Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Notes on Transit – transitcamp without being there

Posted by shannonclark on February 24, 2008

This weekend in Palo Alto TransitCamp Bay Area will take place. I was not able to attend (in not small part because via public transit it takes me 2+ hours if I catch all the right trains and buses to get from my house to Palo Alto) but as my contribution here are some observations and thoughts I have about Transit.

First some personal background. I grew up in Oak Park IL, moved to Chicago where I lived for another 13+ years, two years ago I moved to the Bay Area. In 2004, I sold my car and have not replaced it, when I sold it (a 2000 model I had bought in Dec 1999 as a new car, that car had only ~13k miles on it). So for about the past 8+ years I have primarily relied on public transit, not on a personal car for the majority of my transportation. With the occasional taxi ride (often to/from an airport – more on that as well, and yes, to a degree taxi policies and licensing should be considered as part of overall transit).

Here are a couple of observations followed by a few suggestions. Primarily I will focus on issues specific to the Bay Area, but I’ll note some additional elements based on my experiences in other cities both in the US and around the world.

  • Current transit is, mostly, focused on the needs of “commuters”
  • In the Bay Area we, simultaneously have too much and too little transit (I’ll explain)
  • There are many options for how to pay (as an individual) for transit – in the Bay Area we have nearly all of them (far too many)
  • When thinking about transit private (individual) and private (corporate) should be part of the discussion, as well as all of the factors that influence those choices (tolls, parking availability & pricing, zoning requirements especially around the construction of new parking, metered vs free vs permit parking, zoning rules around mixed use vs. sole use vs. “strip malls” vs. sidewalk frontage or set backs etc)
  • Tourists have different needs than residents, not all residents have the same needs, and those needs vary by time of day, day of week, month, the weather and the age & health of the individuals.
  • The groups who have the most political influence are rarely those who have the most vital needs for public transit, though the aspects of public transit which do impact those with political influence tend to be those which get the greatest funding.

Here in the Bay Area by my count there are at least the following varieties of transit which should be discussed.

  1. Private Cars
    • an unusual aspect being the commuter lanes & toll policies which combine to create an unique system in places of the bay area for ride sharing by strangers (essentially “hitching” but with a more fixed pattern)
    • toll policies preference travel in certain directions
    • parking and zoning regulations dictate certain patterns in SF while zoning & building patterns dictate others in the rest of the Bay Area
    • motorcycles and scooters
    • special cases of rental cars
    • special cases of tourist cars (“go cars” guided tours of San Francisco for example)
  2. Shared Cars (City Carshare, ZipCars) and Commuter vans
  3. Taxis (and to a lesser extent limousines)
  4. Amtrak
  5. multiple ferry services
  6. CalTrain
  7. BART
  8. Muni – buses, cable cars, and light rail
  9. A large number of public bus services – most one per town around the Bay Area, a few like AC Transit crossing multiple towns, and a couple which cross towns (TransBay)
  10. Private bus services
    • Corporations (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and a few others) have formal bus services for employees
    • Certain buildings & neighborhoods in San Francisco (and some buildings in other cities) have bus services, typically for residents or workers in those buildings usually between the buildings and main transit centers (Caltrain station being a main point)
    • Local universities have services for students between residences and campus locations and between multiple campus locations throughout the area (U. C. Berkeley in Berkeley, UCSF and many other schools throughout SF
    • Tourist specific buses (some of which do offer “on/off” services. There are some public tourist buses as well (in the Presidio, in Golden Gate Park)
  11. Public handicaped special bus services
  12. Greyhound
  13. Bikes
  14. Walking
  15. Select light rail in other towns than San Francisco
  16. Major airports (Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose)
    • these also have internal transporation and special buses connecting the airports and trains
    • for some reason no airport in the Bay Area has trains that run directly to the terminals
  17. Private airports (and to a lesser degree helicopter pads)
  18. Private boats & boat dock

