Local Blogs

A Pragmatist's Take

By Douglas Moran

E-mail Douglas Moran

About this blog: As a teenager (in the 1960s), I stumbled across the insight that real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. As a grad student, I belonged to an...  (More)

View all posts from Douglas Moran

Public Transit Follies

Uploaded: Jul 1, 2014
Two false assumptions about public transit underlie "Smart Growth" as it is practiced here. The first is that trips other than commutes can be (largely) ignored. The second is that public transit is broadly usable. There is a third assumption that I am skeptical of because long-established local political history is to the contrary: That public transit here will see a significant improvement in the predictable future.

Non-commute trips: >66%
When evaluating the impact of new housing units, the standard planning practice is to estimate 6-10 vehicle trips per day, which includes both trips by the residents and trips by those coming to that residence. The latter is more than just guests, other parents picking up/dropping off children…it includes gardeners, house cleaners, service calls, deliveries… which, although individually small in number, do add up.

"Smart Growth" ideology sees commutes as predominantly very long (the Tracy-commute fallacy previously discussed) and the non-commute trips as predominantly hyper-local, and hence ignorable. This rejects two decades of local experience: I recently stumbled upon a presentation from 1995 on development policy, and my major point was that my neighbors were complaining about having to drive further and further for their shopping, and the proposed policy would worsen the problem. Recently, a neighbor needed in-home physical therapy and asked me to be available to help the therapist move equipment into her house. While thanking me, the therapist mentioned that there is a substantial penalty for him for visits to Palo Alto. He said that Palo Alto has by far the worse congestion of his service area, and that the congestion delays are often the equivalent of a full visit to most other locations. Since he was paid per-visit, this meant he either had to work longer, or have fewer appointments.

"Smart Growth" as it is practiced here ignores that converting a commute by vehicle to using mass transit may not result in any reduction in vehicle trips. One of the top methods for reducing vehicle trips is "trip-combining", that is, combining multiple stops into the same trip. For example, stopping at a grocery store on the way home. Or dropping off clothing at the cleaners on the way to work and picking them up on the way home. My personal experience was that a great many of these stops during my commute were closer to work than to home.

Because of "Smart Growth"'s heedless focus on high-density housing, it has become a virtual war on everyday retail and services (more on this in an upcoming post). For me, combining shopping trips with each other use to be easy, often park-and-walk. However, redevelopment has fragmented my retail needs: Those stores are further and further away and have become more widely separated from each other. The persistent refusal of "Smart Growth" advocates to consider such details and complications creates situations that are counterproductive.

The "Smart Growth" vision fails to accommodate the situation it has created here: Even if public transit is a viable option for commuting, you still need a car for most of your other trips. This is contrary to the assumption that fewer residents in the transit-oriented districts will have cars, and thus there is less need for parking. The accompanying assumption about how much parking is needed is that many of the residents who do have cars will drive them to work, freeing up those parking places for daytime workers and shoppers. When I have asked the City's planners about how they compute parking requirements, they don't seem to have any knowledge of the assumptions and data underlying the formulas they are applying. But based on my experience asking similar questions, these are national averages based on situations very different from here.

The fallacy of broadly usable public transit
Transportation planners have found in study after study that having broadly usable public transit requires a very high density of housing, jobs, services… Although the studies disagree on the exact threshold, there is widespread agreement that relatively few places in US that have this density. Interestingly, the accounts I have seen mention Manhattan specifically and as their prime example, but omit larger New York City. Palo Alto and nearby areas are so very far below those thresholds that it seems ludicrous that they would ever reach those densities. And even if such densities were your intent, what is the pathway to it? We are currently experiencing the very predictable situation where the costs of increased density are increasing faster than the benefits. I have not heard anyone explain why they think this "hump" isn't insurmountable.

