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

Friday, September 26, 2008

Carless and carefree

Let's imagine. Let's pretend today was unexceptional.

This morning I walked out of my front door and next door to my bus stop. I boarded the bus and took out my book and read as bus lumbered along. At Sacramento State, I got off the bus and after a short wait boarded a bus headed downtown to the Amtrak station. Again I read my book, immersed in a tale of Sherman's march through Georgia.

The bus arrived at the Amtrak station on time, and I walked to the train platform. The Amtrak train soon rolled into the station, its horn blaring and bells clanging, the ground rumbling with the throbbing of the massive engine. I boarded a car and found an empty table and sat down. I got out my laptop and plugged it into the power outlet and got down to work. At one point I got up and walked to the dining car, where I bought a cup of coffee and a discounted $10 BART pass for a total of $9.50.

At Oakland's Jack London Square I got off the Amtrak train and walked to Webster Street and headed downtown. Once I crossed under Interstate 880 I was in Chinatown. This is my favorite part of my morning commute. Oakland's Chinatown isn't as touristy as San Francisco's. It's more like a real community. This morning, like every morning, I stopped at one of the street-side fresh produce stands and purchased fruit for lunch and for the trip home. I then walked to a coffee shop that prides itself on being owned and operated by Oakland residents who are doing all things good for the planet. I purchased a French-press cup of coffee and walked next door to my office.

At noon, two of my co-workers and I walked across the street to a nearby outdoor mall and had lunch. When we finished we walked back to the office.

Later in the afternoon, my boss spoke at the Sustainable Communities conference at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco. I took BART from my office to the Powell Street station and then walked up the hill three blocks to the hotel.

One point from my boss's speech stuck out for me. If we just met the existing demand for walkable communities joined by effective transit systems, she told the gathering, we could reach our goals to reduce our reliance on oil and lower our impact on global warming.

On the BART ride back to the office I rolled that idea over in my head: Just listening to what many people are already saying they want and making it possible for builders and local governments to meet those needs would have transformational effects.

It's not hard to imagine. How nice it would be if everyday could be as carless and carefree.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Amtrak's annulment

Dude! Where's my train

"Explain that again," I asked the Amtrak agent behind the glass at the C.L. Dellums Amtrak Station at Jack London Square in Oakland. I had been outside standing next to the track waitng for my train home when the announcement came. The echo effect obscured all but the gist of the message: No train. Not your train has been delayed; no train at all.

"The 542 for Sacramento has been annulled," the Amtrak agent said. "No train. The next train will be the 544 at 6:55 p.m."

This is only my 11th trip from Oakland home. I've had trains arrive 15 minutes late into the station at Sacramento in the morning and on one morning the train was late arriving in Oakland because of technical problems with the track switching network. But for the most part, the trains have arrived and departed near enough to on time for my purposes. I remember reading recently that Amtrak reported a better than 90 percent on-time performance last month.

After I settled into a seat near a power outlet in the station and pulled out my laptop, I overheard an Amtrak employee explaining to one of the regulars what had become of the 542.

"The engine blew up," he said. He left the impression that "blew up" didn't involve death and destruction and pieces scattered far and wide.

A half-hour later when word arrived that the 544 would be 20 minutes late I wasn't really surprised. When things go bad everything rolls downhill.

Eventually the four-car 544 from San Jose to Sacramento rolled into the station hauling behind it the four cars of the disabled 542. It was one long, crowded train.

And, of course, the trip kept rolling downhill. About an hour out of Oakland, the conductor came on the public address system to apologize for our slow pace. Haulng the extra cars was slowing things, he said.

Merrily, merrily I rolled along. I had a seat at a table with a college student studying a textbook and a guy watching a movie on his laptop. I had my laptop out and plugged into a power outlet. I read reports that I will be summarizing for an upcoming newsletter. Riding Amtrak is paid work time for me. Once I'm on the train, I suppose I can't complain. Or at least I shouldn't.

