I rode Caltrain to work this morning for the first time in months. There was a new feature that I haven’t experienced: someone’s phone alarm was going off for almost the entire ride. Presumably they were asleep and the alarm was not efficacious, but it was annoying as hell. Which is par for the course these days on Caltrain. I specifically take a train that overshoots my destination and take a different shuttle back rather than use the most logical combination of station and shuttle, because that station and shuttle are overcrowded beyond reason – they’re at capacity and it’s not enough.
This wasn’t a problem in DC. Well, it was, during tourist season – but you could generally avoid that if you played your cards right, and besides, it’s entirely permissible in DC to plough through people who stand in the doorway or on the left of the escalator. God, I miss the East Coast. But more than that, there were two factors in the commute:
1) It was about a 10 minute walk from my apartment to the Metro, between five and ten minutes from the Metro to work at the other end, and about 10 minutes on the train in between. One train, running every 12 minutes. If it was absolutely last-refugee-train-out-of-Paris packed, you could always wait and hop another one in 12 minutes (or less, because the packed one was probably late and the chaser behind it would be less so).
2) There was a certain measure of commonality there – you could be standing next to a homeless guy who was next to an two-star Air Force general in service dress who was next to a very attractive GWU co-ed, and all of them in a good mood because the Skins beat down Dallas yesterday. Everyone, regardless of age or station, was taking the Metro.
I don’t get that here. The proliferation of company shuttles, “ride share services” (read: unregulated cabs) and lack of a central target have all combined to make it impossible to have a service that everyone’s using in the morning. For one thing, instead of everyone coming into the center from outlying spokes, everyone’s shuffling back and forth on one line. No counter-commute (there are very few major roads that even have a counter-commute anymore) and to be honest, precious little actual service. Not every train stops at every station, and if you’re starting from a particularly outlying one, you might have only one or two chances per hour to get on Caltrain. God help you if you want to go from, say, San Antonio to Hayward Park, because you literally cannot catch a direct train at rush hour. You have to change somewhere.
Make no mistake, the changes are what kills you. Instead of one train and a walk, I’ve got light rail-to-Caltrain-to-shuttle bus, which means you’re guaranteed to stand around waiting twice. The vehicle time, strung together, is around 20 minutes, but the waits push it closer to 40 unless you’re willing to take a chance that VTA won’t be too late in the morning to meet the Caltrain, or the bus won’t be caught in too much traffic to make the train on time in the afternoon. And if somebody takes a wrong turn down the track instead of the road or tries to beat the crossing in their SUV, all bets are off.
In DC, there was an additional disincentive to drive – no way could you get from home to work in 30 minutes. Yes, it’s five miles, but it’s going to take at least half an hour and there’s an $11 parking fee when you get to the office. Here’s it’s drive in 20 minutes, park for free and catch the 10 minute shuttle over to the office, and you’ve still made it as quick as you could have on VTA-Caltrain-shuttle. And you’re not crammed into a standing-room-only train or dodging bikes in the tunnel at University Avenue or sitting for fifteen minutes waiting for the light rail to pull out. You have air conditioning and satellite radio and your phone is charging, not draining.
And now we aren’t going to get Caltrain electrification – which might have updated the dreadfully-aged rolling stock and enabled more frequent service – because we are governed by monkeys whose only thought is to throw their own shit at anything someone else thinks is a good idea. The one thing that could have made a dent in the misery of train commuting, the money already allocated previously, but we gave our country’s steering wheel to the oldest, weakest and stupidest among us. But anyway.
Here’s the thing about mass transit: it has to go places you want to go, when you want to go there. What we have isn’t transit. We’ve got a commuter rail that pretends to be transit. If you only have one train an hour at rush hour to get where you want to go, that ain’t transit. If it only runs between 10 AM and 6 PM every half hour, that ain’t transit (sorry, “Mountain View Community Shuttle”, you’re merely a feel-good bandage for Google). And if it’s a freakin’ car, that ain’t transit. Eat shit, “Uber Pool.”
People ask all the time what we can do to improve Silicon Valley transit. I’d say the best improvement would be to actually get some. I’m in favor.