How Can We Move More People Between SF and the East Bay?

Image credit Sergio Ruiz

The bay crossing between San Francisco and the East Bay is our region’s most heavily used travel corridor. Each day, nearly 600,000 commuters make the leap across the bay — 10 percent of all the commute trips in the region. The majority of those trips are going to downtown San Francisco: In 2010 it was estimated that on an average workday, 1.5 million trips originated or ended in the core of San Francisco. Of those, nearly 30 percent were made using public transportation.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic is a twice-daily occurrence to get onto the Bay Bridge, infuriating drivers and transbay bus riders alike, and creating hazardous conditions on city streets. BART ridership is booming, with daily ridership now over 420,000 trips per day; downtown San Francisco platforms are heavily crowded and service is increasingly unreliable. Ferries are increasingly popular — ridership is up 37 percent over the past two years — and thus far free from congestion, but their reach remains limited.

Unfortunately, despite the growth in demand, no new transportation capacity has been added across the bay since BART’s transbay tube opened in 1972. The new Bay Bridge is seismically sound but does not carry any more cars than the old bridge [1]. The sour reality of today’s transbay commute has captivated our local media, which recently gathered stories of transbay “commute hell” and nicknames for types of BART transbay commuters.

Looking ahead, the Bay Area population is expected to grow further, especially in the transit-accessible core of the region: East Bay to San Francisco trips are expected to grow by 70% between 2015 and 2035 [2]. Consensus is brewing that a new transbay rail line is needed to solve the problem. A big-picture vision for a second transbay BART tube (which SPUR called for in a 2009 Report), has gained traction in recent months. A second transbay rail tube — be it for BART, standard rail like Caltrain or Amtrak, high-speed rail or a combination of the three — is essential to solving the Bay Area’s transit capacity crunch. However, a project of that magnitude could take years — or even decades — to complete and won’t relieve the commute quandary in the immediate future.

What can we do to break the peak-hour transbay logjam in the meantime? Are there changes we can make today that are quick and not costly but will move more people? The new San Francisco Bay Area Core Capacity Transit Study, which kicks off this year, will identify short-, medium- and long-term improvements in the transbay travel corridor. The study – which involves the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco County Transportation Agency, BART, AC Transit, the Water Emergency Transportation Agency and Caltrain — will paint a clear picture of commuter travel patterns and determine how best to address the needs of Bay Area commuters.

While the study progresses, here are some actions SPUR recommends in the meantime:

Maximize capacity and efficiency within the current BART system. BART system demands are concentrated heavily in six major stations: 19th Street and 12th Street in Oakland, and Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery and Embarcadero in San Francisco. Capacity constraints on platforms at these stations, particularly Embarcadero and Montgomery, cause major delays, as passengers struggle to get on and off full train cars onto crowded platforms, and vice versa. Trains cannot bypass stalled cars, so delays caused by boarding at either end of the tunnel ripple throughout the system, affecting everyone. BART can increase service and reliability with the following investments:

  • Add additional railcars, allowing l0-car trains whenever needed. BART's stated goal is to ultimately obtain enough funding to increase the fleet to 1,081 train cars.
  • Introduce railcars with extra doors to reduce loading and offloading time. BART’s new train cars, the first of which will begin service in Fall 2016, will have three sets of doors, as opposed to two. So far, 775 of these “Fleet of the Future” cars have been ordered.
  • The current train control system is over 40 years old. Installing a new train control system would allow for more closely spaced trains, meaning more frequency on transbay BART lines.
  • Adopt the BART Metro concept, which increases the amount of service within the core of the BART system, by creating new train storage and turnbacks facilities in San Francisco and the East Bay.

Add bus lanes on the Bay Bridge and on highway approaches. Much closer on the horizon than a second tube is San Francisco’s new Transbay Transit Center, which will open in 2017. The new transit center will accommodate 20,000 bus passengers per hour during peak commute times — a capacity similar to that of the Montgomery BART station.

To take full advantage of newly available bus capacity at the Transbay Transit Center and make bus service as efficient as rail, a peak-hour bus lane could be designated on the Bay Bridge. Currently, buses traveling from the East Bay are often forced to sit in heavy traffic during peak hours. A morning westbound bus lane — which could go the opposite direction of traffic on the eastbound deck of the Bay Bridge — could accommodate 10,000 commuters and dramatically improve bus speed and reliability.

SPUR explored this idea in a 2011 video:

A lot of the worst bus (and carpool) delay happens in the approaches on and off the Bay Bridge, not on the bridge itself. Bus-only facilities could also go beyond the bridge itself, including off- and on-ramps in San Francisco, on I-880, and especially in the “Maze” and other East Bay highway approaches. Bus-only lanes would allow buses to bypass the toll plaza back up [3]. The Transbay Transit Center could have a bus-only ramp off I-80. Another westbound highway flow improvement could be switching to all electronic tolling, as is done on Golden Gate Bridge.

