Alternative Future: A Contemporary Interurban

Click to enlarge, or click here for PDF. This map assumes other lines are operating around the Bay Area, but that map will have to wait for another time.

Let’s say for a minute the Interurban hadn’t stopped running in 1941. It was bleeding money, but its parent company, NWP, was a for-profit entity. What if the Interurban had somehow survived?

For the sake of this exercise, I’m taking a few liberties. First, that the Bay Area had valued its rail transportation system from the 30s to the present, but had consolidated it all, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, under the single umbrella of the MTC. Second, that European best practices had been implemented at least in this corner of the country. Third, that the Interurban could now survive on a 50% subsidy. And fourth, that Marin and Sonoma have their current populations, though with less sprawl.

Though I had originally intended for this to be a bit more a light post rather than something more data-driven, a Twitter conversation with Dan Lyke motivated me to put some numbers behind the costs of an Interurban.

Costs per vehicle-kilometer (vkm) vary widely based on the system. Vancouver’s automated Skytrain system costs $2.18/vkm, BART costs around $3.50/vkm, and New York’s subway costs $5.81/vkm. Using quite a few assumptions, I get an average annual operating cost between $43.2 million and $111.6 million. If we assume an average fare of $2.50 and a 50% farebox recovery rate, total ridership would need to be between 8.6 million per year, roughly the same number of transit trips on today’s GGT system, and 22.3 million. With the Geary and North Beach extensions (Muni’s 38-Geary alone carries over 13 million weekday passengers per year), it’s entirely feasible for the system to meet BART’s 80% farebox recovery.

Alas, reconstructing the system would be prohibitively expensive and politically impossible. Large portions of some major roads (Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Fourth and Third Streets, Magnolia Avenue, Miller Avenue, and others) would need to be converted back to rail, wealthy homeowners would need to accept trains running behind their back yards, Sausalito would need to take a new elevated railway along the waterfront, Geary and North Beach would need to be torn up for a new subway, and over $10 billion would need to be spent. While the San Francisco part of the project might be worth it, for 8 million riders per year, most of them already served by transit, the cost and pain of the Marin Interurban simply wouldn’t be worth it.

This map, along with all my other maps, is posted in the Map Room.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

6 Responses to Alternative Future: A Contemporary Interurban

  1. Richard Hall says:

    I’m confused. Is SMART being delivered because it services current (meagrely and uneconomically low) ridership projections, or will it only really become economic if high density housing can be built in locations across Marin and Sonoma?

    Your figures compare very different transit systems to SMART – these other systems connect into major metropolitan employment centers and transit networks, unlike SMART (which may one day based on a leap of faith).

    It all seems very “back to front”. Is the train justified or does it need to be a trojan horse for high density housing before it even gets near being marginal?

    • I wasn’t even trying to tie this to SMART except for the hypothetical commuter line to Cloverdale. The Interurban was an electric light-rail transit system that ran on a third rail like BART and Skytrain. It ran frequently and connected directly with ferry service in Tiburon and Sausalito. SMART is a diesel commuter line that will run infrequently and connect indirectly with ferry service.

      I analyzed cost a while ago, and the idea of extending SMART to San Francisco a bit before that. In short, SMART is a bit on the expensive side per passenger but is nowhere near boondoggle territory. On a per mile basis, it’s actually quite cheap. Extending it to San Francisco would require it to take ALL transit trips to San Francisco as well as 40,000 additional passengers per day just to get to the same cost per passenger as SMART’s IOS. Cost sharing with Muni for the Geary segment would help, but why not just build the Geary segment without the weight of Marin?

      SMART has made some truly idiotic decisions that make it more expensive and less viable than it should be, but it is justified without land use policy changes. If San Rafael wants to use it as an excuse for more housing, that’s on San Rafael.

  2. dw shelf says:

    If and when such projects become viable, it will be because cars simply cannot solve the problem.

    The automobile transportation system works well, with some very special exceptions.

  3. Elisabeth Thomas-Matej says:

    “The automobile transportation system works well, with some very special exceptions.”

    The State of U.S. Transportation
    – Infrastructure intended to last until 1974
    – 32% of roads are in mediocre or poor condition
    – 25% of the nations 600,000 bridges are in need of repair
    – 44% of major urban highways are congested
    – 250 major chokepoints identified along critical freight highways
    – Congestion causes $100 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel

    – Between 2008 and 2011, the US fell on the Global Competitiveness scale from 6th to 16th
    – 72% of the $7 trillion in US goods are transported by trucks
    – China and India are spending 3-6% more of their GDPeach year on transportation, allowing them to move goods to market quicker, cheaper and more efficiently
    – Chinese and European commerce lanes support heavier trucks, allowing them to move more goods than we do

    – Motor vehicle crashes cost $230 billion per year
    – 38,000 people die in highway accidents every year and 3 million more are injured
    – Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death of Americans ages 4-33
    – The probability of being killed is much greater in a truck/car accident than a car/car accident
    – Truck-on-car collisions are the most fatal, resulting in 5,000 deaths per year

    • dw shelf says:

      The automotive transportation system works well, with some very special exceptions.

      I didn’t see even the hint of compromise in that list of facts.

    • danlyke says:

      So I can’t tell from those numbers: Are they trying to get us to spend more unsustainable money on roads subsidizing the trucking industry, or get us to give up on those dangerous trucks and build development patterns that could be better fed by rail? Without watching the video (which I don’t have the bandwidth for here on the bus, and which I’m against in principle because if you have a good argument you’ll freakin’ write it down) I can’t tell.

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