Durable Growth, Transportation

Supporting SMART by attacking the last mile with buses

Petaluma Transit bus in downtown Petaluma

Petaluma Transit bus in downtown Petaluma

In a few days, I’ll help introduce some clever and insightful ideas of others, proving one more time that it’s better to be associated with clever people than to be clever oneself.

My opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of others will come when I chair a meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  At the meeting, the staff of Petaluma Transit will introduce ideas for adjusting bus routes.  The proposed realignments have the goal of better positioning Petaluma to embrace SMART, the upcoming regional commuter train.

(For those not in the North Bay, SMART stands for Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit.  The SMART train, which is scheduled to begin revenue service later this year, will initially run from San Rafael in the heart of Marin County to Santa Rosa in the heart of Sonoma County, with stops at cities in between.  Further extensions and more stations are being planned.)

Conducting the Transit Committee meeting will be my latest step in nearly four decades of awareness of a crucial transit challenge.

After those four decades, I don’t remember if it was by luck or design, but I often had convenient, walkable connections to transit during my commuting days.

I can cite two noteworthy examples.  I owned a home from which I had a half-mile walk along an asphalt shoulder to a BART station, with a two-block walk to my downtown San Francisco office after the ride.  I quickly fell in love with the commuting routine and often didn’t touch my car between weekends.

From there, I moved to a home from which I had a quarter-mile walk along a tree-lined path to a King County Metro bus stop, with a one-block walk to my downtown Seattle office after the ride.  For my first several months in that house, I didn’t own a car.

Those were good years.  But those situations are not typical.  Because our cities have been allowed to sprawl in all directions under the drivable suburban paradigm, many folks don’t have convenient access to the transit facilities by which they might otherwise conduct their daily lives.

Transit managers call this challenge the “last mile problem”.  Commuters might be willing to ride SMART from San Rafael to Santa Rosa, finding appeal in the possibility of answering emails or reading the morning paper during their commute rather than watching the brake lights of the car in front.  But if they live or work at an inconvenient distance from the SMART stations, the appeal can quickly wane.

There are many ways to tackle the last mile.  Walking, bicycling, driving and parking, and private car drop-offs are all solutions that can have applicability.  But each also has negatives, from walks of lengths beyond the comfort level of many, to the fear of bicycling on crowded streets, to the desire of communities to have highly productive land uses near transit stations, to the congestion caused by drop-offs.

Feeder buses and shuttles can also be used to address the last mile problem, but have their own downsides.  Riding a bus to a train station is a “multi-modal commute”.  It has been historically difficult to secure ridership for multi-modal commutes.  In a world in which transit is competing with private cars, a walk to a bus stop followed by a wait for the bus followed by another wait at the train station can soon seem unattractive compared to hoping into a car and driving directly to a destination.

Thus, if feeder buses are to provide a useful function, they must collect riders near where they live or work, must run frequently enough and on a sufficiently stable schedule that riders feel confident in the bus arrivals, and be sufficiently coordinated with the train operation such that the riders have only a short walk to a platform at which a train will soon arrive.

In looking at how to make Petaluma Transit meet these goals, the staff tapped a number of resources from reviewing ridership data collected by recently implemented Automatic Vehicle Location software to polling the community about where SMART riders would originate to looking at projected land-use patterns.

Proposed realignment of Route 5

Proposed realignment of Route 5

After mixing and matching the data, the transit staff proposed a new bus stop near the SMART station along with modifications to current Routes 1, 5, and 24.  (As an aside to my Twitter followers, you may remember a recent Sunday morning when I was forced to defend the honor of Petaluma Transit against barbs from around the country directed at the drunken sailor path of Route 24.  My primary response was that the route was a temporary response to a land-use action that had ignored transit.  Sure enough, Route 24 would be tidied up under the current proposals.)

The modified routes would serve a number of anticipated SMART riders, from numerous westside residents who have told Petaluma Transit about their plans to ride SMART to St. Vincent High School students who live in Marin County and plan to ride SMART to Petaluma.

Of course, the modifications also have negatives, from tapping reserves to reducing service to a major shopping center.  Particularly painful to transit staff is ending convenient service to residents of a senior living community who have only recently become enthusiastic transit riders.  But within the limited funding typically available to transit agencies, hard choices must always be made.

The current proposals may not be the realigned routes that are eventually adopted.  Everyone involved remains open to further ideas.  But the current proposals are a powerful step toward making SMART successful.  Credit is due to the Petaluma Transit staff who are bringing them forward.

All are welcome to attend the meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, whether to learn more about the route modifications or to become part of the process.  The meeting will be held on Thursday, February 4, convening at 4:00pm.  The committee meets in the Council Chambers at Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street.  I hope to see many familiar and new faces.

In my last post, I wrote about the upcoming hearing of the California Public Utility Commission on the proposed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing over the SMART tracks.  In my next post, I’ll provide a post-hearing update.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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 http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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