Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What's the Opposite of SMART?

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART, is a proposed commuter (DMU) line linking Cloverdale, in the far north of Sonoma County, with Larkspur in Marin, via the dormant tracks of the Northwestern Pacific Railway.

In the November 2006 election, a sales tax to support it barely missed the 2/3 supermajority needed to pass it. It sailed through in Sonoma county, but floundered in Marin, due to concerted opposition by train-haters in Novato, suspect environmentalists concerned that trains might disturb wildlife, and the usual assortment of exurban NIMBY cranks.

I wrote an analysis of the SMART initiative's future prospects here.

SMART will be back on the ballot this November, and I'm optimistic about its prospects, since a presidential election usually gets the right sort of people (from my perspective!) to the polls, and two years of sitting in traffic on the 101 have probably changed a few minds (reconstruction of the 101/580 interchange in San Rafael, and its resulting traffic snarls, has hopefully reinforced the futility of highway improvements).

To their credit the SMART board and SMART backers have gone on the offensive to counter some of the arguments and disinformation that defeated their 2006 initiative. I recommend a look at their new website, which not only has good information about SMART, but a nice analysis of what makes different transportation modes cost-effective (anyone who still likes BART-to-SJ should really read this!).

Great! But how can those of us outside of the North Bay help out? I have an idea--playing off of SMART's acronym, I'm launching an acronym contest of my own.

Come up with an unflattering acronym for people who oppose SMART.

Imagine filling in the blank in the slogan: "Don't be (a) ... get SMART!"

Here's some suggestions to kick it off:

  • Stuck in Traffic Unable to Picture Innovative Directions
  • Dependent on Oil Poser Environmentalist
  • De-Urbanized Marin Bitches (perhaps not my most productive idea)

Think up stuff, post your ideas as comments!

In the spirit of open-source development, everyone should feel free to cannibalize from previous suggestions and improve on them.

Petaluma Depot

Monday, April 28, 2008


This article from the Chron was both amusing and sad.

Pray-in at S.F. Gas Station asks God to lower prices

David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Rocky Twyman has a radical solution for surging gasoline prices: prayer.

Twyman - a community organizer, church choir director and public relations consultant from the Washington, D.C., suburbs - staged a pray-in at a San Francisco Chevron station on Friday, asking God for cheaper gas. He did the same thing in the nation's Capitol on Wednesday, with volunteers from a soup kitchen joining in. Today he will lead members of an Oakland church in prayer.

Yes, it's come to that.

"God is the only one we can turn to at this point," said Twyman, 59. "Our leaders don't seem to be able to do anything about it. The prices keep soaring and soaring."

Gas prices have been driven relentlessly higher this year by the bull market for crude oil, gasoline's main ingredient. A gallon of regular now costs $3.89, on average, in California, while the national average has hit $3.58.

To solve the problem, Twyman isn't begging the Lord for any specific act of intervention. He is not asking God to make OPEC pump more oil. Nor is he praying for all the speculative investors to be purged from the New York Mercantile Exchange, where crude oil is traded.

Instead, he says anyone who wants to follow his example should keep it simple.

"God, deliver us from these high gas prices," Twyman said. "That's all they have to say."

Consumer advocates who have been howling about gasoline prices for months say they understand his frustration, even if they haven't tried his tactics.

"Given the complete inertia and silence of this White House on a crisis that has people feeling just hopeless, prayer is probably as good as anything," said Judy Dugan, research director with the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog. "Frankly, I wish them luck."

Her organization has a list of proposals to help tame gas prices. Federal officials could stop adding oil for the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve and start selling some instead, for example. That would boost supplies in the market and drive down the price. Officials also could tighten oversight of crude oil trading.

"This is government's job - it shouldn't be God's job - but government is in gridlock or ignoring it," Dugan said.

Some of Consumer Watchdog's ideas may finally be gaining support. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, on Thursday asked President Bush to stop filling the strategic oil reserve. And on Friday, she called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the oil market is being manipulated.

