Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Bus Passes and Empty Trains

I've ridden the rush-hour Metrolink trains in this city on many occasions- not the least of reasons being that, on some lines, those are the only variety of Metrolink train. I've noticed something that a lot of other commuters have doubtless noted in the past. The trains leaving Riverside are only around 30% full at best, though along the line they fill up quite nicely. On the Riverside line, the bulk of passengers board at either Downtown Pomona or City of Industry, with the latter being larger. Similarly, IE-OC trains carry mostly OC passengers.

I'm not saying that I think Metrolink should truncate these trains... they're a valuable resource, and with the massive capacity of said vehicles, even 30% is a lot of people going to work in the morning. But there is a lot of excess capacity on these trains that is going unused out here in the Inland Empire, every single day. The weekend trains are even emptier.

This is due to a number of factors, but I don't want to get into an analysis of WHY this is in this post. I want to get into a proposal of HOW we could use this resource to the benefit of everyone involved.

It takes roughly the same amount of fuel to pull either a full or empty Metrolink car. It also goes without saying that Metrolink trains MUST be of their current length to accommodate passengers further down the line. Therefore, Metrolink is losing money on the empty train cars that it pulls around the IE, and there is no way for them to simply stop pulling those cars, because they're needed in LA and the OC. It would be a benefit to them if they could fill those seats at any price. They're essentially like standby seats on an airline.

The two major IE bus agencies, RTA and Omnitrans, have large service areas, yet anemic express service. Omni cut the old route 90 express, and so traversing the length of the Omni service area is a difficult proposition at best. RTA runs route 149, which does an admirable job of linking Corona and the length of Riverside, but it runs so infrequently as to often be useless to intra-county travelers. RTA and Omni customers would therefore benefit greatly from a quick way to traverse the freeway-friendly distances of their respective service areas.

Therefore I propose an agreement between Metrolink and RTA and Omni- Holders of IE monthly bus passes should be permitted to travel free on Metrolink within the limits of their pass. This would cost Metrolink nothing (as proof-of-payment negates the need for new fare machines, and the cars are empty anyway) and it would probably cost RTA and Omni very little, as any money Metrolink makes off the program is ultimately a gain for them. The contracts between Metrolink and San Bernardino and Riverside Counties should ensure that any revenue lost from people who formerly paid for passage in the free-ride areas would be recouped.

For RTA passholders, the free-ride area should be:
Between Riverside-Downtown and West Corona on the IE-OC and 91 Lines and
Between Pedley and Riverside-Downtown on the Riverside Line.

For Omni passholders, the free-ride area should be:
Between East Ontario and Downtown Pomona on the Riverside Line and
Between San Bernardino and Montclair on the San Bernardino Line.

Readers who have spent time in the Bay Area may recognize this scheme- it's similar to the agreement between Muni and BART in the City of San Francisco. Passengers who hold Muni FastPasses are permitted to ride BART free between Embarcadero and Daly City, which are the stations on either end of the City (and consequently Muni's territory). It's not a perfect comparison- BART and Metrolink are two very different systems- but I think it provides the same sort of benefit: easy access to local rail travel to bus patrons, and the use of excess capacity for the rail operators.

This program would provide easy travel around the vast distances of the IE, and it would also highlight another issue with our transit system- poor bus-rail connections. If a significant market for such connections existed, as would surely happen under this arrangement, perhaps our transit agencies would pay more attention to places like Riverside-La Sierra station.

Also, with the opening of the Perris Valley Line, I want to mention- because Riverside is probably the ultimate destination for PV Line Patrons, and the line is entirely within RTA's service area, this agreement probably shouldn't cover travel along it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rush Hour Traffic

Traffic is SO bad these days that, in Carlisle, UK, a hamster in a plastic ball was able to speed past rush-hour drivers.

Check out the full story from the Sunday Express.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Google Transit being... interesting.

Check out Google Maps, folks. There's bus stop icons at the very close-in zoom levels, all over the RTA service area. However, there are no services associated with those stops. No trip planning functionality.

