The way to San Jose — or Atlanta: Why it is definitely not light rail

Benita M. Dodd's picture

rdine can that is a train.

That’s why, once one neglects to make a timely reservation on any of the popular 30-minute, $40 road shuttle services between San Francisco and San Jose, the $7.50 Caltrain ticket becomes an enticing option. Once.

For 90 minutes in a nearly empty double-decker car, you have the unique opportunity to eavesdrop on loud cell phone conversations; watch the Webcam conversation on the laptop beneath you; follow in fascination as a wannabe chef creates and devours a strawberry shortcake before your very eyes, or gaze out a grimy window and view the aesthetically piled trash along the dreary way.

Gainesville (Fla.) City Commissioner Ed Braddy, after traveling the light rail system in San Jose, California’s oldest city, announced confidently: “I have seen the future of vibrant urbanism.”

“It is pink ... with little chunks sprawling across the floor of a light rail car.”

Braddy’s remarks followed his experimental light rail trip between his hotel and a reception at the historic Sainte Claire hotel about three miles away in downtown San Jose. He and his group were returning to their hotel, a quick trip of seven minutes door-to-door for people savvy enough to take a car after paying their dues on Caltrain.

The $1.75 light-rail trip should have been a stress-free 17 minutes, not including the quarter-mile walk each way at each end and the 20-minute wait on a chilly night. It turned into a harsh testament on why Americans, given the choice, overwhelmingly prefer the flexibility, privacy and controlled environment of their own vehicles.

Braddy’s group and two waiting passengers entered a car occupied by three people. Adjoining cars were also sparsely populated, but after a few stops, two young men entered from an adjoining car.

“The guy in front is staggering — my first thought was he was trying to balance against the movement of the train — and he’s moving toward us,” Braddy recalls. “When he gets within eight feet, he turns his head and pukes on the door and on the floor, again and again and again.”

Compounding matters, the train delayed at the next stop as the train operator chased down the departing culprits and ordered them back to “clean it up”: Cover up the mess with newspaper.

The Valley Transit Authority couldn’t have shown the downside of light rail at a more inopportune moment. Braddy and his group were in town from across the nation for the Preserving the American Dream Conference. The city had been selected by the American Dream Coalition for its 2007 conference site as a case study on how to dash the American dream.

Randal O’Toole writes in “Do You Know the Way to L.A.?” that “In its zeal to get people out of their cars, San Jose’s transit board built an expensive rail system that it couldn’t afford to run. This resulted in a scathing grand jury investigation, an even more scathing report from an outside auditor, and the resignation of several top agency managers. Yet the board is determined to build still more rail lines it can’t afford to operate.”

Between 1984 and 2004, the region built 35 miles of light-rail lines. Now a move is afoot to find at least $4.7 billion to extend a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) line to San Jose. But as O’Toole points out, (much like metro Atlanta) San Jose is a classic automobile region: 90 percent was built after 1950; only a small percentage of the region’s jobs are in downtown San Jose; and suburban densities are greater than the city center. No matter how much is spent on transit, it is not likely to ever carry more than 4-5 percent of commuters (3.3 percent in 2005).

Rail’s fascination isn’t just out West. Georgia’s Transit Planning Board recently received updated cost and ridership projections for seven proposed commuter rail corridors, based on analysis of the “peer cities” of Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Southern Florida and Northern Virginia/Washington. “Results show that all proposed commuter rail lines could enjoy the same level of success as the peer cities,” the board was told.

What an incredible assumption that the “poster child for sprawl” could enjoy the rail success of Los Angeles, the nation’s densest metro area. That’s why it’s called “romancing rail.” Some see it through rose-colored glasses and big plans. Others see it pink and with little chunks.

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Submitted by tikigod on Tue, 01/22/2008 - 10:53pm.

If the idea behind this article is to equate light rail with commuter rail, I would have to say that idea is seriously flawed. Atlanta is attempting to create a commuter rail network, something completely different from a light rail system. Commuter rail will utilize existing track and make minor upgrades. In other words, the right of way and tracks already exist, we just have to put some commuter trains on them. Its likely that with the San Jose light rail system, they had to purchase ROW, tear up roads, install track, etc. Atlanta will not have to do all of that.

Also, commuter rail does not run all day. So those folks vomiting on the train will likely not exist on our commuter rail system. You won't be able to catch a train from Atlanta to PTC at 11pm because the last train will probably leave at about 7-8. Commuter rail is not true public transportation, limited runs during rush hours will only be useful to those going to work and back.

However, the success of commuter rail in Atlanta hinges on one aspect, better mobility within the city of Atlanta. If rail service were to be introduced right now, you would be able to get downtown, but you would likely not be able to get to your job. Luckily, Atlanta is currently working on a way to connect more areas of the city of Atlanta through the Beltline. If the city builds the Beltline, it looks likely at this point, the city will be significantly more accessible to those traveling throughout the city without a car.

Commuter rail is not light rail. It is doubtful that it will bring any more crime to the area as it will not be cheap, has limited hours, and if designed well, the suburban stations will only be accessible by car. I personally think that commuter rail should be attempted in the northern suburbs before a place like Lovejoy or PTC. They NEED it, we don't. It seems obvious that building more lanes is a very temporary "solution". And no, commuter rail is NOT MARTA OR A LIGHT RAIL SYSTEM. It is completely different.

Submitted by tikigod on Tue, 01/22/2008 - 11:13pm.

The Georgia Transit Planning Board's review of "peer cities" was not an "incredible assumption"! They were looking at those cities' commuter rail systems NOT light rail. San Jose's network is nothing like the systems that the Transit Planning board reviewed; their incredible assumption is most likely incredibly accurate.

If you still don't see the difference between the two, go back and read everything I just wrote, or better yet, actually research the difference between the two. Its ignorance like this that will keep Atlantan's in stuck in their car for decades to come.

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