Public Transit Follies | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By 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)
Previous:
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?

Pending:
1.Abuse of "Mixed Use"
2.?

---- 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.

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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.

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