In various presentations I have attended, transit planners have reported that on average people will chose mass transit over personal vehicles when the travel time is less than 60% more (some use the figure of 40% more). They typically go on to acknowledge that the differences are far larger, for many people it is 200-300% more, and some even worse. (foot#1)(foot#2)
Transit advocates will insist that the primary reason that there isn't more transit usage is "Americans are (selfishly) unwilling to give up the convenience of their cars." There is an easy way to test this claim: Look at people who move here from places where they didn't have their own car, for example, various major European cities. Over the years I have had multiple such neighbors, many of whom initially tried to do without a car. The uniform judgment: Local transit was bad to unusable. Similarly, I spent a year working in Britain and had no problem doing without a car, but as soon as I moved back here, I needed one.

So if we don't have the density necessary to support broadly usable transit, the question should be "What can be done to make most effective use of transit in situations where it is usable?" Although various forms of this question comes up repeatedly in meetings, it is dismissed, if not ignored, because it is contrary to dogma.

For reducing personal vehicle commutes, there are two basic models. The first is "Live Close to Work" which can be successful in certain circumstances. However, as discussed in a previous post, those are a far cry from local conditions.

The second basic model is to have large concentrations of jobs around major transit nodes, such as Caltrain (or BART) stations. This concentration creates the critical mass for a viable shuttle bus system between the station and the workplaces. For various reasons, placing a job near to transit is significantly more likely to produce a transit rider than a housing unit similarly near transit. Paradoxically, "Smart Growth", as it is practiced here, punishes this approach in two ways.

First, through its perversion of the concept of a "Jobs-Housing Balance": This was meant to apply to large metropolitan areas, not individual small cities, such as Palo Alto, within that larger area. When he was Palo Alto's Director of Planning, Curtis William repeatedly made this point in his reports to Council (and other meetings). If a city such as Palo Alto provides this concentration, it gets hit with demands to provide housing far beyond what the city's infrastructure can support. When advocates talk of this area needing a public transit system similar to Manhattan (in New York), Planning Commissioner Arthur Keller often reminds them that Manhattan has the country's worst jobs-housing imbalance, but that observation goes unheeded.

The second way that Palo Alto is punished is that the regional planners and politicians have insisted on job growth that assumes levels of transit that they have persistently refused to provide. And they are, of course, positively "shocked—shocked—to find" that this creates vehicle trips and congestion.

It is not enough to put housing and jobs near major transit nodes and hope for the best, because local experience is that the two often don't pair up. For example, if you live next to a Caltrain station but work east of 101 or west of 280, the bus service tends to be so poor as to be impractical.

When "Smart Growth" advocates talk about the importance of providing "transit options", listen for the words that aren't there, such as "effective", "practical", and "viable".

Practical Politics of Transit
Note: Comments revolving around impractical politics are likely to be deleted as off-topic. This includes assumptions of unlimited funding or dictatorial powers.

In this region, most transit policy comes from or through the county: In the case of Santa Clara County, it is Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). This situation creates two huge inherent disadvantages for Palo Alto. First, Palo Alto sits on the very edge of the county, and the natural organization of routes tends to give lower levels of service to the periphery. Second, the majority of the county's population lives in San Jose, and consequently, San Jose is allocated half of the 10 members of the VTA Board of Directors appointed by the cities. San Jose has the additional advantage of continuity in its appointed Directors—the five seats for the non-San Jose cities rotate among the remaining cities in the county. Consequently, you should expect to see San Jose favored with a level of service beyond what its demographics would call for.

This doesn't lead to just the whole of San Jose getting disproportionate benefits, it leads to the influential interests within San Jose getting even more disproportionate benefits. BART-to-San-Jose is a good example. County voters approved a sales tax increase to support a range of transportation improvements throughout the county, including Caltrain and highways. As soon as the election was over, the County pulled yet-another bait-and-switch saying that the BART project would have first call on all the funds raised, with the crumbs going to the other projects. The BART project had negligible value to the vast majority of residents of the county. Its primary purpose was to improve and increase the movement of workers living in the East Bay to companies located in a small portion of San Jose. And the BART project was so exorbitantly expensive, and the cost-benefit ratio so low, that it didn't qualify for federal funding on its merits, and qualified only after a long period of political arm twistings. (foot#3) The same special interests were considering putting another sales tax increase on the upcoming ballot, but decided against it when they discovered too many still remembered.(foot#4)

