Friday, January 19, 2007

Happy MLK Day!

Martin Luther King Day is a great holiday for transit fans, assuming you get it off; enough people still have to work that tourists are scarce even in the City, and transit systems run their full weekday schedules.

This year we rode the Freedom Train on CalTrain to San Francisco. A few years ago, we did this, and got to march down Market Street as part of a parade. This year, it turns out there was no parade--we were directed to chartered MUNI busses that took us to a rally at the Civic Center, but this really wasn't what we'd come for, so we decided to play tourists for the day.

After lunch at a 50's-themed diner on Powell (which fit into our diet surprisingly well) we walked back to Market and were astounded to find no line for the cable cars. Changing our plans on the spur of the moment, we hopped on the next car leaving, which was on the Powell/Mason.

Mr. Thinks-Very-Seriously-About-Transit 295Bus caught brazenly foaming

The family enjoyed the ride too!

At the end of the line we bought some cheap fleeces from a touristy stand--the pocket zipper promptly broke on mine, trapping my camera and phone, until we eventually discombobulated the pocket with a needle, keys, and other random objects pressed into service as tools.

We rode the F Line back to Market, where our serendipitous adventures continued. After alighting we discovered that a pair of gloves had been left on the trolley, and I ran, caught it, and retrieved them. I can take some credit for this save for the fact that I've been getting in shape, but have to give thanks to a helpful motorman and fellow passengers, plus an odd quirk of the F line routing (at the foot of Market it makes an odd U--look at the orange line at the very right edge of this map if you're curious) which us MUNI fans have long puzzled over, but which in this one case was quite handy since it let me outpace a PCC on foot by taking a more direct route.

As soon as I caught my breath we ducked down into the subway, and hopped on an outbound J. The MUNI Metro may be less scenic than the F, but it's nostalgic for me, and a treat for my budding transit-fan daughter. We rode to Dolores Park, a favorite in the City, where there is a decent playground featuring and old boat, and met up with Grandma (to me, Mom!). We tried a few geocaches--one just led to litter and unmentionable smells, the other we were more successful with, finding the tiniest cache we've ever seen a stone's-throw from the "serpentine right-of-way":

By the "Golden Fireplug"

With a lift from Mom back to 4th & King (much appreciated, because we were zonked by this point) we were back on CalTrain and heading home.

The weather's warming up, and I see more transit adventures coming up in the near future.

Happly MLK Day, everybody!

How About us Riders?

I read that the BART board, under pressure from anti-substance-abuse groups, recently decided to pull all ads for liquor from its trains and stations.

It's a small thing, but let me point out that booze (and ads for it) are legal, and the real objective of any public enterprise is not so different from a private one--it should provide as much service as it can, and if not profit from it, minimize its drain on public coffers.

Unfortunately, as public entities, transit agencies are subject to tinkering from all levels of government with objectives other than, and possibly at odds with, that of providing maximum service at minimum cost.

Consider some of the requirements typically placed on them:

  • Infrastructure should be built by minority-owned contractors.
  • Equipment must be American-made.
  • All contracts must be with unionized providers.
  • Vehicles must adhere to the most stringent emissions standards.
  • Any most eggregiously: any changes to service are subject to the review and veto power of neighbors (see for example Menlo Park NIMBYs opposition to Dumbarton Rail, and a recent episode in which MUNI attempted to move some bus stops and the resulting fracas escalated all the way to the SF board of supervisors).

Typically, consideration for the time, convenience, and even safety of passengers comes way down below all of the above on the typical transit-planning checklist.

As an interesting case study, which atypically ended happily, let me tell you the story of the Sunnyvale CalTrain station fencing gap.

For years there was no official way to get between the Sunnyvale CalTrain station and the neighborhood to its northeast, except for a long walk to the nearest cross-street. Anonymous passengers remedied this situation by cutting a hole in a chain-link fence that separates the northbound platform from the adjacent street, Frances Avenue. Occasionally CalTrain would fix it, and a hole would be re-cut.

This informal access was workable enough, though not ideal--in particular it was not wheelchair accessible, which precipitated an odd sequences of events. The threat of an ADA equal access suit prompted CalTrain to pay closer attention and make a more definitive closure to the fence (I guess the ADA is another one of those policy tinkerings from above, though one I agree with--but it was not the intent of the law to achieve equality by removing access points only usable by the able-bodied!). Neighbors who used the hole in the fence then turned to the Sunnyvale city council to provide a more sanctioned, fully accessible connection to the station. But this incurred the wrath of other neighbors, who feared an increase in passers-through, crime, litter, and competition for parking.

"Since the hole access has been closed, our street has been quiet, clean and calm," said Frances Avenue resident Melinda Cook.

This is the point in these stories where public servants, in an effort to make everyone happy, are usually struck by paralysis, or else weighing the pros and cons of the options before them, decide that transit riders are the least likely people to remember their decision, or organize around a grievance, and are the safest ones to screw.

This story has a happier ending. Citing man's greatest font of wisdom, Star Trek, the council resolved that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" and decreed that a new, professionally-installed and fully accessible gap should be put in the fence.

A rare triumph of sense in a world gone stupid. (Sidewalk curb cuts to either side out of shot).

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Google Maps Working

After trying various things, I've finally found a way to display Google maps in blog entries:

I spent quite a while trying to actually put the javascript code for a map in a blog entry, and actually got it working for Mozilla, but failed for IE, and debugging was just too hard. So I'm taking the approach of hosting a fully tested html page with a map elsewhere, and displaying here via an <iframe> tag.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Breaking out into Traditional Media

The 12/23 Chronicle carried the following letter from yours truly:

Beyond platitudes

Editor -- The Silicon Valley Leadership Group (Open Forum, Dec. 18) is intent on reducing greenhouse gases by cutting down on the use of cars -- so it urges the employees of its member companies to bike to work, and favors extending BART to San Jose. But it seems blind to the role that valley employers play in fostering a dependence on cars, by setting up shop in remote, sprawling office parks that are only realistically accessible by driving. So how about a new pledge for the members of the SLVG: to put their offices within walking distance of Caltrain, light rail, or if it ever gets built, BART?

I wish I had taken a few minutes to edit for style--just because you have a PhD doesn't mean you have to sound like it!