Let's hope this is a stop along the road to the return of Google Transit, rather than another embarrassing gaffe.

UPDATE: The bus stop icons are gone, and trip planning is still MIA. This is just getting strange. (8/27/09 21:41)

UPDATE 2: The bus stop icons are back! They're messing with my head!!! (8/28/09 00:48)

I'm famous!

New local podcasters Ralph Torres and Tim Brown, of I.E. with Ralph and Tim, sat down with me a couple of weeks ago to talk about the blog and transit around the IE. The show is out! Check out my interview over at their site.

Fair warning- I have a voice for blogging. I say "absolutely" a lot, too...

Oh, and did I mention you should probably go listen to I.E. with Ralph and Tim, local and independent podcasting in Riverside? Yeah, you should.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Perfect Phone Gets Better

This is of interest to all techie types in the Riverside area:

According to a T-Mobile store associate, who heard it from an engineer, Riverside is getting 3G service from T-Mobile by the end of September.

My T-Mobile G1 is pretty much the perfect phone already (especially with its convenient Google Transit access- RTA, bring your data back up!), and this just makes it better.

You heard it here first, folks. T-Mobile bringing 3G to Riverside, 9/30/09.

Going On in Government

A few things have been happening in those public-but-poorly-attended meetings that define our local transport policy. First off, RTA and UCR formalized another year's extension for the U-Pass, and, of course, Cal Baptist University joined the free-ride club. (Hey guys!) You already know what I think of U-Pass, so I won't bore you.

Second, the City of Riverside Transportation Committee approved a measure a few days ago to study the implementation of City-funded, subsidized bus passes for economically disadvantaged residents. I think this is a great policy, one that's in place in such progressive, urban places as San Francisco and New York. The subsidy levels are not speculated upon as of yet, but even a quarter off of bus passes gives a person an extra $12 a month, which is a lot of rice and ramen. (I'm kind of in that boat myself, right now...) It's a good idea, and one that will impact a lot of people's lives for the better. Hell, it may even save lives, by encouraging people to ride the bus instead of walking in the Riverside heat. But there's one big problem with this idea: It's revenue-neutral.

The economically disadvantaged already ride our public transport system in large numbers. At $50 a month, it's not likely that many are put off from riding by the cost. (Probably some, but not many.) This program, therefore, will simply subsidize the pass purchases of people who already ride the bus. Don't get me wrong, that's fantastic for them, and I'm glad to see it. However, I'd rather see the City chipping this money straight into transit service here in Riverside... perhaps late-night service on 1, 15 and 16. For the transit-dependent, more service is almost always preferable to lower fares. Improvements to night service might open up new job opportunities for some people, or perhaps just the chance to work a little extra overtime. Overall, better service would improve the lives of more people a greater amount than a subsidized bus pass ever will.

Lastly, and this one is one I really enjoyed reading, the City has sent off a letter to RCTC and RTA asking them to support the "preferred alternative" (read: Vine Street) location for the new Riverside Multi-Modal Transit Center. For an agency who's still planning on the Market/University location, this is fantastic to see. Let's hope the political pressure works, and the buses all meet the trains in a couple years.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On the train in NYC

So it's been over a month since my trip to New York, and I'm finally getting around to writing about transit lessons learned there. Let me first say that New York is the most transit-accessible city in the country, and it shows. I never once felt constrained by my choice to take a transit-centric trip there. While I did spend most of my time in Manhattan, and I am told that the situation in the outer boroughs is somewhat different, I found New York's transit infrastructure to be convenient, ubiquitous, and auto-competitive. I'll go into what that means in a bit.

My first observation of New York's transit system came upon my arrival in Manhattan's Chinatown (Allen & Canal) at just after 1 in the morning. It was absolutely astounding to me that Google Transit quickly provided a transit routing to my hostel off of 126th and 5th Avenue, nearly 10 miles away. The realization, after perusing the NYC subway map, that every line (not service, but line) runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was amazing and slightly shocking. And then I walked the wrong way on Canal Street and screwed it up.