Having Caltrain carry more riders at peak hours is more difficult, and expensive, than most people understand. The peak hour trains are reported to be at capacity, so the only way to handle more riders is to add more trains. One of the primary motivations for electrifying Caltrain is that the technology would support more trains (faster acceleration out of stations). However, the Caltrain management has reported that the current schedule cannot be increased without dramatically increase congestion on nearby streets. The problem is the number of "at-grade" crossings, that is, streets that cross the tracks directly (at the same level, or "grade"). Palo Alto has multiple such crossings: Charleston Road, Meadow, Churchill, Alma (officially Palo Alto Ave). The passing of a train is said to "de-synchronize" the traffic lights of nearby intersections because they lose coordination with the other traffic lights on those streets. The rule-of-thumb is that it takes six full cycles of the traffic light for such intersections to return to their normal efficiency. This reduction in street capacity can cascade, affecting the next-nearest intersections. For example, I have encountered times when the (evening) backup on Churchill Ave extends onto El Camino, but not (yet) enough that it noticeably impedes traffic on El Camino. Alma being close to the tracks is more vulnerable to these problems.

Most residents mistakenly believe that the issue of grade-separation—over- and under-passes—is only about improving safety, although that is a side benefit. Instead, its primary purpose is to allow trains to run more frequently. This was already a well-known problem when I became aware of the topic over a decade ago. It was understood that grade-separation needed to be a prerequisite for electrification because in most places it could be reasonably achieved only by changing both the grade of the street and that of the tracks. Unlike streets, you cannot change the grade of the tracks in only one small area: The physics of trains is such that significant changes in the grade at one location can require miles of changes.

A reasonably paranoid person would look at the local history of transit funding and predict that funds would be allocated for Caltrain electrification, but not the necessary grade-separation. Since the extensive construction involved in electrification would have to be redone to provide grade-separation, that would provide an excuse to "loan" that funding to other projects until a unified Caltrain upgrade plan could be produced and funded. And after a modest interval, that "loan" too would be forgiven. It would then take another decade for Caltrain supporters to once again get partial funding, at which point the cycle would likely repeat.

In considering the potential for public transit, one needs to consider the (poor) performance of many of the agencies. For example, VTA's Light Rail system is routinely rated as one of the worst, if not worst, such system in the US.(foot#5)
I know transit advocates who regard VTA Light Rail to be too slow to be viable for their own trips (Disclosure: I have never used Light Rail. I have considered it for trips, but a quick look at the schedule always revealed that it would take at least 6 times as long as driving). You wouldn't think that being known as "The Father of VTA Light Rail" would propel one on to bigger things, but Rod Diridon Sr. was appointed (and re-appointed) to the High-Speed Rail Authority. That may tell you all you need to know about public transit priorities of our ruling class.

Arrivals in this area from places where they used public transit quickly spot and remark upon the many dysfunctions of the various transit agencies. Not that those other cities didn't have serious deficiencies, but rather that the problems here were so very basic and so easily avoidable. It has been this way for the 30-some years I have lived here, although there has been some improvements. Situations that have persisted that long indicate organizational cultures that are deeply resistant to change and improvement.

Planning should not be based on the hope that someone will discover a magic wand that will suddenly and effortlessly make everything right. It is bad enough to promote development well in advance of the infrastructure needed to support it, but it is lunacy to promote development that assumes infrastructure that experience indicates may never come about.

Related blog entries (past and planned)
1.(Introduction) Stupid Growth: So-called "Smart Growth" is a cancer on the community
2.The Law of Supply and XXXXXX, and other bad economics
3.Shills and Charlatans of Smart Growth
4.Should Palo Alto really aspire to be more like a Chinese factory city?

