How ‘bus stigma’ can be contagious

I participated in an interesting conversation today that reminded me how ‘bus stigma’ is self-reinforcing.

Scene: at work, in the lunchroom. Our company owner, a very smart guy based in Irvine, is visiting us this week.

He asked where the nearest Red Line MAX station to the office was, to find out how to get back to the airport from the office. The geographical answer is that the 1st and Yamhill station is the closest, but it’s a bit of a hike (about a mile). Several people explained that it’s a bit far to walk, but you can take the bus from the stop outside our window (which you can see from the lunchroom) to either the Red Line MAX or the Green Line MAX, or you could walk to the Green Line MAX instead. If you take the Green, they explained, you then transfer “after the Steel Bridge” (a very visitor-accessible way of saying “at the Rose Quarter Transit Center”). You can stay on longer but definitely have to get off by Gateway.

I noticed, vaguely, that he seemed receptive to the suggestions about walking. He mentioned that he had walked from the Red Line to the office. He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the suggestions about taking the bus, but when they reached a critical mass, he finally asked “How often does the bus come by here?” Oh, everyone said, about every ten minutes or so (we have 3 buses at the same stop, otherwise it wouldn’t be quite so good). Oh, that’s quite good, he said. “In Southern California* the buses come every hour and a half.”

Buses get a bad rap because so many bus services are inadquate or only barely adequate. Subway or light rail systems tend to be more frequent, because they usually form the core of a system wherever they are, and because they represent a large amount of sunk capital cost, so abandoning them looks pretty bad.  So buses tend to look slightly worse to most people, and they look especially bad to people who live in places with no rail at all, and bus services that really aren’t very useful to most people. And when they go visit other cities, they may automatically focus on the rail system (which is often more well-known, well-publicized, well-mapped, and simpler, not to mention the part of the system that’s usually connected to the airport, where they arrive) and ignore the buses that form the veins and arteries of the system, complementing the rail system spine. They miss an opportunity to learn that buses can be useful, and they go back home thinking “I want a light rail system!” And then they may even try to build one, because isn’t it the rail that’s so cool and useful? But since rail requires a larger capital investment, it pulls money away from other options in order to create a decent rail system, buses suffer, and modal bias is reinforced once again.

* I assume he meant something like “in the part of Southern California I live in” (Orange County), since LA has a frequent bus network.

Mees 1: “Density as destiny” is a convenient story

One of the most interesting points that Mees makes  early on is that the story of “density as destiny” where transit is concerned is convenient for a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum. Road-builders who’d like to keep building roads can say that they have to, because density is insufficient for effective transit. Transit agencies that are providing poor service can use low density as an excuse for doing so.

He touches a little bit on the issues that changing density raises: “large increases in the density of big cities take many decades, and may be politically impossible in a democratic society.” This is one of Portland’s current controversies: people who aren’t interested in transit and would rather have money spent on roads, and who definitely don’t want density, can stop both density and transit investment by having a fit only about density.

Mees’ hypothesis is the opposite:

Transport policy itself has a bigger impact on transport patterns than urban planners have realized, and suburbs don’t have to be totally reliant on the car. Planners who insist that car dominance can only be addressed by impossibly large increases in density may actually be entrenching the problem they are trying to solve.

He shows a counterexample to the idea that density is destiny in his story of Sternenberg and Bauma, a small village and its nearby town in Canton Zurich, Switzerland. Bauma has around 1,000 residents and has half-hourly trains from 6am to midnight and all-night buses on Friday and Saturday. Sternenberg, with a population of 300, has seven buses a day, which coordinate with the arrival and departure of the train at Bauma, going to onward services at regional centers and into Zurich City. The transit modeshare in Sternenberg is higher than Portland’s (the city of Portland): 19% (plus 10% walking and cycling). This is mindblowing when you think of entire towns and cities in the US that have no public transit whatsoever, or have quite useless transit, despite being many times the size (and as Mees the Australian reminds us, Americans are not alone in this).

One interesting bit from this story that Mees doesn’t spend much time on is that the population of Sternenberg is beginning to increase after many years of decline, and that much of this increase comes from people commuting into Zurich and suburbs (and that this is a general pattern). This is a case of high mobility by transit — something I like to think of as good — causing a kind of population sprawl. Mees isn’t so worried about this because his point is that relatively sprawling populations don’t have to impede good transit, and transit sprawl is usually a bit ‘better’ than auto-driven sprawl, but in general terms enabling urban depopulation and long-distance commuting decreases accessibility. It makes it more difficult to meet daily needs other than commuting by non-auto modes, which is reflected in the relatively high (for Zurich) car use in Sternenberg.