Instead of ending up at the Canal St. (N, Q, R, W, 6, J, M, Z) station, I ran into the East Broadway (F) station. I bought a Metrocard and proceeded to try and find my way through the system based on a wall-mounted map on the platform when a train arrived. I boarded it without the slightest idea where I was going, and I made this clear to other passengers on board... when, to my surprise, a NYC metro operator emerged from the rear cab of the car and gave me directions to the uptown 6 train. Service with a smile at 1 in the morning- fantastic.

Fate would surprise me yet again, however, at Broadway and Lafayette station (B, D, F, V, Downtown 6). In what appears to be the only instance of such a situation in the NYC subway system, the uptown 6 train, which is in the same station box, is only accessible via a separate entrance on Bleeker St. This is probably not a big deal to New Yorkers, who are used to it, but for a sleep-deprived tourist at 1:30 in the morning... not fun. I managed to get aboard the train, with help from a hot dog vendor, and got to bed around 2:30.

I won't relate ALL the tales I have about the subway in New York, but I will summarize a bit. I smacked into the turnstile 5 times, got on the train going the wrong way thrice, and declared many times that this system was the first that had me thoroughly confused, in all my years of riding transit. I've figured out DC, Vancouver, LA, San Francisco, Vegas, Paris and Barcelona, but New York tried my powers of map-reading and my sense of direction.

Why is this? A few reasons. First off, the New York system is designed with the assumption that a fare pays for a trip, not a boarding. The fare for a ride on the subway is $2.25, but that includes pretty much all the subway transfers you like, plus a free bus transfer within 2 hours. With this in mind, most subway transfers are accomplished by long underground passages (some several blocks in length) that allow you to change trains without leaving the fare-controlled area of the system. This is convenient, but VERY disorienting. Signage is quite good in the system, but for someone who isn't used to having to follow signs on board transit, it took some getting used to.

Also, New York is (I believe) unique among at least North American subway systems in that it runs separate-platform express service. In every other urban rail system I've been on, the paradigm is that one platform (or one side of an island platform) is for trains traveling in one direction, and the opposite side is for trains traveling in the other. In many parts of New York (Manhattan and Brooklyn, mostly), stations contain two island platforms, one for each direction, with one side of the island serving express trains and the other serving locals. There were occasions where I got on a train traveling in the wrong direction, crossed an island platform, and boarded another train traveling the wrong direction, just faster. I ended up in Queens this way, while trying to go to Brooklyn. Once again, the signage is excellent once you know to look for it, but the paradigms that serve you well in other urban rail systems are not as effective in the NYC subways.

Lastly, the sheer size of the NYC subway system is intimidating. There are tiny little subway stations littered on nearly every corner in Manhattan (And I do mean tiny- these cut-and-cover stations are claustrophobic for somebody who's used to LA and SF's deep-bore tunnels), and when you throw in the different services on different lines, the local/express distinctions, and an unfamiliar city, it can get confusing fast. Google Transit helps immensely.

However, New York does a couple of things right. Trains and buses are plentiful, ubiquitous, and round-the-clock. These factors, more than anything else, allow New York's transit culture to exist. The stations aren't well-maintained or even always clean, the system isn't user-friendly, and cross-town train service is very limited. (There are several cross-town bus lines, but they aren't noted on the subway map. I am told that many New Yorkers use taxis for this purpose.) Many of the preconditions that people posit for the acceptance of public transit in America are not present in New York City, and yet car ownership there is less than 50%. I therefore posit that only a few things need to be present for public transit to gain acceptance- it needs to exist, it needs to run all the time, and it needs to be frequent. Anything else is just icing on the cake.

One other lesson- New York has a completely turnstile-controlled system, where the only method of payment is the MetroCard. Ticket vending machines are present at all entrances, but attendants are only there at major transfer points. And millions of people manage to ride the system every day without the world ending. Perhaps FareGate isn't the end of the world?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Suburban cycling

So I was coming home from the movies last night, on my bike, and I was watching the behaviour of my fellow cyclists while I waited for the #1 bus.