Twyman, 59, has a history of taking on interesting causes, some whimsical, some deadly serious. Three years ago, he led a petition drive to have Oprah Winfrey nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It didn't work, obviously, but he says he had a great time with it.

His real passion, however, has been persuading African Americans to become bone marrow donors. A friend of his who had just adopted a child died from leukemia in 1995 without ever finding a donor, and Twyman threw himself into the cause.

For years, racial and ethnic minorities have been underrepresented on the national donor registry, a problem because people in need of a transplant have a greater chance of finding a match with donors of the same race or ethnic group. Twyman estimates that his bone marrow drives, many of them organized through churches, have netted 14,000 potential donors. The drives also brought him an Above & Beyond award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Twyman knows his approach to gasoline prices may sound simplistic. He's quick to point out that anyone praying for cheaper fuel also has an obligation to do something more active about the problem.

"People have to walk more, leave those cars at home, and carpool, man," he said. "We have to become more practical."

He's also hoping that if enough people start praying at the pump, politicians who might actually be able to do something about the problem will listen.

But he says his prayer for gas-price relief from God is sincere.

"I've seen him work miracles in my life," Twyman said. "He told us that all we need to do is ask and believe. He can do it, and he will do it, but we have to ask him to do it."

Before I go totally sarcastic here, Mr Twyman's work on organ and tissue donation seems like a genuinely good thing, and I'll give him some credit for acknowledging that ordinary people can take some responsibility for their transportation problems.

Ok, now that I've gotten that out of the way...

I'd like to give Mr Twyman the good news: God has already solved my transportation problems for me--by giving me a pair of working legs!

True, my job is a little farther from my house than I'd care to walk, but combine those legs with a bike, add a train-ride, and problem solved.

The Lord helps those who help themselves, I guess!

Seriously, though, just how many ways is this pray-in stupid? Twyman seems to think:

  • God exists and works miracles.
  • God wants you to drive.
  • God gives a crap about gas prices.
  • Saving a few bucks is an appropriate use of prayer.
  • Politicians can control gas prices.
Sometimes it's really hard to believe that us Americans are descended from people who stowed away in ships, drove wagon trains, fought Indians, snuck over borders, built railroads, and/or survived and struggled against terrible oppression! "OMG, gas is expensive, please Mr President, or Jesus, or somebody! Help me, I can't afford to drive my car!" WTF!?!?

To a shorter, and less vitriolic version of this post that I emailed to the Chronicle, Mr Baker responded:


Let's just say I'm very, very happy I can take Muni Metro to work, no matter how unreliable Metro may be. Still beats traffic, parking and filling up.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Time to Place your Last Bets

The San Mateo council has approved the redevelopment of the Bay Meadows site into a mixed-used, transit oriented, somewhat-dense urban area.

This is generally a good thing. And I am pretty darn certain that the groups in opposition to this project have nearly zero interest in horse-racing, and consist of the usual assortment of selfish NIMBY's cranks.

As for me, I have actually been to the races once. It was fun (I won $100 on a $5 bet, by total luck, I can assure you), and I'm going to make sure to get out there with my family one more time before it closes. And it looks like we're going to have to do it pretty soon, because apparently things are shutting down for good in just a couple of weeks.

What's sad is that this doesn't really have to be an either-or situation. If you look at a Google maps satellite view of the Bay Meadows site,

you see that half of the property is actually taken up by parking. Suppose we just start assuming that everyone who wants to bet on horses gets there by train--we could keep the racetrack, and still open up several acres for development. Suppose also we threw in the San Mateo County "fairgrounds", the parcel to the NW of Bay Meadows--currently just a couple of big convention-hall buildings with their own sea of parking. The convention hall function could remain, but the halls could be built with housing or businesses above, or like the Mascone Center, there could be a park on top.

When we talk about the cars, the main evils we think of are pollution and traffic, but there are other downsides to car-dependence--the perceived need for parking is a kind of tax--it at least doubles the amount of land that a business or institution requires, and squeezes some of them out of our region entirely, including ones--like horse racing--that it might be fun to keep around.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


All too often, public agencies' solution to any problem is based around spending money. For example, about ten years ago, the VTA decided that it's light rail fleet should be low-floor, to improve accessibility (before that, wheelchair lifts were used, like on CalTrain). So they bought an entirely new fleet, even though their original LRVs were less than half-way through their service life.

