Thursday, March 20, 2014

Public transportation works--we need more

The continental U.S.A. is roughly 3000 miles wide.  It took me three 15 hour days to drive from Orlando, Florida to Los Angeles, California and an equal amount of time to return home.  Many of the states are the size of a country elsewhere.  There is a lot of what seems to be empty land.  Mobile phone service is generally available but not available everywhere.  Many people use satellite-based TV because cable companies aren't there, and antenna-based TV only works at short distances--shorter since digital TV arrived.

I've used public transportation on both coasts and in Japan.  In Japan, you can set your watch by it.  I did.  In the U.S.A., you might as well throw out your watch.  When the train or bus arrives, it's there, and that's all that matters.

In the midwest, where I went to school, my mum and I took the bus once.  It wasn't really good or bad, but we didn't have to walk.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I used trains and buses regularly (I likely still have my route pamphlets), and went one summer without a car.  It was demanding because I worked outside the city and after dark, services are less available.  What was a walk in the morning, and about 40 minutes on trains and buses, at night, took four hours on two buses, including a trip into the city and back out to the edge.

Transportation around New York City is no better, no worse.  Getting around Manhattan is easy--uptown, downtown.  Getting into town, you end up at Penn Station or Grand Central Station.  If you're going to Long Island, you board the Long Island Railroad at Penn Station, and wait and wait and wait and fall asleep and miss your stop.  I didn't fall asleep but I swear that it was the slowest train ride I had since being in rural Japan, taking a local train.

In San Jose, I used (Santa Clara) Valley Transportation Authority light rail.  It was smooth and fast enough.  Planners were thoughtful enough to put a connection to San Francisco through Caltrain.  At this same San Jose Diridon station, you can also use the Altamont Corridor Express to Stockton, as well as points along the way.   Caltrain was reasonably good, although I've seen plenty of mistakes since I used it.  I'm just happy I wasn't on a train with a problem, and that the temperature was moderate.

One thing I really liked about Caltrain is that they had dedicated storage for bikes.  I didn't pay too much attention to how you could lock your bike but they mounted the bike with the front wheel up.  I don't know that I would use it, but it was an effective way to keep the use of cars down.  Since then, they have introduced some bike-rental-sharing scheme.

When I was in the Bay Area, I didn't use my car that much but when I did, I was rarely stuck in traffic.  I did not drive into San Francisco, though.  On the other hand, I've driven through Manhattan, Queensborough, and Brooklyn and don't want to do that again, and that's with major public transportation.  I swear I used almost every bridge and tunnel in the NYC metro area, except for the George Washington Bridge and Verazzano Straits Bridge, all in one day.

Having lived in the Orlando, Florida area for 11 years after Philadelphia, I wanted to use public transportation.  There was a bus stop in front of my first apartment complex.  The bus that stops there went to a mall.  I did some research and the mile between my apartment and my work had zero Lynx buses, for some reason, even though there were buses on either side of the stretch.  The lack of sidewalks and the high humidity made walking an unlikely adventure, as I would need to clean up after walking to work.  In all those years of living there, I never found a situation where I could ride a bus.  The Orlando Sentinel used the headline "FloriDUH!" after the 2000 elections and I've used the nickname ever since.  What the planning people are thinking is beyond me.  They're working on implementing light rail now.  It looked great, but whether Lynx buses will match up with it or not is anyone's guess.  They're now trying to implement SunRail, their soon-to-be light rail solution from Volusia to Osceola counties.  I could only hope that they've planned to connect bus routes to the light rail stations.

While public transportation doesn't make sense in many farming communities, it makes sense for small towns and medium-sized cities.  I might use public transportation now, except that I'd have to walk two miles to Main Street or the shopping centers to get a bus that probably doesn't go where I want.  If they had not paved over all the trolley tracks, I wonder if the town would be very different now.

Maybe obviously, taking a mature city and implementing train or trolley service requires a lot of construction, especially with subways.  The other day I saw something about BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) finally after 30, 40 years making its way to San Jose from San Francisco, along East Bay.  The comments about it were rude, ranging from drugs making their way to San Jose to the horror of detours for construction.  I can't imagine that people would choose to be in a car waiting in traffic, rather than sitting in a train, for the same amount of time.  It is overdue, but at least, it's on the way to a finish, even though Caltrain already handles the western side of things.

