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 colour 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 bus from across the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges–and Greyhound. Some day, if all runs as schemed, it’ll be where California’s commuter and high-speed rail lines arrived here 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 build that’s aesthetically to my savour might not be to yours, there’s urban glory in bustle, in elegant skyways and in clotted labyrinths 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 colouring manners 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 sunlight well, and its high escalator attains 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.
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 had not yet been shops yet , no place to buy a brew for the ride and a posy for your honey, food for dinner, a pair of reading glasses, a publication( OK , no one buys those ), an aspirin. Nobody is playing drums on plastic pails next to an escalator. There are no homeless people, and the nearly total absence of places to sit indicates 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 aspirations. 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.