So it's kind of refreshing to see a transit agency improvise occasionally, and come up with clever solutions. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is solving the same problem VTA had in a novel way--by splicing low-floor sections into existing articulated LRVs, increasing overall capacity in the process as well. Here's an article in Metro Magazine.

From Metro Magazine

VTA's foolishness was a boon to a few other transit systems, who saw an opportunity to increase capacity by buying some perfectly good used trains at bargain prices. Some ex-VTA cars are now enjoying a second career in Salt Lake City (others are on the property in Sacramento, but haven't actually been pressed into service yet).

In the late 90's, CalTrain picked up some used equipment (some 2nd hand from Chicago Metra, some with a much longer and interesting history) to add capacity during the dot-com boom. They unloaded all of this after the arrival of the new Bombardier cars. Too bad, since the trains are getting pretty crowded again lately!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Not Easy being a Biker in Woodside--Even if you Live There!

According to a Menlo Park Almanac story (can't find it on their web site), the Woodside council has approved reducing the community bike committee from seven members to six, because it's proving hard to find seven bikers in town to fill it--or even enough to show up and have a quorum if the official committee size stays at seven.

According to the article, it's hard to recruit to the committee because identifying yourself as a biker in Woodside gets you ostracized from dinner parties, and because the Town Council pretty consistently snubs their recommendations (for bike lanes, pot-hole repair, designating safe routes for kids to bike to school, etc) anyway.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Marin is Evil

From the Independent Journal:

Larkspur has real reason to fear rail-ferry link

By Dick Spotswood

One issue bedeviling the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District is the poor connection between the proposed commuter line's south end and the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.

Plans for the Sonoma-to-Marin passenger train would locate its southern-most station next to the Marin Airporter parking lot behind Larkspur Landing's theater. That site requires either a brisk walk or a shuttle bus to cover the quarter mile from the end of track across busy Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to the ferry.

While workable, the connection is less than ideal. This mediocre connectivity isn't a result of SMART's bad planning. The rail agency is well aware that a seamless train-ferry link would be ideal for trans-bay commuters. Rather, the gap is solely because of Larkspur, which continues to refuse SMART permission to cross Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to access Golden Gate Ferry's terminal.

Larkspur's negative stance is due in good part to the philosophical opposition to SMART by veteran council members Ron Arlas and Joan Lundstrom, who firmly oppose the idea of North Bay rail transit. Yet Larkspur's professional staff also cites legitimate fears that a SMART-ferry connection would trigger onerous housing requirements by the Association of Bay Area Governments. That's enough to unite the city's five-member council to disallow a proper intermodal connection.

One provision of ABAG's famously complex "Regional Housing Needs Allocation Methodology" is designed to maximize residential development, both affordable and market rate, adjacent to multi-modal transit terminals. ABAG does so by assigning jurisdictions with these transit facilities a "double weighting." In Larkspur's case, if the rail-ferry connection were built, the regional agency requires the city to plan for 600 additional housing units, rather than 382 units if the connection isn't built.

In theory, it makes sense to encourage housing near transit facilities so that working residents are less dependent on single- passenger autos. Unfortunately, as implemented by ABAG, it's another instance of the ever-present law of unintended consequences.

Larkspur, faced with unattainable housing mandates, followed its parochial best interest by denying needed permission for the joint rail-ferry station. Stopping the train short of the ferry does two things. First, it puts the kibosh on the multi-modal facility that may trigger ABAG's mandates. Second, the quarter-mile rail-ferry connection might be just enough of an obstacle to kill SMART at the polls.

That's hardly the result ABAG envisioned. Given ABAG's inflexible cookie-cutter planning requirements, what else could Larkspur do? The city already has a fine record on affordable housing. It simply doesn't have the space without grievously altering its character to authorize additional homes to satisfy an abstract planning notion that doesn't fit this small town.

