Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Can't Get There From Here

So, yeah, I do like public transit. Not busses so much, too many unpleasant memories of junior high, but put me on a train going anywhere and I'm happy. When I was really little I loved the loud noises they made and the feeling of power. When I was older I came to understand and appreciate the public good they did by decreasing total fossil fuel consumption (versus everyone driving) and congestion. Now, I enjoy being able to, say, spend an hour going to San Francisco in which I'm reading a book and listening to Sigur Ros on my PSP instead of wrangling traffic and cursing.

The availability of public transit, GOOD public was one of the many factors that pushed me to look for and accept work in the Bay area. Silicon Valley is sort of notorious in Northern California for being car-happy, but even here there is a decent light-rail system (the VTA) as well as a regular commuter train to San Francisco. The further north you go, the stronger your transit options become: there is BART, arguably the most successful public transit system in America, and the Muni, which makes a compelling argument for not needing to own a car. Even in some cases where it would make more sense to just drive somewhere, I get a kick out of taking transit to get a feel for how it works.

I was therefore very pleased to discover that a new light rail extension would be opening very close to my apartment. It was originally scheduled for opening in mid-August, but this was pushed back after the Federal Railway Authority complained about some track layout issues. I was excited when I saw the trains start to run on Labor Day, but sadly, they were out of service. It appears that they did secure permission to run the trains, just not to carry passengers. So they at least were able to train the drivers on the new routes, although it felt like a bit of a tease to us waiting passengers.

Happily, all the legal issues were cleared up and they set an inauguration day: October 1st would see the opening of the new Winchester extension. In celebration of the occasion, they would offer free rides all day long. I'm nearly as much a sucker for free things as I am for large public gatherings and public transit, so it was inevitable that I would participate.

The grand ceremony was scheduled for noon, so I spent the morning doing the opposite of public transit, hiking out in the Castle Rock park. This has become a weekly ritual for me. Every Friday night I thumb through my copy of "South Bay Trails" and pick out a promising trek, and the next morning I drive out there and hike it. This was my second expedition to Castle Rock, which had many fine qualities that were slightly clouded by a massive gnat population (the first time I remember bugs being an issue on any of my expeditions) and an enthusiastic gun club. Unlike my last Castle Rock adventure, I did not get lost this time, and was headed back home slightly past noon.

I walked the half-block to the train station and waited. When the train arrived we squeezed on board. I was surprised and delighted by the sheer number of passengers; it looked like a Japanese commuter train. It looked like all sorts had turned out this Saturday to try it out; there were many families, including strollers; elderly folks, including wheelchairs; and, if you chose to shallowly make judgments about people based on their clothing, a wide range of income brackets were represented. People were friendly and chatting; many who seemed to be lifelong residents pointed out the sites we were passing, as well as what we would have been passing. ("Oh, that's where the K-Mart used to be. And that used to be the Catholic school.")

I took the train all the way to the Convention Center stop and then deboarded. While technically downtown, I'd never been this far southwest on foot before, and was pleasantly surprised by what a nice area it is. The sidewalks are very wide and walkable, there's lots of foliage, and an interesting mix of civic buildings, corporations, restaurants and culture. I also came across the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, a great open space in the heart of the city with several structures honoring the famous founder of the migrant workers movement. This is one of those great city places where you see people in suits lying on the grass, and college kids in shorts reading the paper on park benches. Somewhat more ominously, it boasted the first of several pay toilets I was to encounter. Welcome to Urinetown!

Moving east I encountered the Paseo de San Antonio, a slightly yuppieish but still enjoyable pedestrian road that runs east from Market Street. This pleasant area boasts some well-designed shops and housing. At the far end stood my immediate goal, the Camera 12 Cinema.

Camera is a movie chain here in San Jose and a bit of a legend. They're independent and family owned, have been around for several generations, and have withstood successive obstacles. They're committed to independent cinema and tend to book some of the more cutting-edge films as well as carrying more mainstream fare. They also act like an independent cinema by hosting film festivals, midnight movies, and more. I'd previously patronized the Camera 7 close to my apartment to see The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and now I wanted to see their sister theater present "Serenity."

I'm still not sure whether to include that review in this post of not. I guess not, this is already two posts in one. Suffice to say for now, the movie was great, and I left happy.

I was also a little chilly. I don't know if this is real or just my impression, but I feel like it gets dark out here quicker than it does in Kansas City. I'd originally planned on swinging by the next-door burger joint or Pizza My Heart to grab supper, but even though it was only 6:30 it was getting cold enough for me to change my plans. I scooted back down to the Civic Center and waited for the trolley to come around again.

The VTA light rail is different from other Bay Area transit in that it is an enormous money-loser. Ridership peaked at the height of the dot-com boom, when the highways were overcrowded and parking an expensive rarity. Three years later, fewer than half as many were riding, and Santa Clara county was stuck with subsidizing even more riders and completing obligations, including this new extension, that it had struck during the boom years.

Still, I think that people who look at light rail and see a failure are making a mistake. People in this country seem to have a tendency to only focus on a few limited criteria when making value judgments. Because it is easy to look at numbers like the cost of operating the rail, and the money people pay to ride it, many will just look at those figures and conclude it doesn't make sense. Life is much more complicated, however. First off, you need to accept that a large chunk of these people would be driving cars if it wasn't for the VTA. As I mentioned above, this would lead to more congestion and demand for fuel for everyone. Besides that, though, by decreasing total emissions, riders make things just a little bit healthier for everyone living in the valley. There's a little less CO, a little less haze getting in our lungs and our eyes. This is where it gets tricky to determine a value. Suppose that I never drove a car again, and because of the decrease in the pollution I create, people living here would live an average of 30 seconds longer before dying. (I'm completely making that number up, but pollution does kill the asthmatic and the elderly with weak lungs, and may shorten life for even healthy people.) Multiply that by several million residents, but how do you put a price tag on that? It's obvious to me that this is a good that the government is justified in encouraging, but how much should they be willing to pay for it?

In the long term, we as a society are going to need to figure out a way of calculating Total Cost and Total Good. I don't know how this will work; it feels callous to reduce everything (a human life, a sunset, drinkable water, quiet streets, smiles on faces) to a dollar amount, but at least we would be speaking in terms people understand. Once we begin to really accept the big picture, and the so-called intangibles that make it up, I hope we'll be able to prioritize the things that need to be done and are worth supporting, things like public transit and affordable housing and preservation of beautiful parks. That's sort of unfocused, but hopefully it's a start.

No comments:

Post a Comment