What did I see? Several folks on the sidewalk, some riding against traffic, some riding on the sidewalk AND against traffic, and quite a few wearing dark clothing and neglecting to add reflectors or rear lights to their bicycles.

To my fellow cyclists:

Please. This is car country, and we all know it. We are trying to advocate for better cycling conditions, and for our inclusion in the transport mix of our community. To do that, we all need to follow a few basic rules, not the least of which are the Riverside Municipal Code and California Vehicle Code.

So, first, get the hell off the sidewalks. Riding on sidewalks is illegal in Riverside, and it's kind of a dickish thing to do, especially on a road like Magnolia, where there's a pleasant bike lane that runs for miles.

Second, ride with traffic. It's not just a good idea, it's the law. Remember- you ARE traffic, under CVC 21200.

Third, be visible. Not only is this a great thing to do for advocacy purposes, it's a nice way not to get killed. Lights and reflectors are a really good idea at night, especially if you're going to be wearing all black on the back of a black bicycle.
(I actually wear a road-worker-style reflective vest while riding at night. Do I look dorky? Yah. But if I get run over, there is no way the driver can argue "I didn't see 'im!".)

If we want to promote cycling as a viable form of transportation, the least we can do is to be good roadway citizens. We must dispel the myth of the scofflaw cyclist.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Update on TAP in SD

Leave it to American public transit operators to make things unnecessarily difficult.

Don't use your TAP cards in San Diego. According to the MTS (via MetroRiderLA), regardless of the fact that these secure smart cards do well and truly verify that you paid your fare, the fact that they have a different graphic on the front may expose you to a citation.

Metro! MTS! Make with the talky-talky so we can make these cards interchangeable.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The story that must be told!

I keep promising a review of my New York trip, and I keep stalling on it. I think I realized that I don't have enough material for the next segment of the trip, the Maryland MTA, and that keeps me from talking about what I really want to talk about, the Chinatown bus lines and NYC MTA. Sorry Baltimore, you are therefore getting short shrift.

As I mentioned in the last installment of this series, I flew in to Baltimore-Washington International because it was cheap. I remember sitting at LAX and seeing at least three flights departing for somewhere in the New York area, and being insanely jealous. But those folks also paid full fare for their tickets...

So, once I got on the east coast, I had to get to New York. Thanks to the aircraft's on-board wireless internet, I had a plan. It involved a light rail, a bus line, and a Chinatown intercity bus.

First off, let me say that Google Transit is fantastic. You know this, but if you multiply the awesomeness by an unfamiliar city and a transit line you've never taken, it becomes a lifeline. To find out that my bus to New York picks up on the "O'Donnell Street Cutoff", and to be able to get satellite and street view photos and a step-by-step transit itinerary there, was very helpful.

The MTA light rail is, well, a light rail. Clean, comfortable, quiet and quick, as you'd expect. The cars are very reminiscent of the Sacramento RTD's newer CAF cars... or at least would be if the RT cars had seen 5 or 10 years of use. One annoyance? The airport spur of the line runs every half hour... all day long... regardless of whether it's peak hours or not. On the return trip, I watched four trains pass on the other line before an airport train showed up.

Maryland MTA's day passes are a screaming deal. Their base fare is $1.60, but their day passes are $3.50. I was only riding two vehicles, but I paid the extra $0.30 just in case. Really, why wouldn't you?

The bus ride was crowded, but quick and efficient. The bus stop could have been a touch better-lit... I don't really recommend transferring in downtown Baltimore at 9pm. It feels quite a bit like downtown Riverside at 9pm... deserted and lonely.

And finally, we get to something I want to talk about- the Chinatown bus.

One major difference between our transit system here and the system on the east coast is the ubiquity and ease of intercity transport. There are about a thousand different ways to get up and down the I-95 corridor, from DC to Boston. There's frequent Amtrak service (including service directly from the BWI airport), several types of commuter railroads (like MARC, which plies the rails from DC to Baltimore, or VRE, which connects DC to Fredericksburg, VA, with express bus service to Richmond, or NJ Transit, which connects New Jersey to New York, Philadelphia and Wilmington, DE), frequent and well-connected Greyhound service, and my personal favourite, the Chinatown bus lines.

