Monday, March 30, 2009

The food comes to you now

Normally, I'm talking about alternative transportation for people on this blog. (People and pets- I took my kitten to the vet on RTA.) However, I just got turned on to an alternative transportation option for your stuff, one that will take a large, unpleasant, car-driven chore off of your list.

Grocery delivery has come to Riverside! (Actually, I'm pretty sure it's been here a while, but I've finally noticed.) Both Vons and Albertsons provide home grocery delivery services. Albertsons charges $12.95 flat, while Vons charges between $6.95 and $12.95 depending on the amount ordered and the delivery window. (RiR has no financial interest in either service.) You order your food just like you'd order anything on the internets, and schedule an appointment. A friendly guy in a truck brings said food to your house during the delivery window, and you don't have to go anywhere, haul anything, or worry about long checkout lines. I ordered late on Saturday night and my food arrived just shy of noon on Sunday morning.

Another great benefit I found is, when ordering, you can take your laptop into the kitchen and check to see whether or not you really are out of milk/bread/eggs.

The point is that you can get out of driving for that trip to the grocery store and, for a very small fee, have more time and less stress in your life. This particular form of alternative transport is available today, right here in the IE, from the comfort of your computer. Enjoy!

Good readin'

For all of us who yearn for more money in our wallets and time in our schedules, I have a book for you.

It's called How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, and it's chock-full of numbers, facts and figures about how much your car is costing you and the world around you, plus tips of how to slash those costs dramatically.

The author, Chris Balish, tackles the problem of the auto-dependent city and culture from a uniquely personal perspective. Instead of railing against the social costs of our transportation infrastructure (which this author is guilty of), he asks his reader to take a moment to calculate just how much their car is costing them. As he puts it, the book is "a personal finance and lifestyle book... that can dramatically improve your finances, your quality of life, and your peace of mind."

Included in the calculations of the cost of a car are the usual things, like purchase price, gasoline, insurance and registration, but there are things that you wouldn't think about: AAA membership, car chargers, car washes, and even clothing soiled while changing a flat tire. Balish figures that the average car-owning American could receive "the equivalent of a $5,000-$10,000 raise" from going car-free.

The link above goes to Amazon. The book is not available in the Riverside Public Library system, but can be requested by UCR and RPL patrons through Link+ here. Oh, and as an aside... Mr. Balish resides in Los Angeles.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Are you hiding something, RTA?

The RTA Board was to vote on the fare hikes and service cuts at their board meeting on Thursday the 26th, two days ago. I was in Sacramento, so I was unable to attend, but remembering that this issue was up for consideration, I decided to log on to the RTA's handy "Board Actions" summaries, posted on their web site, to see how it all went down.

However, "Board Actions" only covers up through December, 2008. Which, by the way, is conveniently before all of these transit controversies started popping up.

I'm certain that a trip to RTA's headquarters will produce the public records of the board meeting, but that post will have to wait until Monday. Until then... RTA, why are you hiding?

If you don't believe me, check for yourself at

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More on the cost of driving

(Note: This was posted using the Bakersfield Amtrak's free wifi while waiting on San Joaquin #715 to Richmond.)

I'm writing to you from the CA-210 Freeway on board the Amtrak California route 19 bus. Obviously I have no internet, so I'll post this later, but it's currently 10:18 AM on Sunday morning. We've just passed a traffic accident. An SUV and a tractor-trailer got into some sort of conflict- it blocked the freeway down to two lanes, from it's usual six. Took us about twenty minutes to get past. Even the firemen ran the last half mile, traffic was so thick.

Watch your morning traffic report. Most of the time you're just thinking about "How can I get to work?" and a traffic accident is simply an obstacle to you getting there. That's a legitimate complaint- hundreds of people were inconvenienced this morning, just from one collision. The next time you hear about a traffic accident though, think about how it affects the people involved. This time it looked like only minor injuries occured, but both the SUV driver and the trucker are up for major headaches from the DMV and police in the coming weeks. The trucker might even lose his job. Distressingly, injuries and fatalities in traffic accidents are all too common. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people 18-34, and the #1 cause of accidental death in this country. They take 40,000 lives every year.