That is a lot of transit options – many of which any one person rarely experiences and uses. Like much of the state of CA the private car, usually driven without passengers is a very commonly used form of transit. For that matter there are many people who never use any of the other services – especially public buses

Payment methods and models:

  1. Pay on entry – most buses, MUNI in SF, Ferrys
  2. Pay on exit – CalTrain – exact amount varies by start and end point (and varies considerably from a low of <$2 and a high of many multiples of that
  3. Prepaid – MUNI (monthly passes), most Tolls w/automated pass, to a degree BART since you have to have a card with value added to it already (new “TransitLink” will have aspects of this
  4. Payment via special unit – bus coupons in San Francisco, parking cards in SF

Some questions I have:

  1. What is the GOAL of Public Transit? (Not or at least not solely I’d argue to “get workers to work”)
  2. How should transit be funded (currently few if any transit services are fully funded by the riders in the case of public services)? Private services (buses etc) are parts of the cost of some other business (office building, large company etc)
  3. How can the many specific focuses and political complications of have dozens of public transit agencies be minimized to better serve the needs of the entire Bay Area?
  4. How can Public Transit in particular emphasize the public service aspects of transit, not just serve the needs of one sector of the public (businesses whose commuters have to get to/from work during “regular” business hours).
  5. In particular, in my view, public transit should have many 24hr options, be sure to have 24hr access to hospitals in particular, should avoid creating isolated sections with no inexpensive transit options for much of the day, and transit should build into their business models flexibility to accommodate changing circumstances (planes which are delayed at airports for example)

Some specific suggestions

  1. In San Francisco (and across the Bay Area more broadly) the last trains, especially across the Bay, should run for 1 hour AFTER bars & nightclubs close (and if on weekends this means running 24hrs – so be it). This both serves a very strong and real public interest (keeping people off the streets when/if drunk) and it as importantly would encourage more people to stay in the city after work for entertainment and/or head into the city on the weekends – without clogging roads with cars and without requiring preplanning in the morning (i.e. choosing to drive instead of taking the train). Combined with bike parking at many stations (already done) and with local bus/transit services so people could avoid driving from train stations home (perhaps also with friendly parking policies that encourage overnight parking without serious penalty)
  2. Trains (and buses) which leave from Bay Area airports should run until also an hour or so AFTER the last plane lands – if this means running very very late, again so be it. Ideally the trains would be in communication with the airlines and be sure to wait until all bags were off and arriving passengers were directed from the baggage claim to the buses to trains (and were made aware that trains would be waiting for them). This might be slightly costly (but heck, I’d imagine airlines might kick in some dollars in fact) but would dramatically improve impressions of the public transit services for visitors and locals alike. A related point, ideally public transit should run TO the airports in time to clear security for the FIRST planes of the day (and yes, this might in the case of SF to OAK traffic suggest running nearly 24hrs – see a trend in my suggestions…)
  3. Monthly (and Weekly) passes should be available WIDELY. From ALL machines and from all hotels – at a minimum as a starting point. My local Safeway almost without fail SELLS OUT of Monthly MUNI passes – that is completely unacceptable – each pass is simply a piece of paper – 1000’s more of them should be printed each month – NO store should EVER sell out of them. Chicago solves this by NOT selling a monthly pass – instead Chicago sells a pass good for 30 days from first use – but with the variety of ways transit s paid for in the Bay Area that might not work (can’t easily visually show the pass where that mode is needed such as on buses)
  4. Fine amounts for not having a pass/ticket in modes of transit where one is required at all times (most of the bay area services) should be SPELLED OUT AND POSTED.
  5. Unlike many cities, the bay area does NOT have a single, universal taxi number – and taxi rates are extremely high – which discourages many people from using or thinking about using a taxi. At a minimum there should be ONE number (perhaps per area code) for taxis which would work with ALL taxis. Outside of SF taxis can be nearly impossible to find at times (Palo Alto in particular I’ve had problems at times)
  6. ZipCar and City Carshare are good for many people – but serve people who need one-way transportation or need open ended transportation relatively poorly (I most often need a car on days, such as this weekend, when there is an event or events happening down the peninsula which I would want to attend – and which I couldn’t easily predict when I might return from the events – both because I don’t know travel times and traffic well and because I not infrequently will stay late at event and/or want to go out with folks from an event – to get dinner for example). This is a very hard problem for car share services – but for me at least, and I’m sure I’m not the only person, $60/day though perhaps actually a good deal is a very big hurdle to overcome to think about spending to go to an event. (For that matter the $10-12 round trip to take Caltrain down to Palo Alto is pretty painful as well)

