Durable Growth, Transportation

It’s time to be mature, deliberate civic mentors

Historic train station in Petaluma

Historic train station in Petaluma

Sometime in the next few weeks, SMART will begin running their full schedule of trains.  All thirty daily runs, fifteen southbound and fifteen northbound.  No passengers will be aboard, but otherwise the operation will be identical to the future passenger service.  Proving up the system with this full-scale multi-week test, including crossing gate operations, station wait times, lift bridge management, and use of double-track sections, will be a critical step toward gaining approval for revenue service.

I’ve asked about an exact start date for the test, but haven’t yet been told one.  SMART may still be in discussions with federal regulators over scheduling and test conditions.

I had hoped to publish this post a day or two before the testing begins, but will be leaving for an urbanism conference in a few days.  Not wanting to miss the window, I’ll publish today and hope I write memorably enough for my suggestion to be retained.

The start of full-scale SMART testing is also that start of an opportunity for North Bay urbanists to provide an essential service to their communities.  But we can only do so if we keep our heads.

I’ll begin with a hypothetical question.

Imagine you’re an uncle with a 25-year-old nephew who has made bad life choices.  (If you want to make it an aunt and niece, that would also work.  Feel free to adjust the story elements to fit the chosen gender.)

Let’s say the young man ended his education short of his high school diploma, has a spotty job record, largely because of a problem with authority, has had alcohol abuse issues, and has a child for whom he’s in arrears on support payments.  It’s a not uncommon story.  He may not yet have a criminal record, but he’s on a path for which problems with the law is a possibility.

Now let’s say that the young man has been startled into wanting to turn his life around.  Perhaps a current friend has been arrested.  Or maybe a friend from high school, who made different choices, is doing well in life.  Either way, the young man has found motivation to change his life path.  But having burned bridges with his parents, he comes to you for advice.

You help him develop a plan.  Begin studies toward his GED and explore options for further education.  Dial down his attitude so he can retain a job.  Cut back on the partying.   Work with the child’s mother to come up with a payment plan.  Begin building a relationship with the child.

It’s now been three months.  You and your nephew meet to review his progress.  He’s making progress on the GED, will take his final tests in the next month, and has begun talking with a counselor at the junior college about class options.  He’s still at the same job, although he missed a promotion when he picked the wrong moment to spout off.

He’s nearly stopped partying, although there was one evening at a pub when too much beer was consumed, words were exchanged, and punches were thrown, none doing damage.

He’s making child support payments and spending every Sunday afternoon with the child, although there was one shouting match with the mother that resulted in the police being called.  Tempers cooled before the squad car arrived.

So, what is your response as an uncle/mentor?  Do you praise him for the progress he’s made and work with him on changing behaviors to address the instances of backsliding?  Or do you lambaste him for his mistakes?

Although many of us would enjoy the adrenalin rush that would be triggered by an angry outburst, we hopefully also understand that good mentoring requires the calm blending of positive reinforcement with problem solving assistance.

And it’s a great thing we know that because it’s a lesson that will soon become important to the North Bay communities.

When SMART begins running thirty trains each day, many of our towns are going to be challenged, especially those with tracks running through key downtown transportation corridors.  That list begins with San Rafael and Petaluma, but Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, and Novato may also have issues.  Streets that are already near capacity will be pushed into traffic jams and tempers will be frayed.

And that will only be the start of the problems.  Later in the year when passenger service begins, the problems will be multiplied as drivers circle, looking for parking places near the train stations, and as transit buses, trying to deliver passengers to the stations, become ensnarled in seas of cars.

Faced with the chaos, many in the North Bay will make three accusations.  They’ll claim that the North Bay cities, through typical incompetence, failed to plan for the arrival of the trains, that SMART was always a dumb idea, and that trains don’t work in the modern world.

Urbanists must be prepared with calm, measured responses, continuing to praise the region for the foresight that resulted in SMART, noting that the North Bay cities have done much to accommodate the return of passengers trains to downtowns after an absence of a half-century, and that transit, including trains, is an essential element of the contemporary world, pointing to BART and Caltrain as examples.

But it’s also fair to leaven the praise with the acknowledgement that SMART and the cities could have done more to prepare for the return of passenger rail, including better parking plans and more progress toward transit-oriented development.

In essence, urbanists will need to act as calm, restrained mentors to their North Bay communities, praising the progress that has been made with the opening of rail service, encouraging further progress toward integrating the train with land uses, and deflecting the arrows from those who are interested only in the adrenalin rush of uninformed indignation.

It won’t be an easy job, but it must be done for our communities to continue to mature away from the car-oriented paradigm.  I hope you can all join me in the task.  Your cities/nephews will appreciate it.

In recognition of the coming SMART milestones, my next post will be a collection of links about rail transit.

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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