1.Abuse of "Mixed Use"

---- Footnotes ----
1. Acceptable additional time for mass transit: These figures are from before smart phones and tablets, so I expect the average has increased somewhat. However, remember that many people using public transit don't have jobs where they can do work on such devices during the trip.
2. In the 1990s, there were advertising campaigns to encourage people to try public transit (similar to the current Bike-to-Work days). For several years, the San Jose Mercury News assigned reporters to take the challenge and the results were bleak. My recollection is that virtually none of the reporters found a viable option. But what intrigued me was that many were reporting times of 4x that of driving. I experimented myself. I lived and worked within 0.5 miles of bus stops on El Camino, so there would be no delays related to transfers/connections. The trip was 4.2 miles total. The door-to-door times by bus were 4-5 times than what it took to drive at my normal (non-peak) commute times, and almost double the time for biking.
Why did such a simple bus trip take so long? Roughly half my time was spent walking to and from the bus stops. The bus serviced the Caltrain stations at both University Avenue and California Avenue, and that added time. But I also noticed how painfully slow loading and unloading passengers was—on one trip I timed it and the bus' doors were open for slightly less than half the trip. These problems are well-known and understood—although worse here than in other cities I have lived in—but there seems to be little interest among public transit advocates in reducing them.
3. BART projects are typically the most expensive means of providing mass transit, and this BART extension was particularly expensive. There were other options that were both much cheaper and likely to become operational much earlier. The most prominent alternative was to extended an improved Caltrain to the east side of the Bay to connect to BART.
4. Palo Alto urges greater Caltrain role in proposed tax measure: City Council advocates for more funding for commuter service, Palo Alto Weekly 20 May 2014.
In April, $91M in transit funding for the inactive Dumbarton cross-bay rail project were proposed to be permanently transferred to the BART project rather than used for transit needs in the mid-Peninsula. Those funds had been "loaned" to the BART project and the proposal was to forgive that loan. Who could have seen that coming? Actually many people did when the "loan" was proposed. BART vs. Dumbarton Rail debate gets testy, The Almanac 29 July 2008.
5. Transit and the "D" Word by Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, Spring 2012, #40, ACCESS: The magazine of UCTC (University of California Transportation Center).
A typical news article: Study shows Bay Area's transit systems among nation's most, least cost-efficient, KTVU, 16 September 2012.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Former PA resident, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jul 1, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Another thought-provoking exposition.

As a fairly recent reader, I see you cite many examples along such lines as 'persistent refusal of advocates to consider such details and complications,' 'rejecting two decades of local experience,' 'Although forms of this question come up repeatedly, it is dismissed, because contrary to dogma' -- all identifiable with the broad category you once addressed as "Aspirational," rather than "Analytic," human behavior (Web Link). Could that be the deepest issue here?

In reading modern history, I've seen debacles that drew on support from mind-sets holding "good intentions" and theory as the measures of a policy, with little concomitant feeling of responsibility for mere outcomes. Prohibition and Communism, for instance. A common post-mortem buzzword is "unintended" outcomes, a responsibility-shirking characterization for bad consequences that were nevertheless predictable, and predicted.

Incidentally I didn't personally need a car until I moved to Palo Alto. I'd lived in a couple of towns of similar population but higher density and pervasive public transit. Once in silicon valley (even in Palo Alto, which some residents characterized already by 1980 as "north of the zoo"), everything was much more spread-out. I bicycled where possible, but the reality of single-use shopping centers and industrial parks demanded driving for many needs.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 1, 2014 at 5:15 pm

One of the biggies you forget is that using public transit is a habit and a good habit can start young.

If we can get our school kids to school by shuttles and public transit, we are starting a habit in them which they can use to adulthood. By improving shuttle service and school routes we are investing in the future of public transit as these school kids who are familiar with using buses and shuttles will see no problem doing the same as they move to college and then start looking for jobs and homes. So many kids nowadays have never been on a bus or Caltrain, and their parents won't think of letting them. This attitude is detrimental and must be altered.

By getting the schoolkids on buses and shuttles it will not only get them in the habit of using public transit in the present as well as the future, but it will get more cars off the roads. Even if a parent is driving a child to school(s) en route to work, it causes a different traffic pattern than if they headed straight for the highway or wherever to get to work. It may even give them an alternate way to work as they start looking at their own commute singularly rather than as part of the school run.

Yes we need better options, but the school commute could be one that makes a bigger difference and perhaps an easier one.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 1, 2014 at 6:31 pm

> By getting the schoolkids on buses and shuttles

There are almost 12,000 students in the PAUSD. How many people really believe that all of the kids, or even half of these kids, could be accommodated by the VTA/Shuttle bus system?

