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some good things about transit

By enelson
Thursday, December 6th, 2007 at 8:22 pm in 511, AC Transit, Altamont Commuter Express, Amtrak, Bicycling, Buses, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), connectivity, driving, Fare systems, Freeways, Misc. Transportation, rail, technology, Transit vs. driving.

i-880-in-the-rain.jpgAfter getting the most vigorous response to date for my Nov. 30 post, I shouldn’t dwell too much on the positive aspects of taking public transit.

But I believe in fairness, and today was a good day for transit; at least it was for this and a few thousand other commuters.

I made it to the train station with five minutes to spare and had the wisdom to avoid taking my bicycle because of the wet forecast. That left me with the dilemma of how to get the last 1.7 miles from the Oakland Coliseum Amtrak station to work on Oakport Street.

No worries, the 98 bus was there, waiting for me. It left about five minutes later, leaving some leeway in case the Capitol Corridor had been late. I made it to work in good time, which is more than I can say of my usual driving day. When I control the mode of transportation, it’s sooo much easier to procrastinate…

I’ve said repeatedly that even when traffic is bad, driving beats the train to my Central Valley enclave of peace and civility.

An hour ago, that wasn’t true.

I looked down from my 9th-floor perch at the Nimitz Freeway, I was moved to call 511 and obtain the driving times to get to Fairfield from Oakland International Airport, which is right in our backyard.

The free-flowing traffic time is 48 minutes. At 10 ’til 4, it was one hour, 36 minutes going up I-80 and crossing the Carquinez Bridge and only eight minutes faster taking the Caldecott Tunnel, I-680 and the Benicia Bridge.

I could reasonably tack another half-hour onto to that beyond the range of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission‘s network of FasTrak sensors, so that meant a two-hour-plus trip home.

By the schedule, the Capitol Corridor only takes one hour and 43 minutes. In 15 minutes, I can ride my bike home, getting me there very close to two hours.

This was theoretical, of course, because I’m still at work and will continue to be until 6:30 or 7, or 7:30 as I do most days. But at the moment I got that miserable traffic report, I considered it a victory for public transit.

Still, I didn’t factor in the first leg of the trip, actually getting to the Amtrak station I can see from my desk. That’s about seven minutes by bike, which makes driving and public transportation about dead even.

Even if the times are the same, you can’t beat sitting on the train watching a movie on your laptop while sipping a microbrew. You can also work, as I was last night with a borrowed Sprint PCS aircard, but I was attempting to get  home early.

One of the comments on the prior post urged me to relate a good transit commuting experience, like her commute on the Altamont Commuter Express to Great America.

I prefer to use transit, with little regard to how much longer it takes than driving. It’s easier to take a longer trip when you’re not worrying about running into the car in front of you or whether the next text message you send will be your last.

But I can’t overlook the obvious advantages of driving and how they inform the thinking of the 70 percent of the Bay Area’s commuters who drive alone to work. There is a lot more allure in riding a train for two hours when the alternative is clutching a steering wheel for 1:20 or two hours on bad day.

Summing up this caveat to  my otherwise transit-friendly outlook was a piece on transit vs. driving by LA Times opinion writer Matt Welch. I found it referenced in my weekly mailer from the Transit Coalition, an LA-based group:

People who can take their cars will take their cars, particularly if they’re in a hurry or need to make multiple stops. As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa explained his non-transit commuting to The Times in November 2006, “I’d like to do more, but my problem is I have to go all over the city. It’s very tough because of my schedule.” Sure. And it turns out many of us have hectic schedules as well.

And Welch’s assertion that “there’ll never be a lack of stories about how almost none of the region’s public officials who have the most effect on transportation actually take the damned bus” also rings true here in the transit-happy Bay Area.

Our new BART general manager drives to work. I know of certain MTC lobbyists who drive non-hybrid cars to Sacramento on a regular basis. There are plenty of non-profit staff who practice what they preach, but no one elected them and they don’t decide our transportation policy.

I think Welch’s conclusion is a bit narrow, but it reflects a lot of the thinking by the Bay as well. He supports expensive new rail projects like Villaraigosa’s “Subway to the Sea”

no matter how many billions it takes.