I finally arrived in Sacramento two hours later than I would have arrived before Amtrak annulled my train.

Giving the bus a chance

This is the third week that I've been commuting between my home near Carmichael and an office in downtown Oakland. By far the toughest part of the commute has been the point from my house to the Amtrak station, a trip of less than 10 miles by car.

The Amtrak Capitol Corridor train I ride leaves Sacramento at 7:40 a.m. On most days, I have been rolling my teenage son out of bed by 6:30 a.m. and having him drive me to the Watt/I-80 light rail station. The trip takes just five minutes. It's about a 20-minute ride to Saint Rose. From there, it's a 10-minute walk to Amtrak. I arrive with plenty of time to stop by Starbucks and get a coffee. Better yet, if I miss the light rail train that leaves at 6:44 a.m., I can take the 6:59 and still make the Amtrak connection.

But I don't like having to take a car to light rail. It's just not transitarian enough. I do have an alternative, but I've been afraid to use it.

At 6:28 a.m., I can catch the No. 82 and get off at Sacramento State at 7 a.m. I then catch the No. 31 to the Amtrak station, which is scheduled to arrive at 7:31. Total walking: Less than 100 yards. Cost: Free, courtesy of my student pass from the Los Rios Community College District.

But what's kept me from using this option is my experience with the No. 82. There's just a nine-minute window between the time the No. 82 is scheduled to arrive at Sacramento State and the time the No. 31 is supposed to depart. If the No. 82 has to pick up and drop off a couple of wheelchair riders, it won't arrive on time. If I miss the No. 31, I can't just go to 65th Street and catch light rail. The next train doesn't arrive at Amtrak at until 7:40, assuming it's on time. I would most likely end up watching the back of the Amtrak train as it leaves the station.

Today I decided to give the bus a try.

The No. 82 arrived at my stop at 6:28. Three women were already on the bus. By the time the bus arrived at Sacramento State, every seat was taken and seven people were standing in the aisles.

The No. 82 pulled to a stop at Sacramento State at 7:03 -- three minutes late, but six minutes before the No. 31 was scheduled. About a dozen people boarded the No. 31 with me at 7:10 a.m., a minute behind schedule. Twenty minutes later while riding under the Downtown Plaza, I looked up from my book and realized I was the lone remaining rider.

The No. 31 pulled to the curb at the Amtrak station at 7:33 a.m. -- two minutes behind schedule, but seven minutes before the scheduled Amtrak departure.

So it can work, but can I depend on it? After the No. 31 arrived at the Amtrak station, I asked the driver whether he has much trouble keeping to his schedule. "I've never been later than 7:35," he said.

I'm going to do this again. I commute to Oakland four days a week. Maybe I'll let the kid sleep in two or three days.

I miss the bus and the time it allows for casual reading. And obviously RT has missed me as well. According to the monthly ridership statistics, bus ridership was down 3.1 percent in August compared to August of last year. But as General Manager Mike Wiley always points out, that decline is actually an increase when you take into account the fact that RT cut bus service overall by 5 percent in January. Light rail ridership, meanwhile, was up 8.19 percent above August of last year.

But an interesting mirror image appears when you compare August with the month before.

Bus ridership in August increased when compared to July -- 1,392,000 million riders compared with 1,388,300 -- while 114,500 fewer riders boarded light-rail trains. For the first time in several months, more people rode buses than rode light rail.

This raises an interesting question: If the price of gas drops below $3.50, how many more light rail riders will abandon their park-and-ride commute?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tax increment financing for transit

As I mentioned earlier, Sacramento Regional Transit has entered the "Show me the money" phase of its Transit Master Plan update.

RT and its consultant have drafted a nifty best-case scenario. Click on the image to see a slide show created from last Monday's board presentation. Starting on Oct. 9, RT will take its dog and pony show around town to determine, as RT puts it, "how we can fund future transit services and improvement projects that were identified as important to the region."

