Covering the transit spectrum

Petaluma Transit bus

Petaluma Transit bus

A recent report caused me to ponder the role of transit in small towns, including Petaluma where I live.  And to reject one of the lesser strategies offered by the authors.

The report was prepared under the aegis of SPUR, a San Francisco organization with a long urbanist tradition incorporating both definitions of urbanism, the study of alternative patterns of human settlement and the advocacy for the best solutions.

Originally founded in 1910 as the San Francisco Housing Association with the goal of addressing lingering housing issues from the 1906 earthquake and fire, the organization went through numerous transitions over the next century.  It eventually became the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, now shortened to SPUR.

I’ve long admired the work of SPUR.  I’m not a member, but that’s only because I can’t possibly join all of the urbanist organizations that I admire.  If I ever decide to increase the number of organizations to which I pay dues, SPUR would be on the short list of organizations that I’d consider.

The transit report released under the imprimatur of SPUR was Seamless Transit, a call for improved connectivity between the many transit agencies that serve the Bay Area.  The extensive list of coordination items, including greater fare consistency, better located transfer points, more attention to schedule coordination, and a stronger focus on making the use of multiple transit systems transparent to riders, is well-conceived and comprehensively executed.

For those interested in the future of transit in the Bay Area, I recommend the report.  Its details can seem overwhelming, but the subject matter requires the level of attention provided.

When I first learned of the report, I wasn’t as positive.  I’d been told that the report called for consolidation of the transit agencies in the region, a subject on which I had misgivings.  However, upon reading the report, I found that the authors acknowledge the possibility that limited consolidations could provide benefits, while also suggesting that it would be harmful if the conversation became too focused on mergers.

Overall, they argue that cultural changes are more important that rearranging organizational charts, a point with which I concur.

My concern with consolidation pertains to the different roles that the transit agencies can fill.  The SPUR report focuses on the services that transit can provide for commuters or other travelers such as tourists who make extended trips within the Bay Area, using multiple transit systems.

I acknowledge that long-distance riders are important.  Personally, I remain frustrated that I don’t have a reasonable option to use transit for traveling from Petaluma to the Cal campus in Berkeley for a basketball game.  (And no, I don’t consider BART to San Francisco and a late night ride home on Golden Gate Transit to be a reasonable option.)

But not every transit agency is focused on long-distance riders.  Some agencies have service goals that are more local and are equally important.

Petaluma is served by Petaluma Transit, a division of the City of Petaluma.  (Acknowledgement: One of my community roles is a seat on the City committee that advises Petaluma Transit on long-range strategy, policy decisions, contractual issues, and land-use matters.  However, I’ll acknowledge that virtually all of the successes of Petaluma Transit, which have been considerable in recent years with greatly increased ridership, are due to the work of the staff and the contractors.  The Transit Advisory Committee’s only role is to spurt the occasional drop of oil into a well-tuned machine.)

At present, Petaluma Transit serves relatively few long-distance, multi-transit system riders.  The primary reason is free parking.  Commuters who wish to use Golden Gate Transit or Sonoma County Transit can drive private cars to the vicinity of bus stops where they can park without charge.  Free parking will always affect consumer decision-making in this way.

Instead of those riders, Petaluma Transit largely serves youths who rely on city buses rather than private cars to reach school and other members of the community who don’t drive, but need access to stores and jobs.

Petaluma Transit does a fine job of serving those folks.  Within the context of the available funding and a land-use pattern that doesn’t facilitate effective transit, the community is well-served.

It’s hard to imagine that a more regional transit agency could do a better job of serving the current local ridership than the current staff and contractors who live and work in the community.  Consolidation in the case of Petaluma Transit and other municipal transit agencies that serve communities with well-defined boundaries and a large load of local riders is a poor idea which should be quickly rejected.

(I had the chance to run this thinking past Portland Jarrett Walker at the recent CNU 23. Walker, who is respected nationally for his acumen on the philosophy of transit, concurred with my position.)

But that doesn’t mean that Petaluma Transit can ignore the Seamless Transit report. The report still sets forth multiple strategies of which Petaluma Transit should remain aware.  As the land-use patterns of Petaluma become denser, and as more people choose to leave their cars in the garage when they commute or perhaps not to own a car at all, Seamless Transit will provide guidelines for serving those people effectively.

The coming of the SMART train, especially when the system opens with only a single Petaluma station of limited parking, will also make the strategies in Seamless Transit important.

For those reasons, the Transit Advisory Committee met with a representative of SMART at its May meeting and will discuss the Seamless Transit report at our June meeting.  As a committee member, I understand the need for the policies that SPUR sets forth.

Even if I think that consolidation would be bad idea.

Next time, I’ll cover several Petaluma subjects, including the long-promised Fairgrounds update.  But all readers are encouraged to check in.  Perhaps the urbanists in Petaluma are implementing ideas that can be exported.

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

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