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SF’s Central Subway Opens: a Few Reflections

8:59 AM PST on November 22, 2022

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

The Central Subway, at least from Chinatown to 4th & Brannan, opened this weekend offering free, preview rides. From KQED's coverage:

SFMTA's Central Subway Project was always expected to be a complex and difficult undertaking, going underneath the Union Square area and Chinatown — not only one of the densest parts of the city, but one of the densest residential areas in the entire U.S.

Those expectations proved to be well-founded. The project ended up costing $2 billion and went significantly over budget due to various construction delays. All in all, it was completed four years later than planned.

For now, during this "soft opening" period, trains will only run on weekends. "On January 7, T Third Metro service will begin from Sunnydale to Chinatown via Central Subway, seven days a week, giving customers a direct connection from Bayview, Visitacion Valley and nearby neighborhoods to SoMa, Union Square and Chinatown," explained SFMTA in its release.

A map of its current operating configuration. Image: SFMTA
A map of its current operating configuration in yellow. Image: SFMTA

Of course, this is a big enough project that the mainstream press was all over it. Check out more coverage in the Chronicle, and at SF Bay.

Streetsblog, however, wants to hear from readers to get their impressions of this long-awaited project. Here's a few of mine:

    1. The wayfinding/passageway from the existing Powell Street BART and Muni station is excellent. Transit designers have certainly learned a thing or two about lighting--the proliferation of LED lights has certainly helped--and making underground spaces inviting. The challenge now is will they be able to keep this pedestrian tunnel (below), as well as other spaces in the system, looking bright and clean over time.
    2. The Central Subway, of course, gets you to one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city. Chalk it up to teething, but I only got one stop on my initial ride--from Powell to Chinatown. My plan was to then reverse and go to 4th and Brannan, but an errant fire alarm ended up closing the system. But it's Chinatown, with its narrow streets and with so many shops and restaurants right by the station, and it's easy to kill an hour.
Oops. Turned out it was just a fault of some kind and not really a fire, but the system was shut down for about an hour.

So I had a delicious dinner instead of riding right back. No biggie.


This, to me, underscores the important historic connection between transit and commerce. The server in the restaurant where I ate said this weekend was great for business, specifically because the train was bringing more patrons. That's how it's supposed to work and it's why nearly all historic, walkable corridors in American cities were once built around trolley lines (even in far-flung suburbs).

  • The sidewalks in Chinatown are criminally narrow. Right in front of the station the sidewalk on Stockton street was widened, eliminating parking. But just in that one area. Now that the subway is here, it underscores the scandal of crowding often-elderly Chinese residents onto five-foot sidewalks (that's about how much space there is when one factors in utility polls, news boxes, etc). Meanwhile, there are five lanes for motorists (three for driving and two for parking). That's a grotesquely inefficient use of space and, frankly, it's just wrong and it needs remedied pronto.

  • SFMTA has to do better than this, one block from the subway station
    SFMTA has to do better than this, one block from the subway station. On weekdays, this sidewalk gets seriously crowded.
  • A train is better than a bus. Duh. Having spent way too much time stuck in traffic on the 30 Stockton, riding the Central Subway underscores that no matter what you do, a train is just more comfortable and inviting to ride, no matter how much oil-funded think tanks want to pretend "bus rapid transit" (or any other kind of bus) is just as good.

  • Buses in Chinatown. Image: Wikimedia Commons
    Buses in Chinatown. Image: Wikimedia Commons
  • The Central Subway is over engineered for what it's trying to do. If the decision was made to run two-car trains with such limited capacity, what was the point of digging that deep and building such enormous stations with short platforms? I mean, we've literally dug a subway under an old subway tunnel. Yes, it had to go deep enough to get under the existing Market Street subway and BART. Or did it--it also could have stayed on the surface and just used the existing tunnel under Nob Hill (seen below, when it was still primarily for trains). Indeed, that would have meant taking lanes from Stockton Street and that, of course, is almost never on the table. So was this really about building a high-capacity subway, or was it about a light rail extension designed almost entirely not to interfere with cars in Chinatown and Union Square? I'm curious what readers think.

  • Basically, we built a subway under a subway. Photo: Market Street Railway.
    Basically, we built a subway under a subway. Photo: Market Street Railway.
  • And if you doubt SFMTA is still giving cars priority, just ride to the 4th and Brannan side. It's discouraging that after all these years, and with San Francisco's supposed "transit first" policy, this line, yet again, is beholden to cross traffic as soon as it gets on the surface.

  • The view from the train at 4th and Brannan, waiting for motorists to cross.
    The view from the train at 4th and Brannan, waiting for motorists to cross.
  • Nevertheless, this will be a great boon to transit in San Francisco, especially when it's fully connected to the T Third. The lack of priority and pre-emption over cars can be fixed. The bigger question, perhaps, is when will the train continue--on to North Beach, Fisherman's wharf, Fort Mason and the Marina District?
  • Like, why aren't we still digging and/or laying tracks?

    Tell us what observations you took away this weekend. Post your thoughts below. But first, a few pictures for people who may not have seen it yet for themselves:

    DEEP bore subway
    DEEP bore subway
    4th and Brannan
    4th and Brannan

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