From my personal angle, interested in community building as I am and having lived in a sprawling metro area, it also impedes community formation and seriously burdens workers. When your friends live 2 hours away by train, you can’t run over for a quick cup of tea, and when you’re spending 2 hours a day commuting, you aren’t spending those hours with friends and family, being active, cooking, pursuing hobbies, or anything else you might like to do. In this view, the success of Sternenberg potentially comes at a price, something that is frequently, but not always, overlooked.

Reviewing Transport for Suburbia by Paul Mees

Those who follow me on Twitter have been subjected to a lot of little quotation gems from Paul Mees’ 2010 book Transport for Suburbia recently. There’s so much to say about his book that I hope to do a series of posts on it, but since it’s apparently not a widely-read or -known book, I want to do a high-level overview first.

I was expecting the book, given its title, to be about public transit in suburbia. It really isn’t, sort of like Tim Ferris’ The Four-Hour Workweek isn’t exactly about a four-hour workweek (but the title sounds good). The central thesis of the book is that the importance of very high residential density is overstated as a requirement for effective transit, and that overemphasizing its importance is a good way to make sure that effective transit never arrives since massive increases in density are slow, if they happen at all. Mees puts much greater emphasis on transit working with the existing environment to create its own effectiveness, with particular focus on designing effective transit networks within metropolitan regions, as well as the governance structures that help make designing such networks possible. This is a great topic for anyone who cares at all about transit, but if you live in Portland it’s especially interesting since we have a regional transit agency that’s much-under-the-gun, yet far better than most US or “Anglosphere” (as Mees likes to call it, being an Australian) transit agencies at providing effective service.

His overall point is excellent and not heard very much — it’s clear that the book is written with the slightly contrarian air of exploding a popular myth. And he has the writing chops to back that up, bringing some seriously awesome snark that I didn’t expect from such a staid-looking book, marshaling excellent anecdotes, and touching on a number of other minor contrarian opinions (like the proper place of Park and Rides in a good transit system). Where else will you see transportation outcomes blamed on the koala and transport planners with PhDs reduced to ‘gibbering wrecks’ by a bus station? It’s also nice to read a book that’s not written by an American for once; he draws his examples from around the world but particularly focuses on Canada and Australia where an American would probably use American cities.

If you’ve read Human Transit, some of Mees’ points will sound quite familiar, and Jarrett has also written some posts that use Mees’ book as starting points, such as his Las Vegas post and The perils of average density. These are good reading, and cover the substance of my major objection to Mees — he takes some basic density numbers, shows that they don’t correlate with transit modeshare, and declares that therefore density is not important for transit. He fails to discuss urban form and connectivity almost entirely, thus failing to capture the difficulty of walking and the loss of transit effectiveness in cul-de-sac land compared to well-connected but not especially dense neighborhoods (like much of Portland’s east side). He also fails to do any fine-grained density analysis and any careful apples-to-apples comparisons where different city densities have the same transit service, to see whether density would affect the outcome in that case, because that’s not of interest to the point he’s trying to make. That selectivity puts some significant limits on the quality of his analysis.

But he does show many compelling cases of effective transit in relatively low-density environments that serve to make his point: straightforward measures of average density being low are not in themselves an excuse for poor or failed transit, as much as some policymakers would like to pretend they are. Governance matters — he has a nicely-laid-out chapter addressing the major types of transport governance that have been tried, and which ones are the most effective, as well as a number of stories of failed systems with various kinds of governance. And network design  and policy matters. I appreciated his mode-agnostic approach (like Jarrett, he’s certainly not an idol at the altar of any particular transit technology) but was somewhat surprised by the amount of attention he devotes to pulse systems. Jarrett spends more time discussing high-frequency networks that allow timetable-less transfers, and I had developed the impression that pulse systems were mostly a sort of stop-gap, the last option before your transit network really sucks. But Switzerland uses them with great success, and apparently they’re more common in cities than I thought, during off-peak times, for bus-rail feeder lines, or on low-ridership lines.

Where Mees really fell down for me was in his chapter on cycling. It’s blatantly obvious that he only takes cycling marginally seriously as a regular transport mode or complement to transit. He either has never relied on it, or never combined it with transit (either bike-and-ride or transit one day, bike the next) the way I do. While he’s quite happy to make walking and transit into natural partners, the bike doesn’t get the same respect. That was disappointing for me. I don’t expect transit planners to think that bikes on board is a good idea, but I do expect them to understand how living without a car can mean being multi-modal rather than transit-dependent, and that’s one test Mees fails.