Imagine, if you will, a bus line that provided service from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Fransisco, with stops in downtown Bakersfield and downtown San Jose, for around $40 each way. Now imagine that, because of multiple operators plying the route, there's service every two hours 'round the clock, and you never need worry about making reservations. There's no chance you'll get left in the terminal, or shunted on a roundabout connecting route. It's really quite pleasant.

That's the Chinatown bus lines on the east coast. They're ridiculously cheap, comfortable, and frequent. I mean it when I say every two hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. $20 bought me a ride from Baltimore to New York, a trip of a little over 3 hours. Our bus left at 10pm, but there was also a midnight trip and a two am trip. The bus was indeed well-traveled, but for the price, you really can't beat the service. We were on time or early every time I rode the thing, and that includes the return-trip traffic on I-95 into Baltimore.

There was but one snag in the Chinatown bus system. I bought my tickets online, through the excellent Not until I purchased them did the e-ticket screen appear and say "Print this ticket and sign it." Great if you're at home. Not so great when you're at 40,000 feet. I didn't manage to get the ticket printed, so I had to fork over $20 cash on board. Still worth it. For comparison's sake, a flight along that route would run at least $175, and a train ride $64-$110.

By the way, a few Chinatown lines do ply their trade in SoCal, but because service is much less frequent advance reservations are suggested. LA-SF runs once daily, for $50 each way from Monterey Park. Santa Monica and Hollywood runs are also available at similar prices.

Anyway, I heartily recommend the Chinatown bus lines, with one caveat. Use the web site to plan your trip, but if you can't print your ticket, just bring cash.

New York MTA review to come.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Hunting, originally uploaded by plattypus1.

To lighten up your day... my kitten and her kills.

Found under our coffee table- 20 milk tabs, 6 pens, 5 chap-sticks and a drinking straw. All of these items have disappeared from my nightstand over the last month or so.

Omnitrans Oversights

So I was out at the IEA West Side luncheon at Victoria Gardens in Rancho. I carpooled there, but my carpool was heading back to Loma Linda and so I eschewed catching a ride with other attendees and decided to take the train home.

And, since I'm posting about it, you know something went wrong.

I caught the 66 on Foothill towards the Fontana Metrolink, and showed my Metrolink 10-Trip pass to the driver... who then proceeded to argue with me that said pass was not valid on that route. I had to remind him that Metrolink tickets are indeed valid for travel to and from any Metrolink station, and I'm lucky that I know the Omni fare policy well. Novice riders- you know, the type that would normally use a Metrolink ticket as a transfer- would probably be intimidated off the bus, or naievely drop the $1.35 in the farebox.

So, after a wait for one of the rare Sunday Metrolink trains at Fontana, I got to Downtown San Bernardino. The line only intermittently stops in Riverside, and I wasn't waiting until 20:00 for a train home (it was around 1700 at this point), so I decided to walk to 4th & F and catch the 215. I also intended to use my Metrolink ticket as a transfer on that route.

This may seem strange for people inexperienced with RTA, but let me explain. RTA has a policy similar to Omnitrans- Metrolink tickets are valid for travel on any route that serves a Metrolink station. (Incidentally, this is not restricted, as in Omni's case, solely to travel to and from said station.) Here's the thing with RTA, though. They allow passengers on Metrolink to use their tickets for a transfer pretty much anywhere within walking distance of the train station, including downtown terminal, especially on weekends. This sort of wink-wink nudge-nudge policy allows for a lot of flexibility in our otherwise poorly-designed downtown transit mix.

Omnitrans, however, adheres to their policy strictly. Unless you're going to or from a train station, and we mean RIGHT to the train station (in San Bernardino this means route 1 only), no Metrolink transfers.

