How NOT To Make Friends For your Transit Product

There’s an outfit down in Silicon Valley — SMT Rail — that thinks they have a better idea for mass rail transit. But the way they’re marketing it isn’t going to make friends in San Francisco at least.

Their promotional video, which our friends on Muni Diaries found on YouTube, is so ludicrous, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously. Their idea is an updated, tech-rich version of a concept more than a century old: an upside-down monorail with the cars suspended from the rail (rather than riding on top as at Disneyland).
The giant faux pas is not the system itself (about which, more below). It’s where they chose to “demonstrate” it in their video: the F-line right-of-way along The Embarcadero. The surface level streetcars have been wiped out, replaced by this erector-set of towers and beams. At 2:52 in the video, you see a tangle of them about 30 feet off the ground going in all directions in front of the Ferry Building! Earth to SMT: we tried elevating transit on the waterfront once. It was called the Embarcadero Freeway. And it was loathed (except by some who used it as a handy off ramp, aesthetics and urban liveability be damned). And we tore it down.
To make their self-inflicted political wounds worse, the destination signs they show in the stations overwhelmingly show “Stockton Street.” Does that mean they’re aiming to supplant the Central Subway, too, with an aerial structure through the heart of Chinatown? (And it gets through the Stockton Tunnel how?)
Fact is, this kind of “pod transit,” where you summon a small vehicle that takes a few people to a specific destination, has been dreamed of for a long time. And small vehicle, automated aerial “people movers” (with less technology) have demonstrated their reliability and practicality at many airports, including SFO. (They’re building a pretty long one between BART and the Oakland Airport right now.)
IF the public would tolerate aerial structures in cities, that concept might indeed be effective in more places, IF the capital and maintenance cost of myriad pods (needed to move volumes like the F-line currently generates) were affordable. But it doesn’t seem like very savvy marketing to show the erector-set and pods replacing streetcars that Muni’s own Transit Effectiveness Program called “beloved.” And certainly not if they block views that so many people fought so hard to reclaim along our waterfront (even more beloved).
But hey, this same video shows the same little pods zipping across empty desert as the narrator intones, “Imagine San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than two hours” — 30 percent faster than the High Speed Rail project promises! And completely powered by thin-film solar panels on the rail — an unprecedented accomplishment. AND you can take your car in the pod too!
Yes. Well. Maybe the F-line is safe for a little while after all. 🙂
Oh, and on the subject of vehicles blocking views (yachts instead of pods), read John King’s story in today’s Chronicle. Wonder how many people knew that we could end up with a permanent yacht harbor replacing the spectacular open-water views on the E-line segment between Mission and Harrison? We didn’t.

Comments: 9

  1. I don’t think the concept is as far fetched as you claim it to be. Yes, this concept has been around for a long time and has also been referred to as Personal Rapid Transit. If I recall, a suburb in Chicago was ready to implement a PRT system but for some reason it didn’t happen.
    The simulation was just a way to show how it could work in San Francisco and would not suggest that this would be done anytime soon. It could have applications in places like Santa Clara County or even Las Vegas or even LA. But there are a lot of hurdles to overcome among them, who would pay for it and the costs and benefits. But at least it is something to get us thinking about how our transportation will evolve over the next 50 years. We can’t continue to sustain fuel based transportation ideas. Time to start thinking outside the box and stop continuing to reinvent the past. Don’t get me wrong, I love the F Line and I love the PCC cars. But it is time to move on into the 21st century.

  2. The biggest problem here, in my mind, is the video shows replacing current rail with this BRT. For all the reasons above, and more, the F/E lines shouldn’t be replaced with BRT.
    The video should have shown the things running up and down Geary. The ability to run several vehicles along the corridor with one stopped vehicle not blocking others would allow for stops to be designed close together while increasing overall travel speeds. Add stoplights every 250 feet or so. Geary, IMO, would benefit from this system – implemented properly, reliably, and inexpensively. Then imagine maybe running this down 19th Ave/Park Presidio from the bridge to SF State. Both of those corridors aren’t really attractive (you’re not blocking a view with the towers), carry a good number of riders (19th Ave from SF State to Geary almost needs its own dedicated shuttle during school semesters), and are traffic-heavy, slow-traveling major roads that would benefit from a system that avoids traffic lights.