Why I opted-out of Opt In

As a citizen advocate, I spend a lot of time telling my local governments and government agencies what I think. I’m familiar with the various stages and forms of public involvement processes — sitting on committees, going to project meetings, asking questions, raising concerns, writing comments, addressing decisionmakers. So originally I was a big fan of Metro’s Opt In concept — hey, Metro is asking for our opinion! They’re sending us emails with quick surveys, making it easier than hunting down comment forms on each project webpage (if the project even has one), or searching for the right physical address or phone number to contact. I joined Opt-In with such rosy thoughts at first, but I lost them relatively quickly as I saw that the demographics of the survey were clearly out of whack with the region (involving the most involved, like me, further, rather than engaging new populations) and the surveys were often poorly designed. The final straw for me was the recent poll on regional transportation priorities, which BikePortland covered, especially the fact that the survey writers defended the survey setup:

Jim Middaugh, communications director for Metro, defends the survey. “We’re attempting to provoke a bit and help decision makers get a sense of where different segments of the population are on these things.” On Twitter, he responded directly to criticisms by saying that the “Forced choice” the survey presents is a “technique to get at underlying values.” And he added that, “Metro gets that things aren’t black and white.”

“We’re trying to see how people are leaning… If you put a grey zone in there, it’s not as informative.”

I’ve been through enough public involvement processes to have seen that some of them are shams, sometimes even when the people involved are well-intentioned. And forced-choice, or its cousin “limiting project scope”, is the most common type of sham. It disallows certain types of input from the start, and the result can be used to suggest things that are not reflective of people’s real opinions. That’s exactly what Metro seems to be up to with Opt-In. They choose the topics, they design the surveys with the possible questions, and in many cases, they are, apparently deliberately, pushing people away from common ground and reasonable middle views. They’re push-polling, not gathering public input.

I opted not to complete the recent TriMet budget survey for the same reason. Same deal: at first, I was excited. Online budget survey — new and shiny! Engages people who wouldn’t otherwise! Maybe, but it’s clearly designed to get the answers they want. They start out by claiming poverty and the best of intentions, and follow that with union-bashing (and I say this as someone who is frustrated with the union negotiation situation right now; I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the union’s position, but it’s not exactly classy of TriMet to present it the way they do). Only then do they proceed to the survey options. Raising parking revenue is given one option of a “nominal” fee at crowded lots, for $100,000. No market-rate parking, not even a non-nominal parking charge. But they have no hesitation suggesting that we raise fares by $0.25 or more and/or force anyone transferring to buy a $4.20 day pass, discouraging trip-chaining and multimodal travel. Let’s definitely impact low-income and multi-modal inner-city users, not the suburban users who drive in to the big MAX lots! Let’s definitely not talk about increasing the taxes that bring in the majority of Trimet’s budget! Sorry, I’m not going to buy into that at any level, not even to legitimize the idea by participating.

For anyone who’s willing to stick around, hit “no/neither/disagree”, and write your comments in, I salute you. But I’m opting out of these particular shams.

PSU/PBOT Traffic and Transportation Class: Reflection

What I come back to most whenever the subject of my class last fall comes up is how amazing it is that I was able to learn so much information and meet so many significant figures in the Portland transportation scene in just ten short weeks (Oct 1 – Dec 3).

Getting into the class was a bit of a rollercoaster — I learned about the class from BikePortland while I was in the Bay Area over Labor Day weekend, but by the time I got back and organized to apply for the scholarship from the city, the scholarship spaces were exhausted and I was put on the waiting list. Disappointed, I consoled myself by thinking, “No need to rush into things. I’m new here; I’m sure others need the learning more than I do.” But Gavin encouraged me not to give up, and later I learned that it’s not uncommon for a few people to drop out before the class starts. Sure enough, the week before the class started, Scott Cohen, the class liaison, contacted me and asked if I wanted a space that had opened up. Yes, of course!

The class lecture series included Portland’s senior planner, Steve Dotterer; the director of PBOT, Sue Kiehl; officials from Metro and Trimet; Roger Geller, city Bicycle Coordinator; April Bertelson, Pedestrian Coordinator; Marni Glick of Transportation Options (who I also knew from my Sunday Parkways volunteering); Rob Burchfield, city Traffic Engineer; Patrick Sweeney, who headed up the Streetcar System Plan effort; and lectures from our coordinator, Rick Gustafson, a former ED of Trimet and longtime transportation official and consultant in Portland; as well as a special presentation by Gordon Price, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. (The presentations, except for Gordon Price’s, are all available on the class website.)

