Monday, February 21, 2011

California's aversion to "mass transit" turns bus drivers into heroes

Bus drivers who operate the service through Spencer Avenue bus pad, the stop nearest my home in Sausalito, must have one of the best jobs in the world. The expression of pure gratitude and joy on my face as they open the doors must be a reward for drivers who service the route over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The trip over one of the world's most famous landmarks is hardly the downside of a job with Golden Gate Transit, which compensates for its infrequency with punctuality and friendly drivers.

Spencer Avenue bus pad is on Highway 101, the main artery north of San Francisco that floods with traffic day and night. If you were to follow what the Spanish called El Camino Real, you'd end up in Canada, via Oregon and Washington states.

I can see a lot of this traffic through my office window (see photo above), along with the shipping traffic over the San Francisco Bay, much of it with imports from China. Some 1.7m vehicles sweep past my house every month - in one direction. Presumably the same number of cars head north, too.

As I wait for the bus, I see a tiny fraction of the 3.4m vehicles that pass my house each month. I feel stranded as though on a desert island amid a sea of roaring cars zooming past at 70mph. Buses are rare enough, especially out of commuter hours and at night. If you miss one, you may have to wait another hour or, if you're really unlucky, until the next day. I rarely leave the house without first having to run comparative research on two transport websites and print out up to half a dozen pages of directions, bus timetables, etc.

Like Robinson Crusoe, when I catch a glimpse of a bus my heart leaps with hopeful anxiety. Will it stop? Has it seen me? When the bus actually pulls over, it feels nothing short of a miracle. The number 70 bus driver is suddenly transformed into my saviour in just one flick of the indicator. Thank you, thank you, I cry. It's certainly a emotional, nerve-wracking start to a journey into the city to make a meeting, a networking event or drinks with friends.

I have been in the Bay Area since the end of October and there are many things to like and admire here. But the public transport system is not one of them. Its MUNI light rail system and the BART are the exceptions. But the light rail is nowhere near extensive enough, with much of the city serviced by buses. So Balkanised is SF's transport system that I'm told the original BART plans did not include a stop at San Francisco Airport, and residents' unfounded "fears" of a crimewave spreading to Marin blocked the scheme from heading north, which would have since benefited tens of millions of commuters.

San Francisco's transport system is full of surprises, not least that people tell me it is the best in the state and western United States. But my experience so far has shown me a second-rate transport system in a first-rate economy.

Before I arrived, I knew all about American car culture and the fact that the collapse of its auto industry brought the US economy to its knees. I also knew about the American street car scandal.

But what I didn't realise was that the American love affair with the car meant no public transport. Services have also been cut during the economic crisis at a time when mobility of the economically active should be a top priority, either to help them to find a job or help them keep that job by providing public transport.

The assumption has to be, therefore, that those who do not drive are not of economic value to society. This link between access to public transport and poverty was made by William Julius Wilson, Professor of Social Policy at Harvard in his 1996 book, When Work Disappears - apparently an inspiration for TV show The Wire. The resulting "spatial mismatch", a term coined by John F. Kain in 1968, has been blamed for many of the social problems associated with poverty. Sadly, this social phenomenon is as plain to see to the casual observer as it was four decades ago.

Neither did I know that zoning laws for road construction required businesses to provide parking, but not sidewalks. The result of this for me has had an unintended benefit - because there appears to be no ordinance on provision of pavements for local authorities or businesses, there are many more bike lanes which makes cycling around Marin County much more pleasant.

But the downside is that residential areas rarely have pavements which makes walking hazardous, creating a disincentive to walk anywhere on the streets that wind steeply through Sausalito, regardless of how lovely it is, how refreshing the air and how stunning the views.*

People think my partner and I are crazy when we walk down the hill into the centre of Sausalito, just because - well, it's simply too lovely to drive for all the reasons above*. They look aghast through their windscreens, with the progression of thoughts: Are they OK? Where's their dog? Oh, poor them, the car must be in the garage …

Part two: CalTrain cuts are off the rails


  1. Hello,

    When Vick was living in Dallas, I shocked all of her friends out there by insisting on finding a way in and out of the city, and indeed to Fort Worth by public transport. I'm not even sure they knew there was a public transport option... (and yes just like Marin, the residents of this trendy bit of Dallas had successfully lobbied for the overground tram to bypass their area for fear of a crime spree)

    I totally know what you mean about people looking at me as if I were mad. I had to wait for a bus outside a smart lunch spot and people were just staring at me...

    To misquote Thatcher, I suspect that to them, 'A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure'.

    And isn't that the problem - that public transport (apart from in NYC/Chicago) is considered purely the preserve of the disenfranchised?

  2. Thanks for your comment Jess… I'd forgotten the Thatcher 'misquote'. It surely would have made it in if I'd remembered!