How much better if ABAG admitted that occasionally its best-laid plans cause unacceptable consequences. The regional agency needs to promptly modify procedures to allow flexibility to suspend their rules to meet real world facts on the ground. Then Larkspur should reciprocate by giving the OK to a joint rail-ferry station that benefits the entire North Bay.

Here's a somewhat more radical suggestion: local government, especially in hoity-toidy places like Marin (and quote a lot of San Mateo county, to be sure!) have places such a high value on ambiance, and shown such total disregard to the housing and transportation needs of the community at large, that they have lost the moral authority to do their own planning. So take it away from them.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Odd Combination

Seen forgotten (or temporarily walked-away-from?) at Menlo Park CalTrain:

I'm curious what sort of person reads gritty detective novels, thoughtful books about the Vietnam war

"They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to."
(I'm lifting this from the Amazon review page)... and drinks Strawberry Quick!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Lunch in Silicon Valley

I had to run down to Sunnyvale today. I'm having lunch at Le Boulanger on Mathilda, which has free Wifi.

It's darn crowded here. It seems to be an old-school Silicon Valley crowd. The guys next to me are talking about frame rates and registers. I'm guessing they work on cell phones.

Now they're switching over to aerodynamics and heat guns. I think this is more a topic of general interest than professional.

It's a bit refreshing compared to the the dot-com/business chatter you overhear going out for lunch up the road in Mountain View.

I swear I'm keeping half of this sandwich for later.

(I got here by CalTrain and bike, thus qualifying this anecdote for posting on this blog).

Monday, April 07, 2008

Don't Blink!

On a grim note, someone used CalTrain to end their life this morning. At least thanks to the rider-run CalTrain Twitter Feed I knew what was up before I left the house, and was able to avoid the hassle of a disrupted train service and bike the whole way.

The most direct route takes me across Stanford, where I passed this statue of a weeping angel.

If you are a fan of Doctor Who, this may creep you out a bit and remind of you a bit of this episode.

There is an interesting history to this statue. I'm going on scattered memory here, but I believe it was originally a memorial to the Stanfords' son, who died young, and for whom the university is named (that's why it's Leland Stanford Junior University). It was originally under a dome, which collapsed in the 1906 earthquake. It was decided to leave it without the dome, letting it in part become a memorial to victims of the earthquake.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Cal Ave Improvements

If your commute takes you through Cal Ave station on CalTrain, you've probably noticed some work going on.

The basic objective of the project is to provide a true northbound platform, so that NB passengers won't have to walk over the southbound tracks to get on a train.

This is both for safety (someone might step out to catch a NB train and not notice an approaching SB one) and for scheduling convenience. A SB train can't pass through while an NB train is in the station (or really, for the reason of the safety concern I just mentioned--any time an NB train is in sight). This is called the "hold out rule". The NB platform will be accessed via a pedestrian tunnel, currently being dug at the south end of the platform.

Anyway, a lot of this you can probably guess from just looking at the site, but some details are not obvious. What will things look like when it's all done? Will the new NB platform connect with the existing pedestrian tunnel that crosses under both the tracks and Central Expressway/Alma? It would be a pain for anyone living in the neighborhood over there, who wanted to catch a northbound train, to have to use two tunnels.

CalTrain's publicly available factsheet is pretty bare-bones, so I asked for more information via their web site's contact form, and got a helpful response from a CalTrain staff member.

Turns out there's a more detailed factsheet about this project, which isn't linked to from the main site. And it's got pictures!

I can't tell from the project description or drawings whether it'll be possible to get to the NB platform from the existing tunnel under Alma. But it does look like gate-protected crossing of the tracks will still be allowed. I had been expecting the redesign to eliminate direct crossing of the tracks entirely, in the name of safety, and am glad to see that CalTrain is wiling to strike a reasonable balance between safety and convenience. (Besides, even in the suburbs, tunnels are creepy at night).

All in all, it seems like a fairly well planned project. I still have one one question, though--if all this work is costing $13 million, why is the (apparently) much simpler rehab of the Burlingame station taking $20 million?