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Postcard from San Francisco

San Francisco is a city that is hard on the knees. It’s hilly, really really hilly. The streets are laid out in a classic grid form with criminal disregard to the natural topography. Particularly downtown there are many roads that literally go straight up a small mountain. In some cases, such as the world famous Lombard St, the road cuts a tight series of switchbacks to overcome the grade, however in most they don’t. Stairs instead of footpaths are not unusual.

This inescapable steepness has lead to two key transit outcomes. The first of these are the historic cable cars, formerly right across the city these survive on three routes primarily for tourists. While they look superficially like any historic tram or streetcar they function quite differently. The vehicles themselves are motor less and steering less, the motive power comes from a fixed powerhouse that constantly pulls a steel cable buried in a conduit in the street, between the running rails which take care of the steering. The cable car driver (known as a ‘Gripman’) basically works a giant pair of pliers that grabs the moving cable to pull the carriage along. Think a sort of upside down ski lift. So what are the advantages of this? Well unlike buses and trams there are no motors to rev, no drive wheels to slip. The cable literally hauls the vehicle up the steep inclines like a winch. However with that benefit comes several downsides, they are hard to launch smoothly, they can get stuck on the cable, and most of all the routes have to be arranged as a series of straight cable runs while any curves have to be coasted through. Stuff up the shift from one cable to the next and you gotta get out and push. In most cities advances in electric streetcar technology super ceded the cable car.

The more modern response to San Francisco’s steepness is their trolley buses. These are electric buses running under overhead power by way of a pair of trolley poles. The rubber tyres provide heaps of grip on the steep streets, while the torque-y electric motors and limitless electricity supply provide the oomph to power up them. Seriously, these buses are heroic with what they do every day on the San Fran frequent network grid. They have automated announcements warning you to hold on for particularly steep hills, and is don’t just mean if you happen t be standing up!

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The buses are the workhorse of the ‘Muni’ system which also has lines of just about everything under the sun. In addition to electric and diesel hybrid buses, there are several lines of historic streetcar that also provide regular street level transit. Then there are the modern light rail lines which run on street corridors and their own tracks in the outer suburbs, but then run into metro tunnels in the city centre. Directly below the metro tunnel is the BART tunnel, which shares most of the same stations with a second pair of lower platforms. The BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, is a true rapid transit heavy rail metro system that has several lines on both sides of the bay and links to satellite centers and the airport. That system runs monster capacity trains ten or twelve cars in length, every few minutes at peak times. In addition to all this you have Caltrain commuter rail from satellite cities and the nearby parts of California, plus Amtrak long distance trains direct to places as far away as Vancouver, Chicago and New Orleans.

Most of this runs along Market St, the main route into town on the pacific side. Two levels down there are the two BART heavy subway tracks (carrying four frequent lines), one level down there are the light rail Muni metro tracks (carrying six frequent lines), and at street level the are the F line street car tracks in the centre, with separate bus lanes for a dozen trolley and diesel bus routes either side. Here is a question for readers, is this the most transit intensive corridor in the world? Please feel free to post your nominations.

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So enough frothing at the mouth over transit. I think it is very important to note that San Francisco is, despite the hills, a good walking city with high cycling rates. So again, if anyone tries to tell you Auckland is too steep for walking or cycling, point them in direction of San Francisco.

Here is a picture of the Castro district which is currently being reconstructed. They have taken out parking and traffic, leaving just two lanes for the trolley buses and service access. They are widening the footpaths greatly to provide space for trees, street furniture and outdoor dining. The old kerb line is where the chain link fence is. I’ll be keeping an eye on how this turns out, it represents a good possibility for Queen St.

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One last photo of some housing. I resisted the temptation to dwell on the Painted Ladies or any of the other beautiful historic houses of the Noe Valley or mission district. These are some more modern town houses, probably 70s vintage by the look of them. In my opinion these represent a good way to build the missing middle density of Auckland’s housing stock. They are all simple timber framed weatherboard construction, they are mostly low rise single houses or duplexes on separate sections, they all have one garage each… but no huge setbacks or wasteful side yards and efficient, affordable utilization of desirable land.

All up San Francisco is a wonderland for transport and planning enthusiasts, and provides some good examples for Auckland to take a cue from.

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37 comments to Postcard from San Francisco

  • Dave B (Wellington)

    We’ve got similar steep hills here in Wellington!
    What we haven’t got but need is the underground rail tunnels.
    Do you know if SF had a motorway carved through its CBD, like Wellington is supposed to be getting, or did they escape that?

    • Dave B (Wellington)

      And I bet their trolleybuses are not under threat of being scrapped like ours are. According to Fran Wilde trolleys are “Outdated technology”.

