Saturday, December 29, 2007

Servers Down, Boss is Out... Why Not Circumnavigate the Bay by Transit?

This was my situation on Friday. Since I all the work I could do would be entirely on my laptop, which has good batteries, and there was nobody around to see me at my desk (I'm just using "Boss is out" as a literary convention here--in fact, mine is far from persnickety about these things anyway), and there was nobody at home except a sleeping cat (her active times of day are first thing in the morning, evening, and if she's in an ornery mood in the middle of the night--in between that it's all zzzzz) it occurred to me--why not work mobile--really mobile?

So I bought a CalTrain zone upgrade ticket and headed from Mountain View to San Jose Diridon Station. It's time to go get a new monthly pass anyway (my employer is kind enough to subsidize my transit commute, which is awesome, but until I get my act together and subscribe to Tickets by Mail, taking advantage of this requires a monthly trip to SF or SJ where I can find a human to take my vouchers). In twenty minutes, I ran from the platform to the ticket office, bought my pass, bought another ticket for AmTrak, and boarded a northbound Capitol Corridor train.

The ghost town of Drawbridge, and the mountains of salt at the Leslie plant, and the cuteness of Niles all made a nice rolling backdrop while I did, in fact, fire up the laptop and do some work.

About half way to Oakland, the crew requested that all passengers for Jack London Square station head to the front car of the train. This was a bit more work for me than other passengers, because I was in the 4th car, with my bike! Encouraged by a crewmember, I went ahead and brought my bike up to the second level (the one which connects from car to car on AmTrak trains) and rolled it the length of the train, and back down the steps to the first level.

The trouble, it turned out, was that there was a fatal accident somewhere farther down the line. A crewmember told me "I know you're mad at us for making you move your bike, but feel sorry for us because we're going to be stuck here for four hours!".

Quite a few trains were stuck at Jack London Square. The reason for moving us to the front turned out to be this: there were no free platforms left, so we pulled up alongside another train, a door was opened on each, and we stepped across and went through the other train to get to a platform.

At least we were on time, which left me with plenty of time to reach the Oakland Ferry terminal. It's across the length of Jack London Square--I had over 20 minutes, which would probably be enough time to walk it, and no trouble at all on a bike. (Still, given AmTrak, if you wanted to do this trip recreationally without a bike, I'd recommend planning a longer break here, stopping for a snack or shopping if they're on time, and huffing it if they're not!).

It was a quick and enjoyable voyage across the bay to the ferry building. From here I biked to CalTrain, which is an easy ride, though it got a bit tricky dodging crowds around AT&T park (it's not baseball season, what's up?). Still I made it quickly enough, and caught a bullet back to Redwood City.

The CalTrain zone upgrade ticket I used to start my trip (to use my zone 2-3 pass to reach San Jose, in zone 4) was still valid, and when you buy an upgrade you don't have to specify which way you're upgrading, so I figured it should be good for zone 1 (San Francisco to San Bruno) too. Hah! Stickin' it to the man!

According to google maps, I covered something like 100 miles on this trip--and I managed to get work done at the same time!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Back in the Third World

Yesterday morning I dropped off my family at SFO--I'll be joining them down south in a few days, after bach'ing it with the cat for a bit. I ostensibly should have gone to work, but servers are down that I need to do my job (honestly!) and my boss is out anyway, so I decided to go up to the City. My main objective was resume my quest for The King in Yellow, and visit McDonald's books, which advertises itself as a "Dirty Poorly Lit Place for Books", and seems likely to have it if anyone, and whose location straddling the respectability of touristy/upscale Market and the Tenderloin (Yelp reviewers caution, "just make sure to turn left when you leave"), makes it more appropriate as a solo transit adventure than a family outing.

After I finally found my car in the SFO garage (a fact that is tangental this blog, and really nobody's fault but mine--though they could mark areas with labels that are specific to the level--so that if you for example find your way back to area G36, you won't wander around for twenty minutes before realizing that there might be another area G36 above or below you... I just wanted to vent) I popped over to Millbrae to take advantage of the combined BART/CalTrain station's copious and free parking (here I always park on the 4th floor, because that's the level of the station mezzanine, and then you don't have to worry about what floor you parked on...). A few minutes later I was heading north on CalTrain. At 4th and King, I faced the eternal (apparently) dilemma of transit-enabled visitors to the City arriving by train from the peninsula--how to get to any part of town I might actually want to see? First, since no Muni vehicle or ticket machine takes credit cards, and I had no actual currency left, I went to the Safeway across the street, bought an Odwalla, and got some cash--in the strategic amount of $42.00, which left me a handy $2 in small bills to ride a bus or streetcar.

Next I returned to the corner of 4th & King, where the SF Muni has thoughtfully provided not one, but two places where you might board a streetcar to Market St. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any way to know which stop will get a car first short of either walking up to look at the NextBus signs on each platform, or else just walking out into traffic to look down the respective streets that streetcars might be coming from. I first tried the T stop on third street, but couldn't find a ticket machine. I went to the N stop on King (or rather, in the middle of the freeway offramp that dumps into King St). Here I could buy a ticket, but there was clearly no streetcar coming any time soon, so I went back to the T. NextBus informed me that the next T was in 17 minutes...

I decided to walk around the Safeway to Townsend, where you can catch a 30 or 45 trolleybus. There were several, all apparently getting in each other's way or something. After some delay.... well, I think I'm running the risk of loosing my readers here. Suffice it to say that eventually I reached McDonald's books, and they were closed.

Being denied the pleasures of a musty second hand bookshop, I decided I would visit a respectable one. I had never been to City Lights Books, and figured I might as well... the fact is, my mother has gone so far as to suggest that I'm remiss as a San Franciscan if I've never been to City Lights, and perhaps it's true. I ended up walking most of the way. It's faster than riding a 30 through Chinatown anyway. I saw the Beat Poetry Room, found a postcard and a book, and kept walking to Fisherman's Wharf where I caught an F line PCC (Boston Elevated Ry) to the ferry building.

At this point it seems natural to walk down into Embarcadero Station and catch and N or T--at least going this way, they're no guessing game--you can stand on the same platform to catch either. But long experience has taught me that riding a Muni train either into our out of the subway is often a slow and painful ordeal. Something about switching between computer control and manual puts them through fitful starts and stops. I decided to walk a couple of blocks and catch a train that had already been through all this, out in the open, at the stop next to the Cupid's Arrow statue.

NextBus said the next Muni train wouldn't be for 20 minutes. I was just about resigned to more walking, when one appeared out of the tunnel. Did NextBus think this train had already passed by? Or perhaps it looses track of trains when they transition from the subway (where it probably finds out their location from the automatic train control system) to the surface (where it tracks them by getting updates from onboard GPS). Whatever.

The T-train's progress was reasonable, until about when we hit Giants Stadium. The last couple blocks from there to CalTrain took about 15 minutes. In fact, most of that time was spent at a dead stop just before crossing the 4th & King intersection to get to my stop. I had nothing to stare at but a flyer announcing pulbic meetings about the planned Central Subway.

It seems to me like a public agency really ought to try improving service through cheap and simple means, like getting traffic laws enforced so that busses and streetcars can flow better through traffic, and trying to stop inflicting delays on passengers through one's own bungling before it has the nerve to ask the public to pony up a few billion dollars to improve service through new infrastructure. Fix the easy stuff first!

Muni could be so awesome if San Francisco just cared enough to run it well :(

At least on CalTrain I got an express, and zipped to Millbrae nonstop in much less time than it had taken to cover a mile or so on the Embarcadero.

Meanwhile, here's how my wife and daughter's journey went: We left the house at 11:15, allowing an hour to reach the airport, and the recommended two hours to check in and get through security, to catch a flight at 2:15. Sometimes allowing that whole two hours seems a little paranoid, but in this case, since they were flying with United, it was just about right. Or would have been, except that the flight was pushed out to 3:45. They reached my in-law's house in Redondo Beach about 6:00.

