Sunday, June 22, 2008

Emotional and Politically Correct

The SJ Merc printed a letter of mine more or less along the lines of my post here about the schoolgirl killed while biking home from school. I was a little surprised to see a "rebuttal" in the form of another letter the next day.

How sad that in a time of tragedy people let their emotions override their good judgment. Such is the case when Nicholas Kibre (Letters, June 15) somehow blames the driver of an SUV for a fatality involving a bicycle. Kibre doesn't blame the driver for what may have been a failure to yield to the bicyclist during a left hand turn. No, he goes for the politically correct jugular and blames the driver for purchasing an SUV. Although, I saw no mention that the driver either purchased or owned the Ford Bronco in question. There was no mention in Kibre's letter about the unfortunate young girl not wearing a helmet as required by law which was probably more of a factor than the type of vehicle she collided with. Instead of putting additional blame on the city of San Jose for delays in implementing traffic measures it would seem more appropriate to encourage authorities to increase the education and enforcement of helmet laws.

Jack Azevedo

Santa Clara

I suppose this guy has me on the the poin that the driver may not have actually owned the Ford Bronco. Maybe she stole it! That changes everything!

I stand by my point--using (however you get ahold of it) a vehicle that is known to endanger other people is a choice, and therefore, is a greater moral failing even than the fateful, but assumedly totally accidental, failure to see the victim.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Trolleybusses - End of the Line in Edmonton

I personally think trolleybusses are on the verge of a huge renaissance. As the world runs out of oil, fuel costs for diesel busses are going to start exceeding the costs of building and maintaining overhead wires (assuming there isn't some sudden increase in the efficiency of batteries or practicality of fuel cells).

So it's ironic that the city of Edmonton, Alberta, is choosing this particular moment to junk their trolleybus system. The transit agency claims the wires need renewal, at a cost of $100 million, which is money that could be better spend on light rail projects (but there are no actual promises to actually spend $100 million on light rail). They also claim that new hybrid diesel busses provide the same ecological benefit as trolleybusses, which is a stretch.

Another advantage of trolleybusses not often discussed is psychological--I think ETB's have a light version of "magic" that attracts people to streetcars--the fact that money has been invested in obvious infrastructure makes the line feel important and permanent, and somehow more attractive than "just a regular old bus".

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bumped Last Night, Spare the Air Day Tomorrow

Last night I had to work later than usual. I never have trouble getting on my usual, earlier, train, but hitting rush hour things didn't go so swimmingly. My intended train was 10 mins late, and was made up of Bombardier cars and had only one bike car, so only a handful of the huge crowd of waiting bikers got on. The next one had more room, but served a different set of stops, not including where I wanted to get off (in this case RWC), so all told, I ended up getting where I wanted to go at least 30 mins later than I intended. Grrr!

These problems seem to be getting worse and worse, it's just that my own commute patterns usually let me avoid it.

Bikers have been giving CalTrain plenty of suggestions (read Sub20OLH's, for example), but they seem to just want to add more bike racks to keep us off the train.

Tomorrow is Spare-the-Air Day, so all BA transit will be free til noon. Expect crowded trains!

Considering that Spare-the-Air transit giveaways have been going on for a few years, at a cost of a couple million dollars per day, I think it's reasonable to ask now if they actually have had any effect in recruiting new, recurring, paying passengers. Is anyone even trying to measure this? Or is this just a "feel good" publicity thing?

A million here and there may not add up to much in the scheme of transit funding, but if StAD isn't actually having any real benefit, I can recommend a few things to spend the money on that would--like even just one single new bike car!

Friday, June 13, 2008

An Accident?

The death of a sixth-grader, hit and killed by an SUV while biking home on the last day of school is a tragedy, but not an unavoidable accident.

The driver of the SUV knew that her oversize vehicle would put others at risk when she bought it. She is not a murderer, but she's not an innocent victim either, despite her tears.

The City of San Jose bears responsibility too, for taking their sweet time implementing traffic calming measures asked for by residents of the Rose Garden neighborhood where this tragedy happened.

Hopefully, the youth of the victim will hold back the usual "safety tips" that law enforcement automatically offers (regardless of the facts of the particular case) every time a biker is killed, that 90% of such accidents are the biker's fault.

This, incidentally, is the City Rose Garden that gives the neighborhood its name.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Human Powered Mass Transit

I'm forwarding this from my company's internal bike list:

Looks like fun!

If You Want Better Trains, Should You Vote Against HSR?

HSR has been in the news lately, mostly negatively.

  • The Union Pacific has written a letter to the CAHSRA insisting that they don't want to share any of their right-of-way with high-speed-rail. Apparently they've been mentioning this all along, without any acknowledgment, and finally decided to put it in writing. The CAHSRA has pooh-pooh'ed this as just a negotiating tactic. Still, if the UP were just trying to hold out for more money, I think they'd probably do this after the project were officially in the works, and money was committed, rather than now, when it's likely to derail it.
  • There is a big question where the funding will come from. We may get a chance to vote on $10bn of bonds for this project in November, with a promise that the Feds and private investors picking up the rest. I can see the Federal government matching any state contribution, but that still leaves $20bn, which it seems like a stretch to believe private investors will pony up (Would they actually recover that investment? Would HSR actually generate a $20bn profit (or any) over any reasonable timeframe?).