    • Yes, at least the did… But removed it. Google Embarcadero Freeway. Crazy that we are building the failed mistakes that other cities tore down years ago.

    • obi

      101 used to run through the CBD, but is now missing a couple of kilometres between the Presidio and Market St on the southern edge of the CBD. I-80 and I-280 also terminate around Market St. The Bay Area also has I-580, I-680, I-780, 4, 24, 13, I-880, 92, 84, 85, 17, 1, and 87 freeways although some of these aren’t freeways for their entire length.

      I-80 starts in San Francisco and runs all the way to New Jersey. Several of the Bay Area freeways link up with I-5 just east of the Bay Area. I-5 runs from Vancouver down to the Mexican border south of San Diego. Freeways don’t drop down to country roads on the edge of the metro area, like they do at Puhoi or Porirua.

      • Dave B (Wellington)

        How long before I am told that the Wellington Region does not have the population to support an extension to its rail system, but magically it does have the population to turn its highways into high-cost motorways?!

        • obi

          That depends on where you want to extend it to. Recent extensions of the railway system and the expressway extensions currently being constructed are all in mostly-rural areas on the outskirts of the city. They can be achieved for a reasonable cost. On the other hand, if you want to drive a rail extension or a motorway through the CBD then you’re looking at a lot of money and also significant disruption to the commercial and government city center.

          You’ll notice that just like San Francisco, Wellington’s motorway ends on the edge of the CBD. And no one is proposing to extend it through the city, with the currently proposed upgrades being fairly minor changes to existing city streets.

          • Mike

            obi – a new Terrace tunnel, a new Mt Victoria Tunnel, a new War Memorial tunnel, a flyover at the Basin, 6/8 lanes through the Town Belt are “fairly minor changes to existing city streets”?!?!?

            I’d dread to think what major changes would look like!

          • obi

            Mike… Those are being built on an existing route and none of them come even close to turning that section of SH1 in to a motorway. As far as I know, one direction of flow will remain on Vivian Street, complete with traffic light intersections. Which is sort of like SH1 through Auckland running down Karangahape Road. And the inner city bypass will also keep its traffic lights, except for the bit in the War Memorial Tunnel.

            What is being proposed as 8 lanes through the Town Belt? I think there is going to be some minor widening after the Mt Victoria Tunnel on the way to the airport, but I didn’t think it was anything like 4 lanes each way. That’s be ridiculous.

          • Mike

            obi: the Terrace Tunnel will be fully fledged motorway, three lanes each way; “some widening” of the Mt Vic tunnel is a new, parallel tunnel; through the Town Belt was proposed as three lanes each way, plus turning lanes, plus service road, ie 7-9 lanes, now reduced to two lanes each way – but with the prospect of two BRT lanes, ie still 7-9 lanes; round the Basin is proposed a two-lane flyover, and a shared path on a separate bridge.

            All this becomes very close to turning it into a road of motorway width and effect (albeit with traffic lights), except for the section between Willis St and Kent Terrace/the Basin.

            As you so rightly say, it’s ridiculous.

        • Difference between Wellington & SF is Fran & Co have a master plan to turn Wellington into the Detriot of the south, rip out electric traction, build motorways and use valuable land for car parking top this off with population decline.

  • Dave they sure did, but they’ve removed one Embarcardero: http://www.streetfilms.org/lessons-from-san-francisco/ and are Boulevarding others like the Central

  • Actually I would agree with that, series hybrid electric buses can do everything a trolley can, without the drawback of the wires.

    • Dave B (Wellngton)

      Nick. Hybrid buses are diesel powered, albeit with battery storage to retard and boost output when needed. How can these be lower-emission than all-electric trolleybuses? And are such vehicles readily available which could handle San Francisco’s or Wellington’s terrain? The hybrid buses which were trialled in Auckland did not perform very well on much lesser hills, and the ones in Christchurch only ever drove on the flat.

      Greater Wellington Regional Council are conflating two separate policy issues: The retention/removal of the trolleys, and the retention/removal of the old Euro-1 diesels. They argue that if the trolleys stay then so must the old diesels and hence the perverse argument that emissions will be worse. No explanation has been forthcoming for this pairing of policies.

      And the equally perverse corollary is that if some as-yet-unspecified hybrids are bought, then this somehow enables both the trolleys AND the old diesels to be replaced. Equally unanounced is just how far away a purchase of these new hybrids is, yet the trolleys have been given a very definite and early finishing date – well in advance of the vehicles’ life-expiry.