But as long as my drive to work is less than 15 minutes, you will not get me out of my 1986 car until traffic gets at least three times as bad. Or unless the engine craps out.

In the meantime, transit should be seen — and supported — for what is: A way for poorer people to get around until they become rich enough to buy a car. And an option for if (or when) the 101 ever really does become a parking lot.

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16 Responses to “some good things about transit”

  1. EBPC Says:

    As far as decision makers riding transit: Yup. They don’t. But more importantly, they never have. Every transit agency should be run by someone who has depended primarily on transit at some point in their life. I doubt those planning and funding transit in the SFBA have really done so. Billion dollar decisions get made without consideration to relatively smaller details that make or break a system. These decisions are symptomatic of the fact that nobody building it rides it. Or walks around it. or tries to connect it with a bus. Or puts their kids on it.

  2. Doug Faunt Says:

    At least one AC Transit board member, Chris Peeples, rides transit, and has no car.

  3. Guy Span Says:

    What’s good about transit? Easy. We have many choices. What’s bad about transit: none of the interconnectivity choices speed us on our way. You can’t use the ferry system to make a sensible meeting in Vallejo from the East Bay, or to Marin. The connections between AC Transit, ferries, Caltrain, SamTrans, Muni, GGT and those idiots at VTA are non-existent.

    In short it is not a transit system for the Bay Area, it is rather a collection of independent transit systems that each has their own separate goals. You can’t blame the systems – they are desperately trying to provide for their region’s taxpayers. If that means someone from another county can’t connect easily to their service then so be it. That person is not a taxpayer for the system.

    While the MTC should be the forum for interconnectivity, the problem is so big and so vast that they can’t get their hands around it, no not at all. Why can’t SamTrans operate reverse commute services from the Transbay Terminal (East Bay Commuters) to the peninsula cities they serve? They are happy to carry San Mateo commuters into the city(SF) but aren’t paid to carry commuters from the Transbay Terminal to San Mateo.

    This is the big failure of Bay Area commuting. Competing fiefdoms with no incentive to cooperate. That translates into more cars on the road, as people will pay for gas, bridge tolls, maintenance and the rest not to be abused by systems that refuse to cooperate.

    In my humble opinion, it is the ignored function of interconnectivity that keeps us in the dark ages. This task belongs to the MTC, but they defer cleaning the Aegean Stables, because the task is so overwhelming. It may , in fact, not be fixable. But this observer thinks we should try.

  4. Guy Span Says:

    The comments as reported by LA Times opinion writer Welch about transit were extremely offensive and demonstrated an East Coast snobbery about transit. He said:

    ” In the meantime, transit should be seen — and supported — for what is: A way for poorer people to get around until they become rich enough to buy a car.”

    That is the opinion of many who don’t use transit and in particular, they equate bus riding with poverty. That would be a surprise to many Transbay Commuters using AC Transit buses to get to their high-paying jobs in the Financial District. The Vice-Chairman of Southern Pacific Railroad used transit most days to get to his six figure job (before bonuses). He stated that it was easier and nicer. So transit, even buses, are not for the poor, but this perception remains.

    About eight years asgo, I was using AC Transit to get to the Harbor Bay Ferry, to go to the Financial District. The ferry had broken something and the service was canceled. Most got into their cars and drove to the city, but a dozen or so were left when an AC Transit bus pulled up and the driver announced that we were going express to the Transbay Terminal and no fare would be charged.

    I jumped on board, had a seat near the driver and watched while the remaining folks refused to embark. The driver repeated the offer of a free ride (provided by the Ferry Service) and finally one woman spoke up. She said, “You just don’t understand. This is Harbor Bay (a part of Alameda) and our clothes are CLEAN here.”

    No one else boarded and I received personal escort service as the only passenger on a 55 passenger bus. In my ensuing conversation with the driver, he admitted he couldn’t understand their attitude (neither could I) but we had an interesting conversation anyway. I learned that AC Transit buses have no fuel gauge. And that”s the beauty of transit; you have the opportunity to meet people and learn things.

