Sunday, May 24, 2009

BART vs. Metrorail: How (and How Not) to Build a Subway

Yesterday's post reminded me of a question I've had occasion to ask myself: what's the deal with BART? That's the urban rail system in the San Francisco Bay area; it's always noted as one of the most significant urban rail systems in the US, it has a huge number of track-miles, and supposedly the 5th highest ridership in the country, and yet... I've been to the Bay Area several times, and BART just doesn't seem very present. It's not a great way for visitors to get around the city and you rarely come across stations unless you're seeking them out. So what gives?

Christof Spieler atIntermodality, the blog of Houston's Citizen's Transportation Coalition, may have the answer:



San Francisco's BART is on the left; DC's Metrorail is on the right. They're shown at the same scale, which reveals both the similarities and differences between the two systems. Says Spieler:
Rail transit projects don’t come with control groups — we can’t clone a section of a city, build two different rail lines, and compare the results. In this case, though, there’s an interesting comparison to be made between two remarkably similar rail systems.

San Francisco is in the 5th largest metropolitan area in the country. Washington DC is in the 4th largest. Both cities have old, urban cores with major employment centers surrounded by extensive post-war suburban development. In the 1960s, both decided to build a heavy rail system. And not only do those two systems use very similar technology, they are nearly the same length (104 miles vs. 106 miles).

There is one significant difference between San Francisco’s BART and Washington’s Metrorail, though: Washington has 2 1/2 times the ridership (902,100 average weekday boardings compared to 338,100.) Why? I’ve lived in both places, and I’ve ridden both systems. And I think the difference is that BART is primarily a suburban system while Metrorail, even though it serves the suburbs as well, is at its heart a urban system.
Spieler explains the difference:
BART serves the suburbs. Metrorail serves the suburbs and the urban core.
BART’s furthest station is 25 miles from downtown SF as the crow flies, across two small mountain ranges. Metrorail’s furthest station is 15 miles from the center of DC.
BART has a single line through the city of San Francisco. It serves Downtown and one urban neighborhood, the Mission... Metrorail has 5 lines through Washington, serving many neighborhoods in all parts of DC. Metrorail also serves many more suburban employment centers than BART does...

BART saves money by using existing rights of way; Metrorail maximizes ridership by puting lines where the transit demand is...Only the San Francisco subway, a two-station subway in Downtown Oakland and a three-station subway in Berkeley [don't use existing rights-of-way]. The latter — which serves the University of California along with Downtown Berkeley — was built only because the city contributed money; BART planners wanted to put the station a mile from the edge of the UC campus. Metrorail uses some existing rail lines and a Virginia freeway corridor, but the majority of the system is in subway alignments that serve neighborhoods and employment centers...

BART stations are where the cars are; Metrorail stations are where the people are. The vast majority of BART stations are car-oriented. The “typical” BART station is an elevated structure surrounded by park-and-ride lots in a low-density neighborhood. Over half of Metrorail stations, by contrast, don’t even offer parking. These stations serve employment centers (urban and suburban), universities, neighborhood crossroads, and residential areas...
Spieler posts a couple more maps to illustrate this last point:



I've used both systems, and there's just no competition: the Metrorail is a lot more convenient for getting around DC. And it actually extends significantly into the surrounding suburbs, so it's not like it's useless for commuters; but that seems to be the primary function of BART. And that's how you end up with systems of similar lengths, but one of which has 2 1/2 times the ridership of the other: one was built for people, the other was built for cars.

Actually, considering that pretty much everything we've done in the US to develop our cities since WWII has been designed primarily for the use of cars, rather than people, it's sort of miraculous that the DC system got built the way it did. Here's hoping that the designers of future mass transit systems are receptive to the lesson that the differing histories of BART and Metrorail provide.

50 comments:

troymccluresf said...

Can't disagree with much of this, but MUNI's 5 intraurban lines are ignored.

Anonymous said...

This is an uninformed and unhelpful analysis of US metro transit issues. First, the DC metro area is unlike others in that the federal government is a massive and largely stable employment presence in the urban core - the government is not there because of Metro, Metro is there because of it and that's why so many people take it. Washington is a terrible city to look at when trying to figure out how to improve transit in other regions that lack a massive, stable employer in the urban core. Second, this analysis doesn't take into account Muni, which includes a number of rail lines - Muni's not great but that's still a large volume of usage that is totally ignored here. Third, trends in job development in the Bay Area, like those in the US as a whole, reflect increasing dispersal and decentralization in suburban style localities. Spending massive amounts of money on urban core-oriented transit in the face of that is enormously wasteful and totally unrealistic. Learn more about the cities you're analyzing next time you throw something online.

