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So, what do we do about it?

Original post made by Rory Brown, Almanac staff writer, on Jul 15, 2008

If reducing greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil is more critical than ever, thinking of new ways to get more people to take public transit is more urgent than ever.
To find out what it's like to ride public transit in our area, I gave up a car for five days and depended on trains and buses for transportation. I tell all about it in this week's cover story, which you can also read online: "Missed connections."
That tells you about some of the problems and obstacles, particularly for people who may be new to using public transit.
So, what do we do about it?
I asked local people who have given this some thought for their ideas. Below is a sample. What are your ideas? Please join the conversation by using the comment box below.
Kelly Fergusson, Menlo Park councilwoman: It should be a priority to get local transit agencies (such as SamTrans and VTA) included in a "one pass" system, such as Translink, as soon as possible. Transit agencies should help cities improve public transit to and from schools to cut traffic.
Martin Engel, Menlo Park transportation commissioner (but not speaking on behalf of the commission): The private sector has a potential role to play in improving transit connections, as more local companies could provide shuttle service to and from public transportation stations to bridge gaps in the existing system. Caltrain should add more bicycle cars to meet the growing demand of bicyclists.
Steve Schmidt, a former Menlo Park councilman who served on several regional transportation bodies: Local agencies need to do a detailed "time transfer analysis" to figure out how long people are waiting between trips, and how those wait times can be lessened through schedule changes.
Jim Bigelow, chair of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee: Menlo Park and other cities along the Caltrain line should greenlight higher-density residential development. "If you beef up the density, you get more people near transit, making the transit more efficient and more frequent."
Heyward Robinson, Menlo Park councilman: Dedicated bus lanes, or bus rapid transit, is worth exploring. Lanes dedicated to buses can decrease trip times. It's important that transit agencies make improving regional transit networks a higher priority than the California High Speed Rail project.
Please post your comments below.

  • A related conversation is going on here. Page to the bottom of the story to see the comments.

  • Comments (10)

    Like this comment
    Posted by Resident
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 15, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Some ideas of mine

    A one journey pass to include all modes of public transit on one ticket

    Signs on bus stops saying how frequent buses are and where they go to. Also signs that say where to catch the bus for the return journey, sometimes that is impossible to find.

    Signs and maps at stations telling passengers getting off the way to go.

    Off peak family passes for day trips to San Jose or San Francisco. These could start after 10.00 a.m. when the trains are less full and Caltrain would get passengers for the empty seats.

    Get better transport to and from stations and better bike lock facilities to keep bikes off trains. Also, some stations should have day bike rental facilities to enable train passengers to rent a bike to get to their destination particularly places like downtown San Francisco, San Jose and especially Stanford (or Berkeley). Paris has great bike rental facilities that enable you to rent a bike on a credit card swipe and you can return them in any number of places. Passengers on the Paris Metro, London Underground and NY Subway systems don't take bikes on trains, so finding ways to discourage this practice so we can put in more seats for passengers makes sense.

    Better transit to SFO and SJC airports from the Peninsula would really help.

    Maps at Bart stations telling you where you are appearing when you come above ground would be really helpful. Better systems for paying for Bart parking would also help, there is no point in being told you need your parking bay number after you have gone through the turnstile.

    Paying for parking on trains would speed things up, people must miss trains while paying to park. A system should be worked out so that the paying can be done on the trains if you know your licence number, parking bay number and station name should be possible on a credit card.

    If I come up with more, I will let you know.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Martin Engel
    a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
    on Jul 15, 2008 at 11:36 am

    The Almanac has kindly printed a number of my penned statements about urban mass transit for several years.

    Since Rory Brown has just produced an excellent personal experience story about his journey (or lack thereof) on regional urban mass transit, it is time to recall what the basic principles of urban transit need to be. Needless to say, all the rhetoric of Caltrain, MTC, VTA, SamTrans and the rest of the alphabet soup of transit operators to the contrary notwithstanding, their energy is devoted to turf wars. They and their minions prefer to quarrel over funds, fighting like those elephantine bull sea lions on the California coast.