  3. But Paul, the F-line and PCC cars (not to mention the Muni Bredas/trolley coaches) ARE viable alternatives to fuel based transportation ideas! They all draw power from Hetch Hetchy so they are as zero-emission as you can get.
    Give all Muni vehicles priority at signaled intersections, add dedicated Muni traffic lanes for high-ridership corridors, consolidate closely-spaced stops, and fix up Muni Metro’s ATC system, and we can get similar improvements in vehicle speeds a PRT system can offer for a small fraction of the price (and bureaucratic/NIMBY red tape).

  4. PRT has no practical applications outside of airports where it can function as a horizontal smart elevator. These silly concept schemes are never even close to realistic in depicting the amount of structure necessary to support them (beam span to depth ratio? lateral seismic loads?), nor do they ever depict an egress system for when one of these things breaks down and parylizes the entire system.
    Honestly, I think a promotional video such as this is not even worth responding to except I continue to see breathless reporting from people that don’t know any better talking about how these systems are going to change our cities. That said, I understand how offended you must be to have these hacks propose tearing out one of the jewels of our transportation system.
    There is one reason why PRT is appealing to people, and it is the same reason that makes it completely impractical: each vehicle only holds a few people. Basically, the people who think this is a neat idea feel that mass transit would be be okay as long as they did not have to share it with anyone else, and these people generally don’t want to live in cities anyway. There are a lot of people I never want to share a bus with, but that’s urbanism for you. Deal with it, help make the city a better place, or move to the suburbs and fill the air with your auto’s pollution.
    Hopefully the venture capitalists will figure out this is a dog of an idea before they’ve sunk themselves.

  5. We’re not offended. It’s obviously never going to happen in San Francisco for reasons you and others have mentioned. We just thought it was a good way to stir up a little hornet’s nest and it’s working 🙂

  6. Folks complain about a 1/2 inch diameter trolley wire hanging in the air, how about an entire transportation system ??? Even uglier than a street fill with parked automobiles.

  7. Here is an existing system (operating for 110 years!) which is not totally dissimilar, physically: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuppertal_Schwebebahn.
    I wouldn’t object to this on aesthetics. It’s no Embarcadero Freeway by any measure. With some decent design, it would be a feature. Practicality is, of course, a whole ‘nother story.
    That said, I’m not too thrilled with the F-Line either. Functionally speaking, it would be better if it were a modern low-floor streetcar, faster and more reliable. But it is cool.

  8. Alai, I think we’d be better off focusing on making the other Muni Metro lines modern streetcars, rather than the F line. The F line is one of the only lines that actually has the frequency rail deserves!
    This idea is nuts, and what really drove it home for me was *driving* onto a pod at *highway* stops. Remind me again why in the world that’s relevant?
    In cities, it’s just nuts. (And so is that Wuppertal Schwebebahn…whoa!) The only advantage this has over subways in terms of speed / priority is that it might theoretically cost less to build (er, maybe), but pods of that size for “personal” transportation? No way. Maybe if everything was a tiny little pod bubble for 2 or something, but at that point you might as well just agree to get rid of cars.

  9. It would be nice to know the thinking behind why they bumped the iconic “F” line for this suburban looking eyesore.
    There are places for this, one really good one is in the middle of freeways and zipping over interchanges. But to make it really successful, it needs to look better, something never considered by transit planners.
    Imagine being in L.A., approaching the big interchange and clover leaf, downtown, and instead of an antiseptic LRV tooting along the median, at about what traffic should be doing (with less of it) you look up and here comes a sexy, futuristic tube whizzing overhead with far more speed than the freeway ever allowed, and not just zipping over your convertible, but arc-ing up to sweep over the entire interchange, and then disappearing, just as another, going a different direction comes up from the other side, while you, and everyone else just sit, and sit, and sit….
    There are places for this, but not on the “F” line, or anywhere downtown.

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