Durable Growth, Transportation

Revisiting transit integration

Petaluma Transit bus

Petaluma Transit bus

The powers that control the ebb, flow, and cross-currents of urbanism have apparently decreed that this is my week to ponder the integration of transit systems.

Later today, I’ll participate in a subcommittee meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  It‘ll be our final work session before an August public vetting and anticipated approval of the updated Short-Range Transit Plan for Petaluma Transit.

Although the SRTP, mandated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, would have been required this year regardless of other transit issues, this particular update has been dominated by the desire to integrate Petaluma Transit with the SMART rail system that will begin running in months.

Having spotted opportunities for route adjustments to better connect train riders to Petaluma originations and destinations, Transit staff has spent months honing the routes and schedules, along with managing the concerns of citizens, some angry about the possibility of buses running through their neighborhoods and an equal number distressed about not having service.  The Transit Committee has been providing advice on the process, offering ideas and feedback toward the impossible goal of making everyone happy.

Today’s meeting follows a meeting yesterday with the Transit Manager to review the proposed content for the subcommittee meeting.

And then tomorrow, completing the trifecta, I’ve been asked to participate in a meeting between the Friends of SMART, the citizens committee that worked for  years to bring SMART to reality and continues to provide unofficial oversight of SMART’s efforts, and the Marketing Director for SMART.  It was a request that was likely tied to my role with Petaluma Transit.

My particular issue tomorrow will be travel training.  Both Petaluma Transit and SMART have programs to educate first-time riders about the transit experience.  My concern will be how to combine those two efforts to ensure that prospective riders learn how to ride Petaluma Transit to the SMART station and then ride the train to destinations from San Rafael to Santa Rosa.

Given the flood of transit integration efforts, it seemed time to return to a 2015 discussion of the subject.

The story began with the issuance in April 2015 of “Seamless Transit” by SPUR, a highly regarded Bay Area planning organization, calling for improved integration between the impossibly large number of Bay Area transit organizations.

Although consolidation was one of many tools the SPUR authors noted, it was low on the list, with greater emphasis placed on fares, payment systems, schedules, graphics, and transit center design.  The goal wasn’t reduced administration, but a focus on the ridership experience that encouraged transit riders to move willingly between systems.

View of Greenwich from the observatory

View of Greenwich from the observatory

(I’m reminded of when I took transit to Greenwich, down the Thames River from London and the source of Greenwich Mean Time.  I took the Tube to a transfer point halfway to Greenwich, crossed the platform to a train with a different name on it, rode to my destination, and exited with the same ticket I’d used to enter the Tube station where I began.  It was soon seamless that I didn’t realize until later that I’d changed systems.)

Although SPUR downplayed consolidation, some reviewers gave it greater play, including the San Francisco Business Journal.

The SPUR report came to my attention about that time.  Concerned about consolidation suggestions being made about Petaluma Transit and feeling intuitively that consolidation would be a mistake, I checked with experts in the field, received confirmation of my intuition, and wrote on the how integration needn’t be consolidation.

The question was also put on an agenda for the Petaluma Transit Committee about the same time, with the committee unanimously concurring that the Petaluma community would be best served by Petaluma Transit remaining independent.

Having struck a blow for liberty, I went back to plowing other urbanist fields, which was a mistake because the best was yet to come.

In August, the New York Times took note of “Seamless Transit”, covering much the same ground as earlier San Francisco Business Journal article, but without once mentioning consolidation.

About the same time, Jarrett Walker, one of the experts with whom I spoken months earlier, weighed in with the best analysis yet and the one link that is a truly essential read.

Walker started by noting how a region named not after its principal city but after the body of water that divides the region is virtually guaranteed to have a fractured transit system.  He then continued onward to note how smaller systems tend to be more highly regarded by citizens and to describe what interfaces best facilitate integration between different systems, Walker’s article is an erudite, enlightening, and educational look at transit.  I’ve now read it three times and each time come away with something different, including a need to read Walker’s book.

Lastly, several of my fellow authors at Vibrant Bay considered the question of how the Bay Area transit system might look if it could be designed from scratch to service the current commuting patterns.  It’s an obviously theoretical exercise, but still provides observations that can be helpful in understanding the future of Bay Area transit.

If there is one overall lesson with which I can take away from this renewed look at regional transit, it’s that when Jarrett Walker talks, I need to be listening.

My next post will be the weekly summing up of upcoming opportunities to be an urbanism advocate.

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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