NOTE: “Goodbye to the Key Route System” Video provided by Bob Franklin, BART director and music video director. Vocals by Mel Leroy, lyrics by Judith Offer with Joyce Whitelaw on piano and Lynn Parker on drums.
A week ago, I prompted people to wax nostalgic about the Key System on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its death. I still find it curious in this day of controversial transit subsidies that a private urban transit system could survive for the first half the last century. Maybe it’s because it was built and operated by a developer and, as transit and smart-growth devotees now preach, housing, business and transit need to be compatible.
Some of you wanted to talk about just that: The kind of housing density that helps transit work, starting with apartments and condominiums. Looking back at development pre-World War II, when the Key System was thriving, it tended to be much denser. Then the GIs came home with spending money, bought cars and the era of the white-picket-fence American Dream began.
It brings to mind classic re-runs of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ricky moved out to “the country.” I think it was Connecticut. Ricky could drive his eight-cylinder Pontiac into the city to continue performing at the club, and Lucy stayed home and raised the kids. Parking and traffic being what they are in New York, however, meant that commuter railroads actually benefited, eventually, from that urban exodus.
Here it was another story. Sure, the tire, gas and car companies speeded the demise of the streetcar by buying up the Key System and its cousins across the nation, then ripping up tracks and running buses instead.
But let me blaspheme for a minute and say that it made sense at the time. You can’t run rails to every suburban cul-de-sac, but you can send a bus tomorrow to a place you’ve just discovered a bunch of commuters wanting or needing a ride to work.
Today we have the Key System’s successor, AC Transit, and its many passionate supporters who decry the billions of dollars spent on fixed-line urban rail projects while more versatile bus systems are allowed to waste away.
To be sure, there are some exciting things going on with what can often seem a lumbering old East Bay institution. The global trend of running express buses with their own lanes is coming to the East Bay if the agency realizes its plan for bus rapid transit. Three buses are humming around with electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells. It may not be the wave of the future, but street-testing here will tell the rest of the nation if fuel cells are worth the bother and energy needed to produce the mother of all elements.
And if that weren’t enough, I swiped my TransLink card the other day and got a 50-cent discount on my normally $1.75 bus fare. It reminded me that all users of the data-chip-equipped card will get the discounts until June, which I have to say is well worth the cost of signing up. Monthly pass users can get $10 discounts as well for trying out TransLink.
The odd thing about this is that at 4 p.m. May 21 in Oakland City Council Chambers, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, the agency’s governing board will hold a public hearing on its plans to add to that fare price.
There are four proposals, but all would raise the base local fare to $2, while hiking monthly passes from $70 to $80 locally and $116 to $132 for transbay riders. Although one proposal would hike youth passes from $15 to $28, the board seems pretty hostile to that idea.
The fare hike just points up the sad reality of where our transit system has come since the Key System was dismantled. We get less for more. Local service has been reduced to add main line service as buses _ not just AC Transit _ attempt to emulate the old trolley lines.
And all this coming at a time when gas prices are driving more commuters toward transit. At the same time, diesel prices are making it more and more difficult for the agency to respond to that increased demand.
For years, transit people and enviros have told us to switch to transit. Now we’re doing it and the system probably can’t handle it.
So sign up for FasTrak, and enjoy it while it lasts.