I've already suggested that "free parking" should be eliminated and the proceeds from charging a per-space fee directed to transit and bike lanes and sidewalk improvements.

Today I learned of still another idea: Transit Revitalization Investment Zones.

This is a concept that Michigan is actively exploring. The Michigan House is considering House Bill 6114, which would provide a new tax-increment financing authority.

According to a Michigan House analysis, the bill would allow for the creation of a new kind of tax increment financing authority, under which the growth in local property tax revenues within a designated zone could be captured and redistributed.

Imagine what this could do for the Downtown-Natomas-Airport section of RT's expansion plans. Such a Transit Revitalization Investment Zone could capture the property tax increase from the Railsyards and Township Nine and Greenbriar, as well as other areas where new, transit-oriented development would boost local property taxes. The same could be done for the section of track from Meadowview to Elk Grove.

Sacramento Regional Transit needs to look beyond the tired sales tax gambit if it wants to raise enough funds to pay for its dream scenario.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paying for a better Sacramento Regional Transit

Sacramento Regional Transit moves into the second phase of its Regional Transit Master Plan revision: How to pay for it?

Over the last six months, the Sacramento Regional Transit District received valuable input from over 2,000 community members who agree that that the vision for the Sacramento region includes a high quality and high frequency transit system. Now, RT needs your input to determine how we can fund future transit services and improvement projects that were identified as important to the region.
Eight community hearings have been scheduled between Oct. 9 and Nov. 13. And again, just as RT did with earlier community hearings, there are no weekend hearings. If you can't make a 6 p.m. start time on a weekday, you'll have to send RT your ideas some other way. For me, that failure to consider people who work for a living -- choice riders -- says a great deal about why RT faces a difficult road as it considers how to garner the votes necessary to pay for an effective transit system. (I know, you've heard it all before here.)

That's not to say there isn't support for improving RT's lackluster service. On Sept. 10, The Sacramento Bee reported that the North State Building Industry Association and the Environmental Council of Sacramento have discovered they have a common interest: improving transit.

The builders and ECOS have decided that meeting pollution-reduction mandates will require denser housing developments closer to jobs. But that, they say, only works if the area is served by a usable bus and light-rail system. David Mogavero of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, and developer Michael Winn, chairman of the Building Industry Association board, told The Bee their goal is to come up with a list of funding ideas and to work with transit agencies to implement them.

Personally, I'd like to see something more than another increase in the sales tax. I want an end to free parking. It would have to be regionwide. Rancho Cordova should no longer profit from its acres of employee parking lots. But at the same time, Rancho Cordova should see all of the money raised from an end of its free parking go to improve the ghastly service Rancho Cordova currently receives.

That's my 2 cents.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Regime change: What's in it for cities?

Neal Peirce, over at, asks the question, "McCain Versus Obama: Who’s Best for Cities?" It's really no contest:

My short analysis: With Obama, we’re likely to get an activist federal government in areas from transit and infrastructure to housing. But it won’t be the Democrats’ historic center-city “urban policy.” Instead, Obama’s looking for ways to shift and coordinate federal programs to help boost the fortunes of entire metro regions.

Read the full article at

Infusion and the moon

The photo is from yesterday. The wife started the second half of her chemotherapy regimen with a six-hour infusion at the University of California, Davis, Cancer Center. The wife will have three more trips to the infusion center. Those, thankfully, will be only three-hour ordeals.

The chemo appears to be having the desired effect -- the doctor reports a reduction in the size of the lump in the breast and the lump in the lymph node -- and the side effects have been manageable. This, of course, is the view of the guy who doesn't have painful open sores in his mouth or a constant feeling of fatigue and queasiness. There's something to be said for being the observer in this relationship.

