Central Subway workarounds
The Gare Montparnasse train disaster of 1895; fix-it work by Will Jarrett.

The Central Subway is slated to commence service on Nov. 19 with a scaled-back route that brings to mind Alan B. Shepard’s flight into space: You go up and you go back; the whole thing takes 15 minutes and, God willing, nobody has to bail out. 

The “soft launch” will allow the ribbon to be cut on the grotesquely over-budget and behind-schedule rail line in calendar 2022, and will come only days after voters will be asked to re-up a vital transit sales tax. It will shuttle trains up and back between the Chinatown and Fourth-and-Brannan stations — meaning Muni does not yet have to integrate the T-Third into the Central Subway, or even deal with busy, problematic intersections like Fourth and King. And it will run on weekends only, so any hiccups won’t result in a great many riders missing work and raising a stink to high heaven. 

And it’ll be free. So, it’s got that going for it. Which is nice. 

In the coming years, the memories of the Central Subway’s spectacular delays and cost overruns would wash away like tears in rain — if it was a good and useful project. As we wrote earlier this month, that’s not the case. Among so many other built-in flaws, this subway’s platforms were only constructed to accommodate two-car trains. The ridership capacity that would’ve justified this decades-long project is now impossible to achieve: If people flock to this rail line, short trains will quickly be overwhelmed. And if they don’t, it becomes a costly white elephant. 

Behind closed doors, Muni leaders claiming enthusiasm for this project admit that it was misbegotten — and that, once it finally opens, paying for its its operation and maintenance will hobble the agency.

So that’s that. The Central Subway is, literally, a sunk cost. The best thing Muni could do now — the only thing, really — is make the most of it. So let’s focus on how that might look. 

The Central Subway is, literally, a sunk cost. Photo via SFMTA.

The Central Subway is too big of a debacle for any quaint notions about lemons and lemonade. This is more akin to deciding to fertilize a garden after someone dumps a vat of manure on you. 

There are lots of things Muni could do to, at best, complement its new subway — or, at worst, mitigate its damages. Many of these are things that should’ve been done anyway. 

When Muni brought the T-Third into service in 2007, it eliminated the No. 15 bus. That was a mistake, and the No. 15 was belatedly resurrected. Muni should avoid making the same mistake of eliminating bus lines in favor of the Central Subway. 

Rather than cutting back bus lines like the 15, 30 and 45, which run parallel to the Central Subway and extend beyond it, these lines should be beefed up. These buses can continue to serve local riders; they are assuredly easier to transfer onto than the Central Subway, and can take riders farther. 

“Giving these routes more exclusive right-of-way through Union Square and SoMa would increase their speed and reliability and attractiveness to riders,” writes longtime former BART commissioner Tom Radulovich. “The City should have done most of this transit priority work years ago. They could have provided better transit service to tens of thousands of people who use these lines every day, and better prepared us for the Central Subway opening. So let’s do them now.” 

In addition to enhancing existing bus lines, Muni may devise new lines that move people to and from the Central Subway, or alter the lines we’ve got. Muni’s bus service may never have been as flexible as it is now: Transit expert Michael Kiesling notes that Muni’s New Flyer electric buses, unlike a prior generation of electric buses, can come off the wires and run on battery power. 

Stricken metaphor spotted on Geary. Photo by Jim Herd.

Muni has announced that it plans to run trains at four-minute intervals in the Central Subway, a jarring statement for put-upon riders of the T-Third. This rail line will ostensibly be integrated into the Central Subway in January; rather than turn right and head along the Embarcadero, it will roll straight into the new subway tunnel. 

The T-Third opened 15 years ago, and underperformed to the point that the No. 15 bus it supplanted was reinstated. T-Third riders tell me they rarely recall trains running at 10-minute intervals, let alone four minutes. Their great worry, of course, is that trains will run more frequently in the Central Subway by turning back on abbreviated runs far before reaching the city’s southeast. 

“If it’s just running four-minute trains to connect the Warriors to Market Street, that’s not helping Bayview,” sums up longtime city transit advocate William Walker. “My fear about the Central Subway is that it’s going to be a project to serve the burgeoning neighborhood planned in central SoMa, and will not benefit the Third Street corridor.” 

