Tackling the bigger transit questions

Petaluma Transit Bus

Petaluma Transit Bus

I chair the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  It’s a good gig that I enjoy greatly.  I have a fine group of fellow committee members and appreciate the effort that the Transit Manager makes to provide us with comprehensive background information and to respond effectively to our questions so that we can provide meaningful service to the city.

But I’ll admit that many of the topics we tackle may often seem dull to those on the outside.  The nuances of whether we should order 35-foot or 40-foot buses and how many mechanics we need to maintain the fleet may seem critically important to us, but would likely evoke yawns from others.

(For those wondering, the question about bus length pivots around a downtown intersection that’s challenging to longer buses.  Also, Petaluma Transit has been lucky to survive thus far with a single mechanic plus vacation replacements, but as the fleet and the number of riders grows, we’re looking at adding a second mechanic.)

Perhaps my most surprising moment as the committee chair came when I was sitting in the Council Chambers observing a meeting of another city body.  The 88-year-old woman sitting next to me leaned over and told me that I did a better job of running meetings than the chair we were watching.

I assumed she had mistaken me for someone else, but when I tried to explain that, she responded that she knew exactly who I was and that she organized her schedule around watching the Transit Advisory Committee meetings every month when they air live on the local community access channel.

Given that the average number of members of the general public in the Council Chambers for a Transit meeting is somewhere between 0.5 and 1, I was surprised, but pleased, to learn of the possibility of dedicated home viewers who find interest in what we were doing.

Now that I’ve downplayed many of our agenda topics, I’ll note that sometimes the stars align and we have an agenda item or two that could interest a wider following.  One of those times seems to be upcoming meeting on Thursday, May 7.

First up will be the Greenbelt Alliance wishing to engage us on the subject of an upcoming County ballot measure.   Measure A would impose a five-year, quarter of a cent sales tax for transportation improvements.  Other jurisdictions in the County have indicated a willingness to devote a portion of the Measure A proceeds, if it passes, to transit.  Thus far, the Petaluma City Council has been silent on the subject, perhaps as the result of a reasonable concern about promising more than they can deliver.

But the Greenbelt Alliance still wishes to lobby the Council on the subject, at least to plant an idea for post-election discussions.  And they want to talk with the Transit Committee before approaching the City Council.

It’ll be the first time for the Transit Committee to get this close to politics.  The discussion should be interesting.

Next up will be a discussion that could be complementary to the Greenbelt Alliance topic.

The Transit Advisory Committee is excited about the pending arrival of the SMART train, seeing it as a needed expansion of the transit options for the community.  But, with the beginning of train service only 18 months away, we’re concerned about the status of the coordination on scheduling and on a physical connection between the train and the buses.  We love the idea of the train, but fear that having the trains run nearly empty at first will have long-term repercussions.  We want to ensure that Petaluma is fully ready to support the train.

A SMART representative will appear at the May Committee meeting so we can ensure that the coordination efforts are being given sufficient attention.

If this description makes you interested in attending the May meeting, that’d be great.  We’d like to have a number of folks in the Council Chambers.  Thursday, May 7, 4:00pm at the Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street.  (We normally finish about 5:45pm because another committee meets at 6:00pm.)  Please come, observe, and/or speak.  Public participation is a fine thing.

Before my next post, I’ll have returned from the most recent annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  (But this doesn’t mean that I’ll miss any of my thrice-weekly publishing days.  I wrote several posts in advance, such as this one, that have been running in my absence.  By the time this blog is published, I’ll be nearly home.)

CNU 23 will be held in Dallas.  Much as I did for CNU 22 in Buffalo a year ago, I intend to fill my next post with the most clever, cogent, and impactful bon mots from CNU 23.  And if my fellow urbanists are as eloquent as usual, I may even have enough excerpts for two or three posts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

2 comments to Tackling the bigger transit questions

  • I’m still of the opinion that the various transit agencies of Sonoma and Marin should hire Jarrett Walker’s consultancy to help redesign the system into a coherent whole.

    Marin has stellar transit-to-work numbers while Sonoma’s are wretched, and I can’t help but think that the balkanization of transit in the North Bay is at least partially to blame.

    • Dave Alden

      David, thanks for commenting. I agree that commuter connections in the North Bay could be more productive. However, I suggest that the low productivity is largely the result of free and available parking near the regional transit connection points, with local commuters therefore driving to those points rather than doing a multi-stage commute.

      Also, I fear that focusing too much on commuters runs the risk of diminishing service to the students who need to reach schools, the carless low-income who need to reach jobs, and the post-driving seniors who need to reach stores, tasks at which Petaluma Transit does very well with our available resources.

      It’s interesting that you invoke Jarrett Walker as an expert. I’m currently at CNU 23 where Walker spoke yesterday. Today, he convened a casual transit discussion group. I had the chance to pose the above dichotomy.

      While correctly asserting that there is no single right answer, he generally thought that communities with good urban separators, as Petaluma has, is better served by municipal transit systems that work aggressively to improve the commuter connections, the process that I describe in the post.