Wednesday, December 30, 2009


On the #16-
Driver: "This is one of the best jobs I've ever had."

Take note: Transit operations funding creates good jobs.

2009: The Year in Transit

As we say good-bye to the noughties, I'd like to take a look back at Riding in Riverside's first full year in operation, 2009.

In January, La Sierra University joined U-Pass, Greyhound service was struggling to remain in the city, and RTA was trying to overcharge day pass riders.

In February, we got the first announcement of the 2009 service cuts, the stimulus bill pumped money into IE freeways, and Greyhound stranded me downtown.

In March, I got a statement from the Mayor on public transit, dug up evidence of RTA's RapidLink project, and discovered the wonders of grocery delivery.

In April, the first seeds of the multi-modal transit centre were planted, Councilwoman Hart said some stupid things about Greyhound, and I made my endorsements in the City Council elections.

In May, I tried to turn readers into riders, commented on the proposed Short-Range Transit Plan, and Omnitrans deprived people of barbecue.

In June, I laid out my proposal for a Riverside light rail, Google Transit for RTA went up for the first time, and our late-night service was cruelly taken away.

In July, LA Metro joined Google Transit, the City Council made a dumb decision about parking fines, and RTA's data fell out of Google Transit, because it was apparently requiring transfers somewhere north of Guam.

In August, I talked about my trip to NYC, the City Council approved what would become Riverside Go Transit, U-Pass, and took a clear step towards the multi-modal transit centre, I proposed my solution to Metrolink capacity issues, and I gave an interview with a local podcast.

In September, Omni saw a fare hike, the first RTA service ever to run past midnight began service, and OCTA disconnected the 794 from, well, everything else.

In October, I reminded folks about transfer policies, called out a Congressman for hypocrisy, and celebrated my 23rd birthday with official news of the new multi-modal transit centre.

In November, I reported on upcoming Dial-a-Ride policy changes, Riverside became a Bronze-level bicycle-friendly community, and the Corona Transit Center broke ground. Also, Los Angeles celebrated the opening of the Eastside Gold Line Extension.

In December, SANBAG started studying Victor Valley express bus options, Metrolink proposed draconian service cuts- and then did nothing about them, and the Riverside Go Transit program launched, offering cheap bus passes to all Riversiders.

Looking forward into the new year, service changes are coming on January 10th, and we can hope for progress on the Riverside transit centre and the Perris Valley Line, both of which cleared significant hurdles in 2009.

Also, readers should know: Greyhound has NOT left Riverside. The new signage on the Greyhound building downtown, marking it as a police station (which it is), does not mean that service to the station has ceased. The station is open 7am-3:30pm and 6pm-9pm daily.

I'd like to wish all my readers a happy and prosperous new year, and I hope for a better transit system in 2010.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays from Riding in Riverside

Happy Holidays from the TheBus bus, originally uploaded by nsub1.

Greetings, dear readers. I hope that you are all off enjoying solstice-related merrymaking today. I'm sorry to inform you that RiR may be going on a brief hiatus- I'm taking a trip to New Mexico with my family from Christmas through New Year's, and I'm unsure as to how much access I'll have to the internet.

From Riding in Riverside, thanks for another year of putting up with me, happy holidays, and (if I don't see you again soon) a prosperous new year.

Transit Fallacies, Part 3- Who Rides?

(This is the third in a series of posts about the way we think about transit. You can also read parts 1 and 2.)

Who is public transit intended for? It seems like a simple question, and like many simple questions, it has a simple answer, right there in the name. Public transit is intended for the public, meaning everyone. Public transportation providers should focus on meeting the needs of everyone in their community. Many providers do this- San Francisco's Muni, for example, plans their system to put a bus stop within a certain radius of every home or business in the city. However, public transit commentary in places without a strong transit culture often focuses on segments of society, assuming that they make up the only people who ride.

I speak, of course, of the young, the old, the poor and the disabled.

Out here in the suburbs, it is assumed that every able-bodied adult posess a driver's license and have access to an automobile in the course of their daily lives. This phenomenon is widely known as "car culture." We assume, then, that by-and-large, able-bodied adults do not ride public transit. Those who do must be so indigent as to be unable to afford a car. This small portion of the adult population that rides is assumed to be supplemented by those too young to drive, those to old to drive safely (or who are poor because of their retirement), and those who are unable to drive. Even transit advocated are guilty of making these assertions. It is common that pro-transit arguments are made in the name of ensuring the mobility of these disadvantaged groups. (I'm guilty of it myself, when arguing to save the 36-Calimesa.) While making sure that these people have a form of basic mobility is a noble goal, it ought not be the sole goal of public transit, nor a key component in how we think about transit.