This is the kind of scenario that the corrupt and incompetent, but in this case correct, folks at the California High Speed Railway Authority like to point to as an illustration of the fact that high speed rail could provide shorter door-to-door travel times than flying, because train stations are just inherently more convenient to get to and get through than airports. Of course, you could have beat yesterday's travel time (6 hrs, 45 mins) driving if you didn't hit traffic. Theoretically, you could also get to LA in that time with conventional, non-bullet trains like the ones AmTrak already runs, if they were run reliably, and someone had the guts to make the UP and BNSF keep their freight trains out of the way. Again, try the cheap solutions first!

Well, I'm back! It's good to be home, but I do miss Swiss transit!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Double Decker in San Francisco

The Muni is experimenting with a double decker bus. We were up in the city shopping on Christmas Eve Eve (and picked up some excellent cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, in the Ferry Building, that made for an extremely yummy Christmas fondue), when it happened to pull up in front of us on Market Street, running on the 38L.

It will be interesting to see how this works out.

The general opinion in the transit field seems to be that double deckers are slower to load and unload than articulated busses. Even London has been migrating to artics. But maybe in a crowded city, a smaller (in terms of its footprint) and more nimble vehicle would have an easier time getting through traffic.

I will be posting my evaluation of transit in Switzerland, and what can be learned from it, in this blog soon--meanwhile, if you're curious, you can read about my trip from a more purely tramfannic perspective over at

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Visiting the Land of Punctual Trains

I'll be travelling the next two weeks--watch for me here!

Sausalito/Mill Valley Trolley

This has recently been proposed by a new group. Here's some articles:

North Bay Business Journal, Oct 29th, "Marin Group Exploring Trolley System".

Marin Independent Journal, Nov 12th, "Trolley Proposal Intriguing".

Here's a proposal of my own: bundle this project with SMART; that way, the trolley will get funded, and SMART will pick up some much-needed votes in Marin.

Walking to School, Riding the Bus

The other day I left my bike at work--my family met me with the van, and it was too full of Girl Scouts Fall Sales stuff to fit a bike.

So the next day, I walked with my daughter to school. Along the way, we've gotten to know a couple of cats that come out at the right time for kids walking by. We petted "Athena", a fluffy calico.

I caught the 295--keepin' it real! This route wanders through posh parts of RWC and Menlo. Most of the other passengers looked to be domestic help on the way to work. I was definitely the only rider using a laptop.

CalTrain/SamTrans connections are not terribly well timed. It actually got me to work quicker to take a long ride to Menlo Park than a short ride to Sequoia Station, since at Sequoia, I would just miss making a train. Might as well be moving as sitting on a bench.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Puddles were Stomped

For an upcoming trip to Switzerland, we are buying presents for a couple nephews and some other little ones we'll be visiting. It occurred to me--how about some cute, touristy, San Francisco F line shirts? The Market Street Railway has a nice little Museum/Gift-shop at the foot of Market. So my daughter and I decided to pay them a visit.

Since we were getting a late start, my plan was to drive (quickly!) to Millbrae, take CalTrain to the City and BART back. We've done this plenty of times before. The itinerary has the advantage that for the trip in you get the speed and scenery advantages of CalTrain's bayshore line (plus with my monthly pass, it's a free ride for me), but on the way out you can just go to BART at your convenience--the unpredictability of Muni combined with CalTrain's hourly service on weekends makes getting home on CalTrain sketchy.

It was not to be this time--an accident (it just started raining, so no surprise) shut down the 101. Stuck in traffic, I mused that having been let down by CalTrain last week, and now unable to get anywhere by car, I am probably up for a flat tire on my bike next. Eventually we got to Millbrae and took BART.

I'm still annoyed that the Peninsula BART Extension was built as a subway, underneath a perfectly serviceable inherited railway right-of-way. Mostly, it was a colossal waste of money. It also deprives passengers of scenery--some one it bucolic. Apparently, in what may be the most ridiculous case of NIMBYism ever, BART was undergrounded through Colma to avoid disturbing residents--of cemeteries, that is! Mostly, it's just annoying because riding BART trains through tunnels is loud (can't they spray something on the walls to dampen sound?). We invented a new game--cover your ears, mouth words, and try to lipread!

The Market Street Ry's museum is small, but nice. My daughter got expert instruction in operation of vintage streetcars:

And was soon ready to start work as a Motorette:

There are also some nice large scale models of various vintages of streetcars and cable cars, and we peered at a collection of transit tokens under a magnifying glass.

With T shirts bought, we ventured out into the rain. The Bay Bridge and downtown buildings were spookily disappearing into the clouds. What to do? It was a little bit too soon to head back, but I didn't want to take on any really big adventures (Pier 39 was suggested) at the end of a rainy day. We decided to cross the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building, to pick up coffee and hot chocolate a Peets (a cinnamon twist was added to our order). More practically, we bought some produce from one of the organic vendors in the Ferry Building Market. Along the way, puddles were stomped.

Then we headed home.

Using BART TVM's--an important skill for every Bay Area kid to learn!

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Bit of a Long Commute, Both Ways

Wednesday we went out for fondue at Crepes Cafe in Menlo Park. It was fully of cheesy goodness!

The next morning, I was determined to work that off. I biked to work, with a bit of a detour. I went up Alpine Road a bit, realized it wasn't really heading the right direction for me, and turned back, and ended up on a poorly marked bike trail that leads to here:

To be clear--it started out as a bike trail, labeled as such, but apparently you're not supposed to bike up to the dish. Or so I was told by the Stanford campus security. I'm pretty sure there was no sign at the entrance I used.

Well, I enjoyed my one and only ride to the dish.

After that, I felt entitled to an easy, conventional, ride home on the train after work. It was not to be. I noticed that the express, which leaves Mountain View just ahead of my local, kind of limped away from the station. My own train arrived on time, but poked along, until after leaving Cal Ave, they announced that the train ahead had broken down, and that we'd be pushing it.

After a few minutes, we proceded, crew got off, we carefully nudged up, and pretty soon there was that big clanking sound of couplers.

Not what you normally expect to see out of the front window.

So far, OK. But apparently the recovery plan went awry at this point. I think they had mechanical problems making all the electrical and brake-hose connections that need to be made for a bunch of cars and engines to actually function as a train. It appeared they even brought in some guys from the shops in San Jose to figure it out.

I think we were stuck there for about 90 mins, with the lights out a lot of that time. One door was open, and a conductor took a "don't ask don't tell" approach to letting passengers escape via a hole in a fence that lead to Alma (a dark stretch with no sidewalk and lots of traffic).

Plenty of trains went by in both directions on the SB track. So our two stuck trains did not bring the system to a halt--it was just us stuck out there.

Their original plan seemed to be to get the broken train to Palo Alto and leave it there, operating single track all night, I supposed. The pusher train I was on was supposed to back up to get around it. Passengers were advised to get off and cross over to the SB platform where another NB train would probably arrive sooner than the one we were on would be able to make that move.

By the time we reached PA, the plans had changed--the whole double-length train would run express to SF, anyone wanting to get to a destination closer than that needed to get off and wait for a following train.

Probably the best thing to do, really--just get the disabled the train off of the line.

A few suggestions to CalTrain:

  • Trains shouldn't break down!
  • If they're going to, maybe you should stash an extra engine somewhere at the middle of the line, like Redwood Junction.
  • Creative solutions like coupling up trains are fine, but maybe need to be rehearsed a bit more!
  • It a train's going to be stuck for an hour or more, why not stop another one next to it, and let passengers walk over (carefully!).

CalTrain passengers are a polite bunch, it seems. Most people took it pretty well. Only at the end did a few of the "I'm mad and I'm going to let everyone know it" types that you expect to see and hear in transit delays start to make their presence known.

I got off at Palo Alto and made the rest of my trip home by dependable, two-wheeled transportation.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Slow Sales at Sequoia Station

It's Fall Sales time for the Girl Scouts. Last spring, we tried selling cookies to commuters on CalTrain. Business was great, but eventually the transit police told us we weren't allowed to do that (though we made a last, few, whispered sales on the way to the door).