I don't want to pay extra for parking or find my car damaged when I return, even in a company-owned lot.  I avoided that in Philadelphia, at least, paying for parking, by taking SEPTA trains into work.  At that time, $56 per month got me unlimited access to the city via trains, trolleys, and buses.  $64 got me a parking space.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, a $6 VTA day pass got me unlimited trips around Santa Clara county on VTA buses and light rail, and the $18 day pass got me unlimited Caltrain use between San Jose and San Francisco.  Besides, you don't have to remember where you parked your train.

I know that public transportation wherever it is, is no complete fix.  It is usually a huge burden on the taxpayers, even with great ridership.  It costs money to power it, and unions are often disagreeable.  I'm not just talking about the U.S.A.  It wasn't that long ago that the German rail workers union went on strike, and they probably had a fairly good deal already.  When I was riding a SEPTA bus, the drivers would often tell of how the union was going to strike many months ahead of contract negotiations--regardless of contract negotiations.

If the world has all these great minds that think about economies all the time, why is it that they can't find a good, balanced solution for transportation?  If power was free (solar, wind, etc.), would public transportation be affordable?  (I just remembered one serial dream I had.  I was explaining to the rest of my class my idea of self-propagating electromagnetic propulsion for trains, but unfortunately, I can't remember any serious details.)

Update 2014.04.11: I'm looking to move somewhere between San Jose and Stockton, California, so that I can use the ACE trains and live cheaply, until such time as I have money for a house, should I ever choose that again.  I'm not 100% sure of job prospects, but if I end up with a local retail job, I can always take the train to San Jose to visit museums and other attractions.  I think I'll have to drive the car to Palo Alto to IKEA, unless I'm also going all the way to San Fran on Caltrain.  Public transportation takes more research and preparation, which reminds me how I forgot to learn about San Francisco's MUNI ahead of time and ended up hurting my feet the several hours I was there walking.

Update 2014.04.20: Apparently, living out by California state road 99 and I-5, you have some options to get to the San Fran Bay Area.   The ACE train is one and there is a bus from Modesto (MAX) to the BART station at Dublin/Pleasanton.  Everything seems to result in a 4 hour trip, if you're going all the way to San Francisco.  The Caltrain trip from San Jose to San Francisco was somewhere between 1.5 hours and 2.0 hours, depending on taking express or local trains.  Obviously, the bus will take longer because it has to sit in traffic with all of the commuters who moved to the Central Valley to save money.

I also took a moment to look at getting to Los Angeles.  It seems that Amtrak goes from San Fran to Stockton by bus.  You leave Stockton on the train but just to Bakersfield, and then, you're on another bus to Los Angeles.  I'm confused.  Is the ground so unstable that they don't have passenger trains running the length of the state?  My trip up the state from Barstow to San Jose by car included switching roads in Bakersfield--from SR 58 to SR 99, which led to I-5, and across the Pacheco Pass Highway to US101, which took me to San Jose.  I'm sure that getting a train across the mountains could be difficult, and Pennsylvania has a "horseshoe" that PRR used and Amtrak now uses from Philly to Pittsburgh.  I guess it's not so simple in California.

In Los Angeles, I know that they have some trains.  I've seen the station at the far end, at Angels Stadium in Orange County.  I wonder if they're used much, other than for the baseball traffic.  There didn't seem to be any dedicated parking, other than that of the stadium.  Perhaps, when there are no games, people use it for Park-and-Ride?

Update 2014.05.01: Central Florida's SunRail went live today.  There were some minor problems, of course, and running on time couldn't be expected.  There was one photo of an older couple and a man with a walker was trying to get out of the train.  There was no ramp, so he put his walker on the ground that was lower than the platform, in order to get to the final step on the train.  I would imagine that he then picked up his walker to put on the platform, and likely fell trying to step over the gap.

It's still amazing to me that people don't test for wheelchairs and other devices.  One of my first experiences in Central Florida was when Montgomery Road was being widened from two lanes to four lanes with an additional turn lane.  They added sidewalks--with light poles in the middle of them.  I'm not saying that it only happens there, but Floriduh, you do it far too often.  At least, they somehow all agreed to get the light rail going.

Update 2014.05.07: The people behind SunRail are getting quite a bit of experience in their first few days.  While some may be experienced in other places, there is no place quite like Central Florida.  I'm just thrilled that they all cooperated and got light rail into production.  Someone mentioned that they were adding a third car to some of the trains today, to handle the rush.  That's certainly better than living people behind in frustration, when you have extra cars available.  Why not put them there in the first place?  It's likely the cost of the energy to drive them.  You would hope that something called SunRail would have solar panels on the top of each vehicle.

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