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

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A cold shower view of social conservatives embracing transit

Jarrett Walker, an international consultant in public transit network design and policy, comments today (actually, tomorrow since he's in Australia) about the article I blogged about yesterday. In one paragraph he showers enough cold water on the idea to shrivel any remaining enthusiasm:

Dense, walkable settlements may be the precondition of strong, interconnected communities, as Schoengoeld writes, but they are also the precondition for daily confrontations with difference and diversity, and American social conservatism, at least in its practical and (for a time) effective form, has always been predicated on the notion that "we" are a bunch of good people under threat from "them." It is an ideology rooted in the outer-suburban and rural experience where life is lived in cars, and where diversity and difference manifest themselves mostly on television. Adapting this ideology to an urban world will require throwing out much of what is most comforting about social conservativism today, notably the tribal sense of belonging that comes from associating mostly with people who are just like you.
Perhaps we'll never end our tribal fixation. (See this post.) But maybe -- just maybe -- we might broaden our view of who belongs. As I learned from watching "Angels in the Outfield": It could happen.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Conservative case for transit and walkable communities

An article posted at a website associated with the conservative Witherspoon Institute is generating a lot of supportive noise among transit enthusiasts. (HT: Trains for America) I, for one, am excited about any opportunity to put an end to the fallacious argument that only a Democrat could support expansion of transit.

The Witherspoon Institute is not a liberal think tank: "The Witherspoon Institute is an independent research center that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies." The article was published at As the site explains, "Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience."

David Schaengold, the author of the article, is a research associate at the Witherspoon Institute and a former transportation policy researcher at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

Schaengold writes:

"Sadly, American conservatives have come to be associated with support for transportation decisions that promote dependence on automobiles, while American liberals are more likely to be associated with public transportation, city life, and pro-pedestrian policies. This association can be traced to the ’70s, when cities became associated with social dysfunction and suburbs remained bastions of ‘normalcy.’ This dynamic was fueled by headlines mocking ill-conceived transit projects that conservatives loved to point out as examples of wasteful government spending. Of course, just because there is a historic explanation for why Democrats are “pro-transit” and Republicans are “pro-car” does not mean that these associations make any sense. Support for government-subsidized highway projects and contempt for efficient mass transit does not follow from any of the core principles of social conservatism."
In fact, as Schaengold points out, "Pro-highway, anti-transit, anti-pedestrian policies work against the core beliefs of American conservatives in another and even more important way: they create social environments that are hostile to real community."

The full essay -- Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit: Public transit and walkable neighborhoods are necessary for the creation of a country where families and communities can flourish -- is worth reading, especially if you are a social conservative looking for a reason to feel good about leaving your car at home and taking transit to work.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Suburban utopia: 8 car garage!

Let's consider this sign advertising an 8-car garage for a moment. It's in front of a house that is located less than 50 yards from a bus stop. That bus stop is served by one of the very, very, very few routes in the unincorporated area of Sacramento County with 15-minute headway service. It also has a second community route bus that stops there during peak hours. This house is less than 10 minutes by bus from the Watt/I-80 light rail station. Outside of the midtown grid, you'd be hard pressed to find a better place from which to commute downtown to work and leave the car at home.

I don't know how much this house is selling for, but imagine the income required just to own and operate enough cars to take advantage of an eight-car garage. According to this year's estimate by the American Automobile Association, it costs $8,095 a year to own and operate a new sedan. And if you're collecting SUVs, the estimated annual cost is $10,259. That's anywhere from $64,760 to $82,072 a year in spendable income parked in the garage.

OK. Maybe I'm just jealous. You could drive a different car each day of the week and have one left over for Easter Sunday service. Still it seems like sacrilege to park eight cars outside a three-bedroom house so close to a rare example of convenient transit service.

Support federal emergency service-preservation grants

This is certainly an action item that everyone who cares about transit in the Sacramento region should support. Sacramento Regional Transit faces the prospect of service cuts and additional fare hikes if the current economic conditions persist. (See this post and this RT staff budget report)

Transportation For America

Act Now
22 Million Daily Trips in Jeopardy

Nearly 100 cities and towns across America are facing budget shortfalls that will mean job cuts, service reductions, and fare hikes across our country's public transportation system. The service-suspended signs are already up at bus stops in St. Louis. In Chicago, authorities worry they'll have to shut down their entire system.