      So what is going on? On the face of it, it would seem that the $16m – $50m cost of upgrading the substations (figure dependent on who you listen to), will preclude the purchase of any new vehicles at all, so we will be stuck with the dirties. But is this just a disingenuity? No costs have been mentioned for the supposed “better-value” alternative? A letter from Tony Hurst (Railway author) in this morning’s paper suggested the real agenda was to break up the monopoly of NZ Bus and replace it with lost of competing little-guys. Clearly the trolleys with their unique infrastructure would stand in the way of such a move. In which case, what to do? Answer: Concoct a stupid reason to get rid of the trolleys and present the idea as a “sensible decision” to a largely ignorant and unquestioning public/media.

      I fear Wellington is about to be short-changed yet again over its transport strategy.

      • Yes, they do have Diesel engines, I didn’t claim otherwise. I’m not actually to concerned about overall emissions, because the emissions of even the worst buses are a drop in the bucket compared to the car fleet. Local emissions are an issue, nobody wants a lungful of smoke on the footpath, but that’s really no longer a problem with the latest generation of buses no matter what the fuel.

        As I understand it the problem for Wellington is that small sized right hand drive trolleys are complete custom jobs, and cost two or three times as much as a mass produced hybrid (I’m sure someone can quote the actual figures). So that is how not replacing them with new trolleys would allow you to replace the whole fleet with new buses. Say you have $100m, well that might buy you the power supply upgrades and 30 new trolley buses. Or it might buy you 100 new hybrids. That’s the sort of trade off that has to be considered.

        And yes they do have ones that can handle the terrain, they run them in San Francisco. In fact all the SF trolley buses are from the 70s, all the newer ones are hybrids.

        Anyway I didn’t intend to open up this debate, I really like trolley buses, but equally like hybrids and clean diesels too. Trolleys are a great response to a particular task, but them again so was the cable car. That doesn’t mean they stay the best option forever.

        • Mike

          Nick R – the cost of new trolleybuses is not in fact a real issue in Wellington, because their owner says they’re good for another eight years. The sensible thing to do would be to replace diesels with hybrids, leaving the trolleys alone until 2022.

        • tuktuk

          Nick R –

          San Francisco’s trolley bus fleet are in three batches built at the following times – 1993/1994, 1999/2003 and 2003.
          Seattle currently has a fleet of trolley buses dating from 1990-1991 and 2001-2003 with a new fleet ordered, with delivery from 2015.
          Vancouver has a fleet of near new trolley buses delivered between 2005 and 2009.
          I understand all three cities have hybrids, but that hasn’t stopped them from operating and ordering new trolley buses.

          Yes, the custom right hand drive thing does need to be overcome. We know that Blackpool, an English city is inching its way toward large scale trolley bus investment. And trolley buses last a solid 20 to 30 years. As is now becoming more widely known, Wellington’s current “near new” trolley bus fleet include some components carried over from the Volvo fleet built in the early 1980s.

          So your calculations need to factor in the reality that your 100 vehicle hybrid fleet may need to be replaced twice, and possibly three times during the life of a trolley bus. The overhead and sub-station system in Wellington I understand, includes equipment dating from the tram era. Therefore, any equipment now needing to be renewed will have a depreciation timeframe decades longer than a fleet of hybrid buses.

          So, transport accountants and economists – please take note.

          One further conclusion from this is: technology choices and the engineering design advice behind making good technology choices does matter. All around you, in San Francisco, you can see the positive consequences on urban form and amenity, of good technology choices made in PT. The outcomes of those good choices can be measured as the length of a lifetime.

          …..and sorry to bog down this San Francisco chat in techo trolley bus talk ;)

          • Mike

            tuktuk – there are no proposals for trolleybuses in Blackpool, but there are in Leeds, currently subject to a public enquiry.

    • tuktuk

      Nick. Hybrids have a diesel engine. Diesel engines still generate carbon emissions. Furthermore, diesels vibrate especially over time and are noisy – in automotive testing lingo – they generate NVH – noise, vibration, harshness. While in battery mode – yes the buses are quiet but they will be lugging extra weight around carting those batteries – a lifetime cost. Also, there is still the issue of battery disposal to deal with.

      Super-capacitors? Nice, but especially on Wellington’s hills, unless you have short sections of overhead catenary sprouting up everywhere, these buses are going to spend most of their life operating on diesel power. And if you’re going to have re-filling stations dotted around the network, you’ve negated the supposed efficiency of removing the trolley bus overhead anyway.

      Trolleys have a much longer service life – 30 years. They use continuous electric power on a specific corridor, are relatively light weight and for energy consumption are at the top of the class for energy efficiency. Like trams, with their quietness and perceived permanence of the corridor, trolley buses have a good and proven ability to attract urban growth to more densely populated corridors. This I would have thought is exactly the sort of transport technology that you’d want to promote.