My favorite presentations were Gordon Price, Steve Dotterer, Patrick Sweeney, Roger Geller, and Marni Glick — possibly in that order — for, respectively, a deep and broad look at urban design and transportation, the historical perspective on Portland, a beautiful presentation with impressive evidence of project management and community outreach, bikey awesomeness, and sheer enthusiasm for the job.

Doing a project also turned out to be a really important part of the class. Hearing that it would involve giving a presentation and was optional, I almost backed out. I hate public speaking, and I wasn’t sure I had time for a project. But Rick encouraged us to participate because it would give us a practical grounding in what most of us really wanted to do with our class knowledge — getting transportation projects done in Portland.

I decided to do my project on the interaction between bikes and rails. It’s an issue of personal interest to me, because I live near the streetcar tracks (and the NW Industrial area which has a lot of disused/rarely used tracks) and riding near them makes me nervous. It’s also a well-known issue in Portland and is in the theme of my main area of interest in bike advocacy, bike/transit interactions.

My project ended up being selected for the second session, which would include an outside panel and any members of the public who wanted to attend. I was excited, but also nervous. It was fortunate timing in that the week of the first presentations was very busy for me, and the respite that I got allowed me to put together a much better presentation.

The process of doing the project was somewhat guided by our homework assignments. I started out by doing a lot of web research, and later moved on to documenting particular issues and investigating each proposed solution further, as well as taking pictures of nasty intersections. The part that took me personally the longest to do was to contact someone in the city or other government agency about the issue. There’s no shortage of people to talk to about the streetcar, but I was nervous about calling people. It’s a personal thing, and one that I badly need to get over before I can be serious about being an advocate. I was very impressed when I saw how many people some of my classmates had spoken with, when I didn’t even take advantage of all the leads I got until after class was over. Lesson learned!

The presentations were supposed to only take three minutes, because that’s how long you get to speak at public hearings. It turns out to be a lot harder to give a three-minute presentation than a ten-minute one. Not too many people made the time limit — I’m not sure whether I did, although I practiced hard and trimmed down my presentation until I could give it in that amount of time. My presentation got a very good reception, with particularly kind words from Rick, and is now available, with the rest, on Chris Smith’s Portland Transport blog.

I feel very lucky to have had the class so soon after my arrival in Portland. As I start to get more involved in the Portland transportation scene, having the background has already proven useful. And as Patrick and April, both themselves graduates of the class, reminded us, it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know, presenters and fellow students alike, that may help you get things done in the future.

Ten is cool, seven is cool

Xtracycle on Twitter today pointed me to a great blog post from Doug about his seven years as a car-free commuter (in Minnesota, no less).

I mentioned to someone recently that it’s been nearly ten years since I owned a car. (Actually, I’m not sure I ever technically owned a car, since the car I drove in high school most likely still belonged to my parents at the time that I was driving it. But I was its primary driver.) I hadn’t realized it had been that long until I thought back over it and remembered that the accident that totaled our 1987 Acura Legend happened in August of 1999, and it’s now August of 2009.

I don’t think my story is as impressive as Doug’s. For most of the time, I haven’t lived anywhere with an icy/snowy winter, and I haven’t bike-commuted to work every day. First I lived on campus at Rice for two years, then rode a mile or two on my bike each day from the Violin House* to campus, then went back to living on campus for a year. One summer I borrowed a friend’s car.**

For the summer after college, I drove the family car when I went to work or out. Then I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, within 15 minutes walk of the Linguistics building at the university, for two years. Edinburgh has an excellent bus system which I frequently took advantage of, or I walked a lot; I didn’t ride during those years. (Cycle on the left side? No way! :)

When I came back, I drove the family car again for a few months before I moved to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, I starting cycling again, often to work (and even in winter rains), but I usually took the train part of the way. I frequently rode along with other people in cars to get places that had proven to be annoying or impossible to get to via transit or cycling.