LA and Orange Counties have this particular policy right. A valid Metrolink ticket is a pass, everywhere, all day, every day, no questions asked. And San Bernardino seemed to be thinking intermodally- I praised their new downtown transit center back in June. So what gives?

End of story, I dropped $1.35 in the farebox (Guys- 25 or 50... please...) and got home after a nearly three hour transit trip.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Google Transit Update

I've got good news and bad news, folks. First, the bad news.
A phone call to RTA's customer information center reported a 3-3.5 week estimate for when Google Transit data will once again be available to RTA customers. It's already been around three weeks. In the intervening time I've managed to get myself stranded downtown by looking at the wrong timetable. (Rookie mistake, I know.) It's amazing how quickly you get used to using Google, and I want it back.

Next, the good news. Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner trains are now part of Google Transit. Yes, that's right, you can plan your trip to San Diego or San Luis Obispo all from one, convenient interface. Note that the Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited and San Joaquin Thruway services are not available, so Google Transit may miss some rail options, but still... it's a start. (Note: The San Joaquin trains are available in Google Transit as well. The San Joaquin Thruway bus service, which serves Riverside as well as the rest of Southern California, is not.)

Connecting agencies along the Surfliner route that support Google Transit include SLO Transit, Metro, OCTA and San Diego MTS.

Friday, August 7, 2009

TAPping the Compass

A while ago I posted on the dilemma facing RTA: Do we support LA's TAP card, or San Diego's Compass card? Are they interchangeable?

Well, it turns out MetroRiderLA did a little experimenting and SD's fare machines recognize LA's TAP card- so we may very well be able to use both. Sweet!

Of course, there may be legal/regulatory barriers in the way, but if this turns out to be a-okay, then it's great for Riverside County.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Car Culture Makes News in the IE

I was reading over at the (excellent) LA Transportation Headlines blog and found a couple of articles in the Press-Enterprise that really sort of sum up our suburban car culture.

First, Omni's sbX BRT system was dealt a procedural blow when the San Bernardino City Council decided not to vote on it. Wait until next month, eh guys?

(Oh, and am I the only one who is driven insane by the press constantly describing any new transit as a "commuter line"? sbX is NOT a "commuter line", it's BRT, which is an all-day, frequent transit option.)

Second, they're going to widen I-215 in San Bern. Again. Ladies and gentleman of the urban planning community, hear my pleas. We can't pave our way out of this. (Of course, this project is getting Stimulus Money, so it's going ahead, hell or high water.)

$437 million is going to that freeway widening.
Half of that could build the Magnolia Avenue Rapid Streetcar.
A quarter of it would build sbX, with change back.
A tenth of it would nearly DOUBLE the operating budget of RTA.

And widening the freeway will not even improve commutes. It'll cause construction-related congestion for a while, then a brief period of relief followed by more congestion again. Studies have shown this time and time again, but freeway folks don't listen.

I'm printing this out and sticking it on my desk, just for these occasions.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Welcome, Cal Baptist!

According to August's Rider News, students at California Baptist University will be included in the U-Pass progam starting on August 18th. They join UCR, RCC and La Sierra University students in receiving free bus rides with a swipe of their ID card.

This is exactly the sort of thing RTA should be working on. Extending transit access to these student populations has numerous benefits. First, it will increase ridership. Second, it will save students money on parking and transportation costs, and save schools money on parking lots. Third, though, and I think this is important, is that it will get young adults in the habit of taking public transportation. Many suburbanite students have perhaps never ridden a bus before. Familiarizing them with routes, schedules and bus ettiquette may allow some of them to keep riding long after college.

I also want to point out that U-Pass is a substantial improvement over discounted pass schemes, like UCR's former half-price pass or the new UCI quarter pass that's replacing OCTA's U-Pass there. These programs are better than nothing, but only students who already ride will use them. Putting a universal pass in the hands of every student upon admission allows for incidental trips. If you had to spend money out-of-pocket for transit, you're less likely to use it than if you can simply swipe and go. Considering the transit agency is reimbursed for these trips, universal transit passes are absolutely the right way to go.