Many thought the old-fashioned streetcars assigned to Geary looked more and more antiquated, almost like the cable cars on Powell.
Certainly that belief was shared by many merchants on Geary Boulevard, the wide section of the thoroughfare running westward from Masonic Avenue through the Richmond. They were lobbying City Hall for a ‘Great Wide Way’, replacing streetcars with buses … and more parking for automobiles.
Planners who were eying the part of Geary between the Richmond and Downtown echoed this pro-auto sentiment. The Western Addition had been a vibrant community of Victorian homes before World War II. The section along Geary was populated mainly by Japanese-Americans. When World War II started, they were infamously hauled away to internment camps. African-American newcomers, who had come west to work in war industries, largely took their place. By the mid-1950s, there was talk of ripping down the Victorians along that part of Geary to gouge out a broad expressway to get automobiles downtown more quickly.
What Might Have Been - Geary, a 2008 update of a story from the Market Street Railway’s newsletter in 2002.
This pretty much encapsulates the bad transport decisions of the 1940s and ’50s in the US: replacing streetcar (tram) tracks with widened roads served by buses (always subservient to private cars), a willingness (some would say eagerness) to demolishing houses in minority neighbourhoods in favour of freeways, and merchants demanding more parking.
At least the latter two arguments tend to have fallen out of favour, but business still seem to complain about parking all the time.
In the end the B Geary survived until the late 1950s, but the desired expressway was built in the early 1960s. Current plans for a “bus rapid transit” scheme seem to be as far away as they were in 2008.
In 1920, the B line, replaced by the busy 38-Geary in 1956, departed from the spot where the Ferry Building stands today and zoomed out to near Ocean Beach in 35 minutes. The fare was a nickel.
Today a similar $2 trip on the 38-Geary takes 54 minutes, while the 38 Limited, which makes fewer stops, takes 43 minutes.
As the article notes, there are reasons for this. Even with a bus not a streetcar, there’s an obvious way to get the speeds back up: cut car traffic back to 1920 levels. (Of course, that’s far more easily written than done.)
(Also, a minor nitpick: the Ferry Building was already over a decade old by 1920.)
It seems to me there are three major components to planning a journey using public transport.
1. The Systematic Overview
When you arrive in a city, or if it’s a new journey, this is often what you’ll refer to first. The classic is the London Underground tube map: looking at it gives you the broad scope of the system. The NY subway map performs a similar role.
However, usually such a map only goes so far. For large cities, it tends to fail for buses and other surface transport. London distributes five geographic maps, one for the centre, and four (huge) ones for the suburbs. Meanwhile, London Connections is an admirable, but complex, diagram of the above-line railway lines. I have no idea if there’s a comprehensive map of New York’s bus system, but somehow I doubt it.
For smaller cities, such as San Francisco, the entire system (buses, light rail and all) does fit on a map, and in fact bus stops here have a system map with a downtown enlargement. The flipside to this is that there’s also a metro map, which is somewhat sparse. Looking at that, you can easily imagine the rest of the city doesn’t exist.
Nonetheless, this is something that’s often desired, but it can be hard to provide even with plenty of poster space, let alone on a small screen. (One notable example that’s been pushed into trying is the KickMap redesign of the New York subway map.)
2. Route planning
If you know your destination, you can skip the overview and ask a transport planner. Most transport agencies provide one on the web, like TfL’s Journey Planner. In some places, Google Maps has been given data to enable route planning. Either way, these services are usually also available on (smart)phones.
Route planning also takes you from “where I am” to “where the transport is”. That can be harder in some places than others, but it’s still a potential hurdle - there’s rarely a bus stop outside your door.
Unfortunately, route planning without access to the right technology is hard (although it has been tried). This partly explains why so many Londoners use the Tube: the map is right there at the station entrance, platforms and even in the carriages. By contrast, knowing where a bus route goes is either learnt (which takes time) or has to be looked up (which takes technology). Nonetheless, my guess is this will become a much more common as time goes on.
3. Service availability
Somewhat related to route planning is when the next train or bus is actually available. Again, part of the draw of the Tube is that this isn’t much of a concern: you can go down to the platform and be fairly sure that within 10 minutes at most - and more usually two or three - a train will be along to carry you off.
Unfortunately, elsewhere in the world (and on other modes of transport) that’s not true. Metro and bus frequencies are more often measured in threes or fours an hour than the twenties or forties that the Tube enjoys at peak. When there’s the chance you’ll be waiting in the rain for twenty minutes, you’d really like a way of looking up when the next bus is.
In San Francisco, NextMuni (and the apps that use its API) serve that need pretty well, as does the UK’s National Rail Live Departure Boards. Unfortunately, London’s improved Countdown bus prediction service is not yet available (it’s meant to launch next year). However, both SF and London do have bus arrival data at some stops, so even without personal technology you can just look to see what’s going on.
It’s possible to get by without service availability data, but if a system is either low-frequency or low-reliability (and traffic means that buses can be both) it’s a good way to get people happy with the system.
There’s still something of a divide here. System overviews are most readily visible in the physical world, while route planning is best served electronically. Service availability is a mix of the two. Nonetheless, all three (or a combination thereof) provide plenty of room for experimentation on mobile devices and the real world.
As a European and a Londoner, the first thing that strikes me is that, for a major city, Chicago has what seems a very poor transport network. The only line that can claim a wait of less than 7.5 minutes on weekdays is a 79th street bus. By contrast, the entire Tube network in London has typical expected waits of about three to eight minutes, dropping as low as almost one train a minute for busy lines at peak.
In fact, the Tube (and, from what I’ve seen, Berlin U-bahn and Paris Metro services) appears to have such little variation that it’s questionable whether such an approach makes any sense. The only thing I think tourists may gain from it is a sense that the Circle line is less frequent than the District and Metropolitan services that it shares tracks with; the deep tube lines would be much of a muchness.
That’s not to say that service variations don’t matter. There’s been a to-and-fro in the tube diagram design ever since it was invented, with dashed lines and, more recently, crosses indicating peak-only lines and interchanges. Currently the map has dispensed with the detail, relegating it to footnotes, but in-car diagrams on the Northern line (one of the most fiddly) do a good job of conveying the way interchanges at Kennington and to Mill Hill East work.
There might be more of a call for it on buses, but one of the most egregious failures noted in the original post (mixing night and day buses) hasn’t been done in London for years, as far as I know. There is a fair bit of variation between very high frequency buses (like the 38 and 73, which should be every minute or three) and those further out in the suburbs which are only every fifteen minutes. On the other hand, putting the entire London bus network on paper takes five maps, four of which are vast; there might not be the room to do it effectively.
One place where frequency is already indicated in London, though, is the Oyster Rail Services map (PDF). However, this used to be done nicely with thin lines for infrequent services and thicker ones for those with more than four trains per hour; now the dreaded cross marks those stations. Still, it does work. (I also recall seeing a map, perhaps by National Rail, that showed the number of trains per hour calling at each station; Clapham Junction and Vauxhall were both up in the 20s, if I’m remembering it right).
Having said all that, I’m still mildly tempted to do something with the idea for London. I can also see that it might well be necessary for US cities; can anyone make one for San Francisco, please?