Friday, January 19, 2007

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).

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