Now, in Portland, I walk and ride the bus a lot as well as cycling, and I (finally) have access to Zipcar. I’m not a frequent user, but it’s nice to know I can haul stuff or drive to remote destinations myself, without depending on the kindness of others. Of course, if I had an Xtracycle I could do more hauling, but I don’t see hauling four kitchen chairs even with an Xtracycle. I love Zipcar for being 90% of what Doug describes a car as:

Even though I didn’t drive much, having a vehicle sitting there, just in case I needed it, provided my mind with a feeling of security. It provided a mode of transportation that was convenient, easy, and available all the time. Peace of mind.

Zipcar claims that each of their cars takes 20 cars off the road (they ask when you sign up if you will be getting rid of your car). Pretty amazing, and a great way forward for letting go of your car without letting go of all that peace of mind.

Even though I’m much more impressed by Doug than I am by myself, I don’t think this is a contest of who’s the most impressive. I certainly don’t do it to prove anything or make milestones, and he clearly doesn’t either. We’re both happier when we’re not behind the steering wheel of a car, and for me that is and will always be the main reason I don’t drive much. I hope in ten years I’ll still be car-free and that even more people will find it a viable option for themselves, and discover their joy in a different kind of freedom from the kind a personal motor vehicle offers.

* The house in West U I lived in during my junior year of college. With a lot of violinists, hence the name.
** Partly as a favor to him so he didn’t have to drive it back to Oregon. And I locked myself out of it once — in the middle of Tropical Storm Allison.

It’s mere ungrammatical twaddle

It’s funny how some of the best things are completely unplanned. When I got to Seattle yesterday, I had a plan to go see the Space Needle, then go walk or sit in a park for a while. And that was the extent of my plan.

Before I headed for Seattle center, I noticed a shop in Pike Place Market called The Crumpet Shop. I love crumpets, and you don’t see them very often here, so I decided to stop in, and get something if it looked good. Sitting and eating my crumpet (which was regrettably not that good — sorry Crumpet Shop, but you need to step it up), I saw a poster for Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan’s production of Utopia Ltd. I could only see part of the poster because it was behind the door, but the part I could see was advertising next weekend and the weekend after. When I got up to look, I found that the hidden part listed this weekend! I didn’t decide right away to go, but it entered my mind as a possibility.

While I was waiting for the Space Needle (everyone in Seattle wants to be up there on a sunny day), I looked up Seattle G&S on my phone and called their number. They were not selling tickets until an hour and a half before the show, but the theater was nearby. When I showed up at 6 (after completing the “sit in a park” part of my plan, and finding out whether there were any vegetarian places nearby), they still had a few left. And thus my stop in the Crumpet Shop led to a fun evening.

The production was, in my no-longer-very-educated opinion, excellent. Very good orchestra, excellent singing (especially on the part of the woman playing Zara), quality acting, and fun choreography well-executed by the cast. I particularly enjoyed the glow-in-the-dark tambourines wielded by the King and the Flowers of Progress at one point. The choice of accents for each character was also, I think, carefully done. Notably, the Public Exploder sported a Scottish accent when not speaking Utopian — a clear and probably period-appropriate use of the stereotype of barbarous Scots.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen or done a G&S show, and I’d forgotten how much fun they can be. The audience was clearly an experienced one and laughed heartily at the in-jokes in the dialogue. The subject matter of Utopia, Ltd. is well-suited for adaptation to our current culture, and the adaptation was done well — very funny, but at points on-target enough to be a little painful in its humor.

I did find myself getting bored at times, though. I can’t say if I’d have this experience watching the G&S shows I particularly like with greater distance from them, but the development of the secondary (and even primary) romantic duos and the “plotting” song (“With wily brain upon the spot”) seemed weak and insipid to me, even if well-sung, and I wanted them to go quickly past it so we could get to something more fun. I don’t mean the “plot” (if you can call it that), which is always thin, but the songs themselves.

Overall, though, it was a fun and musically rewarding experience.

Other Seattle observations:
The Space Needle is fun, but it’s not as cool as the CN Tower.
At first I thought the monorail was bizarrely retro-futuristic and seriously lame, but I didn’t realize it can go over 45 mph and is 47 years old, both fairly impressive statistics. However, it is kind of lame to charge you $2 to go a mile.
There are a lot of mountains and a lot of water around here. I like it.
Bamboo Garden vegetarian Chinese restaurant is okay, but Garden Fresh is much better, despite the latter’s lack of atmosphere.
Unfortunately, sections of downtown smell like urine, to a greater extent than I’ve experienced in other downtowns. Ick.

The journey is part of the fun

One of my favorite things about not having a car is that it reminds me to think of my journeys as part of the fun of my trips. Journeys take more of my time than they do of most people’s, so if I don’t enjoy them and look for ways to spice them up, I’d be much more annoyed by their duration, and I might as well just give up and buy a car.

