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!