That's September 11th every month or so.

Public buses are 10 times safer than driving, per passenger mile. Rail transit is 40 times safer. People ask me why I don't drive. I say, why take the risk?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Always on my mind

RTA, I owe you guys an apology. It's a bit of a backhanded one, because you could have done something to let us know you were still working on it... but it's an apology nonetheless.

Readers will notice my laser-like fixation on the Magnolia Avenue RapidLink project. After a bit more googling around, I actually found a grant request from RTA for BRT buses. Date? January 9, 2008. Long after BRT "disappeared" from the public view.

The reason the buses never showed up here in the IE is apparent from the first page of the proposal. RTA was requesting "unused State Transit Assistance funds"... and bus politicos will note that the STA program was cut in half in '08, and entirely eliminated from the budget in '09. Bye bye, BRT.

You can read the proposal here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Did you know?

Amtrak serves Riverside. It's rare that I talk to anyone who actually knows this, and even rarer that anyone knows the full extent of the service offered every day by the national passenger rail system right here in our city. (All Amtrak services stop at the Riverside-Downtown Metrolink station.)

Amtrak's rail service consists of one train per day (in each direction), which may sound laughably meager, but is in fact rather substantial on most long-haul intercity routes. (All routes with more than one train per day are short-run corridor services, such as SLO-LAX-San Diego or Boston-New York-DC.) It is certainly an improvement over the thrice-weekly offerings at Pomona and Ontario stations.

Where does this mysterious train go? The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, stopping at Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Kansas City (and many small towns and cities in between). It takes three days to travel the entire route, if you count the evening on which you leave, and fares vary by distance and accommodations.

Even more useful than the train (for me at least) is Amtrak California's fleet of motorcoaches that call on our city four times a day in each direction. These buses connect with the San Joaquins in Bakersfield, for trips up the Central Valley to the Bay Area and Sacramento, and bus connections throughout California and as far north as Medford, OR. These are clean, comfortable (and reserved, unlike Greyhound) vehicles, with on-board restrooms and guaranteed connections to your train. Yes, they'll make the train wait for you.

Traveling on the train is quick, affordable, and environmentally friendly (the most efficient form of transportation available per passenger mile). Compared to 7 hours' drive up the I-5, the train wins hands-down. Sure, it takes a touch longer, but during that time you can read, play video games or even catch up on work a bit. (The San Joaquins are equipped with power outlets throughout, the Southwest Chief has limited outlets available.) It beats just staring at the road for hours on end, plus there's food and a restroom available on-board. Not to mention it gives you the chance to look out the window, and there's a lot of interesting sights to be seen next to the railway in the Central Valley. And I don't even need to mention the comparison to flying, do I? Cheaper, stops right here in the city, no airport parking/transit hassles, no security problems, no worrying about whether your deodorant is a 3oz container or not, need I go on?

Passenger rail travel in this country is constantly hindered by the fact that it's simply not on most people's radar. Most people wouldn't even know where their nearest Amtrak station was, nor where they could travel, or when, or how. Passenger rail should play a much larger role in our nation's transportation system, due to efficiency and ecological concerns, and the fact that it doesn't worries me.

For those who are considering an Amtrak trip out of Riverside, read on.

The one trick to traveling Amtrak out of Riverside is: you must have reservations first. You can pick up your tickets at the station, from a Metrolink TVM, but you must have made your reservations either by telephone (1-800-USA-RAIL) or on line beforehand. This doesn't preclude spontaneous trips by any means- you can simply call up and order your tickets and print them at the station in a matter of minutes- but it is something you'll want to keep in mind. If you plan your travel in advance, your tickets can be mailed to you. (They require 9 day advance notice, but the tickets will reach Riversiders in a day or two- Amtrak's customer service center is in Riverside.)

Keep this in mind, and enjoy riding the rails!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I'm not crazy!

There really was a Bus Rapid Transit project in Riverside.
It really was going forward at light speed in 2004.
Nobody else ever seems to believe me. Even RTA officials have questioned my assertions on this point. But the Internet remembers all!

This is the only mention still on RTA's publicly-accessible web site of RapidLink. In 2004, "focus groups" said that the BRT project was "a good investment" as part of the "final phase" of the RapidLink project.

