There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Back to the future (continuted)

The Sacramento History blog has posted the second part of its series on Sacramento's Streetcar Suburbs. The tale of real estate investor Edwin K. Alsip and plumbing and tinware seller Leonidas Lee Lewis and the Central Street Railway they founded to serve their new Oak Park neighborhood certainly makes this transitarian long for those bygone days.

Imagine if today's developers of, say, Placer Vineyards were equally enlightened. The Oak Park neighborhood probably had a density similar to Placer Vineyards' proposed three housing units per acre.

Instead, we have neighboring Sutter County suing because Placer County's planning process didn't take into consideration the traffic mess such a low-density project would create.

What if the Township 9 project on Richards Boulevard in the city of Sacramento were the model for Placer Vineyards? A development with 36 housing units per acre might generate enough transit ridership that even a modern developer and businessman would see the advantages.


Sorry, I can only maintain that much optimism for so long before reality comes crashing back down. I have genuinely enjoyed my first six months of relying on Sacramento Regional Transit to get to and from work. Sure, I'm fortunate to live on a popular bus route and work at a location near a light rail stop. There must be more people in Sacramento in similar situations who could leave their cars at home, even if just one or two days a week. One or two more riders here, a couple there and pretty soon you are talking crowds. I certainly hope the recent decline in ridership is a temporary reaction to the rate increase.

Trying **puff puff** to remain **puff puff** optimistic.



Hearten Soul said...

"I certainly hope the recent decline in ridership is a temporary reaction to the rate increase."

Hmm - interesting guess.

Here's mine:

The recent decline in ridership could well be due to the fact that summering-Sacramento-students have not been riding the bus for a couple of months.

wburg said...

Actually, Oak Park's density was actually closer to the density of much of midtown Sacramento, or modern Oak Park: about 12-20 housing units per acre.

The canonical Sacramento old city block is made up of 40x80 foot and 40x160 foot lots, which are 1/13 and about 1/7 of an acre respectively, and the houses built on such lots in the early development of Oak Park varied from single homes to three-story flats with six units each, interspersed throughout the neighborhood. Apartments above retail establishments along the streetcar corridors add to the total population, and neighborhood parks provide open recreation space in place of quarter-acre backyards.

Streetcar suburbs are characterized by small lots and relatively compact density, otherwise they aren't convenient for foot traffic to the transit corridor, and don't generate enough traffic to be economically self-sustaining. 3 DUA isn't nearly enough.

John said...


Thanks for the correction to my uninformed wishful thinking about housing densities.

hearten soul,

I agree that students make up a sizable number of riders. However, the first half of the year -- January to June -- didn't include the summer months when school was out, or at least not as much as the second half of the year -- July to December -- will reflect.

wburg said...

Well, it's true that 3-4 houses to the acre is typically what people think of when you say "suburbs" in the modern context. Older suburbs, built around public transit, used to be a lot denser. One of the best things about a lot of new development (like the small-lot developments in Sacramento and West Sac, and the stuff going up in Rancho Cordova) is that they physically resemble old suburbs, and are thus far better suited for service by public transit.

[foreshadowing]The consequences of *not* building streetcar suburbs densely enough is something I'll address in future chapters...[/foreshadowing]

John said...

I look forward to your continuing series.

It occurs to me that part of my problem with looking at history is my inability to put aside my modern view and see things as they appeared at the time.

Henry Ford didn't create his first car until 1886. The late 19th and early 20th century streetcar suburbs were excellent examples of what could be done in the absence of personal transportation for the masses.

Today it is very difficult to put that genie back in the box. As long as driving a car is less expensive than transit, people will choose to keep their cars. Sure, there are some people like me who choose transit because of its environmental value, but realistically, we must either have gridlock or $6 gasoline to get people out of their cars. Until then, those bygone days of streetcar suburbs will remain gone.

Jim said...

I think there's more to it than mere economics. The relative convenience of personal transportation versus public transit seems like a major factor to me. We've spent the last 60 years (re-)designing our towns and cities around private automobiles. We need to return to an emphasis on transit- and pedestrian oriented designs, which are nearly diametrically opposed to private vehicular convenience.

John said...

In my best Pollyanna falsetto, I say: "Given a real choice, people will do the right thing. And the right thing is to turn away from sprawl."

Once upon a time, the norm was one car per family. OK, that was when only one parent worked, but by embracing the goal of just one car per family, we could encourage transit for those planned trips -- commute to work or school -- and the car for what transit doesn't serve.

In our family, we will add a third driver at the end of the year, but we won't add a third car. He will get the car I abandoned when I decided to commute using transit.