Mees 2: Was auto dominance inevitable?

One of the most interesting myths that Mees spends time debunking in this chapter is actually not that auto dominance was inevitable (since I didn’t believe that to begin with) but the idea that American public transit declined and died because of a conspiracy by the auto industry. His analysis is that the tram industry had serious problems at the time that it was purchased, converted to buses, and then dismantled by GM. There’s no disagreement on the latter points, but earlier reports from the government and other sources show that the tram companies had been privately run with an eye to the short-term profits of their owners, and were in dire financial straits by the time the takeovers occurred. In Los Angeles:

By the 1920s, it was clear that the Pacific Electric system would need substantial investment to modernize equipment, segregate servies from traffic congestion, improve level crossing safety, and duplicate single track sections. Cross-suburban routes to complement the mainly radial network, and extensions to new growth areas, would also be needed to compete with the car. But Pacific Electric lost money in all but one of the years from 1912 to 1941.

A report by engineering consultants suggested the implementation of a multi-modal system, with exclusive-ROW rapid transit supplemented by interurban trams and suburban buses. But it would have meant pumping money into the unpopular and fiscally unsound private railway companies, and was eventually abandoned in favor of an entirely public-section solution of building radial freeways, on the grounds that Los Angeles’s dispersed development pattern was more suitable for the automobile — even though that pattern was largely created by the tram network.

People disliked the railway companies because they had been providing increasingly poorer service for years and trying to raise prices as well. That doesn’t bode well for today’s transit agencies trying to get money to provide better service — but at least they don’t have the image of greedy private companies!

As a contrast to the perfect storm of economic and political factors in LA, and a supporting piece of evidence that auto dominance wasn’t inevitable, Mees also tells the story of a decline which was a conspiracy, that of Auckland public transit. It was a conspiracy not of the auto industry (there is none in New Zealand), but of government officials and planners: the Auckland City Engineer, the national Transport Minister, and a professor of Geography at Auckland University, who with other road supporters, created a stacked committee, referred an earlier rail and public transport plan to the committee, and declared Auckland unsuitable for public transit, despite the fact that at the time it had the majority share of travel into the city centre (58%). Again the justification was the dispersed nature of the Auckland area. They cited Ernest Fooks’ figures giving Auckland a density of only 4 people per acre, below even LA.

The only problem is that Fooks, in his book X-Ray the City, provided these figures exactly to demonstrate the fallacy of calculating density based on urban boundaries, which are arbitrary and don’t represent an entire built-up area. Portlanders know that our city includes Forest Park, which is entirely uninhabited by humans. LA and Auckland suffer from the same effect in the calculation of average density: large undeveloped areas. As the same committee had only four years earlier calculated the actual urbanized area of Auckland, it’s difficult to write this off as an innocent error.

The use of density is revealed once again as a convenient story. It’s a classic case of the fallacy of assuming that because A is correlated with B, A must cause B, and completely ignores other potential relationships and confounding effects, such as different policies and political environments that played a large role in transit investment and operation.

Massive update on the gallery

On uploading my photos from SE Sunday Parkways and a recent trip back to Albuquerque, I found that there were ten albums in my photos that I hadn’t yet uploaded to the Gallery.

This has been rectified and the gallery lightly reorganized to highlight the additions.

Special notice:
Otter whaa?, Iconic San Francisco Bay, Ascending the Mosaic Stairway, Perfect poppy, In the box, It’s raining in the sky.

Ride report: Sequoia 50K 2009

Sunday morning was my third, and more than likely last, Sequoia 50K ride.

Stats:
DST: 34.5
MXS: 34
AVS: ~10mph (overall), 12.5 (moving)
Time: 3:15 (overall)

My stats are a tad muddled because I checked my distance at the finish, but forgot to check my AVS and time, and then I rode home via Foothill. My total distance for the day was 43.4 miles. 1 mile from home to Palo Alto Caltrain, 1 mile from Arastradero and El Camino to the start, and 7 miles home.

I’m proud of myself for getting up and doing this ride — I was out in Oakland Saturday night and lost my phone, and I haven’t been training at all (except in that I’ve gone on a few other rides recently), so I was tired to start out with and not that well-prepared. Also, in the past they’ve had bagels and coffee at the start, so I didn’t eat breakfast, and when the food and drink did not materialize, I only had a few spoonfuls of the nutbutter/honey/chocolate mix I brought to start out on. Fortunately that stuff is awesome.

I still managed to do a respectable job at the climbing. Arastradero kicked my ass, leaving me exhausted and panting as usual, but I was able to do Arastradero, Alpine, and Whiskey Hill without stopping. A peloton passed me going the other way at about 35 mph in the preserve.

The organizers included a new loop on Alpine out past Portola this time, which was more climbing but a nice rural-neighborhoody excursion. The descent back to Portola (on Willowbrook) was nice and I hit 32 on one steep section.

After Whiskey Hill, it was a pretty straight shot down to the rest stop at Burgess Park, near my house. Once again I didn’t succumb to the temptation to go home in the middle, and instead had a lot of food and headed out through Menlo and Palo Alto with some acquired companions.

This part of the ride has never been my favorite. I enjoy the winding trek along Woodland (which I rarely ride even though it’s nearby), but after you pass University the pavement quality goes from fine to terrible (almost nonexistent in places) and you bump along for quite a while before turning onto Newell in Palo Alto and finishing with a trek along Palo Alto’s badly paved but otherwise pleasant streets. One notable, and sad, sight this year was the memorials at E. Meadow and the train tracks, where two Gunn High School students committed suicide in May.