Take action now and ask your representatives to support emergency service-preservation grants to keep our transit systems moving.

Make a difference today.
Take Action

Today, 22 million trips on public transportation in America are in jeopardy. Eleven million people may not get to work or school or to the doctor because their bus route stopped running or their subway car was overfilled. And thousands of transit workers are about to get laid off.

It’s happening today in nearly 100 American cities and towns, as jobs are cut, services are suspended, and fares are hiked sky high.

I just sent a letter to my members of Congress asking them to support emergency service preservation grants to keep our buses and trains moving during these tough economic times.

Will you send one too?

Join me in taking action now and ask your representatives to support emergency service preservation grants to keep our transit systems moving.

Thanks so much for your help!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Infusion of donations

Last year, the wife endured 16 weeks of chemo, then two surgeries, and finally seven weeks of daily radiation therapy. If it were not for the deadly consequences of doing nothing, one could make a reasonable case that for breast cancer, the cure is worse than the disease.

So the wife is back on the bus and working, and now she wants to help others by raising money for breast cancer research.

To help the wife with a donation, click here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Be Green: Ride the bus

Fox has a series of promotional "Green It; Mean It" spots in honor of Earth Day. This is excellent:

The American Public Transit Association has posted its annual "Save the Planet: Use Public Transportation" fact sheet.
An individual switching to public transit can reduce his or her daily carbon emissions by 20 pounds; that’s more than 4,800 pounds a year. This is more than the combined carbon emissions reduction that comes from using energy-efficient light bulbs, adjusting thermostats, weatherizing one’s home, and replacing an older refrigerator with a high efficient refrigerator.
If only people really cared. Altruism only goes so far. That's one reason why I think a carbon tax or series of taxes -- household energy use, automobile weight/fuel efficiency -- make a lot of sense. Pinch people in their pocketbook and it focuses the mind wonderfully. With that money, we could build a transit system that really works, something maybe even as grand as Tier Three of Sacramento Regional 30-year Transit's TransitAction Plan.

Friday, April 17, 2009

TransitAction audio tour

Click on the image below to see and hear the presentation on the Sacramento Regional Transit TransitAction 30 year master plan given during the April 16 meeting with the district's Financial Advisory Panel.

Doubting barbers in the park-and-ride lots

On Thursday, the Financial Advisory Panel working on Sacramento Regional Transit's 30-year TransitAction master plan held a public hearing in the Sacramento Area Council of Governments board room. Among the speakers was Alan Wulkan, a consultant who has been in the forefront of transit system development for more than 30 years.

His presentation below opens with the story of his barber, a guy you'll recognize instantly.

After Wulkan and the other speakers finished, the session was open for questions. I put on my best immitation of Wulkan's barber, and in response RT General Manager Mike Wiley and Wulkan put me in my place.

The committee's draft report is available here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

TransitAction and RT's board inaction

I should clarify some stuff from yesterday's post. I was dismayed that the majority of the board didn't have the common sense to see that making people pay to park in RT lots was an unfortunate but necessary choice.

What riled me and prompted the blog post headline "Taking the name of choice riders in vain," was the repeated claim by board members that paying for parking would be "punishment" and would drive away choice riders.

Yes, some people might decide the added hassle of paying for parking was the straw that breaks the camel's back. Fine. But the staff didn't propose charging for parking because they wanted to punish anyone. As staff explained to the board, the district is facing the complete loss of all state support next year. It had been hoped that the $14 million in economic stimulus money would cover the loss, but the board learned last night that a decline in sales tax revenue caused by the tough economic times could leave RT looking for millions of dollars to fill a budget gap.

Free parking is a subsidy that RT can no longer afford. A $1 charge is not unreasonable.

The fact that a majority of the board couldn't see this simple fact was what prompted my snide comment calling the district's draft TransitAction Plan "a long-range vision for Sacramento that is, in a word, fantastic -- as in 'marked by extravagant fantasy'."

Can you imagine, even in your wildest fantasies, these board members selling anyone on the idea that everyone benefits from transit and therefore everyone should contribute, that the transit service envisioned in the TransitAction Plan is so valuable that the small increase in taxes necessary would be more than paid back in real, measurable ways?

