For good and ill, San Francisco is still ground zero for new transport ideas

The Bay Area transport picture, 2015 A.D.

By Dan Raile , written on September 22, 2015

From The Disruption Desk

“If you’re standing on the top of your new building that’s out in downtown, looking down at all the streets, at all the cars, our question is why aren’t all those cars Ubered...the world would be a better place. If every car in San Francisco was Ubered, there would be no traffic. That’s pretty good….that’s basically giving back an hour of time to everybody in this city, every day.” --Travis Kalanick  

Ah, transportation. For over a hundred and fifty years, from Leland Stanford to Travis Kalanick, it’s a key component of infrastructure that’s been making Bay Area assholes rich while making the world more easily navigable, enraging the press, sticking it to the government and generating endless litigation.

These ignoble trends show no signs of abating, but there’s no doubt that a further reworking of the way people go from A to B is critical if we’re ever to survive the folly of having pumped so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. And the Bay Area remains the ground zero for new transport ideas.

Here in San Francisco, transportation is at the vanguard of private investment, led by the $8.2 billion raised by Uber. Increasingly, the services offered by Uber and its would-be competitors are mimicking mass, public transportation -- Lyft Line and UberPOOL both are taking a ‘bus-stop’ and car-pooling approach, where previously the companies provided single-user service. The legality of these multi-user services is being challenged by the California Public Utilities Commission due to their pricing structure. More on that later this week.  

There have also been even more precisely bus-like schemes  -- Leap retrofitted Muni buses and converted them into mobile hacker lounges, before being run out of business this spring for non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chariot has had better success, using more modest vans in more traditional jitney fashion.

Then of course there are Tesla, Google and (reportedly) Apple, working out how to automate cars and make them more energy efficient. Better batteries have also occasioned a number of small, motorized contraptions like Boosted Boards’ electro-skateboards -- though these may seem like frivolous recreation vehicles or hipster Segways, they could become an important part of our urban transport future. On Monday night the inventor and entrepreneur Saul Griffith made precisely this argument to a Long Now Foundation audience.

It’s also impossible to ignore the less elegant, much-maligned “Google buses,” giant corporate shuttles ferrying workers along the San Francisco Peninsula to Silicon Valley’s corporate office parks every morning and evening. These too are facing a legal battle this fall, on environmental impact grounds.

Litigation notwithstanding, the go-it-without-the-government, libertarian transportation approach seems to be, in Silicon Valley parlance, “crushing it.”

The considerable marketing efforts of these private transport solutions take the insufficiency of public transportation as their starting point. For example, take Kalanick’s comments to Marc Benioff onstage at last week’s Dreamforce conference:

“Anybody that’s been around this city a long time knows that before Uber it was hard to get around this city. You had to drive.”

Yet below the PR roar of all the venture-backed transportation, public transportation is quietly on a path to improvement and has itself been the recipient of recent billions of dollars investments. Government infrastructure projects happen in a timescale that is absolutely glacial by Silicon Valley startup standards, but they’re underway nonetheless.

Caltrain, the commuter rail line stretching from San Francisco to San Jose along the Peninsula corridor tracks first laid by Stanford, et al, has secured $1.5 billion of the total $1.8 billion needed for the first phase of a modernization campaign that plans to convert 75% of its trains to electric power by 2020.

“The environmental impact process is complete, and has been adopted. There was one legal challenge from the town of Atherton that’s still making its way through the system but the judge has not put a stay on our project, so that allows us to maintain our timeframe of awarding contracts before the end of year to build vehicles, and finish the design. We anticipate beginning construction in 2016,” said Communications Manager Jayme Ackemann.

The following phase of the Caltrain modernization intends to bring the fleet of vehicles to 100% electrification, outfit the corridor to accommodate mixed use with High Speed Rail cars on the line extending to Los Angeles, and terminate at the currently under construction Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco.

“The long-term plan is for the new terminus to be at Transbay. When we get there, we project that ridership significantly increases, it could double over what it is today and High Speed Rail would be on top of that,” said Ackemann. The most recently reported Caltrain numbers show a current average weekday ridership of 58,000, up 71% since 2010 and approaching the current capacity. Ackemann estimates that efficiencies from electrification should bring capacity up to around 70,000 average weekday riders. High Speed Rail forecasts nearly 20,000 daily boardings at San Francisco.

Construction of the downtown rail extension between the current terminus at 4th and King Streets and the new Transbay Terminal was mandated by voter initiative in 1999 and is not yet fully funded or scheduled, though the terminal itself is under construction, slated to finish in 2027 with High Speed Rail service to begin there in 2029.

The High Speed Rail project itself has faced a number of legal challenges since being passed by ballot initiative in 2008, but more recently has showed progress. This year, construction began in the Central Valley section of the line, and last year the state legislature approved a scheme to fund the project with 25% of the state’s total cap-and-trade haul, which comes to around half a billion dollars this year and should increase in years to come. This comes atop roughly $12 billion in other funding to date.

The High Speed Rail Authority’s Press Secretary Lisa Marie Alley notes that this cap-and-trade funding provides opportunities for private sector partnership.

“Cap-and-trade funding allows us to look at financing mechanisms, and we have a request out for expressions of interest from the private sector. We are looking at putting this financing mechanism in place in the next year or two, to finish the build out and decide who is going to operate the system,” Alley said.

Caltrain’s Ackemann also brought up the prospect of private-sector participation.

“The best answer I can give is that we are open to it. The obvious question [companies] have is “how is it going to directly benefit our employees?” And that is not an answer we can give. If Google, for example, gave us money, we couldn’t set aside a separate car for their employees. As it stands now, our trains are beyond capacity,” she said. "Companies will have to do their own cost-benefit analysis." 

“I do think there is room, as capacity increases, for employers to retool their shuttle systems. The challenge is in the first and last mile, delivering people to the core system and then from the core to the office. It might ease their burden in terms of the cost of long-haul commuter trips.”

It’s been over 150 years since Theodore “Crazy” Judah sold to the U.S. Congress a scheme that would finance the Central Pacific Railroad. The Federal Government coughed up cheap wartime loans and Judah scrambled to put together matching commitments from private sources in California. Having little luck among wealthy San Franciscans, he went knocking at the doors of four Sacramento merchants -- Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker.

Once again, there are ambitious plans to build state-of-the-art railroads in California, replete with government funds and seeking private partners. The terms of the current deal are not nearly so sweet as those of the past, but the prestige of having one’s name on such monumental infrastructure could surely win some hearts and minds, and transport a few tens of thousands of workers to boot. Besides, we're still quite a few years away from liberation via robot Uber.