The final route this year went through the neighborhoods between Meadow and Arastradero before getting back on Arastradero, rather than using the Gunn High bike path. This was less confusing and more pleasant, and provided a better view of Juana Briones park between Maybell Ave and Arastradero, although it did mean overlapping the beginning of the route more.

The most fun part of the ride for me was the scenery and the slow lifting of the fog. As I was climbing Alpine, the nearby hills were green and the Skyline ridge hills were fainter and bluish. Along Whiskey Hill, the fog could be seen starting to lift, and the descent down Woodside provided a fantastic view across to the East Bay hills, partly golden and sunny, and partly blueish and dark. Traversing the familiar route was poignant for me because I’ll have only a few more rides before I leave. I’ll miss the unique Peninsula scenery.

Normal weather

I found myself surprisingly content when the clouds came back on Wednesday this week. I’m not a big fan of the typical California winter weather: cloudy, rainy, chilly. But there’s something reassuringly normal and expected about it. The nice weather lately had been amazing and I did my best to enjoy it, but always with a little frisson of guilt, knowing that it was making an already-parched state drier and hotter. Now I’m even a little pleased things are back to normal.

Goodbye, Stacey’s

I happened to read today that Stacey’s Bookstore in San Francisco is closing.

Any bookstore closure is kind of sad, but this one has a particular sadness for me because that’s where I bought The Mindbody Prescription, which I used to get rid of my RSI totally. I bought the book in November 2005, on one of my first trips into San Francisco after moving to the Bay Area, and have been totally pain-free since June 2006 (more than two and a half years now). So the bookstore has some personal significance to me, and it’s weird to think of passing by there and not seeing it and being reminded of that lucky moment.

Sun-kissed frost

When I left the house this morning, an hour earlier than usual, it was bright but not light: the sun had risen, but wasn’t yet shining directly onto the roads and buildings. The air was crisp and cold, the sky pale blue and orange, the hills clear and purple, the clouds a golden mass on the eastern horizon. The moon, although no longer full, was still large and bright overhead. A thin layer of frost decorated grass, leaves, cars, and rooftops. Just as I reached the train station, the sun began kissing the treetops, illuminating the later stages of California trees’ extended but inconsistent love affair with fall color.

Days like this remind me of the winters I grew up in — cold, dry, and sharp; invigorating and refreshing. They’re days I’m very glad to be alive in this world.

Mt. Tam: cheesy edition

Back in August, training for Waves to Wine, I did a ride with J & C which ended with trip to Berkeley Bowl and the Berkeley Marina.

C & I looked at cheese while we were in Berkeley Bowl and saw Mt. Tam, which was a contestant in the Tomato Nation NCheeseAA (it made it to the final “fourmage”). The contest was the first time I’d heard of it, and Berkeley Bowl was the first place I saw it. It’s like Brie on crack — soft cheese, white rind. Triple cream. Mmmmm.

But it was $20 for a small wheel, so we decided it should be a treat for after W2W. Since then I think C has had it already herself (direct from the Creamery), but I hadn’t. Yesterday I finally picked some up at the Cowgirl Creamery shop in the Ferry Building, and today I ate half of it after getting home from donating blood (along with slices of a green apple).

Uhh….yeah. It’s the Best Cheese Ever. A robust but not overpowering flavor, slightly tangy, soft, rich, organic and vegetarian, and the milk comes from a farm where the cows are treated humanely and attention is given to sustainability and land management. This is a cheese I can get totally behind.*

A 10-oz round cost me $14, which is a hell of a lot for just any cheese, but doesn’t seem like that much for a piece of pure heaven in cheesy form.

*When I first became vegetarian I ate a lot of cheese — I’ve always liked cheese, so it was pretty much last on my list of things I wanted to worry about giving up. But over time I’ve worked on eating less of it because most cheese is produced under similar conditions to most meat, so to be consistent with my reasons for giving up meat, I would need to give up any cheese with similar production methods as well.

I don’t think I’ll ever give up cheese totally except for properly-produced stuff (for me, it’s just too hard), but I’ve greatly reduced my consumption of it and other dairy products, and tend to skew toward small amounts of high-qualty cheese. Finding a cheese that meets my criteria for production, like Mt. Tam, is very exciting. Finding out that it’s heaven on a plate is even more exciting.

Strawberry frustration

I love strawberries. The best ones are fragrant and sweet with a hint of tartness. I want to describe them as a “flavor burst in the mouth” but that sounds unfortunatey like a commercial. I buy them almost every week in the summer when they’re available. I freeze them to keep for over the winter when they aren’t available at the farmer’s market. But I also find strawberries incredibly frustrating. Their attractive red appearance can conceal many flaws — an unripe white center, or a soft spot that feels mushy and will soon mold. Even worse, equally ripe-looking and beautiful strawberries can taste completely different. One will be sweet and glorious, the next watery and flavorless with a tinge of sour. And they go bad so quickly. I have to refrigerate them, even though conventional wisdom is that fruit flavor is destroyed by refrigeration.

After thinking about this, I realized that these problems are common to most soft fruits, although they’re probably pronounced with strawberries and other berries because of their lack of a firm skin. But certainly stone fruit (cherries, peaches, plums) is just as much of a crapshoot from one fruit to the next, and it reaches the peak of ripeness quickly and just as quickly goes mushy and over-sweet. Avocadoes and tomatoes also vary some (bad spots and poor flavor), and with avocados you can’t even see inside at all. Even apples, which aren’t even soft fruit, vary a bit from fruit to fruit, though less so. Bananas are about the only 100% consistent fruits. No wonder they’re so popular.

I wish we had the kind of markets that they have in France where you tell the seller when you want to eat the fruit and they’ll pick out ones that’ll be just perfect that day. But I don’t think even they will sell you individual strawberries!