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!
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.
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.
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.