When public transit is made efficient and attractive, able-bodied adults will happily ride it. Not everyone wants the expense of owning, maintaining and operating a piece of heavy machinery. Certainly there are those who will never set foot on a public bus in their lives on principle, but I contend that they are in the minority. In San Francisco, nearly as many trips are made via transit as driving, and driving does not account for a majority of trips. (It accounts for a plurality, 40%, to be sure, but the remaining 60% is split evenly between transit and human power.) Most automobile trips are made by suburban commuters. And the San Francisco Muni is largely a bus system. Ask anyone on the 30-Stockton through Chinatown and Little Italy about adults riding transit, and they'll tell you volumes- assuming they have enough room on board to breathe. Even drivers appreciate the transit system, whenever the Bay Bridge is closed or crowded, or their vehicles break down. The usual response to vehicle malfunctions in Riverside is a call to the car rental agency.

The short-sightedness of our conception of transit's ridership affects the way we think about transit systems and routes. RTA does a fantastic job, even in outlying areas, of serving senior centres, hospitals, and public high schools. Marked on bus maps are places like the Social Security Office and the Dept. of Social Services, and colleges are used as transfer points throughout the service area. The implication is clear- this system was designed with the needs of the young, the old, and the poor in mind. While the system in the City of Riverside manages to serve a reasonably large portion of the city, the seemingly random deviations of routes like Murietta's #23 are a direct result of how we think about public transit's ridership. The bus is paid for by everyone, and it should serve the needs of everyone.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

FTA Money Headin' to the IE

President Obama today signed into law the new Transportation and Urban Development Appropriations bill, which, among other things, will send quite a bit of money to Metrolink. A lot of that is heading to safety, with $400,000 for grade crossing safety along the Ventura County Line, $750,000 for grade crossings between Simi Valley and Moorpark, and $487,000 for positive train control. All fairly small grants.

And then LAist tosses out this little gem: "$5 million in New Starts funding for the Perris Valley Line".


PV Line construction is expected to begin in 2011, with service starting 2012. Maybe a little federal money will speed the process up a bit.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Commenter Eric Knows All

Commenter Eric Knows All, originally uploaded by plattypus1.

Per assurances from "Eric" in a comment on my Riverside Go Transit post, the Riverside Go Transit program is advertised in the new Ride Guide. This scan is from the inside of the front cover, and is full colour even!

Disclosure Statement

In accordance with new FTC regulations covering bloggers who make statements about products or services, I am hereby publishing a policy regarding advertisements and endorsements on this blog. This policy is effective immediately, 12-22-2009, and will remain effective until a new one is published.

This blog is a personal blog. Though I strive to be informative, I make no pretense of objectivity. In Air America host Thom Hartmann's exceptional phrasing, Riding in Riverside is "fair and slightly unbalanced." Independent of ideology, however, what I report here will be held to the highest standards of factual accuracy.

The opinions posted here are my own. All content on this blog belongs solely to me, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of my employer or any organization of which I am a member unless otherwise stated. All content on this blog is copyright Justin M. Nelson, licensed under the Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-SA v. 3.0 license. This means you are free to quote my work and even modify it, so long as you cite the source and extend these permissions to any work incorporating mine.

I run ads on this blog. They are automatically generated by Google AdSense, and I have no control over the content of these ads. I am paid (very little- to date I've made around $5) for these ads by Google, who is paid for these ads. I don't even see these ads on most occasions, because I am an AdBlock user, and these ads do not, in any way, affect my writing.

I occasionally mention products or services, usually ones that aid me in my travels. I have not received any compensation from the producers of these products or services to date. If I do receive any compensation, I will disclose it in the relevant post. Regardless of compensation received, readers should understand that my endorsement of a product is not for sale. My review of a product or service should be understood as my opinion of that product, free of the influence of the entity that provided it.

I am not an employee of RTA, Omnitrans, OCTA, Foothill Transit, Metro, SCRRA, Sunline or any other transportation provider, nor am I an employee of a subsidiary or a contractor that provides services to any transportation provider. I am an employee of the University of California at Riverside, which purchases transportation from RTA as part of the U-PASS program, supporting routes 51 and 53. This contract does not change my opinion of these services, and I would enjoy them regardless. I receive free transportation from RTA as a UCR student, through the U-PASS program. My readers know that this does not soften my criticisms of the Agency in any way. Prior to the implementation of this program, I held a monthly RTA pass, and if the program were discontinued I would expect to continue riding.

Sorry for the dense legalese. This post will be linked at the side of the blog, next to the license notice, for ease of reference. If a change in policy occurs, I will notify readers with another blog post.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Transit directions by SMS

For those of you who aren't lucky enough to have a cellphone capable of running Google Maps for Mobile (which is quite a few nowadays, by the way- point your phone browser at, Dadnab is a free service providing transit directions via text message for select areas. Of course, I'm mentioning this because Southern California (including Riverside) is one of those areas.