Public transit is a non-starter in California.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by parent, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 1, 2014 at 8:43 pm

I appreciate Doug's comment about why less focus should be on housing near transit. Doug provided a very good discussion as to why housing near transit does not result in reduced car use. Businesses near transit seems to be a more logical approach.

As other mentioned, its easy to take public transit in major cities New York, SF, London, D.C. but Palo Alto's transit options are not even close to these cities' transportation systems.Youths in Palo Alto should be applauded for their use of bikes, also many adults. I find youths would rarely consider the bus, they rather walk or bike- even when youths have DMV licenses and car access. New developments in Palo Alto should focus on off road bike lanes, side walks to share with bikes. When I drive down El Camino (sorry, I do drive down el camino- for many of the reasons Doug described) I am happy to see more bikes on the side walk than pedestrians. I am told that riding on the sidewalk is not "legal".- but these riders are taking the safest, most logical paths. Perhaps there needs to be change in the sidewalk configuration which makes use of these "vacant' path acceptable for bike use.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 1, 2014 at 9:07 pm

> I am told that riding on the sidewalk is not "legal".

Riding on the sidewalks is legal except in the downtown area. Some streets have signs directing bikes to ride in only one direction.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Jul 2, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Unfortunately this entirely negative column ignores or downplays the transit successes. Caltrain is very successful, but Doug only talks about the problems with increasing its success. This leads to dismissive comments like "public transit is a non-starter in California". There are a number of transit successes, and we should study those carefully to understand them. Caltrain, Margeurite, Google and Facebook buses, retirement community buses are all heavily used. These are targeted services focused on specific audiences with specific needs rather than trying to run a particular route all day long. These are not all public, but they are all mass transit and they should be studied carefully so we can understand how to expand and duplicate their successes.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by OldTimer, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 12:07 am

I commend you on your raising this issue. Unless we recognize the reality of traffic patterns caused by: commute, school trips, after school activities, daily shopping, etc., all plans are just based on unfounded personal bias or political agenda.
I cannot help but notice how traffic has improved during summer when kids are off school!
What happened to telecommuting, isn't Google an Internet intensive business?

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

> Caltrain is very successful

By what metric can anyone claim that Caltrain is sucessful? It carries between 25,000 and 30,000 people on a business day during the school year. Fewer than that on weekends, holidays and during the summer. There are about 3 million people in the Caltrain service area--making this mode of transportation incredibly costly, and not very effective at moving people.

This system has absorbed well over 1 billion tax payer dollars over the years, and is in the process of absorbing upwards of 1 billion more--in order to electrify, for the most limited of benefits.

Perhaps train lovers would declare Caltrain a success even if it carried half the people at thrice the costs--but from a financial and people-moving point-of-view, it is a disaster.

The public money spent on Caltrain would be better spent on providing express bus service between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Roger, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 11:13 am

Yah, we need to look at transit differently here. Trains are like mainframes, which work for some people, but we need the equivalent of laptops. Perhaps every developer that builds apartments needs to put Zipcar spaces in the lot and give all the renters Zipcar and Uber accounts. In this area most people need cars sometimes, but don't need a car all the time. When I hear about parking shortages I think of all those cars sitting there unused. If we had a better way to keep cars utilized we wouldn't have those parking problems.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Whether Caltrain is a success or not (Donald and Joe)

"Success" is meaningful only in relation to specific goals.

For example, that Caltrain would carry X% of employees for newly created jobs and Y% of existing employees that currently commute by private vehicle. Is the larger goal to reduce congestion, or to reduce the *increase* in congestion (and what is your metric for "congestion").

For example, that Caltrain would meet certain cost factors per commuter.

Commuter costs are very hard to determine because it goes beyond the cost of the trip itself.
For example, when the City rezoned the Fry's site to effectively preclude Fry's (or other large retailer) from staying, my calculation was that the projected 380 housing units would generate few new Caltrain commuters at the cost of losing an estimated $1M in sales tax revenue (City's share, estimate because exact figures were confidential). Based on experience, you could assume 4% (likely) to 9% (high) of the households would have a Caltrain commuter, yielding a cost of $30-65K per year per commuter in lost sales tax revenue (before any offsets). See section "Questionable claims: Caltrain ridership — doing the math" in my Submission to Council (Web Link) of 17 July 2006. Should such lost opportunity costs and similar economic distortions be factored into the cost of a trip?