      You will have seen effective trolley bus fleets in Vancouver and now in San Fran. I just wish you could extend your trip to Europe where cities like Salzberg, Geneva and Lucerne have especially efficient and stylish vehicles. Clearly these cities are clueless at public transport or they would have followed Fran Wilde’s directive that trolleys are “Outdated technology”.

      • I said series hybrid, not battery powered. Series hybrids only have a small battery to smooth over the supply of electricity from the Diesel engine operating at constant RPM. They are very efficient because of that, and have very limited noise, vibration and harshness as a result.

        One experience I did have in San Francisco was a moving truck parked at the curb that was too tall for the trolley to go around without dewiring. So we sat there for five minutes while the driver went off to find the truck owner and ask them to move it.

        Trolley buses are great, but they are great because they are electric powered, not because of the wires. Why so much hate for other electric driven buses just because they lack a supply grid of wires?

        • tuktuk

          A series hybrid is exactly what we have with our current diesel locomotives powering SA-SDs! Clearly at a much bigger scale than a bus but the principle is the same – the engine is delivers grunt at a relatively constant RPMs to a generator which either delivers power to traction motors in the case of the locomotive, or to a battery/fly-wheel/electric motor combination in the case of the bus. The only difference is the ability to store power in the battery. Less RPMs than a conventional transmission, but they are still there and with age will become more pronounced. The diesel also still burns fossil fuel, and releases green-house gases, even if Euro 6 and taking account of the efficiencies of diesel electric versus conventional diesel automatic gearboxes. This may be an electric driven bus, but its powered by a diesel motor.

          ‘hate for other electric driven buses just because they lack a supply grid of wires?’
          Nah, too strong a word.

          What does irk is the process that has led to this decision to get rid of the trolleys. No long term solution has been presented. There are a range of battery/hybrid/super-capacitor options out there. Some may be good, some hybrids such as Designline’s attempts and those of other overseas manufacturers have proven to be expensive failures.

          The only way to even begin to provide a robust business case to get rid of the trolleys is a commercial tender process. We need to see just what price a bus operator/supplier is prepared to offer Wellington to order, install, provide and maintain such a hybrid fleet. This would need to be over, say, 10 year contract. It would also need to include some financial risk management process carried by the prospective tenderer to cover the full life of such a fleet ~20 years. Without such a financial guarantee on the performance of what is new technology, Greater Wellington’s move is irresponsible to say the least.

          Also irksome is some of the other beltway baggage that comes with the trolley scrapping. These include the rumour that any vehicles with overhead catenary are to be banned from the new airport RoNS Mt Vic tunnel. This presumably justifies the reasoning behind insisting that the defunct tram proposal had to have a separate tunnel. Another little rumour is that GW want to buy their own set of buses so they can whack bus operators around when bus route tendering comes up. In both cases, the trolley buses become collateral damage in bigger games being played.

          And finally, what really troubles me is that with the RoNS and trolley scrapping, Wellington will develop along a different sort of pathway and in the process ruin many of the things that make it great. The parallels with the decisions Auckland made in the 1950s are striking. The potential consequences for urban form using the Auckland case study are disturbing.

          In Wellington, the supply grid of wires over decades has guided urban form along established bus corridors operated by neighbourhood friendly, frequent (6am-midnight) and quiet trolley buses. Very civilised, dare I say it, reminiscent of San Francisco, or one of the European cities I have mentioned. Why would you put all that at risk?

          • Mike

            tuktuk: Greater Wellington said in the Spine Study consultation that you couldn’t put overhead wires in a road tunnel because of lighting and ventilation – obvious nonsense, as the Mt Vic tunnel had all three until the 1980s, and there are trolleys in road tunnels in a number of cities (including Wellington!). Mind you, GW has also said that trolleys can’t run round road works (95% of Wellington’s have batteries, so are quite capable of doing that), that the Hataitai bus tunnel can cope with only one bus at a time (convoys of three or more are common); etc etc. Misinformation galore!

  • Glen

    Great postcard from San Francisco, lots to think about re transport in Auckland. Almost any cry of ‘it won’t work here’ can be refuted by simply pointing to San Fran, where they’ve been doing a lot of things well for ages.

    Re the busiest transit corridor in the world, that sounds like a challenge ;) Just off the top of my head, there is an area just south of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo (IIRC the busiest station in the world) where there are

    - Two tracks of the Oedo subway line
    - Four tracks of the Odakyu Shinjuku Line (the main line is two tracks but it splits into four or so to feed the terminal station)
    - Eight JR line tracks (two of the Yamanote loop line, two of the Chuo-Sobu [yellow] local line, two of the Chuo [orange] express line, and two used by the Shonan-Shinjuku/Saikyo express lines
    - Two tracks of the Fukutoshin subway line

    Which makes 16 tracks. They don’t all overlap at one point but they’re within 200 metres or so laterally.