So this time, we got official permission to set up stationary shop at Redwood City's Sequoia Station. We brought folding chairs and a good supply of chocolate covered raisins, gummy berries, etc, and waited for business.

Charming and professional!

Despite jumping through the official hoops, a Securitas guard working for CalTrain was pretty sure we weren't supposed to be doing this. He called somebody in charge, and they confirmed that, despite our attempts to be on the level, Girl Scout sales are not allowed on CalTrain property--but he never actually told us to leave.

The message on the electronic sign was apparently apropos.

We had a few customers.

I really should get a high-visibility-color jacket like that.

But not as many as we hoped. I blame it on the fact that it was dark and cold (darn time change!), that we were on the the southbound platform where people were mainly getting off the train to go home (instead of waiting for trains), and that most people have been snacking on leftover Halloween candy all week.

I was hoping that our position between the CalTrain platform and the SamTrans bus circle would get us some good cross traffic, but doesn't seem to be that much transfering between systems. It's a bit like two parallel but separate transit universes.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Ride Downtown - MiMe's Cafe

My daughter and I rode SamTrans route 271 to downtown Redwood City.

We met Mom at MiMe's cafe. It was Halloween, and a lot of the staff was in costume. We were greeted at the door by Old Scratch himself.

Mime's Cafe (we pronounce it Mimi's--though I admit we never asked about that) is run by young people in a culinary arts training program. They're very nice and it's really good (only open for breakfast and lunch).

My daughter got to help make her own pizza:

We also got free dessert--I guess somebody's learning how to make chocolate cake (and has learned pretty well, too)!

It's all very yummy. Definitely a place to add to my transit-accessible restaurants list.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

BART Closes 16th/Mission for Halloween

For several years, Muni has closed Castro station on Halloween. This is part of the city's attempt to squash the somewhat "overzealous" revelry that happens in the Castro. Anyway, it's not too long a walk to Church St, which gives partiers time to cool off and sober up, and prevents dangerous crowding that used to happen on the Castro station platforms.

This year, the city has taken things a step further, and asked BART to shut down their 16th & Mission station, the closest one to the Castro (it's about 1 mile). This has nothing to do with calming people down, rather just an effort to shut the party down entirely.

BART, with apparent disregard to any regular folks in the neighborhood who might want to ride for usual reasons, such as getting home for work for example, has acquiesced.

Transit riders are always a safe constituency to give the shaft. We so need to get organized!

On a lighter note--accessorizing with a genuine SamTrans jacket (the original owner was probably not really supposed to contribute it to the thrift shop where I found it, but that's not my concern), I accompanied my daughter trick-or-treating as a bus driver.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Score One for the Internet and DIY Bike Repair

For several weeks, the chain was slipping on my bike. This would particularly happen when I was pushing hard. Since I've basically resolved to never downshift (it's for the weak!) that's quite a lot of the time. But this makes it a difficult problem to track down, since if I just turn the crank by hand while not riding it will never happen, and watching my gears while accelerating from a stopsign, instead of paying attention to traffic, is probably not a good idea.

Since I really do never downshift more than half way, I first removed the front derailleur, which a I could tell was not exactly on straight. The chain moved more smoothly, but it didn't really solve my problem.

Now if you do much searching for information on the internet, you have probably noticed that whatever you're looking for, 99% of what you'll find is just somebody trying to sell you crap. Google really ought to have a feature that lets you block commercial sites. But I'm happy to report that the subject of bicycles is an exception--you really can find sites that aren't pushing anything, and actually contain helpful information.

A little reading, and I resolved that some part of my drive train must just be worn out. I have been riding this bike a lot, for more than a few years now, and I am at least the third owner. One of the ways you can wear these things out is by stretching your chain. There's an easy way to check for this; each link is supposed be exactly 1/2 inch long, so if you put up a ruler against your chain, and line up a link at zero, and don't find that another link 24 down the line aligns perfectly with the other end of the ruler, then something's not right. Indeed, the 24th link away from the zero mark on my ruler was about 12&3/8" away.

I had a slightly rusty chain salvaged from some previous bike, and put it on. Triflow helps loosen these things up nicely. Now some of these DIY bike repair sites will caution you that if you replace your chain, you may have to replace all your gears to make sure they mesh properly. Apparently they wear together, and a new chain may not work happily with worn gear teeth (one useful tip is to try reversing your gears instead of just buying new ones).

I have had to make no such drastic overhaul, thankfully.

Here's my not-so-pimp ride, complete with CalTrain tag and "fight terror, ride a bike" sticker:

Lot's of folks have fancier bikes--sitting in their garage!

On a humorous note, here's a story about how not to love your bike (thank you, Militant Angeleno, for that link)!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

It's New Urbanism--NOT!

At first blush, this new building in Mountain View

looks like an example of the kind of traditional urbanism praised by Jane Jacobs, and so lacking from modern development--there's a corner store, contributing to the usefulness and liveliness of the street, with living space above.

But on closer inspection--that's not living space for people, it's for cars. On top of that Long's drugs is a 5-level parking garage. I guess you could call it faux-urbanist, or maybe vertical suburbian.

Mountain View has a ton of parking downtown. I don't know why they thought they needed more. I guess we can't really expect all those rich-ass googlers to walk or take transit...

I'm resolving to give my blog posts a more positive vibe, and in fact, there are a few good things to note about this building:

  • All those folks in the dense housing across the street will actually be able to walk to a drugstore.
  • There's finally a place you can use an ATM card in downtown Mountain View, without getting reamed with extra charges, if you need to pay cash for lunch.
  • Biking to the top of a 5 level parking garage is my new workout. It's close to my work, a decent climb, and then you get a view at the top and a fun ride down.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Question for CalTrain from a a Bike-Riding Passenger

Sure seems like there's room for another stack of bikes on the Bombardier cars (on which only 16 bikes are allowed).

So why not?

SPRINTER to Split Trains--So it *can* Still be Done

In the old days, it used to be common to split trains mid run. A combined train might start from A, split at B, with one half of the cars going to C and the other to D. Going the other direction, the trains from C and D would meet at B, and run jointly to A.

Modern transit systems seem to avoid this type of operation like the plague. They prefer to force riders to transfer, or else fall back on the "odd trains to X, even trains to Y" type of operation, neither of which is ideal... it's a prime example of transit providers optimizing service for their convenience, rather than passengers'.

The San Diego North County Transit District has just announced plans to to schedule a mid-line split in for their new SPRINTER trains. The SPRINTER route is purely linear, but the idea is to improve service in the early morning. The first train of the day will begin at Escondido, the eastern terminal, run westwards to the midpoint of the line and split, with one half continuing west to Oceanside and the other heading back east. This will give the eastern half of the line eastbound (countercommute, I guess) service an hour earlier than was otherwise scheduled.

So if SPRINTER can do it, why not other transit systems?

  • On weekends, BART could run combined trains from Millbrae to Oakland, then split them into shorter trais to Richmond, Fremont, and Baypoint.
  • CalTrain, if/when it replaces locomotive-hauled trains with EMU's, could replace it's half-local/half-express trains (trains that run local in the north/sound end and express in the other end) with trains that run local half way and then split into a local and express.
  • CalTrain, if/when it extends southwards, could split trains to serve Hollister, Salinas, and Monterey.
  • Dumbarton Rail, if and when it gets built, should run combined trains across the bridge, and then split them in RWC, one half heading to SF and the other to SJ.

The people who run transit agencies are very good at coming up with reasons why new ideas can't be done, but if SPRINTER sets a precedent for splitting trains, it'll be a little harder for them.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fondue in San Mateo

It probably doesn't fit my diet, but I suppose I'll have to check this out--for transit research purposes--The Melting Pot, a fondue chain, has opened it's latest branch in the San Mateo CalTrain station tonight. Can't beat that for convenience.

It's about time they got something in there (the new station was built in 2001 and has sat empty til now). We still need to get someone to move into the Mountain View station. Note to Peets: if you set up shop here, I will buy a cup of coffee every day!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

RWC Library Book Sale this Weekend

The Friends of the Redwood City Public Library is holding a booksale this weekend. Hours are 10-4 Friday and Saturday. Sunday it's 1-4, and they'll be trying to clear everything out then by selling books for $5 a bag!