Others noted that the Central Subway would be of far greater use to wealthy arrivistes in Mission Bay than to longtime residents in Bayview. And the T-Third, which forms the majority of the future Central Subway, has never been warmly greeted by the denizens of the city’s southeast. 

“You can’t escape the T on Third Street,” Walker continues. “It shakes the buildings. But I talk to people about it, and it’s not useful to them. They ride the 44 to BART. They ride the 19. They ride the 15 express.” 

If the T-Third could be made to run quicker and better,  Walker continues, then the Central Subway would be quicker and better, too. Like the improvements suggested by Radulovich, these could’ve — should’ve — been done long ago. But now works, too. 

Muni could better coordinate bus-to-rail transfers. It could improve signals to prioritize trains, and do more to keep trains from getting bogged down in car traffic. It could shunt more Muni vehicles into dedicated right-of-ways. It could eliminate left turns on portions of Third and Fourth streets, which allow a single dude in a car to hold up a packed train with scores or hundreds of people.

That would be a fantastic start (and would have been long ago, yes). The T is slated to be amalgamated into the Central Subway come January. Nobody I talked to — within Muni or without — had any inkling how 40-odd trains will be made to run smoothly through the fabulously busy Fourth and King intersection every hour. 

The Central Subway is slated to commence service on Nov. 19 with a scaled-back route that brings to mind Alan B. Shepard’s flight into space: You go up and you go back; the whole thing takes 15 minutes and, God willing, nobody has to bail out. 

It’s frustrating that the Central Subway has eaten up dollars that could’ve gone to other big projects. But we should still pursue those big projects. And, maybe this time, we shouldn’t screw them up. Here are just a few:  

  • Extending Caltrain into downtown “would make a really classy entrance into the densest part of the city,” says Gerald Cauthen, a transit engineer and former Muni employee who helped plan and build the Metro system four decades ago. “We need to improve SamTrans, extend Caltrain and make it possible for people [heading into the city] to not get into their cars.” 
  • If Muni ever upgraded to a better automatic train control system, the added precision would allow it to run trains more closely to each other — and, therefore, at more rapid intervals. This could vastly improve service, without adding more trains and operators. The price tag attached to such a system, however, is presently in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and growing. And claims that such a system could control trains on the surface strain credulity.
  • You could consider removing I-280. You could extend the misbegotten Central Subway to the Marina. There are lots of big things you could do.

There are even more relatively small and inexpensive fixes that could vastly improve transit riders’ lives and potentially enhance transit more than any single big project. It hasn’t been money concerns keeping Muni from undertaking them. These are political issues. 

Even transit experts highly critical of Muni praised aggressive steps in recent years to lay down red transit lanes and prioritize transit rights-of-way. But these moves often come in the face of fierce opposition from neighborhood merchants and residents.

Getting red lanes into the Mission was a mighty slog. Similar transit prioritizations in the city’s southeast would also figure to be adversarial. And the Central Subway may not help here. 

“If you want transit to work, at some point you have to put restrictions on cars,” says Walker. “If you do that in a neighborhood that doesn’t feel like it has access to economic development, they’ll say this is a move to serve people who don’t live in the neighborhood.” 

And they’ll have a solid argument, too. If the Central Subway proves to be an overpriced toy for affluent neighborhoods rather than the promised transit solution for the city’s working class, it will drain not only Muni’s finances, but its goodwill. 

Both are in short supply. 

“Your tax dollars at work.”

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Am I right in assuming this line will not somehow cross/hook up with the east/west muni lines but only service four stations along its route? So I can’t take say the N to Powell and transfer the China Town?

  2. The map of the new line suggests that T riders who want to take the Central Subway will have to walk the 2 blocks between the Caltrain station and the new 4th and Brannon station. Can this be true? What am I missing? Muni advertizes the new line as providing a “direct link” to the T.

  3. I ride the 30 Stockton regularly, and fare dodging is quite common in Chinatown. I don’t know if it was because of political pressure or something else, when there was actual policing of fares, those not paying fares on the 30 Stockton were given warnings. I never saw anyone detained and ticketed as I had seen on Van Ness and Market.

