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.