The San Francisco County Transportation Agency’s Freeway Corridor Management Study proposes a host of improvements to keep traffic flowing on Highway 101 and I-280 in San Francisco. Options being studied include new high-occupancy vehicle lanes, toll lanes and real-time traffic management technology.

Use price changes or incentives to shift riders to other transportation modes or other times. Today’s commuters usually take the same transportation mode every day, rather than switching between carpools, buses, BART and ferries. This is either because of habit, convenience or because their transit pass works on just one of the systems. This creates crowding on few modes, as well as other inefficiencies; for example, it might be more expensive for the system to provide a seat on BART during peak commute hours than a seat on the bus.

What if it cost a buck more to exit BART at Embarcadero Station — but a buck less to take a bus to the Transbay Transit Center? This kind of incentive could move a number of commuters out of the crowded transbay tube and onto alternate services during peak hours. Pricing changes could also encourage riders to commute during off-peak periods. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority and BART are about to do just that, starting a pilot modeled after a Singapore pilot that shifted 7.5 percent of participants to travel outside of peak hours. Closely coordinated BART and transbay bus services could make this system work even better.

Expand casual carpool. Most of the cars crossing the Bay Bridge during peak hours have only one occupant. Casual carpool and ride-sharing services create new capacity without new investment. Today’s casual carpool pick-up sites in the East Bay simply require a small amount of curb space and some signage in order to function. Improved eastbound pick-up locations and schemes could help fill more empty car seats in the afternoons.

Create a transbay or regional transit pass.A new Transbay Transit Pass or Bay Area Transit Pass would make it easy for people to switch between the bus, the ferry and BART. All these modes currently accept the Clipper card, but the fares are different. Making it cost-neutral to switch between transit modes using the Clipper card would allow people to choose a different one each day based on information about congestion or disruption in one system. Integrating fares could be done simultaneous to Clipper 2.0, an upgrade process now underway. SPUR laid out details about this in a 2012 report and in our recent Seamless Transit  report.

Grow transbay bus service, especially when the Transbay Transit Center opens. The new Transbay Transit Center will allow for a significant increase in transbay bus service. Currently, AC Transit and other public transbay buses make more than 500 trips each weekday into and out of downtown San Francisco, a number which could easily be increased once new docking capacity is introduced. More bus service outside of peak hours could help people leave their cars at home.

Increase ferry frequencies. Ferry service from San Francisco to Alameda and Oakland can be ramped up in the short term to meet demand while we plan for a new transbay rail tube. Today’s ferries carry between 149 and 395 passengers, meaning the addition of one single boat trip can make a meaningful dent in peak hour demand. [4] New ferry terminals will also help complete the network: Aside from Richmond, which opens in 2018, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), is anticipating expansions in Treasure Island, 16th Street/Mission Bay, Berkeley, Seaplane Lagoon (Alameda) and the South Bay (Redwood City or Palo Alto).

Build the Bay Bridge Bike and Pedestrian Path.  The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge includes a bike and pedestrian path, now two-thirds complete. But even when it’s finished, it will end at Yerba Buena Island. A multiuse path on the western span would link both sides of the bay for cyclists and pedestrians. In November of 2014, the Bay Area Toll Authority's oversight committee set aside $10 million to study the project.

We know that when forced to — as during BART’s 2013 strike — Bay Area commuters find alternate ways to cross the bay. In order to bridge the bay more effectively, improvements must be made across all potentially viable modes. Long-term planning for a new rail tube should not distract us from the near-term benefits we can achieve. A combination of proper long-term planning and immediate action may not make for commute heaven, but could go a long way to making tomorrow’s transbay commute significantly less hellish.


[1] Each lane of highway on the bridge can accommodate 2,400 vehicles per hour, while BART has capacity to move up to 25,000 people per hour.

[2] The Bay Area is forecast to grow by over 1 million new jobs and 2 million additional residents by 2040. To accommodate these new residents and jobs, Plan Bay Area seeks to concentrate new development around major transit hubs, projecting a 40% increase in jobs located adjacent to a BART stations. East Bay to San Francisco daily person trips are expected to keep growing -- by 70% between 2015 and 2035.

[3] The San Francisco Bay Crossings Study Update in June 2013 analyzed and identified the top ranked highway approach alternatives. The alternatives with the highest cost-benefit ratio are HOV improvements to the Powell Street/I-80 Ramps intersection, a bus ramp that provides direct bus access from MacArthur Boulevard to Westbound I-80, and HOV lane additions from Cesar Chavez Street to US 101 and vice versa.

[4] Today, during the peak hour, WETA’s 10-11 boats crossing the bay carry approximately 3,250 people while AC Transit’s 68 buses carry approximately 2,700.