  5. John Miller Says:

    I’ve written before about a need for profitable first class public transit. My experience with AC Transit was one trip from the Berkeley Amtrak to Cal that convinced me that someone wearing a tie was not welcome, at least on that route. I agree with Guy Span that public transit has a well earned though not universal image problem. On the Capitol, I often see people who pay more for their cell phone service every month then I pay in rent. $4.50 a gallon gas is not a financial problem for them, and they are not as was pointed out saving time. they are on the other hand enjoying finishing their second beer as the train pulls into Sacramento.

    There are surely people who would pay similar rates for similarly good treatment and space on a transbay trip except no one is offering it. The value of a clean, quite environment where you can eat you breakfast and check you e-mail is worth enough to make up for a more expensive and longer trip to a lot of people. Including me.

  6. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Before BART, AC Transit was operating profitably. The bridge service made more than enough money to operate profitably.

    I see people in ties on AC Transit buses reasonably often. The buses are cleaned every day, as far as I can tell. The MCI and Van Hool buses are very quiet, and more and more of them are being equipped with WiFi.

    I suspect that the people who complain about the dirt and other such things on the buses are like the white man in W. E. B. DuBois’s essay On Being Crazy, who walked in the dirt in the gutter rather than walk on the sidewalk that a black man walked on, because he believed that he would be dirtier just for being near black people. Such beliefs are a powerful influence on the perception of transit. We are still apologizing for winning the Civil War.

  7. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bruce, I appreciate your sense of historical context, but if we’re going to fight global warming and avoid buying oil from the Middle East, we need to get past pre-BART thinking. I don’t think being uncomfortable on an urban bus is about racism, at least not for the vast majority of people who really do want to get out of their cars. Sure, there are plenty of people who regard the bus as the “loser cruiser,” but that’s because we Americans, and our counterparts nearly everywhere on the globe, associate personal transportation with success. The more we can pay (and thus pollute, in most cases), the better off we are, i.e., the personal jet. But you don’t have to ride AC Transit very long before you encounter people who are intoxicated and/or agressively unpleasant toward their fellow riders. The more expensive the mode, the less the odds of experiencing this. Although I must caveat this by saying the scariest experience I’ve had was on a Capitol Corridor train, involving a young man threatening the life of a drunken passenger who was just trying to make friends.

  8. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    You have to drive a lot less before you encounter other drivers who are intoxicated and/or aggressively unpleasant toward other drivers, and even more so towards pedestrians and transit riders. So maybe if we want to fight global warming and avoid buying oil from the Middle East maybe we should start by looking at ourselves critically.

    If you have not been threatened with being run over by some motorist, or forced off the sidewalk into traffic by someone who thinks that their parking is more than anyone else’s safety, you probably never leave your home. This behavior by drivers is so prevalent that it has been codified into the law: They are infractions, rather than felonies they would be otherwise. The whole point is that these prejudices are not because we consciously believe that some people are worse because of race or whatever. They are because we believe, consciously or not, that we are so much better when we drive.

  9. murphstahoe Says:

    Amen Bruce. You get the freakonomics award today. Certainly the drunk next to you on the freeway is FAR more dangerous to you than the drunk on BART. But that perception doesn’t hit home – people only see the obvious and miss the forest for the trees.

    Case and point – the memo circulated at the Bay Area agency responsible for Air Quality – disallowing their employees (people charged with trying to find ways to improve air quality) from using their bikes to get to business meetings because it exposed the company to too much risk. In reality cycling carries nominally the same amount of danger to the person travelling as driving. And from a corporate risk management standpoint cycling is much preferred. A person cycling might die in an accident. A person driving might kill multiple people in an accident. The net risk for the company is far worse with them behind the wheel.

    The author of the memo admitted his statement was only based on his personal intuition, not research.

  10. Guy Span Says:

    Murphstahoe: I would do almost anything for a copy of this memo. If I have to do a Public Records Act request to find it, I will certainly try. An aware bicyclist is no more or less in danger than an aware pedestrian. And the bicyclist can do far do far less damage than a motorist, as you pointed out.