Chachy said...

"First, the DC metro area is unlike others in that the federal government is a massive and largely stable employment presence in the urban core - the government is not there because of Metro, Metro is there because of it and that's why so many people take it."

I don't understand why you consider this significant. Every major US city has a lot of jobs downtown; what's the difference if most of those jobs are with the US government rather than in a bunch of private businesses?

"Second, this analysis doesn't take into account Muni, which includes a number of rail lines - Muni's not great but that's still a large volume of usage that is totally ignored here."

It doesn't take DC's bus system into account either. But the point is to compare two comparable investments: DC's in the Metro, and SF's in BART. Both were built at roughly the same time and they are similar in extent. But Metro has been much more successful in terms of ridership and, I would argue, from an urbanist perspective.

"Third, trends in job development in the Bay Area, like those in the US as a whole, reflect increasing dispersal and decentralization in suburban style localities."

Agreed. And I consider this unfortunate, for the most part - not a priori; in theory, suburbs could be developed in a sustainable way that isn't aesthetically hideous and dehumanizing. But the vast majority of suburban developments have, unfortunately, followed this pattern. And part of what has promoted suburban growth has been the way the US has invested in transportation infrastructure - basically, we love freeways. And in the case of SF, BART was built in large part to serve suburban commuters and cars. DC's Metro didn't do that.

"Spending massive amounts of money on urban core-oriented transit in the face of [suburban job growth patterns] is enormously wasteful and totally unrealistic."

You know, we're always building out freeways in anticipation of suburban growth, which in turn promotes suburban growth. Why can't we build urban-oriented mass transit in anticipation of growth around those transit hubs? I wouldn't call this enormously wasteful; I'd call it wisely promoting urban growth in a way that would improve quality of life and also be better for the environment.

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting article with some very valid comments, and of course, putting them side by side is instructive - but it's hard to take a commentary about the Bay Area Rapid Transit System seriously that doesn't mention the BAY itself in how the cities and transportation systems in the area have been laid out. DC is flat, can build like spokes on a wheel and doesn't have to deal with a giant body of water right in the middle. Certainly, I'd LOVE another line in Oakland and Berkeley, and a Geary line would push BART ridership over 500K I'm sure.

DC Resident from SF said...

One of the major differences between BART & Metro is that the suburban Metro stations tend to have sprouted pockets of high-rise offices and residences - mini urban TOD developments. What the Bay Area (outside of the major cities) calls TOD consists of relatively less dense, 4-6 story structures. That's too low to properly leverage the high public investment in mass transit.

It's true that part of this problem is that the lines were built in highway medians, but even the North Berkeley station consists of nothing but four square blocks (!) of surface parking, and it was built along an urban right-of-way instead of a highway median.

Stations like Vienna and East Falls Church in the median of I-66 in Virginia have approved dense TOD to be built over the next decade. I've never heard of anything similar planned for the similar Highway 24 corridor in Walnut Creek or elsewhere in the system. Is this purely because of NIMBY opposition, or are there other reasons?

speonjosh said...

It would be interesting to see a comparison of the downtown population during the workday for SF and DC. I suspect they are similar. So, yeah, pointing out that DC has the federal government isn't really relevant. SF has a very busy and healthy economy, too.

To those who are complaining that MUNI is ignored - one, please don't mix apples and oranges. The article is clearly about the two regions' heavy rail systems. Both have additional public transit systems that are being ignored.

Someone mentioned the Bay. Geography is indeed quite important. Not only do you have the Bay, you also have a very hilly region in general, which undoubtedly played and plays a role in designing and constructing the BART system.

Finally, although it has been many years since I rode BART regularly, I do miss being able to actually get a seat during commute hours! There are advantages to having an underutilized system! (And platforms big enough to accommodate ten car trains....)

bsci said...

As troymccluresf notes, there are other rail options. SF has BART, CalTrain (soutbay commuting), and MUNI (intra-urban SF trips). D.C. has Metro, Marc (Maryland commuters), and VRE (Virginia commuters).