Train and transit boosters tend to brush these concerns off--just vote for it, sell the bonds, and eventually it'll get built. I'm just not happy making this sort of leap of faith. A few things to consider:

  • Is the CASHRA really competent or honest enough to build this railway? The fact that they are asking us to vote on a plan where 75% of the funding is uncertain, and there is no certain place to even lay the tracks, leads me to doubt this (There are other reasons).
  • Things really could go horribly wrong. We could end up with a statewide version of BART-to-SFO (an overbuilt, underpeforming line that saps funding from better projects) or BART-to-SJ (a zombie railway that doesn't get built, but prevents cheap and practical transportation options from getting built, because compromising on what you actually can build is "betraying the trust of the voters").

I have written earlier about the Triumph of the Perverse--expensive, impractical projects are politically popular, but practical and doable ones languish.

For a recent example: there is an effort to double-track the railway between LA and San Diego, used by Amtrak, Metrolink, and Coaster. It's a pretty busy corridor, and double tracking would improve reliability, and make a higher level of service possible (probably something analogous to CalTrain). San Diego transportation folks went to Sacramento looking for funding, but were met by profound disinterest...

Before 2000, the VTA had plans to run frequent commuter trains between the East Bay and San Jose, actually had funding lined up, but scuttled the project because building BART was just so much more cool. Others have pointed out the ironic fact had the 2000 Measure A "BART Tax" failed, we would actually have had decent transit service in this corridor since about 2003!

So I wonder: if I want to see improvements to California's passenger rail network, should I vote against high-speed rail in November?

Monday, June 09, 2008

I'm in ur town Bikin ur str33ts

So Woodside, thought you could scare me out of your town? Ha!

Here's where I got the ticket, btw. I was actually on that path by the side of the road, and turned right onto this side street. I'm not even sure I was breaking the law. What do you think?

Ironically, a week or two later, a cop stopped me on the Palo Alto/Mountain View border for running a red--now it's not as bad as it sounds, because it was a T intersection and I was going across the top of the T, but still, I figured they had me way more dead-to-rights than the time in Woodside. But being polite and friendly got me off with a warning. Go figure. Maybe he was just impressed I'd biked all the way from Redwood City. Well, I'll try not to do that again, either.

The ride up Woodside (Road) to Woodside (Town) is getting to be easier. It feels a lot safer going up than down, though; people just drive too damn fast going down that hill (I suppose me included). I like to head north on Cañada Road, past Cañada College (or call it "Canada College" if it amuses you), and head back to RWC via Jefferson, which is pretty quiet up here, and sneaks through a low point in the hills (going up Farm Hill past the College would give you a good view, but it's a bigger climb--something to try next time).

It's pretty idyllic back there. If you're loaded, a mini-ranch in Woodside does seem like a classy way to blow a chunk of it on a home--better than those poser wanna-be aristocrats down in Atherton!


But what's with this?

Something dangerous in there? To paraphrase Monty Python--"What, behind the Pony?"

This is Upper Emerald Lake, a country club, I guess. Join up, pay lots of money, and fish or go swimming in a very exclusive duck pond!

Transit and Social Networking

I've been getting a lot of SMS's from the CalTrain Twitter Feed lately.

There's been a little bit too much information sometimes, I suppose as new posters sign up and try to be a little too helpful. A train being late by < 5 mins is not news, people!

The last couple of days the system seems to be earning its salt, though. There was a fatality around San Antonio on Friday, and the feed was a-twitter reports of delays and the painfully slow process of getting trains running again. I had the good fortune to not be working that day (Accidents seem to happen a lot on my days off. I don't know what this means. Perhaps CalTrain should pay me to keep riding?). This morning the line was snarled by a broken down train in Mountain View (I think they need to hire Thomas to keep this railway moving), and armed with foreknowledge, I W@H'ed in the morning, and rode in to the office without incident on a completely punctual noon train.

So a few musings--can we improve the usefulness of social networking, and perhaps make it more officially sanctioned, and more easily available to non-cogniscenti riders?

Suppose Twitter (or whatever) messages actually showed up on the electronic signs in stations. That'd be cool. Of course, it'd be an open invitation for spam and pranks (and maybe more benign misuse like happy birthday messages and marriage proposals...). Perhaps the system could be made somewhat self-regulating, Yelp-style, if power users could provide "was this message useful to you?" style feedback, and only posts from the most highly rated contributors made it to public signs.

It would take a pretty gutsy transit agency to go for this, because if service sucks, it'd just be giving digruntled passengers a place to vent--"@!#!$ trains are late AGAIN". An agency would be ill-advised to try this unless it was confident that it had its riders respect--which is really that hard to earn, actually, if you just start with a little respect for them! Btw, I've lost track of how to post messages to the CalTrain Twitter feed via the web, I'm never did know how to do it via SMS. There really aren't clear instructions on the feed's homepage. Anyone know?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Transit of the Future???