Right now I'm in the St. Rose Starbucks killing time before an appointment for a haircut. I took the No. 82 from my house to the 65th Street light rail station. The bus arrived early enough to tempt me to run to catch a train that was already in the station, but Sacramento Regional Transit trains wait for no one and I was treated to the sight of the green light in the door button turning off just as I reached the door.

As the train pulled away I turned and was mooned by a woman pulling up her black panties after squatting in the nearby bushes to relieve herself. That was a first.

Anyway, I settled in for the 15-minute wait until the next inbound train arrived. I pulled out my book, but I was soon distracted by the sound of a woman yelling at someone. It took awhile to figure who was yelling since none of the usual suspects appeared to be in the vicinity. Eventually, I noticed a gray haired woman in nice clothes with a small plastic shopping bag. She was nicely dressed. Looked just like someone grandmother. But she was yelling at some people and it wasn't nice talk. One woman nearby threatened to call the police if the woman didn't tone her tirade down. That had no effect. The woman's ran nonstop until a No. 26 bus arrived and everyone else in the vicinity boarded and left the grandmother alone.

It was something of a homecoming for me. I've got a new job that doesn't fit well with Sacramento Regional Transit's limited offering. I'll explain more in another post. I have to go now to get my hair cut.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Building on the human scale

Something to think about . . .

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Help save traffic? If only we had this problem or the solution

In the news: Getting on Track: Good Investments for Pennsylvania’s Public Transit System. Substitute "California" for Pennsylvania and it sounds too familiar. That is until you get to: "Pennsylvania took the first step to addressing its long-term transit needs with the creation of a dedicated state funding source for transit in 2007. Thanks to this new funding source, SEPTA announced plans this August to expand service ..."

The governor's attack on transit funding is taking California in the opposite direction.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The cost of free parking

The American Public Transportation Association has released its monthly analysis of the benefits of riding transit and declares: "Even With Declining Gas Prices, Public Transit Users Save $9,596 Per Household Annually, Up $411 From Last Year."

If only it were true in Sacramento.

The problem is that a major part of this "savings" is based on the cost of parking.

"On average, according to the 2008 Colliers International Parking Rate Study, the national average for the monthly unreserved parking rate in a city’s downtown business district is $143. Over the course of a year, parking costs alone can amount to an average of $1,720."
Yes, there are lots in downtown Sacramento that charge that much: 6th and H streets is $175 monthly; the City Hall garage, $155; Capitol Garage at 10th and L,$180; and Downtown Plaza East Garage, $145.

But all of the other downtown lots charge less than $145. And the city even offers solo commuters special deals. The Old Sacramento parking garage offers people who arrive before 7:30 a.m. and leave after 5:30 p.m., a flat $4 fee all day. In addition, major employers within easy reach of transit in midtown and downtown provide employees free parking. The Sacramento Bee comes to mind. And I won't even bring up the acres and acres of free parking sprawling around the office parks of Rancho Cordova.

No, in Sacramento the price of parking is seldom a motivation to ride transit.

Here's my idea: The state should assess a fee on all parking spaces. The money raised from such a statewide fee would be used to provide a stable source of operating revenue for transit agencies. The money raised could also provide local governments with money to improve sidewalks and bike trails.

Free parking is not free. Everyone suffers from the congestion and pollution generated by solo-vehicle trips. With stable funding for transit, the service could be expanded to truly serve the needs of everyone. And everyone would benefit from such a transit system.

Smart growth; dumb state budget

Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, has an excellent discussion of why Sacramento Sen. Darrell Steinberg's smart-growth legislation, SB 375, is an empty promise without a state commitment to financing public transit.

It's not easy to ensure funding for public transit, particularly when so many other vital services find themselves on the chopping block. But progressives should not give up the fight to obtain enough new revenue to adequately invest in our state's public transit infrastructure and operations, this year and every year. Not to take away a single thing from Steinberg and the passage of SB 375, which should be celebrated by anyone who cares about climate change and livable communities - but the struggle to create a truly sustainable California has just begun.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Growing a transit lifestyle in barren soil

Riding Amtrak to Oakland today I started reading "Effects of TOD on Housing, Parking and Travel." The report on research findings was produced by the Transit Cooperative Research Program, which includes the Oakland-based Center for Transit-Oriented Development.

