Saturday, August 17, 2013

The IE Transit Challenge, Part 2: The Network

Okay, so if you're following along from Part 1, you now know where your nearest bus stop is, what lines serve it, and where those lines go. Now I'd like to direct your attention to the remainder of the transit system. You need not memorize the whole map, but it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with major lines and transfer points, just as you'd familiarize yourself with major roads and freeways in your town. So take a moment now to look at those system maps I posted last time (RTA, Omnitrans). What you're looking for are major transfer centers (marked as "T" on RTA's map and "TC" on Omni's), which should list the routes that serve those points. Find the transfer points that are served by your local bus routes.

Another thing to look for are frequent bus services, lines that you can use without looking at the schedule to see when they're coming, and therefore can count on for spontaneous trips around the city. (In a decent transit system, these routes come every 15 minutes or better, but since few such routes exist out here, I loosen the definition to 20 minutes myself.) Frustratingly, none of our local transit agencies does any sort of frequent network mapping, and actually finding out what routes in your area qualify would require going through a lot of individual timetables. So I'll do that for you.

On RTA's system, routes 1 (University Ave-Downtown-Magnolia Ave) and 16 (Downtown-University Ave.-Canyon Crest-Moreno Valley Mall) run every 20 minutes or better. 15 runs every 40 minutes, and most everything else is hourly or worse.

On Omni's system, in the West Valley, routes 61 and 66 are frequent. In the East Valley, 1, 2, 3/4, and 14 are frequent. Many other routes are half-hourly.

All of these calculations are based on weekday mid-day frequencies, and service can get a lot worse on the weekends.

Finally, you'll want to look for express service. Express service is usually extremely limited in terms of frequency, but can be useful due to its speed. Metrolink is an express service, as is RTA's CommuterLink system (routes with 200-series route numbers), and Omnitrans' route 90. Most of these services stop at major transit centers (or, in the case of Metrolink, train stations).

Knowing these details will give you a good idea of what the transit system around you looks like, so you can see ways in which you could use it for upcoming trips.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The New Factor, or, The Choo-Choo Problem

The recent discussion of the Hyperloop brought up a common criticism that one hears often enough about rail transit of all types: it's based on "19th century technology." The critic will argue that streetcars are relics of the past, best left in the dustbin of history where we tossed them during the rise of motordom, or they will say that high-speed rail is based on technology from a bygone era and that obviously mag-levs or monorails or hyperloops are the future. They may even derisively refer to HSR as a "choo-choo train."

First off, the time that a particular piece of technology has been around does not imply obsolescence. When we human beings find a good idea, that idea doesn't come with a shelf life-- we keep tinkering with it and improving it as long as it makes sense to do so. Door hinges, for example, were invented so long ago in antiquity that we can't even accurately date it. Examples of them appear at least as early as 5,500 years ago, and the basic concepts behind the metal barrel hinge haven't change much since timeless antiquity. The flush toilet has been observed in archaeological excavations of the 26th-century BCE Indus Valley civilization, and recognizable modern examples can be found as early as the 16th century. This sets aside the fact that the electricity that allows these critics to put their words out onto our gloriously modern Internet was most likely generated via steam power, as most modern power plants, even nuclear and solar-thermal ones, are ultimately driven by steam turbine.

Even in the area of transportation, some of the best ideas are rather old. The diamond-frame bicycle, which is the most efficient form of passenger transportation known to man (in the physics sense of efficiency-- energy expended per kilo of payload moved), is unchanged since 1885. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that automobiles are also 19th-century technology, their birth dated to the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1886. Aircraft are only slightly younger-- a modern pilot would find the controls of the 1909 Curtiss June Bug familiar.

These critics would no doubt argue that automobile technology has advanced significantly since the 19th century-- but then again, so has rail. Nobody who has ever ridden a modern high-speed train would confuse it for a second with a 19th-century model. The advances in technology and engineering to allow a rail vehicle to reach 300km/h are just as impressive as the leaps from early automobiles to the Prius, and a modern streetcar is rather different from its 1920 ancestors. There is a perception of trains as dated, and cars as modern, that likely stems from the advertising efforts of the motor industry in the mid-20th century-- and that has somehow invaded our national consciousness.