The Redwood City Public Library is conveniently located a block SE of the CalTrain station.

Monday, October 15, 2007

O'Toole on BART to San Jose

Our old friend Randal O'Toole has written an article on BART to San Jose in the San Jose Business Journal (here's a link to the article on the Cato Institute site).

O'Toole brings out some familiar tactics, such as comparing ridership of BART (one line) vs that of the region's entire freeway system (the more relevent comparison is rush-hour passenger throughput for the specific corridor serverd) and describing it as a service for wealthy white suburbanites (it's amazing how conservatives suddenly discover compassion for the downtrodden when it serves their needs--it's also clear that O'Toole has never actually ridden BART, which carries a pretty representative cross-section of the public, in my experience).

But he does make some important and valid points. I've written a response, which the SJ Business Journal has apparently opted not to print, so I'll post it here:

Randal O'Toole has made a career of attacking rail transit; he sees only waste in even the most successful systems, and writes of the inevitability of automobiles with an almost religious zeal. But whatever his bias, his criticisms of the VTA's plans to build BART to San Jose are basically correct: as long as Silicon Valley remains a vast sea of sprawling office parks, designed for cars and only cars, even a first class transit system will be irrelevent to most commuters.

Yet the only alternative vision, a perpetual program of highway construction and widening, is a proven failure. That's pretty much what we've been doing for the last 50 years, and yet increasing the supply of pavement only seems to bring out more demand. After a $150 million rebuild, the 101/85 interchange remains a bottleneck, and the 101 from San Jose to Gilroy is slowly turning back into the perpetual traffic jam it was before it's capacity was doubled not many years ago.

There is a solution to our transportation problems. It is simple, and obvious enough to anyone who has a regular job and commutes to it, if not to politicians or think-tankers: build new office space conveniently close to existing transit stations (which means a couple blocks walk, not a shuttle-ride away). Think, for a moment, how much transit ridership might grow if San Jose steered commercial development into a couple of new office towers across the street from Diridon Station.

Unless our regional leaders commit to making transit work, by centering new jobs around it, any new project like BART is doomed to be the failure that Mr O'Toole predicts.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Someday, we may zip between the Bay Area and Southern California on 200mph bullet trains.

Unfortunately, the California High Speed Rail Authority, a state agency charged with planning the railway, will likely just be a historical footnote when the trains are finally running.

Although Schwarzenegger has tried to kill it, or at best put it on a starvation budget, what really seems likely to be the end of this project is the agency's own strange inability to settle on a route.

Two routes have been proposed to connect the Bay Area to the Central valley, one over the Pacheco pass (Gilroy to Los Banos) and one via the Altamont (Fremont to Livermore to Stockton). There are a lot pros and cons to both. The major pros for the Altamont route are that it will serve thousands more people (unless HSR itself triggers massinve new suburban sprawl near Los Banos) and doubles as a useful route to Sacramento. The pro for the Pacheco route are that it makes travel times from San Jose to Los Angeles several minutes quicker.

Both routes also have engineering challenges and environmental impacts, but although proponents of each route like to bring up these issues up when looking for flaws in the other, there's no clear winner in either of these areas.

In building anything, there will be design tradeoffs like this. Sometimes the decision is hard, but in this case I think it's easy: the fact that the Altamont serves more people both makes it a better route and makes the whole project more likely to actually happen: people in places like Livermore, Stockton, and Sacramento are going to have to help pay for it (estimated cost, $30 billion+), and they're only going to vote for it if they can forsee getting some use out of it.

Unfortunately, the HSR project has been in the hands of folks from the south bay who have got it into their heads that anything other than the Pacheco alignment is a huge civic snub to San Jose--Pacheco makes it a "hub", and Altamont a mere "spur". These are the same geniuses who planned the VTA's light rail system (which, while I will admit to having grown somewhat fond of it over the years, still remains the nation's least successful light rail system by far--which almost certainly also makes it the world's least successful one). They even went to the extent of arbitrarily dropping the Altamont route from consideration in the project's initial EIR--if you don't study it, you can't build it!

The MTC has now brokered a compromise of sorts--build both routes. Really. You seriously want to go to the voters, and ask them to pay for a $30 billion project which is now going to cost $40 billion because you just couldn't make a decision? Convincing voters to pay for this project was always a longshot--I think now it'd be for the best just to let the Gov cancel it, so the CA HSR can turn off the lights and call it quits.

This is not really such a bad thing. What our state should be focusing on now is incremental improvements to the speed, reliability, and interconnectivity of the rail network we already have (although it is so fractured it's hard to even see as a network). Imagine if CalTrain, BART, ACE, Metrolink and Amtrak all worked well, and worked well together. Imagine if we filled in a few gaps, and started stringing services together, and ran trains at easily achievable speeds, if not bullet train speeds. Shouldn't we try running trains at 100mph before 200mph?

Interestingly, the route proposed for HSR (Altamont) is almost covered by a patchwork of passenger trains already, with the gaps likely to be closed--CalTrain from SF to mid-peninsula, Dumbarton Rail to Fremont, ACE from Fremont to Stockton, Amtrak San Joaquins from Stockton to Bakersfield ... here there's a bit of a gap, though freight tracks bridge it via Tehachapi ... Metrolink from Lancaster to LA.

Suppose there was one through train, with a running time of, say, 6 hours. Would you ride it? I would. Sure, it's not competitive with flying for speed, but it beats driving, and I think there's a market there. I'm sure residents of the Central Valley would find a 2-3 hour train ride to the coast attractive. This is something that could actually be built, probably for an amount of money that state voters would give a thumbs up to without blinking (low billions, perhaps?). And once this is built, and running well--that's the time to ask for the big bucks for bullet trains.

(See also Bay Rail Alliance and Arch21.Org if you want to read more).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The VTA's Hard Sell for BART

Watching Santa Clara County try to sell its voters on BART, I feel a bit like I'm dealing with a slick car salesman.

In 2000 (Measure A) they promised that one tax would cover BART, CalTrain electrification, and a couple of new light rail lines to boot.

Once we were in the showroom, so to speak, it turned out that these extras were a "dot com economy special", not valid during recessions.

In 1996 they tried to get more money out of us by bundling: county health services sounds better than "undercoating", but it's the same tactic: throw in something new to trick you into spending more than you want.

Now they're proposing another sales tax, just a little one. This is the hard sell--just come up a little on the price and we'll have a deal...

This is the point where any self-respecting customer walks out in a huff, determined to "take their business elsewhere".

There are, and always were, cheaper and maybe even better alternatives.

Take a look at the Bay Rail Alliance's proposal for CalTrain Metro East.

When "professionals" fail this badly, it's time for citizens to take planning into their own hands!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

People Don't Really Like Cars So Much After All

Conventional wisdom is that Americans love cars. I'm sure most people like to drive somewhat. But as much as we may like driving our own cars, we don't really like anybody else driving theirs, especially on "our" streets!

In the last few days I've read that residents of San Mateo's 3rd Ave, which connects downtown with the freeway, are out waving "Slow" signs at drivers speeding by. And SJ's Willow Glen neighborhood is equally tired of being used as a shortcut, and residents are asking the city for more enforcement, a ban on trucks, and traffic calming measures.

Official responses to concerns over neighborhood traffic are mixed.

Much modern development, especially of the posher sort, is laid out with twists and cul-de-sacs, and even gates, that make streets unusable for passing through, essentially just extensions of residents' driveways. The streets are quiet and safe for pedestrians and kids on bikes (though ironically the layout makes it pretty much impossible to actually get anywhere without a car).

These streets may be plotted and even paid for by developers, but nothing gets built without a stamp of approval from city hall, so this pattern acknowledges that traffic in residential streets is something to be avoided--for some residents, anyway.