There's also an old issue of SoCaTA's "Advocate" that mentions the approval of RapidLink.

There used to be a copy of the On Board Bulletin (the old newsletter that RTA used to put out before the single-page "Rider News" we get now... ah, budget cuts, my old friend...) posted on the site, from December '04, that said "RapidLink coming in July". Unfortunately, that file no longer exists, but a diligent Google around shows that RapidLink was in the works. And then it just... disappeared...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why I Ride, part 3: Come Together

Part three to my slow-news-day series, "Why I Ride". Part 1 and Part 2 available here.

I'm sure I've quoted it here before. The opening monologue to the movie "Crash".
It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.

Our society is careening towards alienation and isolation at light speed, and this brings with it a whole host of social issues. Of course, some alienation is inherent in any large, capitalist society (yes, I'm quoting Marx), and the conception of the idyllic 1950's suburb is a false image in the mind of all who espouse it. But recent trends in our society show that we are closing ourselves off more and more each day. The rise of the giant SUV or raised truck (with tinted windows, no less), the three-hour commute, the private parking garage, the attached garage, and (especially) the gated community indicate that we want to interact less and less with our fellow man. Americans see others around them not as people, but as potential threats to their livelihood. (This sort of thinking significantly informs the immigration debate. See last week's issue of the "Calvert Courier" for a brilliant example of what I'm talking about.)

In a society like the one we are heading towards, we can expect to see racism, classism, and sexism running rampant. Moral considerations will inform decisions less and less, and personal economic considerations (greed) will rule the day. Collective action will become even rarer than it is now. When we no longer see the people around us as people, when we lose our sense of shared humanity and struggle, we no longer need to care about how we harm others, so long as we get ahead. (I can cite research for a lot of this, if you guys ask.)

You're probably asking "What does this have to do with transit?". (Unless, of course, you're Browne from The Bus Bench.) Well, anyone who's ever ridden the bus for a decent amount of time will realize that "shared humanity" nicely describes the experience. In a well-traveled transit system, you see people of all walks of life and all situations, enjoying their little patch of plastic chair, getting to wherever they're going, just like you are. The exhausted mother with her two children sleeping on the Senior/Disabled bench up front. The janitor, with his broom, mop, and copy of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." The young man with sagging pants and his head buried in a calculus textbook. Any time spent on transit forces you to regain that shared sense of humanity. Riding the bus makes you realize that we are all the same, and we are all in this together.

Will better transit instantly destroy all of our social problems? Probably not. But it's a step in the right direction.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Post length

Okay, there's been some research into the attention span of the modern Web-connected individual. The idea is that anything over a few paragraphs is too long. I could go into a long rant about the sound-byte media culture and whatnot, but I shall put this to the readership.

I try to write my posts in a way that covers all of the pertinent info in any given issue or argument. Sometimes they run longer than many bloggers do. So I ask of you now- Are my posts too long?

Vote with your comments.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Mayor's Office on Transit

In short... I don't think they quite get it.

I wrote a letter to the Mayor's office regarding their Green Action Plan, and how they seem to be falling quite short of anything green in terms of transportation. Commenters have mentioned how the most touted improvements in the city amount to giving students and city employees free bus passes, which is nice, but doesn't quite address the larger problems of transportation in the city.

I received a response (a couple months later, but I understand the Mayor is a busy guy), and it shows the disconnect between what actually needs to be done and what is being done.

Here's some highlights.

In accomplishing these goals, we are working with RTA. RTA serves the entire county; we are only one of the cities, but we are working on programs to improve access to bus transit in Riverside. In 2002 we formed a committee of approximately 25 residents and agencies to review bus routes. The goal of the committee was to develop a plan which could compare to a program in Boulder, Colorado.

Mr. Mayor, committees are where you send ideas to die. I'm sure you can pass this off as action to some of your constituents, but I study politics. Every day. If this committee has been around since I moved to the city, and the bus routes haven't really gotten any better, then it's clear that this is simply something you can point to when citizens (like me) ask you what you're doing.