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Caltrain carries in excess of 52,000 people per day and is operating at or above capacity. I would call that a success. Financial comparisons are very hard to do because funding for roads is so complicated.

You could replace Caltrain with buses, but they wouldn't be express by any means. It would take about 10,000 buses, which would totally jam up El Camino. If they used 101 they would increase congestion, and they would still have to go from 101 to a final destination that people desire, and that would be very slow. If a bus went to downtown Palo Alto, then back to 101 and into downtown Mountain View, then back to 101 and farther on, it would be much slower than the train and would not qualify as an express. If you ran separate buses to each of those destinations you would be adding every more buses to 101 and slowing everybody even more. Caltrain keeps cars off our roads and buses don't.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm

. Caltrain carries in excess of 52,000 people per day

That's ridership--not unique people, which assumes a two-way trip. Therefore, the number of unique people carried is half the ridership.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm

> It would take about 10,000 buses

Good laudy, Miss Claudy …

Hopefully this poster is not a local transportation planner.

The number of buses that would be required to replace some (if not most) of the Caltrain ridership that pushes the trains into the capacity zone would be vastly fewer than 10,000.

Let's think about this for a minute—

We have ridership data provided by Caltrain. We look at the data, and see that the heaviest loads are in the morning go-to-work times, and the evening go-home times. So, you look at the number of people and their trip segments, and determine how many buses it would take to offload x% of the ridership, and at what cost. The rest of the day the trains are not particularly full, so maybe it would pay to offload some of that traffic too, to reduce the operating costs even more.

It's not hard to believe that you can get at least 50 people into a bus, and more in some of the articulated buses. Some folks are suggesting that it would be possible to double-decker some buses, increasing their capacity by upwards of twice.

So, let's assume we can get 75 people on a bus—then it would take thirteen per thousand people to provide bus service along any segment of the Caltrain line.

If we were to somehow shut down Caltrain for bus service, the 12-hour ridership of about 25,000 (on a business day) would take 13 x 25 or about 400 buses. Since the ridership is spread over a 20 hour day, or so—the number of buses that would be needed to carry overloads, or reduce the ridership to reduce load on the system, would never be much more than 175 to 200--and these buses would be spread out over the business day.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Roger, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 3:37 pm

You can't replace Caltrain with buses. Caltrain carries dozens of bikes on each trip, while buses can only carry 2-3. Double-decking or using double-length buses doesn't add more bike capacity because the bikes only go on the ends. If you don't carry enough bikes then you make the "last mile" problem worse, which is a big loser.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Ignoring the local transit and the local commuters is a big mistake. The more local traffic off the roads the better and easier for the longer haul traffic.

Of course shuttles and VTA as they stand can't take all our kids to school. In fact those that already bike and walk are not a problem. It is those that are in cars that need to have suitable alternatives. Improving the number of shuttles, the routes the shuttles take and charging a reasonable fare makes more sense than ignoring the fact that shuttles and buses can help in school commutes.

Once we deal with school traffic, we will see a vast improvement in traffic problems. Even during the summer, we still have kids needing to get to the high schools and middle schools for summer school and camps. Kids don't magically disappear just because it is summer, they are still out and about and very busy, and their parents are still driving them to get there!

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Herb, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 7:46 pm

Talk about replacing Caltrain with express buses flies in the face of reality. Caltrain is run by a Joint Powers Board because it crosses the boundaries of three transit districts: Muni, SM County and VTA. Who would run buses that cross these boundaries and compete with buses from these agencies? Not going to happen. Caltrain provides a service that is unique and cannot be replaced by any existing transit agency.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Robbie, a resident of Ventura,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 9:25 pm

I would venture to say that anyone who says you can replace caltrain with buses hasn't used either one.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 3, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

From the Blogger: I am calling a halt to this Caltrain-vs-Bus. It is uninformative and unproductive relative to the focus on practicality of development policy.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 5, 2014 at 10:16 pm

> Planning should not be based on the hope that someone will discover a magic wand that will suddenly and effortlessly make everything right.