On the other hand, if you live in an older neighborhood, officialdom's attitude seems often to be that if you're foolish enough to live on a street where people happen to want to drive, that's your problem. Consider SJ Councilman Forrest Williams' fatalistic response to the Willow-Glennians' pleas:

You can't slow the cars, you can put stop signs, traffic lights, speed bumps -- people have this mentality. Twenty-five mph signs aren't going to make a difference. You could put 50 mph signs and they are still going to speed.

Neighbors seem to disagree, and it's pretty clear that improved enforcement and traffic calming do work, where there's political will.

What does all this have to do with transit?

First, I've long suspected that a lot of the perceived speed and convenience advantages of driving comes down to the fact that we tolerate unsafe driving. If you make full stops at stopsigns, leave a safe stopping distance between you and the car in front of you on the freeway, actually treat pedestrians as equal users of the road--in short, don't let the fact that you're behind the wheel keep you from acting like a human being--you may find that riding a bus or train is a much more relaxing way to get around.

This issue goes beyond the actions of individuals. Traffic engineers themselves too often are willing to sacrifice safety for throughput. And there are vested interests in this status quo. Carless in Seattle has an interesting post about the struggle to improve safety on a single street.

Second, it's a good argument for our cause: make transit work so that we can make driving sane again, take back our streets, and make them safe for kids to cross.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Google Transit Comes to the Bay Area

Google has been working on a transit trip planner, built on top of their maps, at Despite their Mountain View location, the Bay Area was not one of the first regions they rolled out to--and given the bewildering collection of transit agencies we have here, I don't blame them!

Now at least they've added BART and VTA. I tried generating a few test itineraries between the south and east bay, and the results look reasonable. Hopefully, they'll add CalTrain soon (I sure see a lot of Googlers on CalTrain).

How they'll handle itineray generation for the basically unscheduled, non-deterministic system that is the Muni (Schroedinger's Bus, anyone?) will be interesting to see.

Monday, September 24, 2007

CalTrain CEMOF (Maintenance Facility) Open House

From a CalTrain press release:

Caltrain Set to Open New $140M Maintenance Facility

Caltrain will officially open its new Centralized Equipment Maintenance & Operations Facility on Saturday, Sept. 29. After nearly three years of construction, this $140 million facility will finally provide Caltrain with its first-ever “home” for maintenance and operations.

The new facility will accommodate critical activities, including inspections, maintenance, repairs, train washing and storage. CEMOF will consolidate Caltrain's existing maintenance facilities and provide the capacity to complete certain maintenance that had to be contracted out until now. The change is particularly welcome for employees, who have had to work outside in all kinds of weather with few amenities, often crawling on the ground to do repairs.

The CEMOF grand opening will be open to the public and include a community open house as well. Attendees will park at the nearby San Jose Diridon Caltrain Station and be brought to the CEMOF site on a special train that will depart the station at 10 a.m. Diridon station is located at 65 Cahill St. Attendees who cannot arrive in time for the train ride can take a special SamTrans shuttle that will depart from the Diridon station for the CEMOF location every 15 minutes from 10:15 a.m. until 12:15 p.m.

The event will begin with a short program at 10:30 a.m., including comments from local, state and federal officials, including Amtrak President Alexander Kummant. Immediately afterward, attendees may tour the facility and get an explanation of the types of maintenance and repairs that will take place at CEMOF.

The special train will return to Diridon station at 12:30 p.m., however attendees are welcome to leave before or after that time via the shuttles, which will run back to the train station until 1 p.m.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cars Aren't Really Transportation

A counterpoint to statements of US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who blamed the Minneapolis bridge collapse on frivolous use of gas tax funds to pay for bike paths instead of road repair, when bicycling "is not really transportation anyway".

Now to be fair, cars are partly about transportation. Some cars are pretty much just functional ways from getting you from point A to point B. For example, I used to drive one of these:

It was actually a lot of fun.

Now if you're driving something like this to work,

That's about more than transportation--it's about one ton of transportation (a Festiva weighs 1800 lbs) and two and a half (a suburban weights 7000) of vanity, conspicuous consumption, and self-aggrandizement.

It's been pointed out before that America could be fuel-self-sufficient if everyone drove reasonable sized cars. Less discussed, but just as true, is the fact that larger cars exacerbate conjestion--it's not just that they take up more roadway themselves, but cause drivers leave more pavement unoccupied, because you just can't see around those things. And, obviously, a heavier vehicle wears out bridges and aslphalt that much faster.

So, if we're going to talk seriously about spending transportation funds purely on transportation, let's acknowledge that commuting in any car bigger than a compact is a matter of luxury, not transportation--and subsidizing it (by charging nothing for using as much road space as you feel like filling) is a ridiculous was of our taxes.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Streetcars, Light Rail, and Sensible Engineering: Making a Left Turn at Albuquerque

It is becoming more and more apparent that much of what is constructed as "light rail" is, in fact, just very over-engineered streetcar lines--or conversely, that "modern streetcars" are light rail built sensibly.

Take a look, for example, at the complex overhead on a piece of the VTA's Tasman West line:

You would think this was built for bullet trains, but I doubt the VTA's trains ever run much more than 40 MPH here.

This sort of construction may be merited in other, faster parts of the VTA system, particularly the southern stretches, where faster speeds are possible. Speed may justify fancy overhead, heavier cars (for safety) and the consequently heavier and more expensive track construction these cars need (even in the parts of the system where they putter or crawl along). Certainly, there are light rail systems in other regions, such as San Diego's and the LA Blue Line, which really haul ass and clearly needed to be built like real railroads.

VTA trains are positively zippy compared to the Muni's, which outside of the subway operate in classic trolley car fashion, with all its charms (you guys know I'm a foamer, right? Read my other blog!) and failings--including the new T line, which even when it's bugs are eventually (someday?) worked out, will still just basically be a streetcar line (with the advantage of running a reserved median), built for $100 million per mile, but not hitting speeds much faster than "modern streetcar" lines that other cities, like Portland, have built for a quarter of that cost.

But we're the wonderful Bay Area, right? And entitled to world-class transit, whatever it costs? AARRGH!!!

Meanwhile, other cities, less convinced of their own entitlement to fabulousness, or perhaps where local politics requires a clearer ROI on transit investment (i.e., underpeforming boondoggles will get you voted out of office), have figured out how to get things built much cheaper than we do, and this is starting to make streetcar/light-rail systems practical for much smaller cities. One is Albuquerque, which is designing a streetcar system to be built with funds left over from other projects (!).

I am optimistic this project will reach fruition, given New Mexico's track record getting their Rail Runner Commuter Train up and running in a mere three years from proposal to first run, which must be some kind of a record.

There are plenty of smaller cities in California that might do well to look at streetcars. Santa Cruz has studied transit uses for an existing railway right of way, but has balked at the price for light rail, estimated at something in the $300 millions as of the the early '90s--admittedly an awful lot of money for a metro region with less than 100,000 people. But perhaps this project, out of reach at "light rail" prices, might be feasable if recast as a "streetcar".

I wrote about some of these issues in this earlier post. Here is a recent (and good) post on the subject (with lots of links) in The Overhead Wire, and here's a very thorough article in LightRailNow. If Bay Area transit were only run by the online transit blogosphere, how much better our lives would be!

Friday, September 14, 2007

You Might be able to Drive Faster, Maybe

In the middle of the night, ignoring all stopsigns.

I noticed my tires were squishy, reinflated them, and noticed I'm riding a lot faster. So I decided to see if I could beat my personal best commute time. Here's how it worked out this morning:

9:20 Leave home, in SW Redwood City
9:33 Arrive at Menlo Park CalTrain (3 miles from home)
9:35 Board Train 332, SB Bullet
9:46 Arrive, Mountain View (7 miles from MP)
9:48 At office (3 blocks away)

According to Google Maps, this trip is 13.3 miles, and takes 20 mins by car--but I assure you, it takes longer when you (and everybody else) are trying to get to work. Total time for my intermodal commute is 28 mins--which is pretty much the same as the actual time it takes to drive here, in my experience.