Much of the transit system fails because of serious gaps in the transit experience between commuters (many of whom have their passes paid for by their companies or significantly discounted) and the use and costs born by everyone else. I buy a monthly MUNI pass in San Francisco ($45) which is a good deal – and it makes it trivially simple for me to get on/off buses, trains or even the cable cars if I’m traveling within San Francisco – however I can’t, for example, use that pass to get to an airport (why the San Francisco airport at least for purposes of transit isn’t “in” San Francisco still befuddles me).

Yes, the trip planner is useful (though why there isn’t a mobile and iPhone interface for it I don’t know) and NextBus is also helpful, but even so there is also too little flexibility in too much of the transit patterns in the city – travel in the commute times is uncomfortable (very packed – suggesting that even more trains/buses could be run then) but at least trains and buses arrive fairly frequently – but if you wait just a bit everything slows to halt. And if you want to travel on, say a Sunday, good luck – your options shrink to almost none (no Caltrain back to San Francisco after 9:30 or so on a Sunday night for example).

Plus the payment complexities and the inability to pay on the train in most cases (you can’t even pay the gate agent at MUNI or BART but must fight with the often broken/flaky machines) also makes transit a frustrating experience. From CalTrain’s giving change only in dollar coins (and not taking payment on the trains) to MUNI’s insistence on using two different machines at times to get change (for dollar coins and for quarters).

So those are some suggestions and questions and observations I have about transit. I with I could have made it to the TransitCamp this weekend – but as I noted, it would have been costly for me in terms of time (and money).

One Response to “Notes on Transit – transitcamp without being there”

  1. Martin Engel said

    I attended something called “Transitcamp” this past Saturday morning (Feb.23rd). [http://barcamp.org/TransitCampBayArea] Well attended, lots of representatives from various transit organizations or advocacy groups. Lots of IT types who manage web sites and promote information sharing. Also, a number of town council representatives. Even a guy from Paris. Lots of chat about web sites, text-messaging, PDAs and signage. No representatives from the largest category of commuters, the working poor.

    Here are some things I learned while listening to various presentations:

    There are about 3 dozen transit operators in the Bay Area. You can name most of this alphabet soup: VTA, BART, SamTrans, Caltrain, ACE, MUNI, etc.

    •They compete with each other for limited public funding and are all deficit operations. Transit in the Bay Area is an under-funded zero-sum game, with winners and losers. Most of these transit operators work on a business model with permanent deficits, rather than a public utility service model.

    •They resist crossing jurisdictional boundaries. It sounds very territorial, and it is. Some call it a form of “Balkanization.” They claim connectivity but in practice that barely exists.

    •There is no real coordination among them. It’s would be a perfect job for MTC, but for reasons nobody has yet explained, that isn’t happening.

    •They all tend toward self-serving agendas. For all these operators, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts; it’s less. However, they all claim record-setting numbers of riders. Each one is, by their own telling, a great success, but together and collectively, most people seem to recognize that they are a failure in their public service mission.

    •By and large, they are not customer- or service-oriented, despite their claims to the contrary. They are really focused on their own empire expansion, including hardware/technology improvement, like more and better bells-and-whistles.