    As I believe that it will be more difficult to avoid paying fares on the Central Subway, it is my hope that there are fewer 30 and 45 busses once the Central Subway is fully operational.

    Of course, I prefer that all public transit be free, being paid for by revenues generated by equitable tax policies. Regardless, we need to stop thinking of public transit as a business that needs to be profitable or even pay for itself.

  4. If we are talking about improvements to MUNI please request air quality testing in the street car tunnels. I have stood on the platform at Twin Peaks station waiting for a train and almost passed out from fumes.

  5. Joe – SaveMUNI has been urging the MTA to couple trains at the portals to allow longer (and fewer) trains to carry more passengers. MTA won’t even consider the idea but instead is pushing for a hugely expensive ATCS (now about $600 M) which is unlikely to handle more trains trough the tunnel. So they are trying to interline the K and L and return the J to the surface to make up for their failures. It’s another scandal.

  6. One commenter said “Californians love to drive”. I think they are wrong: “_Some_ Californians love to drive, the rest of us are forced to.” Unlike most of the rest of California and USA, San Francisco has just about enough density where one could escape this mandate. But treating Muni as transportation rather than a shuttle to downtown seems to be unthinkable to city leaders. Yet the City continually subsidizes and emphasized private automobiles: free parking, high speed multi-lane roads, traffic lights timed for automobile speed, zero penalty for running down pedestrians, decades of stalling on “vision zero”. Even the pathetic attempts at making the already quietest streets more pedestrian friendly during the pandemic got mostly kicked to the curb by the mayor. Then misinformation and ignorance during the pandemic chased more people into private cars: Air changes per hour in a bus are exponentially higher than any restaurant, but those same people sitting around maskless in restaurants were scared of catching Covid in a bus. Just look at the streets around any Muni bus depot: They are choked up with muni drivers cars – probably because there are no reliable bus lines to where they work. How many times has mayor Breed used the bus?

  7. But we’re going to have the smallest, least serviced subway line in the US! You can’t put a price on that kind of accomplishment.

  8. First step to improving San Francisco transportation is to realize this small city is surrounded by California and Californians love to drive. The pandemic reinforced that. The spoke and hub transportation model is an artifact of the 20th Century. Tear down 280. It’ll just make 101 more of a nightmare but people would still rather drive than take public transit. Why? Driving is cleaner and more efficient. I can commute to work in 15 minutes door to door in a car. Public transit takes me anywhere from 40-60 minutes. Five times a week that added up. Automated cars will pretty much end public transit as we know it. MUNI is a jobs programs along with the rest of most of the city and needs to be gutted, and Tumlin sent back to NY with the rest of those carpetbaggers

    1. They drive because they are delusional sociopaths. Your tech bro nightmare of the future is just garbage and it isn’t going to happen. The future cities will be built better mobility by public transport and bikes.

      1. They drive because public transit in the Bay Area is disgusting, dangerous and inefficient. Most people don’t want to ride bikes or stand on a bus next to some guy who hasn’t showered in months and is smoking meth. The delusion is coming from people who think everyone can ride bikes – that is elitist to the extreme. Look at the so work they are racist Bike Coalition. The lower and middle classes in this city have to drive to make sure they can work their two jobs and still have a little free time to sleep. There is so much fantasy and delusion around public transit in San Francisco. We are a small city of 700,000, not Paris or London, surrounded by seven million people in the region who would rather drive for their comfort, safety and efficiency. Is someone going to ride their bike from the Peninsula to their two restaurant jobs downtown? No. Bikes for commuting are for rich people who all work from home now. All those green lanes downtown are unused. When was the last time you were there? Personal transportation has always been valued in the country and will continue to be and trying to force people into a worse solution for their needs won’t make sense. Give me a clean, comfortable, and efficient system that can get me around more efficiently than I can drive and I will do it, but unfortunately that is possible, particularly when the organizations involved are living in 1930 still. They need there fiefdoms demolished and consolidated into one regional Bay Area system. Denying the automated EVs are not going to be ubiquitous in 20-30 years providing clean, safe, and efficient transport is hilarious and lacking of any vision. We are not Europe, thank God.