Yellow Pages Train

Varying opinions were voiced on the platform about this train:

I kinda like it. Anyway, variety is good. I'm just glad they didn't paint over the engineer's window.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Bus Ride is Worth Paying For

The San Francisco Board of Supes has been discussing the idea of free transit (again). The reasoning seems to be (seriously) that the Muni does such a poor job of collecting fares, that it might as well just give up. Extending this line of reasoning, we could suggest that since Muni busses and trains are usually late, and sometimes don't show up at all, it should stop running them altogether.

Since nobody's proposing a source of funds to replace the fares that the Muni does, sometimes, actually collect, this whole fare-free transit idea should pretty much be regarded as so much talk, which is no more likely to lead to a change in policy than the Supes' periodic resolutions censuring the president. Still, if they're going to talk about fare-free transit (and they do, about once a year) it's worth pointing out some of the reasons why this is a terrible idea.

  • It's not going to boost ridership. It's not like people drive cars in the City because the Muni is too expensive, for crissakes!
  • It will turn Muni vehicles into moving homeless shelters.
  • Most seriously, it changes public transit from a service which riders pay to use into a welfare project.
    • Which takes away riders' right to complain about the service.
    • Not to mention dignity.
    • And it dooms transit from ever being taken seriously by the general public.
  • Dependency on farebox revenue, even if there are other sources of funds, forces transit agencies to think in healthy, business-like ways: about improving efficiency and attracting users.

As I've said before: I'm happy to pay the full cost of my CalTrain rides if I can be excused from paying taxes for freeways.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Does Muni Need a New Control Center?

There's no denying that Muni's current control center, which dates to the mid-70's opening of the Muni Metro subway, is a museum piece:

From an SF Chronicle Article

They would like to replace all this with up-to-date equipment. The estimated price tag is $120 million, which seems a bit steep to me. For comparison, that's enough for a whole fleet of LRV's (they go for about $2-3 million), one mile of streetcar tracks at San Francisco prices (or 6 miles they way the build it in Portland--see my earlier post on streetcar engineering here), or a heck of a lot of busses.

Up-to-date does not necessarilly mean top-dollar. Certainly, if one were motivated, something could be put together with off-the-shelf equipment for far less than that.

Muni has a lot of problems, but what it needs most of all is competent and honest management. A state-of-the-art control center will not help address the fact that, due to equipment breakdowns and understaffing, many runs never even leave the barn! Put the right people in charge, and they'll run the system well with walkie talkies and notepads--and then we can start talking about what technology can help them do their jobs more efficiently.

Friday, September 07, 2007

More Reading Around the Blogosphere

The N-Judah Chronicles blogs commuting life on the often dissed but somehow endearing SF Muni--which still as much of an adventure as I remember from my youth.

MetroRiderLA led me to Militant Angeleno, online journal of a bike and subway riding LA citizen. Read it, find out a few nice things about LA, and a vision of urban evolution. Rage on, brother!

Fighting Back Against Transit Cuts

A Sacramento Bee Article reports that California Transit Association has filed a suit to block the recently-passed state budget's transfer of $1.3 billion of gas tax revenue from transit to general funds (see my earlier post, a toned-down version of which was printed in the Mountain View Voice).

The law seems to be pretty unambiguous:

According to the lawsuit, the shift violates a string of constitutional amendments approved by voters. Proposition 116, which voters passed in 1990, established the Public Transportation Account funded by motor fuel sales tax. The state was directed to use the money "only for transportation planning and mass transportation purposes," and subsequent propositions reinforced the account.

The Legislative Analyst's Office had warned that parts of the accounting move were legally unworkable.

As a side point, I notice that this Bee article repeats a statement I've seen many times in the press, which is just plain not true:

The account, which is partly funded by the sales tax on diesel fuel and gasoline, has been flush with cash because of high gas prices.

The California gas tax is a straight 18¢ per gallon, not a percentage of sales price, as this graphic from the state energy department makes clear:

So if gas tax revenues are increasing, it's got nothing to do with the cost of gas, just that people are using more of it--indicating an increased demand for transportation, which can reasonably imply an increased need for transit. This is more a technical point than a political one, but c'mon, get your facts right!

Watch out for the Yakuza

Our friendly CalTrain conductor this morning (he says he's been working it 22 years, and has a big SP belt buckle to prove it) related an interesting incident from last week.

Several passengers, in different cars, made complaints about harassment from each other, which no-one else had seen. One was Black, one Italian, and one Russian. Of course as long as they were riding in different cars now, it didn't much matter. The Black guy got off the (southbound) train in San Carlos, and as he headed down the ramp, our conductor noticed, from the departing train, the Russian following after at a brisk pace--even though he'd had a ticket good for the whole trip down to San Jose.

I suggested that the only logical conclusion was that the Russian Mafia was making a hit.

Our conductor had reached the same conclusion himself, and called over the ticket inspector to prove that someone agreed.

Well, if we're not going to get WiFi on the train, we're going to have to make up our own entertainment!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

I Half-Agree with Wendell Cox

"Notorious" anti-planning and anti-transit crusader Wendell Cox has written an interesting article, appearing in the Orange County Register, predicting that, despite most predictions, California's population will grow slowly in coming decades, noting that growth has stalled or even reversed in the last decade.

His makes points that I agree with:

What is going on? Try housing affordability. In the three large coastal metropolitan areas, median home prices have exploded to more than 10 times median household incomes. Historically, this "median multiple" has been 3.0 or less and remains so in many parts of the United States. People have moved inland to take advantage of lower housing costs. But now housing costs are escalating substantially inland and, not surprisingly, growth has slowed.


In fact, California has brought the housing affordability crisis and the resultant slower growth on itself. California's strict and bureaucratic land-use regulation has driven the price of developable land through the roof.


California may be pricing itself out of the future. Given the choice between a rental unit 20 miles from the coast in San Diego and a 3,000-square-foot house on a third of an acre in the suburbs of Kansas City or Indianapolis, it is not surprising that places like the latter are now domestic migration winners.

As readers of my frequent rants against stupid NIMBYs will likely guess, I find much to agree with here. Adamant opposition to denser housing by California cities' current residents, and the simple fact that the only land left open for new sprawl is a hundred miles or so from employment centers, has produced a housing availability/affordability crisis (which I've tried to quantify in this post).

So why can I only half-agree with Wendell Cox? You would not know if from this article, but Mr Cox is known among pro-transit circles as an anti-transit, anti-smart-growth crusader, funded (unsurprisingly) by groups associated with the highway building business. And while he may portray himself as a type of less-government/less-spending conservative, like many conservatives, he's pretty selective in what spending and what regulation he criticizes. He apparently sees no contradiction between opposing subsidies for transit while lobbying for handouts for highways. And whatever merits there may be to his criticisms of growth limits in this article, he is most vocal, in fact relentless, in attacking "smart growh" regulations such as Portland's--rather than the zoning that actually produces scarcity of housing, that which enforces low-density sprawl, and prohibits the kind of efficient land use that can boost the supply of housing units.

Years ago, I came across a libertarian website which advocated ending subsidies for all forms of transportation. They pointed out, correctly, that a century ago, public transit was a profitable business, until publicly funded highways undercut it--and advocated privatizing of roadways, turning all freeways into toll roads. At least the argument is logical and honest. These days, conservatives/libertarians only believe in "small government" as a club to beat programs they dislike, rather than a principle.

I am intrigued by the idea that transit ridership might actually grow in a less regulated, less subsidized environment. Planning has been used so much for exclusion--basically, cities are zoned to keep "too many" people from moving in--that I've become wary of it, even when it has better intentions. And I cannot deny that public subsidies for transit have produced wasteful overengineering, intattention to cheap and simple solutions, and all too often a diregard for the needs of passengers than no private enterprise could get away with showing its customers. And given that car commuting is only marginally bearable with constant and massive infusions for cash, it's tempting to speculate that if we just stopped spending money on transportation at all, we'd have instant gridlock so severe that public transit would turn profitable overnight.