    •The “modalities” compete with each other and/or ignore each other. Rail is about rail, not customer service. They say they are doing shuttles and connecting to buses, but, as everyone knows, they have a very long way to go, and would rather put their capital development dollars in upgrading their own hardware, rather than developing the critical connectivity among all the transit operators essential for a healthy and functional urban mass transit system.

    •By their own admission, they are class-stratified. The customer base for rail is different than the customer base for buses. The former is primarily white collar, professional, middle class, often techie, while the latter is largely blue-collar, ethnic, and hourly worker, of which about half own no car to choose as an alternative mode of transit. I’m guessing that this is a much larger problem for increasing urban mass transit than it appears. Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon put it very well when he said: “Nobody ever asked for a bus-set for Christmas.” Of course. The Romance of Railroads! The rail riders and those who professionally represent them are articulate and well-endowed to make a political case for their mode of transit. The bus riders are not and appear to have no spokespersons.

    •There are several rail advocate groups such as the Bay Rail Alliance. Another one with wider membership is RailPAC. As their name suggests they are rail promoters. The central flaw in their thinking is their parochial fixation on rail, any rail, all rail. It’s an incurable rail-fixation. Got a problem? Rail will fix it. There is a saying in Silicon Valley about the railroads: “They thought they were in the railroad-train business when they should have understood that they are in the transportation business.” Only when the rail advocates begin to get out of their tracks and think multi-modal transit, will they begin to serve themselves and the larger community.

    What’s the basic problem, especially on the Peninsula? There are two separate services running north and south on the Peninsula, Caltrain and VTA/SamTrans. The buses run mostly on El Camino, near and parallel to Caltrain’s right of way. It’s not totally redundant since the buses stop more frequently than the trains. However, that’s too much north and south, and there’s nowhere near enough east and west.

    Why is that a problem? In the Bay Area, work and living are very highly distributed, and the urban/regional population wraps around the Bay and east into the Tri-valley. That makes transit highly challenging. So, while it’s relatively easy to link the Peninsula north and south, there is little effort to make connections east and west. One analogy I can think of is a fabric, or web. Urban mass transit has to optimize people moving from door to door; from any point A to any point B. We now have two threads, Caltrain and VTA/SamTrans, but they only run north and south. Getting from the Coast to the chain of towns down the eastern side of the Peninsula; that is, getting from anywhere on the Peninsula to the train stations or the El Camino bus stations is very difficult. And discouraging. Then, the Peninsula-East Bay link can stand serious upgrades, and the Dumbarton rail project is certainly not it. That would merely enlarge Caltrain’s empire-of-rail, which we don’t need more of.

    There needs to be a basic mind-set change which would help get everyone to focus in a new and different direction; see the forest for the trees, so to speak. For example, by calling all the Caltrain train stations “Transit Stations”, they would suddenly acquire a new and different function; that is, providing transit service to commuters, served by a variety of modalities. Even train riders, whether they say so or not, actually seek “transit” service, not “train” service. And, this would be a first step toward full connectivity from door to door. Contrary to what the transit operators believe, the vehicle is not the trip. You can’t push people out of their cars, especially in California. You have to seduce them by making mass transit more multi-modal, more attractive, more convenient, more economical, and more time-efficient than driving. And, it has to solve the “first mile, last mile” problem.

    Another useful metaphor is the body’s vascular system, the web of arteries and veins which transport the blood and make the body function. What is missing in our example on the Peninsula are all the minuscule veins and capillaries, so to speak. That means simply that there should be far more shuttle vehicles (hybrid, electric or whatever) making many stops among residential areas at one end, and at work places at the other. There need to be, in our future transit system, many more smaller vehicles running more frequently, and many fewer large vehicles running occasionally.

    Without the development of a web/fabric of modalities seamlessly connected and coordinated, Caltrain will find itself becoming less and less useful as a potential component of transit. And, we will be having this same meeting ten years from now all making the same complaints.

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