But in another sense, the fact that railways are old technology is really relevant. The question is, how can we best organize our cities and our lives, how can we best move people from place to place in a world that is warming and running out of oil? The answer is renewable, electrified public transport, supplemented by active transportation, regardless of when the technology for that transport came about. While research is always nice, we don't need a shiny new tech breakthrough in order to implement these things. The technology is already there-- our problems are political.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Riverside Gets Streetcar Money

InlandEmpire.US, which appears to be an IE PR newswire, is reporting (along with the PE and CBS, but IE.US is running the full press release and everyone else seems to be a little confused) that the City has received $237,500 in state money towards the planning of a streetcar line from UCR to downtown, with the project dubbed "Riverside Reconnects." (Points for alliteration, but hardly inspiring.)

Prior reporting from the PE suggests that the plan will be little more than a novelty, rather than a serious investment in transport infrastructure. The plan is currently split between a single track and two tracks, the latter in mixed traffic. Either way, the plan as it currently exists (which, granted, is a back-of-the-envelope sketch straight from Mayor Rusty's office) would spend a lot of money to make a transport service that is worse than existing high-frequency bus transit along University. I'm hoping that $237,500 is enough to convince the City that this thing either needs dedicated lanes, or it needs to be smothered in its infancy, before we spend $100 million on a useless toy train for City Hall to brag about.

Hyperloop? Seriously?

Okay, so I leave y'all alone for two weeks, and I have to watch as everyone sings the praises of the Hyperloop? I feel obligated to respond.

For those who don't know, the Hyperloop is an idea that Elon Musk, founder of Paypal and Tesla Motors and current CEO of SpaceX, decided to do a bar-napkin sketch of. Similar proposals have existed in science fiction and futurist ramblings for quite some time. (RAND published a report on them in 1972, and Heinlein was writing about "vactubes" as early as 1956. I seem to remember that Niven's Ringworld was ringed with trains that took advantage of the exterior vacuum, although to be fair, these didn't need to run in tubes.) The reason Musk brings this up is that he claims such a system would be a significantly cheaper alternative to the current California High-Speed Rail Project.

This claim is wrong on so many levels that it's hard to address them all, and yet Musk is getting showered with media plaudits and the CA HSR project is getting attacked from all corners.

Okay, so what's wrong with the hyperloop project? First off, anyone serious should understand that Musk's "proposal" is, as I said, basically a sketch on a bar napkin. The cost estimates included sound authoritative, but they are extraordinarily high-level and rest on so many assumptions that the uncertainty involved in them is very high. The reason that the headline cost of the HSR project has basically doubled is that estimates and reality don't often coalesce. FTA wants year-of-expenditure accounting rather than 2010 dollars, NIMBYs fight you in court and you have to hire tons of lawyers, you get more precise estimates of materials and land costs that always seem to end up a little higher than your estimates, etc. etc. etc. Musk's project has the added uncertainty of being something that has never been built before, so the costs involved here are really just wild-ass guesses. (I mean, yeah, steel is a known quantity, but people are saying that he's wildly underestimating the cost of capsule environmental systems, for example.) Not to mention that he doesn't actually include the costs of prototyping and testing in his budget. Oops?

Second, he is woefully naive about the cost of right-of-way acquisition. He assumes that right-of-way is almost a non-issue because such a project could just use the median of I-5, and anyway it would be built on elevated structure so you wouldn't have to acquire so much land. Except that HSR is already planned to be built on elevated structure, and right-of-way acquisition is still a bitch. Oh, and I-5 isn't free, Caltrans will want to take their pound of flesh just like the farmers will. Oh, and that if you run it on I-5, you won't serve any of the towns that I-5 doesn't go to, like Fresno and Bakersfield, which have a million and damned near a million people in their metro areas each. And, of course, this ignores the central problem of ROW acquisition-- the cities.

The California HSR project is not expensive because it's being built over farmland in the middle of nowhere. Land acquisition and construction in the Central Valley, while somewhat contentious, is pretty cheap overall. On the ends of the project, on the San Francisco Peninsula and in urban Los Angeles, where there is no extra room down the middle of the freeway or relatively cheap farmland, and where every few feet of progress must be bought by demolishing a building or digging an expensive tunnel, is where right-of-way costs come in. And they are huge costs. More than the entire cost of Musk's proposal. So how does he avoid them?

