The Missed Connections of San Francisco’s Gleaming New Transit Station

Rolling into San Francisco’s new bus terminal has all the vibes of docking with a Googie space station—the weird, special bridge into the hangar, the orange color accents behind a white superstructure, glowing information screens everywhere. The hieroglyphically obtuse wayfinding signage only adds to the effect. I may have gotten on a bus in the East Bay, but I’m disembarking on Space Station V, in transit to Clavius.

That’s no moon. It’s the “Salesforce Transit Center” (owing to a naming-rights deal with the company that owns the skyscraper next door), a $2.26 billion hub for the city’s Muni buses, as well as buses from across the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges—and Greyhound. Some day, if all goes as planned, it’ll be where California’s commuter and high-speed rail lines arrive in San Francisco.

The station is a white whale eight years in the making (and that’s just the construction bit), a crystalline Moby Dick with Penrose-tile skin breaching the downtown grid and drafting the psychogeographic currents around glass-and-steel towers. I like it; San Francisco feels new there, and even though a building that’s aesthetically to my taste might not be to yours, there’s urban glory in bustle, in elegant skyways and in clotted mazes of streets opening onto a broad pedestrian plaza. I like the aluminum screen, and I like the orange walls inside, though I’m suspicious about how well they’ll age as color fashions change and urban soot and fungus go looking for new substrate. The big, main open space of the station has a beautiful tile floor under a grand light well, and its high escalator makes it feel like a place where a human can make a big entrance or a big exit. If you don’t have a downtown cathedral, at least you can have a downtown transit station.

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The station isn’t complete. Street-level spaces I assume will be for retail and restaurants haven’t opened yet. Workers are still finishing planters and sidewalks. An entire floor that’ll be a food court is still bare concrete. So it’s hard to know whether the station will do all the things that a grand transit node does in other cities—a Gare du Nord or a Shinjuku. It has no shops yet, no place to buy a beer for the ride and a bouquet for your honey, food for dinner, a pair of reading glasses, a magazine (OK, no one buys those), an aspirin. Nobody is playing drums on plastic buckets next to an escalator. There are no homeless people, and the almost total absence of places to sit suggests an attempt to design them out of existence.

I’m being intentionally unfair here; Gare du Nord sees 700,000 people a day and Shinjuku more than 3.5 million. The Transbay’s peak capacity is 24,000. This is a small-town station with big-city ambitions. But the thing is, when you start to ask questions about what the station does not have, they multiply. It aspires to be a beating heart for the city, but this “Grand Central of the West” isn’t connected to the rest of the circulatory system.

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