    If you wanted to include the rest of the Shinjuku station complex you could throw in the two tracks of the Marunouchi subway line and the four tracks of the Keio Line and Keio New Line to make 22 tracks, and extended further to the non-contiguous but close by Seibu Shinjuku Station adds another two. Platform numbers are higher again as some lines feed multiple platforms within the station building.

    Rob Mayo will doubtless be along soon to correct or add anything as need be :)

    And I think I need to get back to my day job… :)

    • BSD

      Shinjuku is the busiest station by passengers, and having been there during rush hour I can believe it. Tokyo station is busiest by number of trains (3000+ per day). Also you walk from Tokyo station to 6 other stations without going outside.

      10 Ground level platforms serving 20 tracks
      6 JR Central Shinkansen platforms
      4 JR East Shinkansen platforms
      4 Sobu Line platforms
      4 Keiyo Line platforms
      2 Tokyo Metro platforms

      • Correct on both counts BSD. You can walk from the Tokyo Station Keiyo line concourse underground to Yurakucho Station – its a fair hike. Very useful on cold, rainy and boiling hot days though. Likewise the underground interconnect between Tokyo and Otemachi stations is most useful with as many people using it to go from building to building in comfort as they do station to station.

        Glen, its Shinjuku station as a whole, not the south part that makes it the busiest station in the world. There are so many lines interconnected at that station that the Yamanote Line in-train announcement reels off a noticeably long list of lines, so long that at the end I always expect them to say both in Japanese and in English “…and the ‘Everything-Else-Including-The-Kitchen-Sink Line”. The most significant aspect to Shinjuku Station I feel is the number of department stores directly connected into the gate line areas – at the South, East and West Exits and the underground concourses of the West Exit between the central JR and the main Keio gate lines. Those underground concourses contain many restaurants and takeaway food outlets. Shinjuku Station is a real transit network-oriented retail exemplar that even little old Auckland could learn a lot from.

    • Glen, I was actually meaning a city street corridor. There are many places in the world that get up to dozens of rail tracks wide, but those aren’t in or under a street.

  • Chris O

    Nick, did you notice many of the Google buses that seem to be the transport issue du jour in San Francisco?

    In terms of busy transit corridors, London’s Oxford Street might be a candidate in the future: the Central Line, Crossrail, and hundreds of buses at street level.

    • I saw one coach thing in the upscale suburb I was staying in, that was picking people up on a weekday morning. Wondered if that was a google bus, b not sure if it is actually a real issue anyway.

  • luke

    Wellington is on the verge of going seriously backwards with the motorway/flyover building just getting started, the lack of action on cycleways and pedestrian ammenity is starting to make the cbd amuch less enjoyable place and ugly endless parking lots are popping up all over the place. So much potential being wasted.

  • luke

    Wellington is on the verge of going seriously backwards with the motorway/flyover building just getting started, ugly endless parking lots are popping up all over the place. So much potential being wasted.

  • I like the townhouses. Apart from the carparks (shurg) they remind me of the designs in the “Carfree Cities” books ( http://carfree.com ). Lots of density, 3-4 stories high so just 1-4 places per “door” and a lift not needed. Able to be built one at a time (financed by the owner/occupier) rather than as big projects.

    • Yeah precisely. The garages aren’t great I agree, but often that is just two parks for two or three flats. In less suburban areas the car park space was often occupied by retail, I had lunch in one combined bike workshop coffee house that had flats above, all one old townhouse.

      • Max

        I think the ground floor car parks are sad. No ground floor activation at all, and the whole street is one huge driveway (if of very low intensity).

        Should have pooled the local car parking somewhere. Tragedy of the not-commons.

  • Pete g

    Back in my student days, the Oxford road corridor in Manchester was touted as the busiest bus corridor in Europe. Urban myth or not, the vast range of buses moved students up and down all day and night – buses after 11pm typically had bouncers on them!

  • Pete g

    Back in my student days, the Oxford road corridor in Manchester was touted as the busiest bus corridor in Europe. Urban myth or not, the vast range of buses moved students up and down all day and night – buses after 11pm typically had bouncers on them.

  • Bill G

    San Francisco is spending billions widening the motorways so people can get from their offices to the most expensive real estate in the USA – the suburb of Palo Alto in the comfort of their Humvees and Limos without delay.

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