    So what does urban mass transit have to do and to be in order to be effective?

    •It has to be Multi-modal, using a variety of people-moving technologies, including buses (preferably with rapid bus lanes), shuttles public and private, light rail, DMUs (hybrid-diesel, multi-unit, self-motorized train cars), EMUs, bicycles, and yes, private cars. Call it the right tool for the right job.
    Right now, each transit operator thinks they are in the business defined by their type of vehicle. Boy, are they wrong.

    •Make it possible for anybody to go from point A to point B; that is, from home doorway to place of work, recreation or shopping. Contrary to Cal train’s ambitions, it’s not a whizzier train that we need. The real problem is the “first and last mile” of transit.

    •The system (and it has to be an integrated system) must provide service that is fast or faster than driving from home to work or any other destination, door to door. That also means very short stopover times between modes and very frequent service tightly coordinated. A computerized management system can make that possible.

    •Convenient, clean, attractive, comfortable, safe, child- and mom-friendly and easy to use. All vehicles should not only be like this, they must also feel that way to all of us. One of the barriers to multi-modal use is class stratification. Middle class professionals ride the train, working class; blue-collar people ride the bus. Why that is needs to be analyzed, understood and remediated.

    •We live in a highly distributed region around the Bay. Likewise we work not just in the population dense urban centers, but also all around the Bay. Therefore, the transit system must be able to take us, fast and conveniently from anyplace to anyplace else.

    •Finally, it must meet all, not merely some, of the above conditions.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Joe
    a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
    on Jul 15, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I wonder if there is a model of a community that has evolved from a very strong car culture to one that put cars aside and embraced public transit.

    This seems a steep hill without a major incentive: still higher prices for fuel, and still higher yet. We must have a compelling community need for a public transit system that is ubiquitous, reliable and convenient.

    Can Menlo Park learn anything from metro areas like London or Paris? A big-city community with a vested interest in good transportation carries weight. The transit system, in a sense, becomes too big and too vital to be allowed to fail.

    How do we create that kind of momentum? It would help have someone with an outsized personality, like Robert Moses in New York, take the reins and build a regional system.

    The s***storm that such a person would run into in trying to assert regional interests on the Peninsula is why a precedent seems so important.

    Lacking such a leader, maybe we need an organized movement committed to a long-haul effort to build momentum for a good transit system from the ground up.

    Mayor Andy Cohen may be contributing something with his meetings on regional topics.

    Like this comment
    Posted by STEVE
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Great article. That level of frustration is one I have been dealing with for a few years now. I work in Atherton, and live in San Mateo (a stones throw from the Hillsdale train station). Since they have closed the Atherton stop during weekdays, I have lost the best/most feasible alternative to public transportation for my situation.

    And the worst part is; both home and at work, I have to put up with all the BAD parts of Caltrain...the horn, the engine noise and the bells/squeeky brakes. Talk about adding insult to injury.

    I'm hoping (probably beyond hope) that the Atherton station stop is brought back SOON. In todays world, transit agencies should be increasing service, not reducing it. Not to mention, they have just spent upwards of $60 repairing/painting the station (that the train doesn't stop at). Go figure?

    Like this comment
    Posted by Bob
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 15, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Too bad all you are interested in is the Menlo Park / San Mateo County comments. Perhaps you are not aware that CalTrain operates in other areas than Menlo Park & San Mateo County. The fact that SamTrans seems to be the big gorilla running CalTrain is the main problem. What others areas suggest is not a good idea, because it did not come from a San Mateo County area.

