America trip (2): San Francisco

San Francisco has every type of public transport. There are trams, an underground system – BART – heritage cable cars, and buses. Yet still the pounding of cars on city streets dominates with extraordinarily busy highways such as 19th Avenue, teeming with cars 24/7.

The trams are pretty good. There are a couple of underground tram stops in the middle of the city where trams on different routes converge and it almost seems like a decent system. But even so, according to people I talked to, by and large it is the poor and the young who use the system and that was indeed backed up by my own view when I travelled on the trams. They are, too, showing their age and desperate need a clean up and indeed, some additional stock as the interval between services was rather long.

It is the constant need for public transit to justify itself financially which dogs all the American public transport systems. While at times there is widespread public support for increased services, the politicians always dole out the money begrudgingly, cutting corners and reducing quality. It is a vicious spiral that seems impossible to get out of. Transit must, as it does in New York, be able to attract the middle classes for it to get widely accepted in places like San Francisco. But that requires quality investment, and that is at the root of the problem.

The situation is not helped in SF by the multiplicity of providers – Caltrain,Bart, Muni etc – who don’t seem to coordinate their activity or their investment. There is some investment and improvement on the way, but nothing that will cut the permanent stream of traffic on 19th.