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they threw away the Key

By enelson
Friday, April 25th, 2008 at 7:29 pm in AC Transit, Buses, Planning, transit equity, Transit vs. driving.


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.

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18 Responses to “they threw away the Key”

  1. Doug Faunt Says:

    The Key System fare was $0.20 in 1946, which by at least one calculator comes out to $2.28 in 2007. In 1954 that fare was grossly increased to $0.50 which is $3.84 again in 2007.

    But gasoline has gone down in cost in the same period.

    Something else is wrong here.

  2. Doug Faunt Says:

    Er, I’m not convinced I have it right about the price of gasoline. And those fares are equivalents according to an inflation calculator. I must remember not to post before the coffee has time to kick in.

  3. david vartanoff Says:

    The Key was built when, in the main, we walked a few blocks to local shops. Masses of workers commuted to shift jobs at large factories or office work from compact neighborhoods. Now a family living in Fremont might have jobs in Sunnyvale(his) and Walnut Creek(hers) w/kin spread accross Oakland/Berkeley.
    While buses can be deployed easily, they can also be withdrawn which is mostly what AC Transit has done over several decades–friends of mine moved to a nice place in El Cerrito just as AC abolished service. Not only are they more difficult for me to visit, but the children grow up learning only car travel.

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    David, I think there was another factor at work as well, in that those shift workers were accustomed to walking a good distance to get from their homes to transit. Now that most people have cars, the idea of taking the time to walk, to say nothing of the effort, is considered abnormal. For instance, my train station is about a 50-minute walk from my home. I think that would have been ok in 1947. In fact, I’ll posit that the time we now spend car commuting is probably not much different from what people spent commuting back then, it’s just that back then, much of the time was spent walking instead of driving.

  5. Eric Schatmeier Says:

    The Key system’s demise after the war because of returning veterans’ longing for a suburban lifestyle is as much of cliche as the notion that we live in a car culture or have “love affair with the automobile.” I don’t have any problem with cliches if they’re true, but people’s transportation choices were shaped much more by government policy than by a longing for land, lotsa land under starry skies above. We may be outraged by “controversial transit subsidies” that could have saved the Key System if they’d been available in 1958, but we’ve always taken for granted the highway subsidies that, among other things, removed the trains from the Bay Bridge and transformed that structure’s potential from a people carrying device into an auto carrying device. We never voted on this or on any of the other subsidized highway expansions that created the suburban neighborhoods or resulting travel patterns that “experts” claim can’t be efficiently served by rail. Instead, we had to vote on a BART system to replace the Key System as the Bay Area’s transit centerpiece and accept a truncated version because not every Bay Area county accepted BART and its “controversial subsidy” wholeheartedly.
    I like to imagine how different the Bay Area would be today if the Key system had held on for a few more years and then, with subsidy that is puny compared to what we piss away on highways, been developed into a modern rail system with high speeds and frequency. With efficient rail transit in the near East Bay, maybe flight to the suburbs would have been less encouraged and development patterns would have been less centered around automobiles. BART and Highway 24 were real estate development schemes themselves only they were government subsidized ones. They created the notion that you could escape the city for the distant suburbs via efficient rail transit and a free flowing highway. Sprawl in Walnut Creek and Concord are the result of this transportation and suburban housing sales master plan, created by conscious government policy, not some deep longing by veterans to live on a farm. Development of the Key System would have stemmed the suburban tide for the betterment of the Bay Area, but auto and real estate interests were too strong.
    And they still are. There was an opportunity, in the formulation of plans for rebuilding the Bay Bridge, for returning rail to the lower deck and the new East structure. Instead, Caltrans, which calls itself a Department of Transportation, killed perfectly feasible proposals in favor of a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that adds not one inch of additional capacity.
    The Key System is only one of many lost transportation resources nationwide that we can never recover. But please don’t portray its loss as the people’s choice.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Eric, I don’t dispute that there were powerful forces at work that killed off the Key System through no choice of the public. Do you think that people started driving cars because transit was taken away? Did people buy houses in Lafayette because none were available in Oakland? As much as I would like to turn back time and preserve the working system that we had, I don’t think you can deny that Americans, even those residing in the Bay Area, preferred to drive cars and live in houses with yards than live in a flat and take the train to work. That’s what I mean when I refer to the “car culture.”

