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Editorial: Want a Subway? Then Single-Family Zoning Has to Go

11:23 AM PDT on September 25, 2019

Note: Metropolitan Shuttle, a leader in bus shuttle rentals, regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog Los Angeles. Unless noted in the story, Metropolitan Shuttle is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

For most of its run from West Portal to Balboa Park, the M Ocean View Muni line runs past neat rows of low-density, single-family houses. Supervisor Norman Yee, who represents the district it runs through, has consistently objected to legislation that would bring more density along the line.

That position is totally inconsistent with his successful push to authorize spending nearly $1 million to accelerate a study on undergrounding the M Ocean View line. The ultimate price tag to put that line in a subway is around $3 billion.

Perhaps he hasn't heard, but subways are notoriously expensive and complicated. The costs are justified only where the terrain demands it (such as with the West Portal tunnel, cut through a hill) or because it's the only way to serve an area with no available right of way, narrow streets, and/or enormous densities (think Market Street, Chinatown, downtown Oakland, or midtown Manhattan).

"We have to tether precious transit investment dollars to density. The M should be undergrounded only if we rezone the neighborhoods it serves to be more dense, with a minimum sixty-foot height limit," said Todd David of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

Streetsblog has a call in to Yee to find out how he reconciles his two positions. So far we have not been able to connect with him, but we'll update this post when he calls back.

Meanwhile, since the M Ocean View is basically the only Muni line that already has substantial portions running on its own right of way (down the center of 19th Avenue, for example, as pictured in the lead image), on flat, level ground, it is the last place to spend money on a subway. How about a subway or other right of way upgrades for the N Judah, L Taraval, T Third, or K Ingleside on Ocean Avenue, or someplace that doesn't have any rail service at all, such as Geary and the Richmond District?

This diagram illustrates the lengths the city will go to preserve car lanes. Image: SFMTA
This diagram illustrates the lengths the city will go to preserve car lanes. Image: SFMTA

As Streetsblog has pointed out previously, if the city really wants to speed up the M Ocean View and make it more reliable, they know how to do it: add crossing gates and give the line pre-emption over car traffic. This is standard in other cities with rail. Take the San Diego trolley, seen below, which is far more reliable than Muni, thanks to crossing gates on the vast majority of its track.

The San Diego Trolley near the Mexican border. Cars are forced to stop at the grade crossing so the train can pass. Wikimedia Commons
The San Diego Trolley near the Mexican border. Cars are forced to stop at the grade crossing so the train can pass. Wikimedia Commons

There is, of course, one part of the M Ocean View line with sufficient density to start to justify a subway--and that's Park Merced, which was always the driver for this project. But Park Merced is also close to BART, which is much faster and has higher capacity than the M Ocean View could ever have, even in a subway tunnel. If the point is to serve Park Merced, why not consider a spur that branches off from BART's line between Balboa and Daly City at Alemany Boulevard and then use the trench of Brotherhood Way to reach Park Merced? Since it's already below grade, no subway tunnels would be required, and only a few short sections of aerial track are needed to connect to the existing BART right of way.

With a BART connection, Park Merced residents would get a much faster and more reliable, higher-capacity train to downtown San Francisco (and beyond) for a fraction of the cost of putting the M Ocean View underground. David, meanwhile, just wants to see efficient transit moving lots of people to and from denser housing. "I'm agnostic on how we accomplish that. The subway doesn't have to be dug. If we can use other methods, cool - let's go for that"

If Yee is still determined to improve the M Ocean View, forget subways: let's start with something simple, such as removing the turning pockets at the Stonestown Galleria, which forces trains full of hundreds of people to sit behind left-turning cars waiting to enter a shopping mall. That would cost less than the subway study did, and would actually improve the commutes of thousands of Yee's constituents.

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