Despite Metro and BART using the same cars, one can think of BART as more similar to Marc and VRE. Someone could double check, but I suspect BART has much higher usage that Marc and VRE. I don't know how MUNI and Metro compare, but I suspect that the full combinations of rail in each city are more similar.

Anonymous said...

"Hideous and dehumanizing" is a subjective opinion. When people get to choose where they want to live (that is, in Texas, where there are not a lot of land-use laws coming down by fiat telling people where they should live, exurban sprawl results. Evidently, most people find living in a dense mass of humanity to be "hideous and dehumanizing" . . . .or at least more so than living in the exurbs.

Also, you must not be too familiar with the Bay Area because in all your fondness for the "urban core", you failed to realize that there _is_ no urban core there. You have 2 small downtowns in SF and Oakland and a web of moderately dense development (on the order of Queens or the North side of Chicago) that fills in all the flat, dry area that is not salt water or mountain ranges (and is separated by those inhabitable areas). In such a geography, a spoke&hub system like DC's makes no sense at all. In any case, I lived in SF without a car for half a year and found Muni to be adequate enough for my needs. Ironically, even with a less developed rail system than Chicago, it's much easier to get by without a car in SF than in Chicago, even though I'm sure many more people take the 'L' than they do BART.

mikeyo said...

Hey, Anonymous (guy with the "This is an uninformed and unhelpful analysis...), you should try to be more polite. Your points would come across as more valid and less like you're looking to just pick fights with random strangers on blogs.

In terms of geography, I live in D.C. and I love the Metro. Yes, D.C. has an urban core that's not going anywhere but it's also been making a sustained effort the past 10-15 years at DEVELOPING its urban core and the Metro has played a big part in that. Despite what you assert, San Francisco also has a very large downtown (one of the largest CBDs outside of Manhattan in the U.S.) and the BART almost bypasses it. Yes, the city of Hills is hemmed in and the streetcars, Muni, and bus system do a yeoman's job of trying to fill in the gaps but more concerted development around the BART stations could only help.

By the way, exburban sprawl happens as much because of empty, disconnected, badly planned city centers with high crime, few amenities and "little since of place" as it does because people want cheap, low-density housing an hour away from their jobs. The housing market in the D.C. area has collapsed most completely in the newer developments in the outer exburbs while housing in Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda and the District has remained relatively stable.

Really, stay away from "Learn more about the cities you're analyzing next time you throw something online" type of negative comments. It just boomerangs and makes you look ignorant and arrogant yourself.

MichaelAN said...

>One of the major differences >between BART & Metro is that the >suburban Metro stations tend to >have sprouted pockets of high->rise offices and residences - >mini urban TOD developments

I think that's the most cogent point. Indeed, if you look at the history of the two inner ring suburbs in Virginia, Arlington and Alexandria, they *deliberately* pushed for underground stations, even though at the time of construction, they were typical low density aging suburbs facing all the problems that low density, aging suburbs face.

Both Arlington and Alexandria used aggressive comprehensive zoning plans to reinvent themselves. They've built very substantial, new walkable cities. Indeed, the population density of both communities has nearly doubled since the day the metro opened.

The same is true to a lesser extent in the Maryland Suburbs, where Bethesda and Silver Spring have build dense, mid-to high-rise walking centers focused on the Metro.

Within the core city, DC's neighborhoods have grown far more density close to the subway stops. Gallery Place/China Town has gone from a decaying urban neighborhood to a vibrant, growing part of the city, with several thousand new residential units coming online since 2000.

DC's Metro just commenced construction of a 23 mile expansion of the system, to run west to Dulles Airport. The most dramatic part of the plan are 4 stops planned for Tyson's Corner, which is a sprawling mess of overdeveloped, car-centric clusters. The plan is to rework Tyson's, a classic "edge city" into a walkable, urban core.

The latest trend, by the way, is a gradual *re* concentration of jobs into urban cores. The age of the edge city isn't over, but there's been a great deal of push to build walkable cities over the past 15 years. DC definitely deserves credit for its development over the past 10 years.

walking the walk in DC said...

The comment about the North Berkeley station says it all. People call Berkeley liberal, but for crying out loud, the BART station is surrounded by single family homes. How pleasant to stroll to Solano Ave or to the underground BART, but still have your Subaru and a barbeque at home. Or is that an AWD Volvo there with the "no war for oil" bumper sticker?

Anyway, SB375 is comin' after you, NIMBYs.

