Wednesday, February 23, 2011

CalTrain's cuts to Silicon Valley services are off the rails

Train travel in San Francisco is an awkward experience for a European and there are plenty of them in town this week for the Global Green Cities conference. California is the perfect place to come to discuss topics such as "liveable, compact, transit-oriented cities" as there is much work to be done here and transport authorities want to make further cuts to services.

A few weeks ago, I took the CalTrain that serves Silicon Valley to interview an entrepreneur. I'm going to ignore the fact that it took me 2.5 hours in total to get there. I enjoyed the hour from the city centre to Palo Alto on the impressive, two-deck diesel trains. It was clean, punctual and cheap. And it was a rare opportunity to sit and read a newspaper, plan my day and sit quietly and think…

Transport part one: California's aversion to mass transit turns bus drivers into heroes

The CalTrain station is tucked away in an anonymous pocket of San Francisco, near the Tenderloin. There's nothing unusual about transport hubs being located in run down areas - or vice versa, it's hard to tell which came first sometimes. But there are very few signs for the station and the terminal itself is barely signed, as if it's slightly embarrassed to be a railway station. New York's Grand Central Station, Paris's Gare du Austerlitz and every station in Moscow were a source of civic pride when they were built. Not poor 4th and King.

The ticket hall was empty when I arrived at 9.10am except for a few homeless people. I'd just missed the last "rush hour" train and had to wait another hour for the next train. There was no indication of where any of the trains went, presumably because they only have one line to go anywhere on.

CalTrain's budget has been slashed in the past two years and it shows. The ticket booth was in a sorry state, with a sheet drawn across it and a sign saying it had been closed since October 2010. There are machines in the ticket hall - lots of them. But they don't take UK debit or credit cards and there were no CalTrain staff to ask questions. The man in the coffee shop was very helpful, however, as is the way in San Francisco. I eventually bought my ticket at the Walgreen's pharmacy over the road to become one of CalTrain's 37,000 daily passengers.

A CalTrain spokeswoman said that closing the ticket booth has saved $650,000. And there have been other brutal cuts:
"Up until August 2009 Caltrain operated 98 trains on weekdays. At that time we eliminated 8 midday trains. In January we eliminated another 4 midday trains. These were cost-cutting measures. We chose those trains because it would impact the fewest number of riders."

"It is probably fair to save that Californians are only just beginning to realize the benefits of public transportation and to understand the importance of investing in public transportation.  That is why it is particularly disheartening to be considering deeper cuts in service at this time."
But further cuts are being considered, including slashing weekday trains from 86 to 48, suspension of services to stations where poorer people tend to live and suspension of the weekend service.

CalTrain's Palo Alto stop also serves Stanford University, a centre of academic excellence of global importance. But it doesn't take a Stanford brainiac to see the correlation between a good public transit system and the huge wealth created in the Valley.

Google and eBay are rich enough to provide shuttle services for their staff, but many other tech companies and startups provide free transport on CalTrain to entice their staff to make the trek from the apartments of the Mission to Palo Alto.

The entrepreneur I was travelling to Palo Alto to interview underscored the importance of being near a CalTrain station for his business:

"It's important in Silicon Valley to locate a start up next to a train line because there’s so much competition for all the great talent. Very few employees live in fear of their jobs here. They all know they can go somewhere else. That’s why you provide other things such as free train transport companies like Google and eBay have their own shuttle system. So for us, not being on the train line is a little bit like death."

It will probably take the clout and ingenuity of Valley entrepreneurs to prevent the cuts from biting so deeply. But if the best minds in the world, the most exciting innovators and successful entrepreneurs cannot hold on to a good rail service what hope is there elswhere?

In the documentary The End of Suburbia, author and 'new urbanist' (which to a European means a town with a high street that you can walk to) James Howard Kunstler, describes the US railway network as one that would embarrass Bulgaria.

It's worse than that and it's about to get worse if the US president fails to hold firm on his commitment to high-speed rail. Barack Obama was greeted in San Francisco last week by mayor Ed Lee, who made a point of thanking the president for federal funds for high-speed rail and the Central Subway project.