That's known as The Tinkerbell Syndrome, which is the methodology most used at City Hall.

Too bad they don't hire Doug as a consultant. He has common sense, applies data and logic, and would provide far better -- and cheaper -- results than the hordes of consultants staff requires for every project.

> A common post-mortem buzzword is "unintended" outcomes, a responsibility-shirking characterization for bad consequences that were nevertheless predictable, and predicted.

Absolutely. Too bad the folks at City Hall never do any postmortems -- and hold people accountable as a result. They might actually learn something and avoid future disasters.

> Caltrain is run by a Joint Powers Board because it crosses the boundaries of three transit districts: Muni, SM County and VTA.

And therein lies part of the problem. Too many agencies.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

I would also call CalTrain a success. Every train, a full train during commute hours vs how many solo-driver cars?

(from recent experience)
What needs lots of work, is accommodating non-peak workers:
Connections that stop shortly after peak hours.
Long layovers while waiting for connections.

I find the 'Transit penalty' is about 225% of a private auto if it involves more than 1 mode or a transfer. No wonder folk refuse to get rid of the auto.

And why does VTA run huge buses on every trip? A recent trip to Berkeley and Almost every bus I saw was smaller than the singles used by VTA in Palo Alto.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 10:02 am

So .. is Caltrain open for discussion or no?

PS .. sorry you don't think that bus replacement of Caltrain is not an important point for discussion at this time.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Joe
I called an end to the "Bus v. Caltrain" back-and-forth because it was primarily a statement of positions and provided little/no information that would help an interested reader understand the trade-offs.

For example, one of the possible arguments for shifting focus to buses over Caltrain is that they allow for more flexible routing and scheduling, but at a cost of slower trips and adding congestion to streets.

For example, the argument that buses can't replace Caltrain is often based on taking ridership numbers and making the false assumption that those people travel much/all the length of Caltrain, which badly inflates the number of buses needed to accommodate those passengers.

One goal of this blog is to allow people who have thought about such practicalities -- complexities, trade-offs... -- an opportunity to have that perspective available to a larger audience.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Doug, what is your position on the topic of getting all the Bay Area transit agencies under one umbrella agency?

Why do we have Caltrain, BART, MUNI, VTA, Golden Gate Ferries, Sam Trans, etc. etc. and not Bay Area People Movers (or some such name). With one agency we would be saving on administration costs and advertising costs, as well as having ease of transfers and ease of scheduling. We also have zones which make it more expensive for people who cross zones but only travel 2 or 3 miles, paying more than people who travel 5 miles but stay in the same zone. Why should someone who theoretically gets a bus to a station, takes the train, then takes a bus at the far end be forced into buying for 3 rides (albeit on a clipper card) and then 3 more for the journey home.

In this computerized age, smart transport options begin with smart pricing and smart scheduling.

We also need discounts to those traveling offpeak, those traveling in groups or with children (group rates and family rates), and weekend specials which allow for an overnight stopover.

Caltrain lots should be free after 3.00 pm to encourage riders out for the evening. We already have lots of people using Caltrain for Sharks and Giants games, and who knows how the new 49ers stadium will affect public transit options and stations. It seems ludicrous that Caltrain wants to increase parking on 49ers games to $25 instead of reducing parking to encourage public transit use.

Real options for public transit would be taking all these things into account and making the whole thing user friendly rather than the very complicated arrangements we have now.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 7, 2014 at 3:35 pm

So .. since you have shown the way to direct this particular topic, it seems to me that there is a lot of value in trying to point out the finances of buses vs trains, not to mention the flexibility of buses.

Would appreciate a green flag to set the ball in motion again.

[[From the blogger: Go ahead and please target your info primarily to people who are new to this issue (rather than the few people who are deeply immersed in the issue because such a presentation has a level of detail that does not work well in the blog-comment format]]

 +  Like this comment
Posted by DonaldS, a resident of Professorville,
on Jul 16, 2014 at 4:46 pm

DonaldS is a registered user.

