Durable Growth, Transportation

Link-Fest: Rail transit

A SMART train nearly ready to roll

A SMART train nearly ready to roll

Rail transit is coming to the North Bay!  I know that’s old news, but I still like saying it.  Rail transit is coming to the North Bay!

I’ve long been in a love affair with rail transit.  Perhaps it was the early years of my career, riding BART into San Francisco while reading Herb Caen and Armistead Maupin in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Perhaps it was traversing London on the Tube during my first trip to Europe.  Or maybe it was exploring the hidden corners of Montreal by subway.

Regardless, I love getting around by rail.  I know that buses have proponents who point to lower costs and greater ability to adjust routes.  The points are both good and accurate.  But the smoother ride of rail transit, the ability of many rail systems to bypass traffic, and the sense of arrival at a station, not a sidewalk, still puts rail ahead, far ahead.

Nor am I the only person to feel that way.  Rail lines have long been shown to encourage more adjoining development than buses.  But the most dramatic moment for me occurred at a presentation on a proposed Sacramento streetcar line.  One speaker asked the hundred or so attendees how many had ridden rail transit in a foreign city.  Perhaps sixty hands went up.  He then asked how many had ridden public buses in the same foreign cities.  Two hands.  I’m sure we miss something by not using buses overseas, but rail feels more familiar and comfortable.

It was at the same meeting that the president of the local minor league ballclub was asked a baseball/transit question, “Name the current Major League team with a nickname that originated with transit.”  The team president was unable to answer.  Hopefully, the readers here are better with their baseball/transit history but, in case not, I’ll provide the answer near the end of this post.

My affection for rail transit and for the impending arrival of the SMART train in the North Bay leads me to a series of rail transit links.  Enjoy.

Transit-Oriented Development: I’ve often opined that the North Bay should have done more to have transit-oriented development underway before the SMART train arrived.  But at least we got most of the zoning in place on a timely basis.  Salt Lake City is only now adopting appropriate zoning along the alignment of the Sugar House streetcar, two years after it opened to underwhelming ridership.  (Need I connect the dots on why the ridership was underwhelming?)

Development-Driven Transit: Much of the early transit development in the U.S. was driven by developers and development.  Streetcar lines would be installed to deliver home buyers to far-flung suburbs.  Although technically sprawl, it was a fairly benign form of sprawl, especially compared to the car domination that occurred when the streetcar tracks were removed.  Overall, it’s a shame that the model has mostly faded away.

But it hasn’t completely disappeared.  A proposed privately-funded railroad in Florida would rely on increased value of adjoining properties for a portion of its financial feasibility, an aspect that seems so puzzling that it’s reduced to a single line in an article that mostly focuses on whether ridership will be sufficient to sustain the rail line.

One other comment on the private Florida railroad.  The headline writer of the CityLab article implies that the public needn’t care about the financial feasibility of the railroad as long as the funding is private.  I disagree strongly.  If we allow land uses to develop along private transportation facilities and the transportation system then fails, the public must either support the transportation system or build roads to replace its function, either of which has financial implications.

There is a legitimate place for private transportation investments, but the public can’t take a laissez-faire attitude toward those investments if land use is affected.

Transit as a Public Hand-Out?:  A public official in Virginia is under attack for suggesting that voter support for transit is little more than a demand for a public hand-out, somehow forgetting that roads are often subsidized more than transit.

Autonomous Trains before Autonomous Cars: With the buzz about autonomous cars, a subject into which I should soon dive, we might overlook that autonomous trains are closer to being reality. Indeed, it seems that autonomous trains are sometimes performing better than human-driver trains.  Personally, I’m fine with computer-driven trains if it frees a transit employee to keep the peace among the riders.

A Quartet of Links from the New York Subway: Many are pondering how to reorient subway passengers before they climb stairs back to the street level.  From my New York experiences, I can confirm that disorientation can be real.  And my traveling companions were stricken even worse.

Totonno's near Coney Island

Totonno’s near Coney Island

An interview chats with the writer of a book on what is at the far-flung and seldom visited ends of New York subway lines.  In the writer’s comments on the D Line ending at Coney Island, she mentions the pizza at Totonno’s.  From personal experience, I can confirm that the pizza is good and the lines are long.

A subway rider strikes up conversations with strangers about the books they’re reading during their trips.

Lastly from the New York subway, a group of strangers engage in an impromptu sing-along to pass the time during a two-hour service delay.  The video starts slowly, but feels good before it finishes.

Before closing, a couple of transit quips, presumably rail transit, that make me smile.

Keith Law is a baseball analyst for ESPN.  Last winter, baseball’s Atlanta Braves pulled off a shockingly good deal, securing the first pick from the most recent draft, Dansby Swanson, and two other good players in exchange for one good, but not great pitcher.  Braves fans were ecstatic.  One of them posed an on-line question to Law, “Can you give Braves fans an idea of just how great it is to have picked up Dansby Swanson?”  To which Law replied, “It’s ‘having a major league stadium on public transit’ great.”  Even baseball folks get it.

And Brent Toderian, an urban planner who had a key role in preparing Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, recently tweeted “I have something to say that might shock some of you, but really shouldn’t.  We brought our new-born home from the hospital on public transit.”  Good for him and his wife.

Finally, the answer to the quiz.  The team name Dodgers is a shortened version of Trolley Dodgers, which came from the need to dodge trolleys to reach the front gates of the Dodgers’ ancestral home, Ebbets Fields in Brooklyn.  That history and the subsequent relocation of the Dodgers to Los Angeles led to the anomaly of a transit-derived team name in one of the less transit-friendly towns in the U.S.

On the other hand, it is any worse than having the Los Angeles Lakers in a basin that’s close to being a desert?  (For those who don’t know, the Lakers began life in Minneapolis, where the Lakers name made more sense.)

The next post will be my weekly summary of upcoming meetings and involvement opportunities.

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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