    The world works in mysterious ways and when we can shine a little light on the dark corners, it really helps.

  11. Guy Span Says:

    Riding the bus is not about danger, persons of different ethnic backgrounds, or other social prejudices. It is simply a willingness to understand the system and to use what will be provided regardless of whether we fill the perishable seat.

    A few years back, I had a meeting in Long Beach and flew into LAX and took a cab. On the way in, I noticed that trains were running on the airport line and thought, what a great way back! So at the conclusion of the meeting, I took the Blue Line to Watts, where I would transfer to the Airport line. I was greeted by a big sign that announced the service would start in two weeks.

    So here is a white guy, stuck in the middle of Watts with no way to go to the airport. So I wandered down to street level, found a bus stop on the Century City Line, with abandoned couches in front of it and more guys hanging around. I was the only idiot in a suit, with an attache case. Nobody would come near me.

    The Century City Bus arrived and we crossed the social tectonic plates of Los Angeles to arrive at the airport. First, all Blacks (and no one would sit next to me), then the Hispanic community (and again, people would stand rather than sit next to guy in the suit and Fedora) and finally, nearer the airport, a more mixed group, who would sit next to me.

    Okay. LA Watts to the airport. Quick, convenient and useful. Anyone else tried this?

  12. Guy Span Says:

    Bruce said: “Before BART, AC Transit was operating profitably. The bridge service made more than enough money to operate profitably.”

    Oops! This bit of revisionist history is not correct. The last time the Key System paid a dividend was in 1947 and it was sold to the transit district in 1960 to prevent the dissolution of the remaining assets (old buses). In 1958 the bridge trains were removed to make space for more cars and avoid the cost of replacing creaky, slow trains that were getting seriously long of tooth.

  13. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    AC Transit broke even or made a profit. The Key System did not.

    Of course, that is not the complete story. The Key System had to maintain tracks and electrical equipment, as well as pay taxes, and AC Transit did not. On the other hand, the Key System did better before it had to compete with a bridge that did not have to pay taxes or be profitable.

    The whole subject is really not completely clear. The same prejudices that cause people to ignore auto-related crime and focus on transit- and more particularly, bus-related crime, also skew the accounting. My statement came from an article in an Alameda County based magazine, whose name I forget, which was opposing BART in the early 1960’s. The magazine was in the Periodical Room of the Oakland Library, and I am sure that someone there could help you find it.

    By the way, there is very little crime on transit, especially on buses, where there is always a symbol of authority, the driver, around. Most crime is related to automobiles, even if you discount those that have been demoted to “traffic violations” which account for 90% of all court appearances. About 90% of all (of the remaining) crime in my neighborhood is auto theft and auto burglaries, which is probably typical of most neighborhoods. A city transit bus is probably the safest way to travel. Even most of the crime on BART takes place in the parking lots.

  14. Guy Span Says:

    Bruce: In 1960 and earlier, private transit systems dropped like flies, as they could no longer make a profit. And your comment about taxes, including public lighting and right of way maintenance (paving the roads around the tracks) contributed to this problem. However, AC Transit notes on its web site:

    “On November 1956, citizens voted to establish the Alameda Contra Costa Transit District. Funding for the District was initially provided in 1959 through a voter-approved bond of $16.5 million that allowed AC Transit to acquire the bankrupt Key System from the California Public Utilities Commission in 1960. Further funding mechanisms were approved by the voters, providing AC Transit with necessary operating assistance. The move to publicly operate a privately owned company was proof that voters viewed public transit as an integral component of their quality of life in the East Bay.”

    The implication is clear. AC Transit could not operate (or expand) the service even absent the burden of Key System property taxes without further assistance, i.e. your property taxes. So AC Transit began its existence as a public funded agency. Your assertion that AC Transit was ever profitable (absent its property tax income) is not credible.

  15. murphstahoe Says:

    Guy Span…

  16. Guy Span Says:

    Thank you. Erik (as was his right) broke this one but we’re not through with this nonsense. I very much appreciate the link.

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