There are more subtle ways to move in this direction. We could make drivers pay for more of the real cost of car commuting, such as by raising the tax on gas. Ultimately, maybe transit could be less subsidized too. Hell, I'd happily pay for the full cost of my CalTrain rides (CalTrain's farebox recovery ratio is about 40%, so my $60 monthly pass would be $150) if I could be excused from having to pay for freeways I barely use. Cities could also be planned more by incentives than decree. Let developers build, more or less, what they want or need to--but make them pay for whatever burdens it places on the community (as I advocated in my manifesto), for examply by taxing them per parking space.

Returning to Mr. Cox's article--he is correct to remind us of the links between development, population, and economic growht, and to point out that the status quo is destroying California's future. Simply put: NIMBY's opposition to new housing drives away residents, and ultimately business. Calfornia and especially the Bay Area must grow or wither--and the only way to grow is as cities--denser and mobilized by transit more than cars.

Can't Get Enough Transit Blogging?

Blogger Pantograph Trolleypole has created a City Transit Blog Aggregator, where you see new posts from dozens of transit blogs daily, all in one convenient place.

Mr. Trolleypole's own blog, The Overhead Wire, is a good read too.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fareboxes can Blue-Screen?

Everything's got a damn computer in it these days.

Computer Error Disables Fareboxes
$200,000 Lost Because Many Passengers Got Free Rides

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A computer glitch knocked out Metrobus's system for collecting fares yesterday, resulting in a loss of about $200,000 as many passengers rode for free during the first half of the day, officials said.

By afternoon, engineers had made a temporary repair that allowed fareboxes to work, Metrobus operations chief Milo Victoria said.

Victoria said the problem was caused when two internal computer systems failed to communicate properly. "We're still trying to figure out why it went down, but we think part of the hard drive got corrupted," he said.

Metrobuses are equipped with a system that automatically tracks their location. That system is connected to a farebox system, which works only when a bus driver is logged on.

But about 3:45 a.m. yesterday, the computer system for the fareboxes crashed because of an outage in the locator server. The crash automatically triggered electronic messages logging drivers off the system and taking the fareboxes out of service, Victoria said.

About two-thirds of the 1,200 buses on the road during the first part of the day were affected, he said.

By early afternoon, engineers and computer technicians were able to electronically disconnect the two systems at all but one of the 10 bus divisions "so they don't talk to each other and so bus operators can log on," Victoria said.

Additional supervisors were dispatched to the streets to monitor buses. The bus operations control center now must rely on radio communication with drivers to track their location.

This is the second time in several months that Metrobus fareboxes have not functioned properly. In the spring, a different type of problem prevented drivers from logging on, officials said.

Be dubious if someone tells you some new gizmo is going to save you money. I'm a firm believer in the KISS principle...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Save Safe Routes to School

As much as I like to talk about trains and bikes, the real "alternative transportation mode" (or really the original mode of getting about to which all others are alternatives) which we should be fighting for is walking.

This is a winnable fight--even the most car-bound, transit hostile among us have a vague idea that it would be nice to walk around a bit more. Encouraging pedestrianism and walkable communities is probably our last, best, hope for preventing mankind from evolving into helpless entities, incapable of surviving in the natural world, perpetually bound to wheeled mechanical shells, like daleks.

Where better to encourage walking than with kids, who, since they can't drive anyway, are relatively liberated by walking, compared to the total lack of control they have in cars. The exercise won't kill them, either.

Our state government has a Safe Routes to School program, which funds improvements to neighborhood streets to make walking to school more viable for more children. The state has been funding $24 million worth of these improvements per year, for the last seven years. According to studies by CalTrans, this program has actually produced results in terms of decreasing numbers of kids hit by cars on the way to school, and increase walking and biking to school. Unfortunately, this program has been another victim of our latest state budget. That's right, folks, we can spend $10 billion (b) on new freeways, but can't scrape together $24 million (m) to keep kids from getting run over.

The Transportation and Land Use Coalition has put out a call to action to save this program, which I wholeheartedly second.

We need you to call Senator Perata’s office and Senator Torlakson’s office to ask that the funding be restored on the Senate Floor. This is urgent, otherwise there will be no additional funding for Safe Routes to School after the call for projects that will take place later this year. Please make these phone calls ASAP or California will set a horrible national precedent.

  • Call Senator Don Perata (President Pro Tem) at his Capitol office - (916) 651-4009
  • Call Senator Tom Torlakson (Senate Appropriations Chairman) at his Capitol office - (916) 651-4007

See also the National Safe Routes to School Partnership.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Yeah, Right...

Anti-density zealots can seemingly find value in anything, no matter how run-down or humble, that is proposed to be replaced by housing, and come up with vital reasons why it must be preserved. In Mountain View, they called an office park a civic resource. In Menlo Park, Foster's Freeze is suddenly part of the city's cultural heritage. And now in San Mateo, where transit-oriented housing has been proposed for the site of a Kmart, they worry (see this letter in the 8/23 SM Daily Journal) that the city's poor will have nowhere to shop, without "Kmart's huge selection and low prices".

Never mind that San Mateo's housing crunch is turning it into a city totally unaffordable to ordinary working people--but I suspect that's really the point.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Some Simple Suggestions for CalTrain

How about:

  • On trains with more than one bike car, why not put a sign in a window to tell us that. Generally we only find out there's a second bike car when the conductor comes to tell us, just as the last few bikers are getting on, and generally just shrug. A sign on the train would get half of us to head back to the second bike car before we've waited in line to get on the first one.
  • Put ticket machines at the ends of station platforms, not the middle, so we can buy tickets as soon as we reach the station.
  • Make electronic station signs display the time more, instead of the date.

A mostly satisfied customer.

Shamelessly Taking Advantage of Tragedy to Advance my Agenda

The recent collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis brings up an important and generally-ignored fact--anything that's built will eventually need maintenance or replacement. We like to talk about new infrastructure as an investment that future generations will benefit from, but it also imposes a financial obligation on them.

It is pretty clear that our leaders, typically looking no farther forward than the next election, have no serious plan for paying for this maintenance, not surprising since their only plan for paying for building infrastructure is gobs of debt, with no idea of how to pay it off. I very nice double inheritance for the next generation, indeed!

I would like to point out that in terms of right-of-way maintenance, rapid transit can (potentially) impose much lower future maintenance costs than highways, since the right of way is so much smaller. An overpass for two tracks has more passenger capacity than one for ten freeway lanes, but is only 20% as much bridge.

Of course, how much this matters depends on how a system is built. Most of BART in the East Bay is elevated, and that's a lot of bridge (and it is, in fact, in need of seismic upgrading). Transit systems with simpler (and cheaper) grade-level right-of-ways such as CalTrain, or (for a more modern example) the San Diego Trolley are both vastly cheaper to construct and ultimately to maintain. Of course, there are clear safety advantages to grade separation. Adding over and underpasses to transit lines gradually, where and when it will most improve safety, but not demanding it for every last industrial backstreet that happens to cross the line, is a good compromise, raising safety without imposing excessive costs--either at the time of construction or down the road.

Ideally, every infrastructure project should have a plan for paying for long-term maintenance. Fares or tolls or some sort of usage fees ideally should cover not only basic day-to-day operating expenses, but depreciation. Few, if any, are (maybe the Golden Gate Bridge?). The budget-busting rebuilding of the eastern Bay Bridge is a prime example, and BART is manouevering for bond money for seismic upgrades of the transbay tube.

Would this raise fares for transit riders? Certainly. But it would raise the cost of driving as well. As much as transit advocates like to lobby for funding, let's remember that in the long run transit really does just work better--so the more everyone has to pay the real costs of their modal choice, the better off we are.

Monday, August 20, 2007

San Francisco's Billion-Dollar Bus Station

Entries are in for the contest to design the new Transbay Transit Center, a replacement for the somewhat dingy terminal once used by Key System, IER, and Sacramento Northern bridge trains, and for the last half century by AC Transit transbay busses.

The designs all feature spectacular towers, like this:

All this design lacks is the flaming eye of Sauron floating between its spires.

and Grand Entranceways:

Imagine this on a typical (cold and windy) San Francisco morning--and don't forget the sleeping winos!