If you use GMail, the ads that pop up in the margins, sort of thematically linked to what you're talking about, can be interesting, or at least amusing. While arranging to meet extended family in Berkeley, I was offered a link to a site to "Meet Goth Guys"; and I'm always getting links to baking-related sites when my wife and I talk about our cat, Nutmeg.

Anyway, while perusing transit related emails, popped up. It seems to be an attempt to marketize some ideas for high-speed cable tramways that were revealed at the Russian booth at a World's Fair.

I'm passing this along for entertainment purposes only (though I do think cable tramways deserve to be taken more seriously as a transit medium).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Enter and Exit Doors on CalTrain Bike Cars

You may have noticed these new signs on CalTrain's Bombardier bike cars, specifying one door for getting on with bikes and one for getting off.

Sounds like it might speed loading and unloading, but does it? Getting a bike from one end of the car to the other, in the narrow aisle between seats, is pretty tricky--especially on a crowded moving train!

I think conductors have decided this is a bad idea since they never seem to enforce it.

It might actually work if the cars' interior layout were rearranged a bit--make one side of the lower level just for bikes, and the other just for seats. I hear that other operators that use these cars (like ACE) do have different layouts, though I haven't seen this myself (but they still impose the stupid 16 bike limit, which is apparently mandated by the feds).

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Miss a Train, Catch a Bus

It's a pretty simple idea, but it's surprising how little it occurs to CalTrain riders to do it, or to transit agencies to encourage it.

I got my schedules mixed up today, and was standing on the SB platform at Menlo Park this morning at 10:35, and it slowly dawned on me that there's an 8:35 and a 9:35, but no 10:35--the next train wasn't til 11:00.

So I set off by bike in the general direction of work, got to Palo Alto, and it occurred to me to try the VTA's 522 Rapid, which goes all the way down El Camino (then swings east across San Jose), the same route as the 22, but with fewer stops, and busses equipped to get traffic signal priority.

I have a two-zone CalTrain pass, which lets me ride VTA and SamTrans busses free.

My bus was actually a regular bus in the VTA's usual paint job.

My bus left at 10:54. I got to work at 11:30, and that 0:36 included a stop to pick up a Nicoise salad at the Mountain View Trader Joe's. So the overall trip time is pretty good compared with my estimated arrival of ~11:20 had I waited around for the train.

Now I admit that the bus alternative may not appeal much to hotshot dot-com commuters who ride CalTrain from Portrero Hill down to jobs in Mountain View, but I think there's a lot of other travel patterns where if people were more aware the busses that VTA and SamTrans run up and down El Camino, and thought of them as a complementary service to CalTrain, in more or less the same corridor--instead of just "welfare transit for people who don't have cars", they might actually give them a try. For weekend outings up and down the peninsula, for example, timing the start of a trip to hit one of CalTrain's hourly runs is not so bad, but having to check your watch and make sure to punctually leave whatever leisure activity you're pursing to get home is annoying. Why not take the train there and the bus back? Or if one of CalTrain's "unfortunate incidents" interrupts your evening commute, and your trip isn't too long, why not head over to a bus stop? It might be quicker than waiting three hours while the emergency response folks hold up the line writing reports and cleaning up.

Transit agencies could do a lot to encourage this sort of thinking just by actually letting riders know it's possible. Somewhere on their schedule, CalTrain should at least mention what busses complement their service, and mention the "two-zone pass = bus pass" perk a bit more prominently. It would also be nice to expand the priviledge to regular tickets, or even, to accept local agencies' passes within their jurisdiction.

All of these agencies do belong to us, after all--it shouldn't be too much to ask that they work together!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Go Giants!

Perhaps I've never been a baseball fan just because I've never had the luck of seeing a really good game in person.

Yesterday, we rode up to PacBell SBC AT&T Park on CalTrain, met my parents (who came via Muni), saw the Giants vs the Padres, and I kinda see what the fuss is about.

The early innings zipped along, time-wise, but were low-scoring. The Giants scored a run somewhere around the fifth inning, and looked on their way to winning a fairly uninspiring game, but then things heated up, with the game tied after the ninth, the Padres pulling ahead in the top of the the tenth, and the Giants making a comeback and winning 4-3.

Thus ends my first and probably last attempt at sportswriting.

Getting back on theme--CalTrain annoyingly ran a four-car train on the northbound run arriving just before the game, and needless to say, it was pretty crowded. It was a gallery-car train (Why do they never run the new Bomb-sets on weekends? Probably just so they can wear on the old equipment faster and replace it with new cars...); we sat down on the twisty stairs to the second level, and this turned out to be a good strategy--if anyone gets off from that particular section of the upper level, you're basically guaranteed their seat.

The trip back was more fun because we got a post-game special, which expressed from SF to San Carlos, and got us back to our car at Atherton in 35 minutes. I bet it took my parents longer on Muni to get home, just going across town, on Muni.

Go CalTrain!