This weekend I had several long-journey adventures.

First, I decided that instead of taking the Capital Corridor train all the way from San Jose to Davis, I would shorten (and save money on) the journey by taking BART to Richmond. (It’s not really shorter, but the weekend afternoon CC and Caltrain schedules don’t mesh very well.) There are two options: Caltrain to Millbrae to Richmond, and bike to Fremont to Richmond.

Fremont beckoned. In the three years that I’ve lived in the Bay Area (I moved here on the second weekend of November in 2005, so this was my anniversary weekend), I’ve never been to Fremont, only through it on CA-84 and I-880. And I’ve never biked over the Dumbarton Bridge (CA-84) which is one of the four bridges in the Bay Area you can bike over, and the only one that’s within my normal bike area that I have never biked over (since I crossed the Golden Gate for the first time during Waves to Wine).

I mapped out a route using Fremont’s bike map, aiming for roads with bike lanes because I’m not familiar enough with Fremont’s roads to know which non-laned roads would be comfortable for riding. The route I chose was scenic, but not short:

Willow > CA-84 Bike/Ped sidepath/sidewalk > Marshlands Rd > Thornton Road > Paseo Padre Parkway > Mowry Ave > Civic Center Pl > BART Way

The total distance was 17.8 miles, so my roundabouting added about six extra miles (Fremont is about 12 miles as the crow flies). Luckily, I planned for the extra time, leaving around 1pm for a 2:30 BART train. I got to the train just in time to board without being in a desperate hurry, but not without being worried. Thank goodness for having a tailwind most of the way, and for my leftover W2W fitness.

The route, despite involving bike lanes for nearly the entire way, was not entirely what I would call pleasant riding. To go about it backwards, Paseo Padre is a bit like Central Expressway (something I suspected from its Parkway appellation) only the bike lanes are even more poorly lined at intersections even though they are official bike lanes and not shoulders. The intersections were poorly designed overall, with bad pavement and short lights, and the intersection of Thornton with CA-84 and surrounds (yes, you get off 84 and then have to cross it again) was seriously the most terribly-designed intersection of a bike-laned road with a major highway I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen lots. Fremont? Not a terribly bike-friendly town, based on what I saw.

Before you get on Thornton, Marshlands Road is a two-lane road with “bike lanes”. The lack of real bike lanes rather than gravelly, terribly-paved, nearly unpainted imitations isn’t a serious problem because there’s almost no traffic, but the paving in general is very poor, although the scenery is quite nice: marshy areas, with hills arising out of them.

The bridge bike-ped path, and the path leading up to it (it starts at Bayfront Expwy, where the road gets wide and the speed limit high) was for most of its length fine except for having a lot of debris, which is basically par for the course for sidepaths. However, it also had two inset plates which were so inset that had I hit them unawares, I could easily have lost control of my bike. Note to self: find out who is responsible for that crap, and get it fixed. And then there was the flooded road. Yes, really. The road up to the bridge, itself, of course, was not flooded. Can’t have that. Cars must get through. But the sidepath/road to the recreation area (which you’re supposed to use until you reach the sidepath for the bridge itself) was under several inches of water.

No thanks. So I rode a short distance on the shoulder of the bridge approach, then carefully took my bike down a small embankment and over to the bridge path proper.

Riding over the bridge was pretty awesome though. The temperature was in the upper 70s and it was as clear as a bell. I watched the blueish water of the bay, and seagulls flying along below me, as I took in a view of the contrasting pinkish-tan East Bay hills ahead. It’s a longish climb but shallow, and an equally nice descent.

I enjoyed my BART ride too: conversation with a fellow bike enthusiast, reading and people-watching, and an unexpected view of the city and the bay when the train came up out of the Oakland subway portions. Transfer at Richmond was fairly painless (this was also the first time I’ve ever been north of Berkeley or south of Bay Fair on BART — now I’ve been to all the line termini in the inner Bay Area!), and the views began again. The Capitol Corridor runs along the edge of the North Bay there and I’ve never seen it in full daylight before, so it was a treat.

As we approached Davis, the sky pinked and the sun slanted prettily over the green fields. I rode around downtown Davis for a while as it got dark (sporting my new MiNewt light so I could actually see — amazing). It’s a pretty town, lots of trees and big houses, perfect for just tooling around going nowhere and enjoying it.