It's a joke, a sad joke, made even more tragic by the fact that the TransitAction Plan is actually a visionary document that shows what could be if only the board members believed.

Last night I picked up a copy of the TransitAction Plan documents. These are PDF copies

Forward (.2MB)
Executive Summary and Glossary (6.7MB)
Chapter 1: Introduction (.4MB)
Chapter 2: The Transit Challenge (1.2MB)
Chapter 3: Existing Conditions: The Regional Transit Audit (2MB)
Chapter 4: A Transit Vision: Putting The Passenger First (.6MB)
Chapter 5: TransitAction Plan Scenarios (8.9MB)
Chapter 6: The People's Plan: Stakeholder And Public Inputs (.8MB)
Chapter 7: The TransitAction Plan (16.9MB)
Chapter 8: An Integrated Approach To Service Planning (3.1MB)
Chapter 9: Finding The Funding: How To Pay For The Plan (.7MB)
Financial Advisory Plan: Summary of Discussions to Finance the TransitAction Plan (3.1MB)
Transit-Oriented Development Final Report (2.1MB)
Slideshow presented to Board March 2, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Taking the name of choice riders in vain

What would you do if you were a Sacramento Regional Transit board member and your chief financial officer showed you this slide during a discussion of the budget hole the district is facing in next year's budget?

You probably would not do what six board members did Monday night. They dug the hole $2 million deeper.

It was a bizarre night all around.

The board started with approval of the release of the draft TransitAction Plan, a long-range vision for Sacramento that is, in a word, fantastic -- as in "marked by extravagant fantasy."

The board followed that up with approval of the final environmental impact report and other steps that will launch the construction of the first phase of the downtown-Natomas-airport light rail line. Groundbreaking is expected to start by August or September. Longtime DNA proponent Roger Dickinson and board colleague Ray Tretheway were besides themselves in wonder that the day had finally arrived. Twenty years they've been talking about this, said Dickinson.

What was a wonder was the disconnect between future plans and the fiscal reality that was graphically brought home by the district's chief financial officer in presentations on amendments to the current budget year and the start of discussions for the coming year.

Nobody wanted to hear what Dee Brookshire had to say. Not even the $14 million gift from federal taxpayers may be enough to save the district from more hard choices. As the above slide explains, service cuts of 10 percent or another round of fare increases may be necessary.

Read for yourself what Brookshire had to say about the current budget and the one next year.

So it was as if no one had been paying attention when the discussion shifted to a proposal to charge a dollar to park all day on weekdays in the district's park-and-ride lots. The token fee for using RT's lots would have generated an estimated $1 million this year plus another half-million from the fines that would be collected from people who didn't bother to pay.

In the end, it came down to a battle between suburban interests and city folks.

"No" votes were cast by Sacramento County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan, who represents Citrus Heights and Folsom; Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, who represents Galt, Isleton, Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova; Folsom City Councilman Andy Morin; Citrus Heights Councilman Steve Miller; Elk Grove Mayor Pat Hume; and Rancho Cordova City Councilman David Sander.

Voting "Yes" were Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, who represents the city of Sacramento and Natomas (see DNA vote above); Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn; Sacramento City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell and Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway.

Due to RT's weighted voting system, those six noes and four ayes made the vote 50-50.

The deciding vote was cast by Sacramento City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, who left the meeting before the issue came up for a vote.

Friday, April 10, 2009

An agenda to kill trees with

Sacramento Regional Transit board members will have a long evening Monday, when the board takes up a number of items sure to generate stormy debate:

  • Authorizing charging $1 per day to park in the district's park-and-ride lots.
  • Release of the Transit Master Plan -- now renamed the more hip TransitAction Plan -- for public comment.
  • Certifying the final environmental impact report for the district's Downtown-Natomas-Airport -- DNA -- light rail extension.
  • Adoption of amendments to the district's current budget that include cuts of more than $3 million in operating costs and, on a separate item, start the discussion of the 2010 budget.
Amid all this Sturm und Drang is a brief window into all of the neat technological feats RT has planned. Here's the slideshow outlining what's on tap:

Slide No. 2's summary is enough to make you wish we lived in an alternate universe where simply saying something made it so -- next bus/train info via telephone and station signs, real-time location mapping, reloadable universal fare card.