It's unlikely that Obama took the CalTrain to Silicon Valley (although maybe he should have). But while he met with tech executives such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple chief Steve Jobs, Governor Rick Scott of Florida rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando which was hailed as a "once in a lifetime" decision and would have created thousands of jobs.

But Scott didn't even wait to find out how much the private sector was prepared to stump up. He wants instead to focus on highways and port traffic from the Panama canal.  I'm not sure why the two are mutually exclusive, but Scott isn't the only Republican Governor to reject the funds.

Last year, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio also derailed $1.2m in federal funding for high-speed rail. But Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Governor of  California, did the honourable thing and offered  to take some of the money off their hands, along with other states, such as Illinois.

But high-speed rail in California is not without its problems even though the state's HSR programme is supposedly miles ahead of the rest.

In this year's state of the union address, Obama said: "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway."

But in reality, HSR in California still has miles to go, even though Obama quickly followed through with his pledge by sending his vice-president Joe Biden to Philadelphia to announce $53 billion in federal funds over over the next six years.

That figure might be enough to fund California's HSR from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which will cost an estimated $43 billion bullet train project. But so far, the numbers don't add up despite a bond issue of $9 billion and about $3.6 billion from the federal government. The California High Speed Rail Authority has only recently asked the private sector to formally submit expressions of interest in contracts worth $5.5 billion.

But funding even small capital transport projects is fraught with difficulty since financing is so dependent on the retail economy. I was very excited to learn recently that the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) to the north of San Francisco  was given the green light in 2008. The line will roughly run parallel to Highway 101 which goes past my house.

The rail project will take more than 1.3 million car trips off Highway 101 annually and reduce greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, by at least 124,000 pounds per day. Capital construction costs for the rail and pathway project are estimated to be $590 million.
But because the economy nosedived soon after it was voted for, the project has been delayed because it will be paid for by a .25c on sales tax. Why not take these revenues from a more reliable source such a road tax that would have the double advantage of being a disincentive to motorists?
In the spirit of federalism, I accept there probably isn't a one size fits all solution to transporting Americans and the goods they need within states or across this vast nation. But perhaps the biggest surprise to me of all in the transport debate is that "mass transit" is a divisive political issue. In the EU most politicians would agree that provision of public transport is too fundamental to be partisan. How it is funded would separate them - albeit less so along ideological lines of right and left than in earlier decades.

I didn't "get" it until I read this blog post on Why Republicans Hate Mass Transit. It's a simple conflict between town and country, as old as civilisation itself: Republicans represent suburbia, Democrats represent cities.

But who are these Republicans trying to fool? Do they want to be remembered for helping the US recover from the Great Recession? Do they want to be Hoover or Roosevelt? Or do they want to be forgettable politicians who joined in with spiteful Tea Party mudslinging that put bringing down a president ahead of helping the economy recover? If their political pettiness had prevailed during the Great Depression their opposition to collaboration in hard times would probably have prevented the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges from ever getting off the ground.

This negative politicking has to be bad for business and the country. Is it really the American way to cling to car dependency until city streets become jammed like parking lots and/or we run out of oil?
According to Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, authors of Carjacked, Americans spent nearly 500,000 years stuck in traffic in 2007 (nearly 4.2 billion hours). 

OK, so it's impossible to name a city that doesn't suffer congestion. But this figure has more than doubled since 1982, they say.
Surely in simple terms, this is a massive waste of productivity. Just think of all those brainiac developers and Stanford academics travelling for 2 hours each day on the Caltrain to get to and from Palo Alto. Some of the greatest ideas may have had their genesis between 4th & King and California Avenue stations.

I always believed that universal healthcare and universal education were indicators of a healthy society, that valued prosperity and people. Now I'll have to add public transport to that list. But at least it means I will never complain about the UK's rail service again which was brought up to speed in part by Richard Branson. If the Virgin King has space in his diary, I'd suggest a meeting with California's High Speed Rail Authority

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