[Comment removed by blogger: Disrespectful:
1. Dismissive/derogatory of people who are similar to him.
2. Misrepresents position of previous contributor(s)

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Greenacres, a resident of Green Acres,
on Jul 20, 2014 at 11:27 am

High density housing is extremely inflexible land use, too. It cuts off any possibility of disruptive technology in energy and transportation (such as autonomous vehicles or other mobility assist devices -imagine drone-surfing :-) , or even using parking lots for easy solar farms. If buildings are built right up to the street, it limits the infrastructure and what can be done to innovate in the future. It certainly limits the desirability of just walking. And once sunlight and open space are gone, they're gone.

In this area, it's an utter fallacy to say high-density housing reduces housing costs. Instead, it raises average rents because new rental housing commands such high rents. Then there is greater pressure on older properties to be sold for high density housing, for the profits of developers who use the lie of reducing housing costs to build more high cost housing.

The poster child for this is Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. The owner went to evict the low income residents when a developer thought it could get four times the density of the max under existing zoning, so in some places, up to six times existing zoning. Even now that they have pulled out (they will never get that zoning, having seen what happened at Maybell), any new developer still has the hope that they can get a density bonus over the max under zoning, which is still up to twice or in places even three times what really should go there for consistency with the comp plan. So they still have a perverse incentive to evict the low-income residents to put in a high-density development - with the transit excuse that it's on congested El Camino and a bus line, even though it's not near any services and everyone gets around here by car - and getting the high density bonus because they will put in a handful of below market rate units. Of course, no one in the low-income housing there before will be able to afford those units because the rents of the new construction will be so high. Additionally, the units are part of a program anyway, and the residents would have to get in line for subsidized housing, where they used to be in real low-income housing. (That was superior in allowing them to build equity, at least, before the property could be densified and became the target of high density redevelopment.

Developers nevertheless shamelessly peddle the idea that this new housing that pushes rents stratospheric is necessary so low-income workers can remain nearby. Just watch the online arguments during the resident initiative to limit overgrowth there. Meanwhile, people pay huge rents to get into local schools, putting pressure on the local tax base of existing residents, who now face the costs of overcrowded and possibly necessary new schools, overtaxed infrastructure (surprise surprise, in this drought, their water restrictions can't compensate for all the new development water use), more time spent in traffic and less family or productive time at work or home, more illness because if the emissions, noise, lack of sunlight and stress, (hasn't property crime spiked concurrent with all this?), increased emergency vehicle response times, etc, etc.

There is a limit, even if we want to be Manhattan. (Which also should serve to remind that in a desirable place, no amount of densification will make it affordable unless quality of life tanks.) Which most residents don't (want to Manhattanize), and through zoning laws, have a right to prevent. But given costs, they have to face the reality that if they want to protect their quality of life and property value, they will have to fend off aggressive tactics by developers.

In order to really get a handle on what is happening, we need a Sim Palo Alto, in which factors even like open space, stress of residents (and productivity, stress, and medical bills) and other factors relevant to residents, the environment, resources, development, infrastructure, safety, circulation, etc, and even the possibility and impediments to future disruptive technologies, can be factored in. Then we should let people play it and through crowdsourcing the results, understand what choices we may or may not have.

It doesn't take a program or a genius to see that high-rise housing blots out the sky, the hills, open space, and packs in a lot of new overcrowding at local schools. (Remember how we were promised Arbor Real would be mostly older people whose kids weren't in school? Doug, would love to see you do a post exploring those promises, how they played out, and what the the City is doing about it, or not...)

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Follow this blogger (Receive an email when blogger makes a new post)


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Death with Dignity
By Chandrama Anderson | 6 comments | 1,471 views

First Interview
By Sally Torbey | 10 comments | 1,451 views

Strong Regional Job and Population Growth Continues
By Steve Levy | 7 comments | 1,042 views

Just Stuff Me and Wrap Me Up
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,034 views

Guest Post #2 from HSSV: Labradoodle Back on His Feet
By Cathy Kirkman | 3 comments | 512 views