Oh, that's the next problem. His proposal doesn't go to LA or San Francisco. It goes from Sylmar to Pleasanton. Funny how they left that out. Add in local transit times to actually get to LA proper, and that 30-minute ride actually becomes closer to a 3 hour ride. Toss in the security "similar to airports" that Musk proposes, and we all know how much that sucks, and you're looking closer to 4 hours. Also known as worse than CA-HSR. He also doesn't budget anything for station buildings, maintenance shops, or the storage areas that would be necessary for the kinds of capsule headways he proposes. Or the parking lots, because a lot of people are going to drive (their Teslas?) to these suburban stations, making Hyperloop a contributor to the problem of urban auto congestion.

And a brief moment again to discuss one of the major limitations of the technology. It's a point-to-point service. If the hyperloop had to accelerate and decelerate into stations en route, it would slow way down and the costs would go way up. You could get from LA to SF, or from SF to LA, but people from San Jose or Fresno or Bakersfield or Palmdale would be good and screwed. That leaves out millions of potential riders and, more importantly, millions of potential political supporters.

There are a lot more problems with Musk's proposal, but I think this is enough to show that the Hyperloop is a futurist fantasy, not a serious alternative to HSR. And therein lies the danger of these kinds of proposals. Now, HSR opponents have a smokescreen they can hide behind. They can say "Oh, I support the idea of having an LA-SF train, but this specific project isn't a good one. Why don't we do this Hyperloop thing that Elon Musk is talking about?" This is, in effect, the same as opposing an LA-SF train. The Hyperloop will never be built, and knowing that, HSR opponents can use it to look reasonable while still getting their desired outcome, which is killing the project.

For the record, I don't think that the Hyperloop as a technology is entirely without merit. I think we're going to see a post-petroleum future, one in which long-distance passenger aviation becomes either economically or ecologically unsustainable. I'm not nearly as sanguine as Musk is about the future of hypersonic transport. Some sort of evacuated tube train may well be the way we cross trans-continental or intercontinental distances in 2075 or 2100, where it'd be impractical to stop frequently anyway. (Either that, or maybe we'll use conventional HSR sleeper trains, much like China presently does on some of their longer HSR lines.)

Nor do I have any sort of personal vendetta against Elon Musk. SpaceX is doing way cool things, especially since NASA kind of gave up on doing a lot of cool things, and despite my feelings about electric cars, I wouldn't mind taking a Tesla for a spin up to Big Bear or Idyllwild (when it's no longer on fire). I just think this is a half-baked idea that will do more to harm the cause of intrastate transportation than help it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The IE Transit Challenge, Part 1

One of the problems with improving the fortunes of public transit in traditionally auto-dependent places is that people are creatures of habit. They looked in to taking the bus once a decade or two ago, and it was hard, so they didn't do it, or they simply don't think about alternative transportation so long as their car keeps running. And this is at least partially understandable-- moving through the city on transit takes a little more knowledge and planning than moving through it in a car. So I'm issuing a challenge to you-- yes, you, dear reader-- if you're one of those people who is sympathetic to cutting car use, but who doesn't regularly use our local transit system for whatever reason.

For the first four Saturdays in August, I'm going to post up an assignment for those of you who want to make a change in your own personal travel habits, but are unsure how to get started. Feel free to follow along, and comment with your experiences below.

First assignment! Find out about the transit routes that serve your home. Where are the nearest bus stops to you? What routes serve those stops? Where do those routes go? (Both endpoints and interesting destination along the way.) How often can you catch a bus, and what are the hours of service? On weekdays? On weekends?

You may be asking how one finds out this sort of information. In order to find your nearest bus stop, if you don't already know where it is, you might cast your gaze over to Google Maps. Zoom in pretty close, and little blue bus stop icons will start appearing. Look for them on major streets nearby. You might also try taking a look at the System Map for an idea of what streets near you host bus service-- here's RTA's and here's Omni's. (Not sure which one you are? RTA serves Riverside County and Omnitrans serves San Bernardino County.)

Once you've found your stop, either look at the system map or the stop itself for the routes it serves. (The bus stop sign will generally have route numbers on it.) And once you've found the route that serves your stop, the rest of the information you'll need can be found on the timetable for that route. (Omni, RTA)

By the way, you may have noticed that I didn't say anything about fares above. Both Omni and RTA have the same fare structure for casual riders-- $1.50 per boarding or $4 for a day pass.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!