    As for transit subsidies, I’m not saying they’re wrong, and you’re utterly correct that they pale in comparison to auto subsidies. But they are certainly a subject of debate, “controversial,” if you will, because lots of people think they don’t have any use for transit and shouldn’t have to pay for it.

  7. miked Says:

    How would adding rail to the Bay Bridge work if only added to the Eastern half? Can the Western half support a third deck with rail below the current traffic lanes? Or would there have to be lanes lost?

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    If you were to run trains across the bridge, it seems logical that they’d be right where they were originally, occupying what is now the eastbound deck. On the new eastern span, the decks will be independent bridges, not upper and lower decks like the old bridge.
    It occurs to me that the question of trains over the bridge is kind of moot anyway, because we already have a transbay rail line that, in theory, could be expanded with a new train control system.

    Just off the cuff, it seems like the easiest way to improve transbay mobility is to put in bus/carpool lane across the bridge. You’d move a lot more people, and there are already a lot of carpools to avoid I-80 traffic and bridge tolls. One free-flowing lane would markedly increase the bridge’s peak capacity, making it better even for solo drivers (although we want them to suffer for their sins, don’t we?)

  9. david vartanoff Says:

    CC, I dissent on the bridge issue. Failing to restore rails on the bridge was a major mistake. The transbay BART tube is close to Trains Per Hour maximum. We seriously need a second transbay rail line particularly one that is standard guage thus linkable to existing and future routes. It is interesting BTW to look back at an early 70s proposal for a second tube to link SFO and OAK directly so that passengers could seamlessly change planes.

  10. miked Says:

    Taking lanes away from bay bridge traffic would never actually happen. A new tube or rails as a third level on the bridge would be nice tho (maybe above the traffic- if the bridge can support that). It’s nice to dream about these wonderful things that could have been built.

  11. Eric Schatmeier Says:

    CC,
    Yes, I think people started driving cars because transit was taken away AND because, after the war, virtually every publicly expended transportation dollar was spent on roads and auto related infrastructure. No, I don’t think people started buying homes in Lafayette because none were available in Oakland. I think they did so, because the infrastructure in Lafayette was new and modern, while the infrastructure in Oakland was allowed to crumble. Do you think anyone (other than hermits) would live in Lafayette if the government hadn’t built Highway 24 and BART? Don’t you think more folks would have remained in Oakland if the government had maintained decent schools and a decent transit system to get people back and forth to work? The thing that bothers me about claims of a “car culture” is that it assumes that we had this spontaneous love for autos and government just responded. Instead, just as in the early days of streetcar lines, government policies, which built new and modern infrastructure wherever developers bought cheap land to build suburban homes, created places like Lafayette, Concord and Walnut Creek (and San Jose and Livermore and Antioch and soon, Brentwood and Byron.) These places would still be cowtowns without 100% government-financed automobile-related infrastructure. What if, as happened in Europe after the war, the US had used government infrastructure dollars to build around rail lines and trains? What if inner city schools were funded to the same degree as schools in the burbs? My contention is that American cities would be very different and better places to live.
    I grew up in one of those houses with yards you mention and my father, a returning World War II veteran, drove back and forth to work every day until he retired. I lived in San Jose from 1956 until I went away to college in 1968. My dad may have preferred this lifestyle, but it’s not as if he had a choice. When we first moved to the Valley, which had several large industrial plants served by giant parking lots on the premises, there were 50,000 people who lived in the city and virtually no transit. Government policy could have limited sprawl and provided efficient transportation alternatives. Instead, the city and county grew the way they did because they had two major freeways, supplemented by a locally funded network of “expressways” and later by more freeways. By the time the county built rail, the auto infrastructure had already ensured that it couldn’t be successful or efficient.
    The notion that people “prefer” this kind of life seems empty to me when we have no alternatives. Autos didn’t replace transit the way CDs replaced records. The government took trains off the Bay Bridge in order to make way for cars. The government forbids us from putting them back on the bridge (even though the people-carrying capacity would be greater) because it would make life inconvenient for cars. The whole structure of transportation finance in this country favors cars and we take it all for granted. We only get a direct voice in this when a transit measure is on the ballot. Soon we’ll vote on High Speed Rail. When did we ever vote on Interstate 5? When transportation policy at every level of government favors cars and penalizes transit, one explanation is that we prefer cars and live in a car culture. Another is that we were sold a bill of goods. The fact that so many people in the Bay Area choose transit even though transit is so bad, is an indicator to me that, given a viable alternative, like fully developed, customer-oriented Key Systems, ubiquitous in cities all over the country, we’d discover that our “preference” for automobiles is as transitory as it was for phonograph records. I dream of the day.

