

The Bay Area’s suburban and exurban regions are heavily car-oriented – as demonstrated in the following photo of peak-hour traffic flowing at a glacial pace of 6 miles per hour (10 km/hr) on a 12-lane freeway – but BART seems to be increasingly preferred for trips in to San Francisco and the East Bay.

Ten lanes, six mph in Walnut Creek

Ten lanes, six mph in Walnut Creek

 

A few general observations on the BART system:

  • Demand was consistently high across all time periods and origins and destinations. Off-peak and weekend trains were remarkably full – my train back from San Francisco at 9pm on a Sunday was 1/3 to 1/2 full for most of its length. On a Tuesday afternoon, I had trouble finding parking at a 2000 car suburban park-and-ride station. When I got off the train in Berkeley, I spotted an equally chocka cycle cage.
  • From memory, the rise in off-peak travel is a relatively recent phenomenon – I don’t remember afternoon and weekend trains being as busy even two years ago. (And they weren’t anywhere near as busy a decade ago.)
  • Fares were distance-based and relatively high. It cost me US$5.25 for a 45 minute ride from Walnut Creek to the Mission in San Francisco (roughly equivalent to the distance from Papakura to Britomart). Some people complained about this. I wouldn’t be surprised if high fares were holding down ridership to a degree, although apparently they allow BART to have one of the highest farebox recovery rate among US mass transit systems.
  • Although it serves a large area, BART offers “turn up and go” train frequencies. On the San Francisco to Contra Costa line, headways range from ten minutes in the peak to twenty minutes on evenings in the weekends. Connections between different BART lines at designated stations – for example, I had to transfer to the Richmond to Fremont line to go visit friends in Berkeley – seem easy and commonplace.
A crowded BART train on a Saturday afternoon passing through Oakland en route to SF

A crowded BART train on a Saturday afternoon passing through Oakland en route to SF

 

BART proves that it is possible to build, from scratch if necessary, a high-quality and useful heavy rail system in a dispersed urban region. However, the system is facing some challenges over the next decades, largely as a result of its own success. [See http://www.spur.org/blog/2013-09-25/how-will-bart-expand-serve-its-growing-ridership for a fuller discussion of these issues.] On the one hand, the system is coping with growing demand on its existing routes. If this continues it will strain the capacity of the Trans-Bay Tunnel between Oakland and San Francisco and eventually require a replacement tunnel. On the other hand, BART has traditionally worked to expand service to new areas, including Silicon Valley, the southern end of the Contra Costa suburbs, and the Delta. These new infrastructure requirements are raising the spectre of a funding gap – BART recently had to delay work on a Silicon Valley extension by several years.

 

Connections with local public transport are another challenging issue. The Bay Area has no unified, region-wide transport agency, and as a result there is no region-wide effort to coordinate services and integrate fares between the BART trains and local buses. In San Francisco, where SF Muni runs light rail and trolleybus networks, it would have been helpful to have a few more maps of local PT connections at stations. In the suburbs, local bus agencies run feeder services to bus stops at BART stations, but the usefulness of these services is limited due to low frequencies and incredibly dispersed land use. This seems like a rather obvious area for improvement given the packed suburban park-and-rides and the trend towards gentrification around inner city BART stations.

Only in San Francisco: Street advertising for a digital currency

Only in San Francisco: Street advertising for a digital currency

Of course, there are other ways to make the local leg of train trips – cycling, in particular. As of the last US Census, San Francisco had one of the highest cycling commute mode shares among major American cities. After decades of confrontational politics, planners are grudgingly responding to demand – I saw many more painted cycle lanes and sharrows around San Francisco and Berkeley than there were a few years back. BART has begun installing secure bike cages at many stations and designating spots on trains for cyclists to stand with bikes. There was even a bit of new paint in suburban towns. Cycle paths weren’t always very well designed, but things have begun changing.

Overall, the San Francisco Bay Area seems to be riding the same wave of change as Vancouver and Portland. (And Auckland?) It started building rail rapid transit before Vancouver, but it has been slower to capitalise upon opportunities for transit-oriented development along BART lines. This is likely to change in upcoming years as professionals and young people reinhabit the cities. I’ve noticed that all of my old friends from the suburbs have moved into San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland to be closer to work, to transit, and to city life in general.

Tomorrow-LA.

7 comments to US Travel Diary – San Francisco

  • Fascinating, thanks, Peter. It is good that in Auckland Transport we have a unified transport agency for the whole region, it does mean that coordination and joined up thinking should be the norm….

  • Lianne

    I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago and was very impressed by BART. I mostly rode it between Oakland and San Francisco, but I kept wishing Auckland had something like BART. SF felt so much more like a city, and it seemed like it would be much easier to ditch the car if I lived there.

  • Stevenz

    Worth mentioning the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, replacement with waterfront open space and businesses, and increase of public transport along waterfront. Huge improvement all the way around.

  • Scott Thorne, GM Strategy NZ Bus

    The BART system is convenient, safe affordable and well used, though the units are “well worn”. San Francisco, like Seattle and Vancouver, is embracing all aspects of PT – integrating rail, bus, ferry, cycling and walking. PT is very cheap and characterised by flat fares over large areas – it is simple.

    San Francisco PT is run by an amazing group of extremely passionate people who are doing a wonderful job despite a major funding shortfall. With PT funding generated directly from sales and payroll taxes they have felt the brunt of the GFC, and the resulting underinvestment means their entire fleet and infrastructure need overhaul. If funding is resolved, the city’s culture should enable them to maximise PT investment and growth.

    Buses there are a mixture of diesel, hybrid (they seem to be the majority) and trolleys. Retaining the iconic features of their PT system has been a benefit rather than a hindrance from a local and a tourism perspective. Each technology has a role and none of them have issues with the steep terrain.

    Probably the one thing that is hindering progress (or at least contributing to cost) is the lack of integration of the various authorities in the wider Bay area, meaning a very complex back office for integrated ticketing. Nevertheless, they have made it happen!

    I agree that the Northwest (US and Canada) has much to offer NZ in terms of their approach to urban planning, full PT integration and a robust value chain that enables officials to make quicker and bolder decisions to expand PT. Vancouver stands out above most and we should enhance our ties with TransLink and the city, and this applies equally to Wellington and Christchurch as well as Auckland.

    • Hi Scott couldn’t agree more. And it is important to realise that with the amalgamation of the Council and its CCOs Auckland is better placed than most other cities to achieve a higher standard faster as many structural obstacles are now lower here. There really are only three layers; Central gov, local gov, and private operators.

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