If you're out and about and need transit directions, send a text message with your origin and destination to and you'll soon receive step-by-step transit directions. And yes, you can send a text message to an e-mail address. If your phone doesn't allow this, the Dadnab web site provides workarounds for most major wireless carriers.

Google SMS still doesn't support transit directions, so it's great to see somebody stepping up and providing this service. As I mentioned before, the service itself is free. However, you still pay whatever you'd normally pay for text messaging.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ridership in Riverside

A reader, Helen, sent me a link to a Planetizen article showing that the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Metropolitan Statistical Area (which covers the entire counties of San Bernardino and Riverside) ranked third in the nation for growth in public transit usage between 2006 and 2008, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau. The article reports a 26% increase in transit commuting in the IE, and favourably quotes RTA's Brad Weaver. (I should note that RTA isn't the only transit agency in the area, which is also served by Omnitrans, MARTA, VVTA, Pass Transit, Sunline, MBTA, Palo Verde Valley Transit, Barstow Area Transit, Needles Area Transit, Corona Cruiser, Metrolink, and on the edges by Foothill Transit and OCTA.) These data are undoubtedly indicative of a positive trend, but the measures used by the study are questionable, and the sampling size must be outrageously small. We know that only a few percent of the residents of our area actually take transit, and this study is based on the self-reported commuting habits of survey-takers. The likelihood that, say, a thousand randomly-sampled IE residents contains more than 10 or so transit riders is rather small, and so the 25% increase they're reporting could very well be from 10 to 12. Also, the article mentions the margin of error for the study, which they say is under 15%. So that means the actual increase in transit ridership could be anywhere from 10% to 40%.

Now, I happen to have found all of RTA's ridership reports (with the curious exception of September 2007) from December 2004 until now, and took some time today while watching Maddow to plug real ridership numbers into a nice, chunky spreadsheet, and then into my statistical analysis software (which produces really nice graphs). Let's see what we see, shall we?

Here's the ridership data from the study period, January 2006 through December 2008. The blue line is the reported totals, and the red line represents what we call a "regression line", which is a way of representing the average relationship between two variables, in this case time (in months) and ridership. What we see here in this graph is actually consistent with the reported Census Bureau data- ridership increases from ~520,000 to ~650,000 (looking at the regression line, which smooths out the seasonal variation), which is a 25% increase. Hurray!

If we look at the data from the entire period I have available to me, however, we see some disappointing mitigating facts. Here's the graph for 2004-2009, and you'll notice that the regression line is shallower, and that it has approximately the same two endpoints. Before 2008, the data essentially vary around a mean of 520,000. You can see that there was a large increase in ridership through the summer of 2008, ending in a huge spike in October 2008 (probably exacerbated by UCR U-Pass riders returning), and then settling in to vary around a new mean in the ~650,000 range. What this says is that, while RTA seems to have managed to hold on to many of the riders they gained in 2008, ridership has not continued to grow at the same pace. All of the variation in the data is explained by that one huge increase in the summer of 2008 (when gas prices were exorbitantly high), and RTA hasn't maintained that momentum.

Of course, this isn't to say that this is entirely unexpected. Since the summer of 2008, we've had a fare increase and significant service cuts from RTA. That they've maintained the ridership gains they made two years ago is impressive, and it shows how powerful just getting people to try taking public transit is. However, it's important to note that big percentage increases don't mean all that much when you're starting from such a low point. A 25% increase from 1% only gets you to 1.25%, and I'm not even sure transit had 1% mode share in 2006. I'm glad we're going somewhere, but we've got a long way to go.

What I'm going for

Some readers have expressed confusion as to my new logo. Obviously, you folks need to ride the bus more often. (Free pass for those in a different agency's territory.)

New Year, New Ride Guide

RTA has posted up the details of the service changes coming on January 10th, as well as a PDF of the new Ride Guide. The good news is that there are no major service cuts, and only two minor ones. In fact, service on many rural routes has been expanded, especially on weekends, thanks to the JARC grant funding that was redirected from late-night service. The bad news is, of course, that a new bus book without major service cuts is good news these days.

The service changes affect the following routes: 1, 3, 7, 8, 11, 13, 15, 19, 21, 22, 27, 30, 41,
50, 53, 74, 79, 208, 212 and 217. They fall broadly into one of three categories: rerouting for the Magnolia Avenue underpass, rerouting to the Perris Transit Center, and either schedule improvements or adjustments.

Routes affected by the Magnolia Avenue project are: 1, 13 and 15. 1 and 15 will detour via Jurupa and Brockton, while 13 will detour via Riverside and Central.