    A prime example is the procedure for getting emergency services (fire, police & paramedics) for any CalTrain incident. The operating crew must contact the CalTrain dispatcher via radio for assistance, this is a given. The JPB (Joint Powers Board) mandates that the CalTrain dispatcher then call the San Mateo County Emergency Dispatch Center with the information. Then, IF the request is in San Mateo County, this is good because they dispatch the San Mateo County area Fire & Paramedics. BUT, if the incident is in Santa Clara County, San Mateo must then determine which Santa Clara County agency provides coverage, THEN call them for the emergency dispatch. I once heard medics dispatched to a non-existent station for two seriously injured persons. The wrong emergency equipment was dispatched to a station over a mile from where they were needed.

    IF the CalTrain Dispatcher had been allowed to contact the proper agency help would have arrived sooner. ALSO the information would have gone thru less information transfers - and we all remember as a kid playing the game telegraph - the message at the end was no where near the message that started down the line......

    Like this comment
    Posted by North County Commuter
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 15, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    The Bus/rail timing issue is indeed a pain (similar issues exist connecting BART to samtrans, though it should be noted that Samtrans buses are on time up here to a degree that can only be described as soviet).

    But, to ask "what transit agencies can do" is missing the point a bit. Like it or not, these systems are not really designed to complement each other. Caltrain and BART are commuter systems that really assume you're driving to one end of your trip, and/or that you work for a large corporation that can afford to subsidize your shuttle ride on the other end (and in doing so, drain resources from bus service, but thats another story). Samtrans is a community-based system, with (I believe) roots in local bus systems from back in the day.

    And both systems, like any transit system, will only really thrive when jobs and housing are built in more transit-friendly ways. So in that sense, part of the answer may need to be moving closer to your job, or asking your boss to move the almanac office closer to transit. And asking local governments to make it possible. An earlier writer noted the lack of service in Atherton, which explicitly outlaws the type of development that supports transit. They should rethink that restriction.

    But those are long-term fixes. Short-term solutions include the following:

    Translink - Only people who connect multiple modes of transit on a daily or weekly basis really understand how useful this system will be when fully implemented. Samtrans should expedite implementation

    Google Transit - Blows 511 out of the water, mostly because it can be checked from a mobile phone. (Though, not from BART tunnels!) Again, Samtrans should expedite implementation.

    Updated Rider/Potential Rider Analysis: There are plenty of new "potential customers" like the writer due to to recent developments, especially related to fuel prices. All transit agencies should revisit who these people are, and where they are headed, and potentially make adjustments accordingly. Ms. Dunn notes that "I don't think a lot of people take trains and buses." Would they if they were able? That is the data we need.

    Like this comment
    Posted by confused
    a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
    on Jul 16, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    So, help me understand how more density near transit is going to help the east-west problem in Menlo Park? Maybe there would be a few more riders on train or bus, but there probably will also be more car traffic, too. That would make current traffic levels worse, and make it more difficult for bike riders and walkers to safely get around.

    Transit is almost non-existent east-west. I don't get how more density would help.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Gloria Transit
    a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
    on Jul 17, 2008 at 11:43 am

    The only thing that makes taking the train convenient is if you live right by a station and you work right by another station (or for a big company that runs its own shuttles). Otherwise, adding buses into the mix is a time-consuming mess.

    Thus, the argument for adding density near train stations.

    I take the train occasionally, but that's because I drive to the Menlo Park station and have a destination that's within walking distance of the San Mateo station.

    Like this comment
    Posted by confused
    a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
    on Jul 18, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    I agree with Gloria Transit that it makes sense to take the train if you live near it and have a destination near it. There are already 30,000 residents of Menlo Park, very few of whom live or work near the train station. I want better transit for us within Menlo Park, not to build more density so that people who don't even live here now will have an easier commute while they make my commute and getting around Menlo Park worse.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Resident
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 18, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    It strikes me that most bus routes around the peninsula are north/south, the same as Caltrain. It would make a lot of sense if we had east/west shuttle buses that just concentrated on shorter routes east west with hubs at train stations. These could even start/end at park/ride parking lots by 280 and 101. If we could get passengers to park off the freeway exits and then transport them to downtown hubs, we might make a realistic local system that gets people to the regional systems or even their homes or workplaces.

    Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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