But the reality we live in is mired in the need to charge for parking and budget rebalancing schemes. And even the technological feat that RT has managed to pull off already -- Online Documents -- is experiencing major snafus as the system of production is refined.

This is a screen shot of a page from the agenda packet for Item 13, the discussion of the TransitAction Plan.

Obviously that's not going to help anyone. RT realizes the problem and while I was writing this, staff were re-creating the agenda package.

Once upon a time, before the World Wide Web had been invented back when e-mail was all the rage, a co-worker of mine was famous for printing out every email he received and then passing the paper copies around. The concept of leaving electronic media in electronic form and just passing the email around just never occurred to him. The email wasn't real if it wasn't in physical form.

Something similar appears to be throwing a wrench into RT's efforts to save a tree by putting documents online. Each document is first printed on paper and then scanned back into electronic format and finally output as a PDF document.

Printing directly to PDF is not rocket science. What's causing the problem here is obviously the old "We've always done it this way" inertia.

If you were to print out Monday's agenda package -- which RT has done more than once -- you would have 500 pages.

I really like the big next-bus information sign shown on page slide No. 10 above, but I'm afraid we'll end up with the tiny, unreadable display that was installed at 16th Street and some other light rail stations as part of an earlier demonstration.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


The other day I received this email:

Greetings from Carrboro, NC. I am also a transitarian. In fact, I couldn't stand being one part time, so I went to work in transit (transportation planning to be exact).

I am writing today to ask humbly for your assistance. Sacramento is clearly far ahead (20+ years ahead) of the Research Triangle region of North Carolina when it comes to light rail.

I live in a town called Carrboro. It is right next to Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina's flagship university. We have a light rail proposal on the table that brings light rail to UNC, but will not get to our town next door, which happens to be the densest town by population in the entire state of North Carolina. We have a lively downtown, a well-patronized bus system, and a pro-cycling, walking, and transit culture.

Yet some of our town councilors are against bringing light rail to town, because they are afraid it would cause problems running in the street.

There are not many light rail lines in the US that run in city streets. Most of them (Boston, Philly, Pittsburgh) are all older systems that never really gave up their streetcars entirely.

Two cities- Portland and Sacramento, have newer, more modern LRT systems.

Here's where I humbly beseech you for help. I need pictures- specifically, photographs of light rail trains running just behind or just in front of cars, in city streets, in normal operations.

So today, I took my Flip Mino video camera downtown and gathered evidence of light rail trains and automobiles playing nicely on a gorgeous spring afternoon.

The shots were taken at 12th and P streets, 8th and N streets, Capitol Mall between 7th and 8th streets, 8th and L streets, 12th and J and finally 12th near K Street. Listen closely as the final train turns from K Street and proceeds up 12th Street. I didn't know I was so recognizable!

(This video is also available on Vimeo)

Friday, April 3, 2009


When the wife and I pulled into the parking lot behind the wife's bus stop, a mother and son were already waiting for the next bus.

We're getting to know the regulars as the wife returns to riding the bus to work. At least we assumed they were regulars since they had been at the stop the day before. But soon it became clear it was unlikely that the mother was a regular bus rider.

The boy was drinking from a hot-drink paper cup from a nearby convenience store. I'd say coffee cup, but the kid appeared to be maybe 6 years old. So maybe it was hot chocolate.

The mother and boy were standing beside the bus stop bench as the wife and I waited in the car. We had five minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive. I am one of those people who is uncomfortable if he isn't early. The wife hates going to the airport with me.

The mother was fussing with the boy's backpack, which was much too large for the kid, when a scruffy old man with a ballcap that said "Veteran" on the front and "Army" in the back walked up to the bus stop. He was talking on a cellphone loud enough that the nearby traffic noise wasn't enough to drown out everything he said.

The woman herded her son to the middle of the bus bench, apparently unwilling to have the old man too close.

A minute or so later, two very scruffy younger guys arrived. The didn't have the really homeless sleep-under-bridges look, but they were obviously not state workers on their way downtown. As the two men sat down on the bench to wait for the bus it was like watching two magnets with similar polarity repel each other as the mother quickly moved to the other end of the bus bench.