Today Mike and I went on another long-journey adventure: a ride over to Winters for lunch. It’s a 28-mile roundtrip, so neither long nor short by ride standards (mine anyway), but certainly longer than you would usually take just to have lunch. But the ride was part of the point, which is my point: when you ride, the journey is fun too.

It’s an interesting area to ride in, very different from the Bay Area. Out in the farmlands, you wouldn’t know you’re in California except that when you look west, you see mountains — that, and the fact that it’s in the 70s in November! But the farmland is amazingly like every other farm landscape I’ve ever seen, except flatter than some. Green, brown, and tan fields, distant lines of trees and small buildings.

It’s very, very flat, and so windy that it’s almost like having hills, though today was not as windy as the last time we went riding. Also, no tomatoes to avoid, but plenty of cracks in the asphalt. Does anyone know why asphalt cracks horizontally in that weirdly regular way? Or why fruit trees are painted white in the middle of their trunks, but not at the thicker lower part? Such are the mysteries that arise while enjoying the journey.

On any given day, where would you rather be?

The radio was on this morning in the shuttle, playing various things, including a traffic report. It was almost like it was calculated: 101-S is a complete mess in two different places, as is 237. Aren’t you glad you’ve been on the train?

But of course, on any given day, you might rather be on the road if there’s a Caltrain snafu. Still, just thinking of all the nightmarish traffic I regularly miss was a reminder of why I prefer a cycling/transit commute.

On the other hand, I find Caltrain just mind-boggling sometimes. Recently, they decided to change the shuttle schedule for the shuttle I take. I discovered the shuttle back some months ago and was thrilled to find that I could not bike and still take the fast trains. It used to connect to the limited train in the mornings and I would arrive at work around either 8:30 or 9:30, which was great because the bullet trains + bike got me to work at either 8:00 or 9:00, and the local train + walking around 9:15, so I could pretty much arrive at any time I chose, with intervals of 15-30 minutes. That’s about all I expect or need as far as tolerances. There was even a late shuttle run that would get me to work around 10 on the unusual occasion I can’t get in any earlier. In the evenings, it picked up at 5:15 or 6:15 and connected to the bullet and limited trains that got me home around 6 or 7 (usually the latter). Perfect.

Well, nothing is perfect for everyone (the bullet people used to wait quite a while for the shuttle to leave, for example), but the change was just stunningly bad. Suddenly the shuttle only connected to the morning (crowded, slow) local train, despite the fact that the bullet comes in only a few minutes later. (Which, additionally, would push more people onto the bullets’ crowded bike cars, since they no longer had the shuttle option.) In the evenings, the convenient pickup times had changed to inconvenient 5:45 and 6:45, the latter completely killing the time advantage for the last shuttle in the evening, and only connected to local trains also.

They’ve now retooled the schedule again — to their credit, they have fixed the morning and it makes complete sense now. It meets the local and bullet trains, albeit not the limited, and most people who take it get to work around 9. Cool. This is awesome. (Why not do this in the first place?!)

But the afternoon schedule is still bizarre and, to my view, stupid. The pickup times have moved ten minutes earlier so that allegedly the shuttle meets the limited trains, at least. However, the leeway is one minute. You need at least five minutes of leeway in case the shuttle is late, and/or to cross the platform, buy or validate a ticket, etc. Plus, they are now claiming to meet the bullet trains, even though they really are not doing so, because you would have to wait almost an hour for a northbound bullet. (Most people who take these shuttles are going northbound in the evenings, in my experience. It looks like the schedule does serve the southbound trains a bit better, but considering a southbound bullet saves you a ten minutes, compared to a northbound one which saves you about twice that, and serves fewer people, I can’t see that this is a huge benefit.)

One of the biggest things that bothers me about how this has occurred, which is completely typical for Caltrain, is that they don’t seem to have actually thought the changes through from the perspective of the users, or communicated to the users aside from announcing the new schedule, or asked for feedback, or anything. (I think a lot of people have called or written them to complain, though. I certainly did.) The complete illogic isn’t necessarily typical, but the fact that they’ve now gone through three schedules (one proposed, which I guess was so bad they just abandoned it and delayed the change by a week, and two actual) and the schedule still seems somewhat stupid, doesn’t really give me a lot of confidence that they thought about it, not just from a user perspective, but honestly, at all. It’s been so bad that even the drivers noticed it and started surveying people and collecting comments. I mean, really. Good for them, but what went wrong here that this was, and is, so messed up?

