Tuesday, January 27, 2004

So I just returned from the 3rd Annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Portland, Oregon. Now, other than the fact that the weather in Portland during the winter isn't what I would call pleasant, the conference did provide me with an opportunity to learn about and see the results of Portland's 30 year experiment with smart growth (Those of you who don't know what I'm talking about when I say "Smart growth" can go here).

While I was generally impressed with what I saw, one of the highlights for me was the transit system. Portland has one of the highest ratios of transit ridership in the United States, with almost one quarter of all weekday trips being made on transit (this in a city that gets a lot of rain). I think you can credit this to several factors -- one being that Portlanders on the whole are a rather forward thinking bunch that have decided to embrace smart growth and create the types of neighborhoods that are walkable and support transit use -- and two being that the local transit agency, TriMet, is running a first class transit system.

I know many people have seen and heard about Portland's light rail system, which was one of the first in the nation. While the light rail is great (it connects the eastern and western suburbs with the airport and downtown), it only carries about 27% of the trips on transit. What really makes TriMet outperform every other transit agency it's size (and some larger) is that its buses are well run. Bus stops with frequent service are color coded, buses going to the different quadrants of the city pick up riders at marked and covered stops along a downtown transit mall, and at select stops and transit centers, electronic displays tell riders when the next bus or train is coming. You can even find out when the next bus or train is coming over your web-enabled phone or PDA. And of course, when you get to your stop, there's often a nice walkable streetscape to welcome you -- even if it is raining.

MTA -- you should be taking notes out of TriMet's playbook.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Today was a little bit out of the routine. I started the morning boarding the Hollywood DASH bus to go up a few blocks to the Red Line station like I do on some mornings. Only this time, after showing the driver my regional transit pass, he told me that I'd have to pay because my pass wasn't accepted on DASH buses. Previously, when I used the MTA monthly passes, he'd be right, but I bought the regional transit pass this month exactly for this reason (and also because I'm spending time in Long Beach). Anyhow, I told him that I thought he was mistakened, because regional passes were accepted on DASH buses, and that I had ridden the bus earlier in the week and had no problems. He tells me no again, and I guess since I was making a aggravated face, he says "but fine, if you don't believe me you can ride free."

Now I'm not one to freeload, but in this instance I took him up on it since I was pretty sure I was right. When I sat down, I noticed the route map/info brochure, and I grabbed one to see if it listed the valid fares. Sure enough, the regional transit pass was listed. At the next stop, I showed it to the bus driver, saying "Just so you know, it says right here that the regional pass is accepted." He got upset and told me "Fine, you're right. It's not a big deal." I left it at that, but I wasn't happy with the way he treated me or his responsibilities. I wrote down the bus number and the time, and I am contimplating filing a complaint, or at least a suggestion for the managers to let all the drivers know what passes are accepted.

On the train in to Downtown, the situation was opposite. Apparently inspectors from the MTA were on the train, because the train operator was announcing every stop several times in a clear, deliberate voice -- almost to the point of annoyance. He mentioned all the transfer points, warned passengers when the doors were about to open and close, and wished everyone a safe a pleasant day. Now that I know that the train drivers are trained and able to perform in this way, I think I might take it upon myself to mention it to them when they are neglecting their duties.

Friday, January 16, 2004

With six months of transit ridership under my belt (if you forget about the one month strike that halted 95% of transit in the county), I'm starting to feel that one of the reasons that more Americans don't ride transit is because human beings find it so difficult to make significant lifestyle changes -- be it eating right, excersing more, or driving less.

Before I started my "experiment", one of the main reasons I didn't ride transit was because I thought it would take too much time to go from one destination to another compared to driving. Sure, I was stuck fighting traffic, paying a big chunk of change for the privilage of driving, and polluting the air -- but at least I could usually get where I wanted to go in a reasonable period of time.

When I started taking the bus or train, I confirmed my suspicions -- my estimate being that trips using transit take 25-50% more time from door to door, mostly due to the extra walking and the waiting, with stops adding more time on long bus trips. I'll admit this was a bit annoying at first -- especially getting up earlier in the morning to make it to work at the same time. But, as time has passed, I grew accustomed to the slower pace of travel. I use the time to read, chat with fellow riders, listen to music, or simply contemplate.

And now, though you could say I've grown complacent about the slower speeds on transit compared to private automobiles, my reaction to having to occasionally drive somewhere is that I wouldn't want to have to deal with traffic, or look for a parking space, or have the extra expenses. I've started to become set in my ways.

So, perhaps all that needs to happen to get more people out of their cars and walking and riding transit is some shift in their lifes that acts as a catalyst to change their behavior, along with a little motivation for them to stick to it for a few months. After that, human nature will kick in, and keep many people chugging along in their slower, but more sustainable routine.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

This evening I rode back from Long Beach on the Blue Line with my co-worker after having come from a Long Beach City Council meeting where our proposed TOD housing development received its final approval from the city. We used the 55 minute ride back to Los Angeles as an opportunity to start planning an upcoming event on reviving urban corridors. As we were discussing various issues, some of the riders looked at us with curious or puzzled looks. Since most people are heading home after a hard day's work at six o' clock, you probably don't get people talking business often, which I can only assume was the reason for the odd glances.

Since I've been having to travel to Long Beach more often, I decided to get a regional transit pass so I could hop on any bus or train in the county without having to worry about carrying change. While the trip can be long (around an hour or so), as the example above shows, it does give me the opportunity to get some work done -- something I probably couldn't do in the car. My recent purchase of a wirelessly enabled Treo 600 even allows me to browse the web or check my email -- albeit not as easily as a laptop.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Happy New Year! As one of my many New Year's resolutions, I am determined to resume regular updates of this blog after two months.

Since my last update, the MTA mechanic's strike finally came to an end on November 17th, 2003 after 35 days -- the second longest in the county's history (the longest was a 68 day strike in 1974), and the eighth Los Angeles transit strike in 30 years. Needless to say, the strike was very costly to all parties involved (although it was reported that the MTA actually saved money during the strike by not running most of its buses and trains). Since the agreement, there has been some talk that the MTA and the Bus Driver's and Mechanic's unions might agree to settle all future contract disputes without work stoppages, but I'm not sure anything has come of that. I'm hoping that this is the last strike (at least this decade) -- I'm not sure I could do it again.

With the buses and trains running again, I've resumed my normal commute on the Red Line, and been able to move around the city much more easily (and inexpensively).

Yesterday, I had my first experience riding on a Metrolink train, the county's commuter rail system. I was heading to Riverside to spend New Year's Eve with some of my relatives, who agreed to pick me up from the train station when I got there. The 55 mile trip took about one and a half hours (including a transfer), and I spent the time chatting with some regular riders about the commute. Though I myself am strongly commute averse (my ideal commute would be across the street), I think we all agreed that the Metrolink was superior to facing the 91 freeway each workday.

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