The document contains a number of findings applicable to Sacramento Regional Transit, none of which were particularly encouraging when one considers the state of RT service today and the dimming prospects for improvements in the near future.

For instance, the general consensus is that transit service headways of 10 minutes are ideal to support a transit lifestyle. None of RT's service runs that quickly, and only a handful of bus routes run every 15 minutes. A transit lifestyle grown in that soil will be stunted at best. Much of Sacramento's suburban expanse is a transit-oriented wasteland.

"A generally accepted service level threshold for (transit-oriented developments) is headways of 15 minutes or less during most of the day. It makes little sense to build TOD in places that receive only hourly bus service, as service is not frequent enough to make transit use convenient."
One interesting fact gleaned from the report was the finding that off-peak service improvements can improve ridership by as much as the increase in gasoline prices.
"In Portland, for instance, TriMet has pursued a strategy of improving off-peak bus service in its most dense and mixed use (i.e., TOD-like) corridors to expand its non-work trip market. From FY 99 to FY 03, TriMet improved service on 10 lines to “Frequent Service” (15 minutes or less all day, every day). On the improved lines, TriMet experienced a 9% increase in overall ridership, whereas ridership generally remained level for routes with only nominal increases in frequency. For the frequent lines, weekday ridership increased 8%, Saturday ridership increased 14%, and Sunday ridership increased 21%. Frequent bus service now accounts for 45% of weekly bus hours and 57% of weekly bus rides."
Imagine the ridership RT could have in today's high-fuel-cost environment if it had money to run buses later and more frequently. If nothing else, RT could start treating midtown as the nightspot it has become. Keeping the No. 30 and 31 running every 15 minutes all night on the weekends while extending outlying bus service past midnight would be a dream come true for people who want to leave their cars at home.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Efficiency _and_ safety: Can Sacramento Regional Transit have both?

Last week, I blogged about RT's apparent inability to get a handle on bus driver and train operator absences and the price the district pays in overtime expense as a result.

OK, you may have missed that. It wasn't exactly clear from either the "Showing up for work at Sacramento Regional Transit" post or the earlier "Meanwhile, back at The Bee . . ." But it was the point of The Bee's original editorial.

My bottom line:

When Paratransit-qualified riders are looking at a loss of their free rides and all riders are looking at a possible increase in fares, then RT bus drivers and light rail operators need to do their job -- or RT management needs to do its job.
So apparently something is being done -- and the push-back has begun.

For Labor Day, the RT Driver guy had an ominous post.
Cutting corners, skirting established and proven policies in order to save an hour of overtime 4 or 5 times a day is unacceptable.

When RT mandates that all divisions minimize overtime, I can understand the premise. If you face the reality of shrinking funds, some changes will obviously be in order.

NOT changes which endanger the lives of RT Workers.

While RT is in the throws of a budget emergency, the safety nose should not be cut off to spite the defecit face.
One wonders whether the comment from "justadriver" illustrates the opinion of the majority of drivers and operators:
I don't know....When the hell has the exec board or for that matter the management from rt given a rat's shit for its front line employee's? Management continues to promote supervisors that don't have a clue about what a supervisor really is and couldn't make it in a for profit business. Our union continues its disfuntionality by trying as hard as it can to steal what it can from us and still does nothing but blow hot air (yes you Ralph). Instead of working on a decent wage, they work on getting themselves the best retirement possible. So as a driver we are stuck between assholes on both sides and still have to put up with the public and their inability to grasp our fare structure or learn that our faces are not their private spittoons. We lost a great deal with the exit of Manny, Joe and Diane, who were are only advocates.