  9. I believe it took 4 years to complete the core 20 miles of the NYC subway with numerous intersecting lines. That was 1904. It is impossible to imagine such a feat today particularly for a public project. The gross incompetence, cost overruns and corruption are not bugs but features of the current system. Nor are they only in SF. Let’s see what if anything gets built from the great infrastructure bill that was passed last year.

  10. Good article Joe.
    SFMTA/SF MUNI should extend the way too short central subway north to FW, then west to Fort Point.
    Extend the Mason Street Cable line into Pier 45.
    Extend the California Cable line to 32nd Avenue.
    Improve bus lines citywide by the addition of bulb outs at every bus stop, prioritized bus lanes over private autos on all bus routes.
    Priority bus left and right turn lanes on all routes.
    Priority bus activated green lights at all points where there are traffic signals.
    Extend BART from the Montgomery Street Station west on Geary to 48th Avenue, and south from Geary on Park Presidio under GG Park to 19th Avenue south to the Daly City Bart Station, w/affordable housing w/in two blocks of every station.
    And get started on all of this ASAP.

  11. Amen to the notion of improving SamTrans to help get people out of cars. SamTrans has adopted the Muni theory of bus scheduling…..it gets there when it gets there and printed schedules be damned. Adding to that is the frequency with which buses operate on the so-called feeder lines from the neighborhoods to El Camino and the CalTrain stations (talking mid-Peninsula). Typical is a bus every hour, starting around 7AM. That simply does not work for someone wanting to commute by public transit.

  12. Caltrain and CAHSR are being extended into downtown, Muni is not in charge of that project. Muni tried to get $$$ for a new signal system earlier this year but it did not pass. We should get the Fed’s to pay for an extension into the Marina and tear down 280. Both of those ideas will not go over well with the rich folk I suspect.

    1. Last election, Muni tried to get $$$ through Prop A. There was no mention of the train control system. Any specifica. So Tumlin came out at the last hour and gave an interview to the Chron. You can easily google it (May 30, 2022). Here is the core piece: “Muni is in dire financial shape, has many job vacancies, has a ridership that’s only rebounded to half its pre-pandemic levels, and much of its infrastructure is about as current as an aol.com email address. That last part is where the bond money will be useful, and it’s replacing Muni bond money that’s sun-setting anyway so taxes won’t change.”. Looks like a lot of voters gotten the deja-vu all over again, throwing good money after bad, so Prop A got voted down.
      Taking down I-280 will go over real well with the RE development crowd. It’s the working stiff who use I-280.

      1. Prop A got more than 50% but still didn’t pass. Prop A funds would have been used for a new signal system which would be an expensive project to which I think many people would object. “Why not use that money for buses instead?” They would ask. BART signed it’s largest single contract for their new signal system and will take 10 years to fully implement.

  13. This is a rather single sided article. Allow me to fill in one missing aspect: Merchants at Union Square have endured years of open pit construction. Even though everybody habitually point their fingers to Amazon, the seemingly endless delays were a significant contributor to the demise of Union Square. Then Covid hit. It’ll take a lot to revive Union Square. Every now and then, there was talk about turning Stockton St. into a pedestrian zone. No cars. No bicycle or scooter riding. No buses. I remember this tested out for a few months with artificial turf and temporary street furniture. Looked great! However, this was always deferred until after Rose Pak. Back to the present: If this brings retail and life back to Union Square, I am for it even if it means re-routing bus service as has been the case during subway construction. To paraphrase William Walker in goose-and-gander fashion: If you want the Central Subway to work, at some point you have to put restrictions on parallel bus service.

  14. So long as the City Family runs the SFMTA like a private fiefdom, appointing such qualified luminaries as “Manny” to the SFMTA Board, with nobody on the board but the Mayor’s people, ostensibly with presigned undated letters of resignation at the ready to ensure compliance, ain’t nothing gonna change at the SFMTA.

    The SFMTA is a secretive contracting agency engineered to drive public dollars into the connected private pockets with no chance for any meaningful independent oversight. Any provision of transit services is an optional side effect, when practicable.

    It is not just the CS, but BRT was likewise slow walked to maximize take. Even with so much time, SFMTA basically said “fuck it” on Geary BRT and folded tent 2/3 way through.

    Repeal Prop E.