The work of both of these committees resulted in the UCR UPASS program allowing students to ride the bus anywhere in the city at no cost. This has caused a significant increase in bus ridership by UCR students. Last year the city subsidized a pilot program for Riverside City College allowing those students to ride at no charge. The city contributed $75,000 toward the program using clean air funds which we receive as part of vehicle registration. These funds are designated for air quality improvement programs. Moreno Valley and Norco also contributed $25,000 each. The program has also been tremendously successful. We have committed to subsidize the program for a second year to give the campus the opportunity to create a student fee ($7-$8 a semester) to continue the program. There is specific data available about the ridership and the reduction in emissions from these successful programs.

I'm actually going to concede that the RCC UPass is a good, effective program, and I'm glad to see that you've coughed up some money for it. Unfortunately, while this improves access to the transit system we have, this does nothing to actually improve transit in the city. In fact, some evidence shows that it's worsened the service along route 1 in the afternoons, simply because of overcrowding. And I still can't get a bus home after 8.

We are committed to continue to work with RTA to improve the system for city residents. The city is looking at a program to subsidize reduced price bus passes for all residents beginning in July. We have City Council representation on the RTA Board of Directors where we can provide input on services. I appreciate your input and hope you will continue to support alternative transportation.

What is with this fetish you folks have with providing free bus passes to everyone?! Public transit is already very, very affordable. Perhaps some city residents could use some help with the cost (a la the Muni Lifeline pass in San Francisco, available to anyone on social assistance), but the vast majority of Riverside residents don't need a cheaper bus pass.
What they need is BETTER BUS SERVICE.

We are in the middle of a funding crisis over at RTA. Routes are being slashed. If you truly care about public transit in this city, take some of the money you're planning to spend on subsidizing bus passes and just send it to RTA. Maybe make it so they can only spend it on in-city bus routes, so your interests are protected, but what we desperately need is operating cash for the transit agency. Money to pay the drivers and gas up the buses. It does me no good to have a cheap bus pass to a system that's rapidly shrinking.

In the long term, get with your Streets department and work on RapidLink. Maybe you haven't heard of RapidLink, as the RTA folks have done a pretty damned good job of keeping it buried, but the idea is this: Big buses, in their own lane, with stoplight priority running down Magnolia. Professional-looking stations with off-bus fare vending machines. No more uncertainty about whether or not the #1 is going to show up at RCC anytime this century. Increased land value along the Magnolia corridor, opportunities for transit-oriented development, and a real, viable alternative to sitting in traffic on Magnolia or the 91 freeway, and the city is in a VERY good position to be able to seriously contribute to RapidLink's development.

So. Executive summary time: Free bus passes cool, but better bus service actually does something.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Night Bus

Any regular readers of this blog will know that one of my largest pet peeves with Riverside's transit service is the abrupt service cut-off at around 8'oclock. (Most routes. Route 1, to its credit, has some feeble attempts at service until 10 pm, and Route 16 until 9.) I hereby submit to you what I think is a reasonable proposal for providing late-night bus service to the City of Riverside, without stranding anyone or breaking the bank.

Step 1: Riders in areas with marginal service (I'm thinking routes 20, 21, 22, 27 here) get access to the ADA Dial-A-Ride service starting from the point where the fixed route shuts down, until the (IIRC) 9:30 cutoff for DAR service. Since this is ostensibly a shared-ride service, adding passengers will increase efficiency (to a point). And since demand should be rather light, RTA should be able to pick these folks up at minimal marginal cost. General public riders must board and alight at marked RTA bus stops. (This will further improve efficiency by keeping most trips along major thoroughfares.)

Step 2: Create a night-shift Dial-A-Ride service, open to all riders. This could be as simple as one dispatcher and one driver. Run it from 10 PM through 5 AM. With allotments for time spent getting the bus into service and out of service, that's one full time shift. 40 hours a week. I know RTA is eliminating several operator positions, and so the labour pool is most certainly there. The phone lines are in place, and the buses aren't doing anything else at that hour. Once again, riders must board and alight at marked RTA bus stops, improving efficiency.

The fares for the public on both the usual DAR and the late-night DAR service should be at the same level as DAR fares are now- $2.50 per rider. Riders with local bus passes should be given half off, and riders with (the soon-to-be-released) CommuterLink passes should ride free.