When a fourth man arrived -- this one might actually have been a state worker since it was dress-down Friday -- the woman left the bench area entirely and herded her son to a spot several feet away from the bus stop.

The wife and I instantly recognized the woman's problem: "Those people."

One of the wife's co-workers says he wouldn't allow his wife to ride the bus. Too many "disreputable" people, he says.

"Besides their mere presence, have those people ever presented a problem for you?" I asked the wife as we watched the woman protecting her personal space.

"No," the wife said. "But I'm an old woman."

I've been married long enough to know what I am supposed to say at this point and we went through the required "No you are not," "Yes I am," "No you are not." Thankfully, the bus arrived and distracted the wife.

The tribal nature of humanity has always amazed me. If you are not part of my tribe -- suburban homeowner, job in an office -- then you are suspect, one of "those people" who do not belong.

That's probably a larger obstacle to transforming transit ridership from a lifeline to a lifestyle choice than the inadequate transit service.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The West Sacramento Streetcar

LivingInUrbanSac points out that the city's Preservation Commission is discussing the concept a streetcar running on the Capitol Mall.

The video includes a suggestion that the tracks might be laid down the median grass. That would be an excellent idea. This is something that's been done in Europe. Here are a view examples from this blog.

For those interested in the West Sacramento Streetcar project, here's the draft EIR that was before the Sacramento City Preservation Committee on April 1, 2009:

Downtown Riverfront Streetcar Study Draft EIR

The Bus: Back to the future

The wife is back on the bus. Her cancer treatment -- which began with chemotherapy last July, followed by surgery in November and again in December and then six weeks of radiation therapy -- concluded at the end of last month.

Now we are back to the comfy routine that pits my sunny, early-morning enthusiasm against the wife's efforts to steal one more minute wrapped in the warmth of her bed.

"You have to get up now," I say.

"In a minute," the muffled voice from deep beneath the comforter replies.

Rinse, repeat.

Eventually, I drive the wife to the Watt and Whitney stop. The alternative -- taking the No. 82 that goes by the house -- adds about a half-hour to the trip. It's a long trip, in any event. The wife's bus meanders along Watt and through La Riviera to the Starfire light rail station on Folsom Boulevard, where the wife gets off to catch the train to Rancho Cordova. At the Mather Field light rail stop, the wife boards another bus to her office. In the evening, she reverses the process.

Last month, Sacramento Regional Transit reported bus ridership had declined slightly in February while the combined ridership was slightly above the year before. Here are the stats:

Sacramento Regional Transit February Ridership
I predict she will single-handedly boost those numbers when the April stats come out in May. The wife's return counts as six trips a day -- four bus, two rail.

But even that may not be enough. The difference on the wife's route between today and when she last regularly rode the No. 80-84 line last year in July is stark. Where she always had to share a seat, she now finds vacant seats.

Derek pointed out the other day, "I am now parking at the Florin station where I haven't been able to since I first started riding two years ago."

I, myself, am proof that the economic downturn has cut ridership. But the service change Derek mentioned -- running two-car trains earlier in the evening -- and other changes are taking their toll.

Last night, I got out of class early and had an opportunity to take the bus home. My class normally gets out after 10 p.m. and the No. 82 stops running before 9 p.m.

Waiting at the stop was one of my favorite No. 82 drivers. We had an opportunity to chat and one of things that he brought up was the willingness of Sacramento riders to accept RT's excuse for bus service.

The fact that I can ride the bus to school Wednesday evening but must call the wife or the kid to pick me up is just one example.

In other cities where the driver has worked and lived, the people wouldn't put up with it. They'd let management know about their displeasure.

That willingness of riders to accept the existing service without objection does not bode well for the district's plans to roll out a vision of a future where transit can be a choice for nearly everyone. It's hard, really hard, to accept the vision when the reality of today's service is so stark. And it's only harder for people on the outside -- people for whom leaving their car at home is not an option -- to see how much they could benefit if RT's master plan were built.

The price in dollars to get from today's service to RT's masterful future is really very small compared to the benefits everyone would receive. The real obstacle is the leap of faith required to believe such a future so different from today could come to pass.