Toronto: transit

My experiences with transit and cycling in Toronto were almost uniformly overwhelmingly positive. If only it wasn’t so cold there, I’d totally want to live there.

When I first arrived, I got a GO bus and then the TTC subway into downtown Toronto. This had two complications. One, GO and TTC are different systems, so I had to pay for both. But the total was only about CDN$8, so it was still astoundingly cheap for an airport-to-downtown option. Two, the GO bus that I got on went to a station on the other side of the U-shaped line (Yonge/University/Spadina) than the part of the U I wanted to be on, but that was simply fixed by briefly transferring to the Bloor-Danforth line to cut off the bottom of the U. (On the way back I did what I should have done in the first place: take the Bloor-Danforth line to Kipling and the 192 Airport Rocket to Pearson, which costs only CDN$2.75 and is a TTC-only journey. The Airport Rocket has 10-minute frequency during the afternoons — pretty great.)

The TTC is kind of expensive on a per-journey basis, CDN$2.75 per journey, but if you’re taking a long journey it’s quite reasonable, and you can buy at a discount if you get a lot of tokens at once. Transfers between lines are allowed, though you have to remember to pick one up if you get on the subway, and they’re rather finicky about where you can use them — you can’t use them at the station where you got them, and you can’t use them at a station that isn’t a direct transfer between one line and another (though it wasn’t evident to me how closely this was enforced). The one time I forgot to pick one up at my origin, I remembered to get it at my first subway transfer, so that was okay.

It’s relatively quick and pleasant, although crowded (it sometimes required a lot of “excuse me, I need to get out”s). The subway has a minimum frequency of 4-5 minutes between trains, so you’re never waiting long, and I had good experiences with my attempts to find buses and streetcars and get help from their drivers. They could use better signs at stops about routes and timing, but many stops do have the necessary information.

I did quite a lot of walking as well, and found that a nice way to get around, even going into downtown, though it did take longer than the subway. But most of my time not spent on TTC transit was spent cycling around. It was an adventure for me because I was equipped only with a minimal map of the downtown area, and didn’t have a Toronto bike map (allegedly you can pick them up at various places but I didn’t try very hard and didn’t see anything obvious) so I was mostly going on faith and some helpful directions from the owner of my borrowed bike, Crazy Biker Chick. The downtown streets are narrow and often have marginal pavement quality. There are some bike lanes, but not a lot, and some designated routes, but from what I could tell people rode their bikes almost everywhere anyway. Streetcar tracks were frequent and nerve-wracking, and in several cases I put my box-turn practice to good use in order to avoid bad left turns over streetcar tracks.

The most impressive thing was that there were bike racks absolutely everywhere, every 10-30 feet on pretty much every downtown street. Mostly they were just a post with a circle through it that could hold two bikes, about as simple as you can get but very functional. I saw tons of utility/city/hybrid-type bikes, and very few road bikes, while I was there, showing that people are choosing practical options for their environment. I enjoyed riding a very upright bike (a Raleigh Twenty that looks much like the picture at the link — evidently a classic and much-loved folding bike). Most were equipped with a rack or basket of some kind.

I found that the majority of cars were quite polite. A few people passed too close, but by and large I felt that my head was safer unhelmeted in Toronto (I didn’t bring my helmet or any other protective gear) than helmeted here. There were a few cases in which construction and other adverse circumstances made me uncomfortable enough to temporarily decamp to the sidewalk. Shock horror! I think time in Toronto has largely cured me of my default sidewalk anger (one of my 101 goals!), though I still am annoyed by people who ride recklessly on the sidewalk or ride on it where conditions are not very good (too narrow — the sidewalks in downtown Toronto are very wide). I particularly enjoyed my ride on Toronto Island. I took the ferry to Ward’s Island, and rode around and back, enjoying myself in the park and taking pictures, and on my last day there, I was able to see many more things in one day than I could have managed without a bike, so it was not only fun but extremely useful.

One of the things I did on my last day was visit Urbane Cyclist, a wonderful bike shop focused on commuting cycles at 180 John Street, just north of Queen, in downtown. The shop was full of fascinating things. There were urban, folding, and recumbent, and cargo bicycles — including a bakfiets!!! Unlike most shops, rows of shiny new identical high-end road bikes were not the featured item. Instead, the rest of the shop was filled with racks, panniers, mirrors, gloves, jackets, and other useful items. There was a parts section in the back. I picked up a set of road bike bar-end mirrors and a copy of Momentum as well. What a great shop.

Hang on for part 2, about what I actually did between all my subway and bike rides…