Saturday, November 30, 2013

Driving as status

Our society, like many others in the capitalist West, tends to view consumption as an indicator of social standing. That new flat-screen, the latest iPhone, the granite countertops in your kitchen, they all indicate that you're winning the rat race-- and it's expected that, if you're winning the rat race, you're also engaging in this status-oriented consumption. For a society that is largely without formal class consciousness-- we're all the middle class, don'tcha know?-- we are all astoundingly sensitive to informal class distinctions. Grocery stores, shopping centers, neighborhoods, cities, these are all divided along the income strata. (Don't believe me? Walk into a Food4Less, then into a Ralph's. Then remember they're the same company.)

And, of course, one of the biggest categories of status consumption and differentiation is the car. Cars are heavily differentiated on status-- even those of us who don't drive are constantly indoctrinated into the relative worth and value of a BMW over a Honda, or even the petty distinctions between, say, the Mercedes C class and E class. Our society constructs cars as an outgrowth of their drivers' identities, and if you're willing to be seen driving around that 5-year-old Civic, you must be a loser. So, of course, if you're not driving anything at all, you must be at the very bottom of that capitalist totem pole.

This status differentiation means that, outside of the very densest cities-- and, often, even within them-- we design public transit to be sensitive to the needs of the poor. Worse, we design public transit to be sensitive to what middle-class, well-educated, mostly-driving public transit planners imagine the needs of the poor to be. This is part of why transit is only active during the day, because the poor need to get to their (wrongly assumed to be 9-5) jobs, but not to the nightlife they can't afford to partake in. It's the reason that buses don't serve all of the schools-- especially in wealthy neighborhoods-- but do serve all of the welfare offices, and make the Woodcrest office of the Social Security Administration into a transfer point.

The status and deference that people expect to accrue to them as drivers is also part of the reason that it's so hard to get what ought to be simple improvements in our cities-- such as market-priced parking, reduced parking minima in the zoning code, meager improvements in transit service, and road diets on overbuilt infrastructure (I'm looking at you, Brockton). Cap'n Transit, a phenomenally snarky New York transit blogger, talks about the fundamental unfairness that stems from recognizing drivers' choice to drive-- even in eminently transit-saturated New York City-- as a reflection of their social standing. The details of the plan he's critiquing-- congestion pricing in Manhattan-- are unique to New York City, but the dynamics of having to throw a bone to the driving classes when trying to improve transit are pretty universal.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

New Bus Review

So the new Gillig buses have been rolling around Riverside County for a little bit, and I figure I'd best put out a review for the curious. Overall, they're still buses, but there are a few little improvements that will undoubtedly make life better for straphangers.

First off, the new seats are cloth, rather than the stubbornly cold plastic of the NABI fleet, and they have higher seat-backs. A small change, to be sure, but tall folks like myself will probably feel more comfortable on those long rides. Second, the new interior lights are all in white LED, rather than flourescent, making night rides just that much nicer. Third, the new, multicolor, high-visibility headsigns are even easier to spot than their orange predecessors, making riding in these dark winter months just that much nicer. Fourth, and probably most importantly, is the passenger power outlets. Two standard 110VAC (house power) electrical outlets are available at every row forward of the mid-bus stairs, so now you can keep that cell phone or tablet charged all the way to Tyler Mall. (Note that RTA press releases referred to these outlets as "USB charging outlets"-- they aren't, so bring your wall charger.) The new buses also seem to have a lot less engine noise than their predecessors, but that may be a function of age.

Possibly the best thing about the new buses, however, is that they're made here in California. Gillig makes their buses up in Hayward, while the last manufacturer RTA contracted with, North American Bus Industries, is located in Alabama. I still say it makes more sense to contribute to our local economy by purchasing products produced in the IE-- like, say, El Dorado National's full-size buses-- but I'd rather see my transit sales tax being used to create jobs in the Bay Area rather than on the other side of the continent.

So go forth, readers, and ride the new buses! Just don't forget your charger.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Local Reaction on the Streetcar

Yeah, it's about what you'd expect. Boondoggle, who'll ride this choo-choo train, this will probably require operating subsidies, etc. etc. Here's columnist Dan Bernstein, who calls the plan "disturbingly delusional," and the PE's Editorial Board, who sticks with "boondoggle."

The thing is, they're not entirely wrong. The City's choice of streetcars as a transit mode does appear to be driven by a me-too attitude and unjustified technophilia. The Riverside Reconnects study is not intended to study how to improve public transit in Riverside, or even how to build a rail transit line in Riverside, but to study a streetcar line in Riverside. And among the anti-transit bias are justified critiques-- for example, would this money be better spent augmenting Riverside's existing bus service?

I'm still tentatively pro-streetcar here, and I'm disappointed with the reflexive anti-transit attitudes of the local press, but streetcar advocates do need to make a better case for their project.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Brockton Road Diet

Belated news, but the Brockton Ave. Road Diet & Bike Lane project finally got approved. This project, an obvious choice for all travel modes based on city traffic models, faced opposition from drivers out of (unfounded) fears that it would increase traffic. Hopefully, once the restriping is complete, people will realize that the sky did not fall when a car lane was lost, and further projects won't be subject to such outsized opposition. (Which ought to occur around when pigs start flying.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Riverside Reconnects demo today

The Riverside Reconnects project parked a Siemens S70 light rail vehicle on University today. They marketed it as a chance to get to know the sort of vehicle that the project proposes to run on Riverside's streets*, but I took it as a chance to talk to some of the staff and planners about what they see as the possibilities for Riverside's streetcar project.
San Diego MTS' newest S70 LRV, parked on University Ave. today.

The bad news is that nobody is even thinking about a serious light-rail system for Riverside. The staff I spoke to said that the main decisions to be made are choosing between single-track and double-track, side- and median-running, and what sorts of signal prioritization might be available, along with the usual questions about length, scope, and phasing. While I'm admittedly disappointed that the stomach to piss off drivers and do something really daring seems lacking, I'm still hopeful that a judicious combination of median-running, aggressive signal prioritization, relatively large stop spacing (especially outside of downtown and the University area), and off-board fare collection will provide a significant upgrade to transit along the University/Magnolia corridor.

The project study area map.
The good news is that everyone behind the project seems to have the right idea. The word on everyone's lips was "Portland." Both staff and the electeds I saw there (Councilmen Gardner and Melendrez) seemed to be aware that the future of our city is increasingly transit- and active-transport-oriented, and less and less car-dependent. They know that, somehow, rail transit is key to the transformation of Portland's downtown-- and that such a transformation is vital for Riverside's future. Staff was also very conscious about the colossal failures of Los Angeles' streetcar planning, and wanted to avoid doing the same thing an hour's drive inland.

It seems like there's momentum behind this streetcar thing. It's up to us advocates to make sure that it is developed into a real transportation alternative, rather than an expensive toy that's more symbolic than transformative.

*No, this sort of vehicle would not run on Riverside's streets. The Siemens S70, which was on its way from the plant in Sacramento to San Diego's MTS, is a large bi-articulated light rail train, designed for high-speed running in grade-separated right-of-way. Siemens suggested their new S70-derived streetcar variant, or their new S100, for Riverside's project.