Chachy said...

Wow, lots of interesting comments here. I'll let most of the highly-informed observations speak for themselves. I just want to respond to one point from an Anon commenter:

'"Hideous and dehumanizing" is a subjective opinion. When people get to choose where they want to live (that is, in Texas, where there are not a lot of land-use laws coming down by fiat telling people where they should live, exurban sprawl results.'

Well, I live in Texas, and I live in a neighborhood that's fairly walkable, though not as walkable as I would like if I had the choice; which I don't, because there aren't really any truly walkable neighborhoods here. So you can consider me someone whose demands aren't being met by the "free market."

But the broader point is that exurban sprawl doesn't result in a vacuum, purely driven by demand. There are all sorts of subsidies for sprawl, especially freeway construction; there are zoning laws that require, e.g., that commercial developments have obscene amounts of parking, so that developers couldn't build walkable urban environments if they wanted to. And of course, developers themselves aren't necessarily interested in meeting consumer demand, as such; they're interested in turning a profit, which can often best be achieved by building cheap, cookie-cutter sprawl developments. This can be the case even if people would be willing to pay more to live and work in a high-density urban core-type environment. (For instance, it might cost $2 million to build a high-density development, in which the property would sell for $3 million; but an $800,000 development of sprawl might sell for $2 million. The rationally maximizing developer (who, like all good free market fundamentalists, cares not a whit for social or environmental costs) will develop the sprawl, and make a larger profit on it, even though buyers would prefer the high-density development.)

Jason said...

Interesting comparison, but it's funny that you don't mention Oakland. Previous posters are right: There is no one urban core in the Bay Area.

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Wikipedia reports that the Bay Area is actually more population-dense than the DC Metro area. So you're onto something here.

Another interesting comparison to make might be the bus system in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul). Those are also two downtowns with a lot of suburbs, separated by a body of water (albeit a much narrower one in the Mississippi River).

(Also, I recommend being less defensive in general, to all.)

crazyloko said...

cell phonesThis phenomenom is typified by mobile phonethe rise ofbusiness. Incredible range of products available with China Wholesale “Low Price and High Quality” not only reaches directly to their target clients worldwide but also ensures that cheap cell phones wholesale from China means margins you cannot find elsewhere and China Wholesale will skyroket your profits.

Dieran Information said...

I bookmarked this blog earlier and just came back to it ... well put and I will definately be sending this on once I get to my work PC ...

computer software said...

A lot of good information as I can on this website, thanks for sharing, you are good people ...

student loan|Contextual links|home improvement ideas

student loan said...

chance I was looking for on this topic, thanks for sharing ...

student loan said...

This helps me to learn something new. Thanks to you!

Contextual links|home improvement

World cup Wallpaper said...

thanks for sharing useful information, you are indeed a good person ...


Pet Rabbit Supplies|News Techno

Home Management said...

Excellently written article, if only all bloggers offered the same content as you, the internet would be a much better place



Beasiswa s1

Bluetooth Headphones said...

Following this site and read the articles that make the insight I'm getting there ....

Home Improvement said...

Visiting this site is fun, because I can get new information to add knowledge ... thanks for the owner and the author of this site ....

information ,technology, business,autos, entertainment

Anonymous said...

visit, read the article, as well as leave comments on a good site like this site is a pleasure for me .. thank you for your helpful articles ...


Soccer Shoes World Cup Merchandise

Sport Watches said...

This is one of the best websites I have ever visited, and I certainly would leave a trail with the comment that "YOUR WEBSITE VERY GOOD"

Drafting Table

acne solution said...

thank you for presenting the news that I needed ,....

acne solution said...

thank you for presenting the news that I needed ,....

Tracey Bushman said...

Excellent analysis.

tn requin said...

sleeping bag
tablecloth
travel luggage
car gps
car parts
GPS navigation
portable GPS
lcd tv
flat tv
digital picture frames
unlocked cell phones
wedding dresses
wedding jewelry
chaussures mode
chaussures Femmes
women's shoes
round tablecloth
discount handbags
chaussures sport
chaussures pas cher
fashion bedding
id lanyard
lanyard
creative gadgets
gift ideas
kids wall stickers
wall stickers
bath curtains
kitchen faucet
bathroom faucet

bug pada point blank online said...

Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon
point blank
Biro Jodoh Online Gratis
Ramalan Bintang Zodiak Terbaru
Ramalan Shio Zodiak Tionghoa
Kumpulan Contoh Naskah Pidato
Cara daftar point blank
Point Blank Online Indonesia
Kata-kata Bijak dan Motivasi
Koleksi Status Keren Facebook
mobile phone
my cupu
Harga Spesifikasi HP
Kumpulan berita terbaru

Penis Enlargement Pills said...

I am thoroughly convinced in this said post. I am currently searching for ways in which I could enhance my knowledge in this said topic you have posted here. It does help me a lot knowing that you have shared this information here freely. I love the way the people here interact and shared their opinions too. I would love to track your future posts pertaining to the said topic we are able to read.

Konsultan Marketing-Konsultan Perusahaan said...

thanks for sharing

Parcel natal
Rumah Sakit Mitra Kemayorans
belajar internet marketing
how to prevent premature ejaculation

justin bieber said...

Possibly you've been searching the net wanting into this program and that system but you're just not positive if they are legit.

nisioi_cosmin said...

There are actually plenty of particulars like that to take into consideration. That may be a nice point to convey up. I provide the ideas above as common inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where an important thing can be working in honest good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged round things like that, however I am positive that your job is clearly identified as a good game. Each boys and girls really feel the affect of just a second’s pleasure, for the remainder of their lives.
Remixuri 2011 | Muzica 2011

best case for iPhone 4 said...

Great... Im just surfing the web and looking for peoples with same interests... If you will have time just have a look at

Robert C Wiles said...

The direct comparisons are interesting. The real kicker underlies both the geography and the timeline. BART was envisioned much earlier and completed (before expansion) in 1972 as far less complete than originally desired. The local political squabbling and NIMBY-ism over the future have greatly reduced the potential for density in key locations. My urban neighborhood (now called Rockridge) was decimated for a time by the construction of CA SR 24 and in the middle of that, BART.

As recently as the 1980's there were efforts to develop uban-highrise there, but the 'nimby' forces fought that.

DC's metro was developed in an area with a different view toward development and expanded with deliberate intent.

The Bay Area still has too many little kingdoms and no sense of purpose to provide housing. Throw in "rent control" and an absurd price level and you add challenges to sanity.

Let us not forget that the East Bay was originally 'connected' and developed with streetcars (the Key System) and competitors.

tablet pc android said...

I saw so much worthwhile material here!

Anonymous said...

phone number lookup

muebles vallecas said...

Very useful material, much thanks for the article.

felicity said...

This is an awesome blog post found here... Would like to say thanks very much for the share...
stop pre ejaculation
home treatments for hemorrhoids
easy online business
No.1 Natural Cure From Japan
Proven Natural Cure For Eyes

album foto said...

I think people fear idea management and innovation because there's a significant number of ideas that simply won't plan out.......Nice statement.....keep posting

asuransi pendidikan said...

this day I've been searching for information on various issues, this I found very good and I would like to congratulate you for your work.

design interior jakarta said...

I think that this post is one of the best that i have read in my life, congrats you did a great job,.

perusahaan security said...

the difference between the content spammers and most corporate innovators is that the smaller

jual wine said...

I'm writing to you because I just came across a business that I think has great potential. It lets you save money on almost everything. Make money from almost everything,

coklat valentine said...

If growth is important to a firm, and if growth is dependent on offering existing products and services to new customers

belajar internet marketing said...

innovation is very natural and happens in the "real world" as new plants and animals colonize new ecological niches.

konsultan perusahaan said...

I wonder how you got so good. This is really a fascinating blog, lots of stuff that I can get into. One thing I just want to say is that your Blog is so perfect

kuliner bandung said...

We generally think most specifically about the risk associated with a new product introduction

how to stay erect said...

I would be aware that as somebody who really doesn’t comment to blogs a lot (in actual fact, this may be my first put up), I don’t think the time period “lurker” is very flattering to a non-posting reader.

Anonymous said...

The comments on BART vs DC Metro are good. But BART, like Metro is not finished ( i hope). When Metro was built the employment centers and commuting routes were pretty much the same as now. When BART was built there was not much of Silicon Valley and San Jose had a population of 100,000. Just as Metro is now reaching out to Dulles Corridor, I could see BART eventually become part of San Jose and form a circle around the entire SF Bay linking the commercial centers of SF,Silicon Valley and Oakland/Berkeley and thus functioning not only as a commuter service.