  12. Doug Faunt Says:

    Two things, very different:
    Are we actually at “Max Trains Per Hour” in the BART Transbay tube, or is the current limitation at Embarcadero/West Oakland, which could be addressed by having some trains skip that stop?

    And at the end of WWII, there was, suddenly, a lot of unused manufacturing capacity, which could be used to provide motor cars. I’m sure there was a lot of pressure to use that capacity.

  13. Reedman Says:

    The Transbay Tube will reach capacity at rush hour in a number of years. Some creative thinking might allow better utilization at significantly lower cost than a second tube:1)longer trains. The stations can only handle 10 cars, but requiring people to enter/exit from the from the front 10 cars of a 12 car train shouldn’t be a horrible burden (example: in theory, the back door of MUNI buses are ‘exit only’), 2) add a third door per car to speedup getting on/off, 3) build a ‘passing lane’ somewhere in the East Bay so there can be express trains, more trains, and less distance between trains.

  14. david vartanoff Says:

    Max TPH cannot overrun station dwell. Assume all 10 car trains w/ 3 door sets each. (The 12 car overhang idea will SLOW service) Realistic 90 sec headway is achievable. Tighter cannot be maintained. Without a shortcut skipping downtown Oakland (which I do not support) there will always be a gap in EB trains to acommodate Richmond-Fremont runs. So, with 90 sec headways, around that gap some throughput increase above current is possible BUT NOT MUCH. The question then, is not if but how soon a capacity expansion need be made.

  15. Doug Faunt Says:

    re: David Vartanoff 14- I’m seeing 3, 4 and 5 minutes gaps when I look at the peak train schedules through West Oakland. It looks as if twice as many trains could go through, using your 90 second figure. That’s a substantial increase.

    But I can’t get my head to come up with the reality or not of the usefulness of skipping some stations.
    Any thoughts?

  16. david vartanoff Says:

    my time comments were based on querying the 511 site for a station to station EMB to W Oak circa 5 P. repeating that exercise eturns departures @ 4:55, 4:56, 5:01, 5:04, 5:06. repeating the query circa 5:30 returns 5″25, 5:26, 5:32, 5:36, 5:38.

    So current headway varies from 60 seconds (which I don’t believe is sustainable) to 6 minutes which I interpret as covering the slot for a Richmond to Fremont train. that said, I believe a few more trains could be slipped in, but not many.
    As to skip stop, that was used for many decades in Chicago where most branches of the ‘L’ like BART are two tracks. Having lived there summers as a kid and then a couple years post college I found it worked well. Occasionally I needed to change from a “B” (from my ‘hood” to an “A” to reach a destination, but generally trips were faster than the late night all stop services. Sadly AB service was a casualty of early nineties cutbacks. The L is significantly slower than in the 50s/60s. SEPTA in Philly has operated AB skip Stop on the Market Frankford “el” which is underground in Center City.

  17. Reedman Says:

    Todays Chronicle mentions a capacity-enhancing idea that
    BART is implementing. They are taking some of the seats out of some of the cars to make more standing room. They are also planning to add hanging straps to allow for easier standing.

  18. david vartanoff Says:

    indeed BART the “we are not the subway, we are the Long Island RR” (Mike Healy BART PR guy personal interview) IS the subway and needs to amp up headways and consists. Concurrently, Bay Area commuters will need to accomodate to “mass” transit–it isn’t a comfy couch to yourself in a half empty car. BART’s current policy of deliberately too short trains is not appropriate.

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