Step 3: Use the data from Dial-A-Ride trips to determine where nighttime demand lies, and see if it justifies running a full-size bus along a given route.

The fact of the matter is, right now, the data available for nighttime transit demand is simply unreliable. Of the thousands in our area who work at night, there is no way to tell how many might take transit if the option were available. Are the current night buses rather empty? Yes- because transit riders here in Riverside know that you simply cannot be out past 8 PM and have any sort of reliable mobility using transit. Give them an option- it doesn't have to be a fantastic option, just one that can provide hints at latent demand- and you'll see how many people might want to take on a later shift, or go shopping, or go out to the club and not have to worry about designating a driver. (This is one I hear *A LOT*, FYI.)

So there. A plan on giving Riverside residents a late-night travel option at low marginal cost, and to gauge demand for late-night transit service in our city at the same time. Feel free to comment if you like.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Missed opportunities

So, due to my hedonistic automotive ways (the ONE time I go driving...) I got a ticket last August. After an agonizing court process that ended in what can only be called a mockery of justice, I'm stuck doing community service to pay off the ticket that I can't afford. Consequently, I'll be spending my next 6 Saturdays at an anonymous location in the Hunter Industrial Park area and, since today was the first day, I decided to look in to my travel options.

The answer? Eh... nothing. There is no service in that employment center until after 8 am... you know, the time that jobs generally start? The two routes that serve the area, routes 13 and 25, roll through for the first time at 8:12 and 8:10 respectively. And don't tell me shift workers don't go in on Saturday... this is the new, cash-strapped American economy, with shiny new schedules to go with it. In my previous life as an oppressed industrial worker, I worked Tuesday-Saturday.

Ya see, RTA? This is (just one of many reasons) why people don't ride the bus. It doesn't take them to where they want to go, when they want to go there. And this is a pretty simple one, too... if you have a big concentration of jobs in your city, make sure the buses get there BEFORE 8 in the morning.

We can talk about nightlife later.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

At what cost?

Here's a great post that I just came across (first published in 1/2008) on "The Capricious Commuter", a Bay Area transit blog. (Gee, you guys have a lot of 'em.) The blogger is talking about the miscalculation of just how much our automobile-centric transportation system is costing us. He mentions that Bay Area governments spend 63% of their transportation revenues on transit service, which angers folks who see only 10% mode share for transit. The central problem with this analysis, in The Commuter's opinion, is that, while transit fares (a private expenditure) are taken into account as "transportation revenues", private automobile costs are not taken into account on the automobile side.

After juggling the numbers a bit, he shows that transit in the Bay Area represents only 8% of transportation expenditures. Even more telling, however, are all the comments on this post, pointing out some costs that were not included in the analysis. The purchase price of vehicles and parking were listed, as well as the social externalities of auto-driven development.

I now ask you, Riversiders, to consider that the official number for transit service in Riverside County, according to RCTC, is 35% of transportation revenues. Imagine what that figure is if you take into account the true cost of our car-dependency.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Tactical Error

In my previous post, I spoke about the customer service troubles I had while (not quite) riding Greyhound out of Riverside. I feel that I might have made a bit of a mistake. Greyhound's detractors might use my words to point out the flaws and faults of the current service in Riverside. However, I think this reveals a key difference between the dominant ideologies of our society.

I am a liberal, as I've said in my "About Me" and several times on the blog. When I look at the present, be it Greyhound or government, I see what should be, and I see what could be. Sadly enough, the current Greyhound station and level of service are a touch lackluster. However, if my house's roof leaked, I would not simply bulldoze the house, I would call a roofer.

The other side, the conservatives, use the evidence of the poor state of our public transportation as evidence that it should be dismantled. They say that a government-subsidized transport system (which Greyhound is, make no mistake) is inherently inefficient and insensitive, and they say the current failings of the system are inherent. The gentleman quoted in the Press-Enterprise several blog posts ago was a good example of this. But these claims are like saying that, if your house has a leaky roof, you ought to bulldoze it and erect a tent where it once stood.

Personally, I'd rather fix the house.