Whatever you think of this as architecture, it doesn't do much to improve transit service. Although the terminal is the intended endpoint for an extension of CalTrain to downtown, that's really a separate, so-far unfunded project. Transbay bus riders may have a classier place to wait, but it's not at all clear to me why, with BART and ferries, transbay busses are even necessary--perhaps all this money might be better spent improving transit connections in the East Bay to make BART more convenient to get to.

Only in San Francisco could this project, which promises no improvements to speed, capacity, or ridership, be hailed as a great improvement to public transit. But however you look at it--as a billion dollar bus station, or as a train station without trains, or as (most honestly, in my opinion) as a real estate deal masquerading as a transit project--it's another example of the type of "investment into transit" that our region's leaders prefer--ones that boost civic and personal pride, and enrich developers, but address the needs of the transit-riding public only as an afterthought.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Failing Grade for the MTC (Organizational Skills)

As I wroter earlier, the Department of Transportation wants to know how good a job our Metropolitan Transportation Commission is doing, and is accepting citizens' input by email at Here's my response:

If the MTC were doing a good job of organizing transit in the Bay Area, I wouldn't need to know how many transit agencies there were, or which were responsible for which lines.

Today, if I want to travel beyond my own county, or make any transfer between transit modes,

  • I will have to spend a lot of time researching schedules before I begin.
  • I have to buy a pay a new ticket for each leg.
  • I will probably waste a lot of time waiting for connections.

If the MTC were doing it's job well

  • There would be one, clear map and timetable of all major transit routes.
  • There would be a fare system (perhaps dividing the region into zones) giving access to all systems with one ticket.
  • Schedules would be coordinated for timed transfers.

The MTC is not totally ignorant of these problems, but the only solutions it seems capable of imagining are ones that add more complexity to a broken system, rather than actual fixes. They have sunk $150 million into TransLink, a farecard system which may (someday) allow riders to transfer between systems without literally digging through their pockets for change, but still requires multiple fares to be paid. They have built an online trip planner--whose main utility is in documenting just how poorly coordinated our region's transit is, through the onerous itineraries it provides--but are incapable of printing a simple, unified, regional map.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cool Bus

A SamTrans bus, seen at Sequoia Station:

Friday, August 03, 2007

Complain and Maybe Someone will Listen

First of all, thank you to the Mountain View Voice for printing a (slightly toned-down version of) my post lamenting Democrats' collusion with the Governor to strip transit funding (original blog post is here, letter in online edition of the Voice is here).

But perhaps it would be better to tell them directly. You can find out who your state representatives are, and their email addresses, at

Transit riders need to start acting like an interest group, and advocating for our needs, and not taking crap anymore!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Redwood City to Mountain View--Via Fremont!

I ascended the Dumbarton Bridge by bike again, and pushed on to the other side.

Looking down, I noticed that the eastern stub of the original highway bridge is open as as a fishing pier.

On the Fremont side of the bridge, the bike path goes past baylands and sloughs.

What looked at first like an old-fashioned riverboat turned out to be a dredger, I think.

The bike path connects with Thornton Blvd. I passed this interesting agricultural remnant, which I think was once a pump house with a water tank on top.

Thornton leads almost directly to Fremont Centerville Station.

At Centerville Station, you can get on both Amtrak Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Express trains. If you're heading south, either one will take you to Santa Clara/Great America (not the same place as the Santa Clara CalTrain station). There's a vending machine for Amtrak tickets in the station's waiting room, but for ACE tickets, go to the Depot Cafe in the other end of the station.

I was waiting for an Amtrak train, but I checked out the cafe because I needed some coffee. It was pretty good and their breakfast menu looked allright, too.

Centerville is an interesting area, with nice old small-town downtown type brick buildings, many filled with middle eastern businesses. This is the heart of Fremont's "Little Kabul".

The station has a webcam which you can view at, which caught this picture of Mr 295bus checking a schedule.

The train was punctual, lead by some unexpected motive power. Hey, buddy, wasn't expecting to run into you over here!

A CalTrain engine was coupled in front of the usual Amtrak California one. Probably it was on its way back from maintenance at Sacramento.

The run from Fremont to San Jose is more scenic than you'd expect to see from a commuter train. There's a mountain of salt,

and the ghost town of Drawbridge.

The VTA's light rail passes right over the Great America train station, but it's not totally clear how you're supposed to get between them. I think you're supposed to climb up a spiral staircase and walk a block east--since I had a bike, I went a different way, and rode several blocks west, to the VTA Great America station. I'm pretty sure now that that's the long way!

After a few minutes, a light rail train came along.

It was surprisingly crowded. I had to stand. Perhaps business is picking up?

This has been my most roundabout commute yet, but definitely the most fun!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I Feel like I've Entered a Parallel Universe

I just discovered the MetroRider.Elhay.Net blog, and recommended it. Seems like transit riders have to put up with a lot of the same crap down there too.

Mark my words, though: I expect that in 20 years Bay Areans will say, "I wish we had good public transit like they have in LA".

A skeptical, car-oriented culture may actually be a healthier environment for transit to develop, since there it needs to continually prove itself by actually moving people, rather than being seen as inherently good (passenger trains are only good for the environment when people ride them, folks!) or as a point of civic pride.

The Record Man

Is a decent, hole-in-the wall little record shop in Redwood City, a block south of Sequoia Station on El Camino.

You can find them online at

Their web site makes them sound like one of those shops for the "vinyl sounds better" crowd, but in fact they had plenty of CD's, a few of which I bought on the way to the station yesterday.

I hope that in light of this plug, they won't mind me linking to this image, which might also help you find the store!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Betrayed Again

First, the Democrats joined up with the Gov to sell us on "infrastructure" <cough>highway</cough> bonds, an investment in and indebted, smoggy future for the next generation of Californians.

Now, in the midst of budget wranglings, they are preparing to give up $1.3 billion in operating funds for public transit, after months of assurances that this gas-tax revenue was safe.

As you may have deduced from this blog, I am results-oriented. Being "theoretically" in favor of public transit doesn't do us riders any good.

So that's it. I'm not voting for any of you guys until you actually earn it. It's Green all the way, baby! Don't tell me I'm throwing my vote away--what good does it do me if the people I vote for win, and do nothing for me?

And I'm still pretty mad about NAFTA, "don't ask, don't tell", the war, and the rest of it too.

I can't be quite as mad at the Governator, because (a) I already know he's a dumbass Republican, and (b) I didn't vote for him. But he better stop calling himself an freakin' environmentalist!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Half Way to Fremont

On my occasional bayside rides to Mountain View, the Dumbarton Bridge has always beckoned, promising to up my mundane ride to work into something more like an adventure.

This morning I decided to make a practice run, and went to the top and back. It was not as hard as I expected. It's a long climb, but not very steep. Lately I've been trying to keep my bike in it's top gear (better workout), and I was surprised that I didn't have to break my self-imposed no-downshifting moratorium.

The bridge has a pretty decent bike lane, divided from traffic by a low concrete wall. It's a pretty good view at the top--you can see all the way from downtown SF to downtown SJ. I made a 360° photostitched panorama:

(Click for full size image)

The current Hwy 84 birdge is neither the first nor the only Dumbarton crossing. Off to the south you can see a railway bridge, with a central swing span, out of service since the 80's but hopefully someday to serve a new Dumbarton Commuter Rail Corridor. The Hetch-Hetchy pipeline also crosses the bay here, carried almost all the way across on bridges, then diving under the floor of the bay to cross the very middle.

Immediately adjacent to each end of the current highway bridge are stub ends of a earlier bridge, which was low and level and had a moveable span in the middle like the railway bridge. They look as though they were open as fishing piers once, but seem to be gated off now. Here's the western stub.

As I came back down the bridge, another biker staring up gave me a big smile. I think I'm passing some kind of threshold into hard-core-dom here.

As I continued my usual bayside route to Mountain View, it started to rain. In July? Whatever.

Local kids seem to have found some interesting alternative routes.

Guess I won't be quite that adventureous!

Along the Stevens Creek trail, I found a few blackberries, which were appreciated. I made sure to keep the bike away from the thorns this time.