Routes that are being moved from the 4th and Wilkerson Transfer Point (of Despair) to the new Perris Transit Center: 19, 22, 27, 30, 74, 208, 212. Timepoints, routes and schedules will be adjusted accordingly.

Other service changes: Route 41 will see new weekend service, routes 7 and 8 will see more frequent weekend service, and route 79 will see more frequent service. Routes 3, 11, 21 and 40 will see timepoints either move or be eliminated, with corresponding adjustments to their schedules. Route 53 is listed as starting service in January, though it's been in service since September. Good to see it listed in the Ride Guide, though.

Service cuts: The 50 Jury Trolley will no longer serve the City's parking lot at 3rd & Market. Alternate service is available on routes 12, 16, and 29. (Jurors continue to ride free on all RTA routes.) Also, this isn't really so much of a cut as it is an adjustment: The 217 will lose the earliest of morning southbound runs, but will gain a later run. Actually being cut, however, is reverse-commute service to Hemet in the mornings. All northbound morning trips will stop at Temecula's Promenade Mall. Alternate service is available on route 79.

While the current web version of the Ride Guide makes no mention of the Riverside Go Transit program, commenter Eric insists that the print version will not make this mistake.

Pick up your PDF of the new Ride Guide here.

New Look and Logo!

I've wanted to design an RTA-inspired logo for this blog since I started it, and I finally got around to it. Thanks to RTA's marketing folks for image permissions, and for putting up such a handy color guide on the web, complete with RGB hex codes. I tweaked the red a little, your hex for it came out very magenta in GIMP.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


There is a glitch in the Board of Directors Meeting Agendas that get posted on the RTA web site. On Linux and other UNIX-like systems (and I've heard rumors about Macs as well), the links to the various reports in the agenda do not work. However, there is a technical workaround.

Seemingly all of RTA's BoD agendas and reports, from as long ago as 2005 (which includes a single BRT committee meeting, /tear), are available for browsing and downloading from the folder that contains them, Find the date you need and you'll find both the agenda itself, and all attached reports, available in convenient PDF format. It's not a perfect solution, of course, but this will allow users of non-Windows operating systems a way of accessing what ought to be public data.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hey Riverside, Go Transit!

The awkwardness of the title should not be attributed to me, but to the Riverside City Council, who instituted the Riverside Go Transit program quietly on Monday. After a registration process (which sounds no more difficult than getting a library card, but which I will be testing tomorrow), residents of the City of Riverside will be permitted to purchase, either in person at City Hall or online, subsidized RTA local bus passes. The cost of a monthly pass will be reduced by 30%, and the cost of a weekly pass by 20%. Here's a quick table:

Type of PassNormal CostSubsidized Cost
General 30-Day$50.00$35.00
Youth 30-Day$35.00$24.50
Senior/Disabled 30-Day$23.00$16.10
General 7-Day$16.00$12.80

I had heard from Mayor Loveridge's office a long while ago about how he was planning on bringing subsidized bus passes for low-income riders to Riverside, and I assume this is the program he was talking about. I need to point out, though, that this program is not simply for low-income riders (though certainly they will benefit), but for ALL residents of Riverside. No matter who you are, what you do, or how much you earn, you too can buy cheap bus passes from City Hall. There are no qualifications except that you live in the City of Riverside and are able to prove it. Though I'd still like to see the City put up some money for operations funding (because, despite growth in ridership, revenue is still shrinking and so is service), I can appreciate that the City Council and Mayor have created a program here that will get more people on the bus, and that's a good thing.

A couple of notes, though. No, CommuterLink passes are not available. If you have a job worth putting up with a long freeway commute for, you can afford the pass. Local passes are good for $1.50 credit towards CommuterLink fare. Also, this is ONLY for people who live within the City of Riverside. There are a lot of spots out there (zip code 92509, I'm looking at you) with "Riverside, CA" mailing addresses that are not within the boundaries of the City of Riverside, but are actually unincorporated bits of Riverside County. A little tip-off: If your power bill comes from Riverside Public Utilities, you're probably eligible. If it comes from SCE, you should check the City Council's maps closely.

This wouldn't be a Riding in Riverside post without me pointing out some flaws, though, and that's just what I'll do. I mentioned that the registration process for the program sounded approximately equivalent to getting a library card (show up with a photo ID and a utility bill), except that the library has 7 branches in the City, and they're open at least into the evening. Riders wishing to use the Riverside Go Transit program have to get to the 4th floor of City Hall, and they have to do it between 8 am and 4 pm, M-F. No evenings, no Saturdays, no Sundays. Now, I know you government job types don't always understand this (I know, I'm a government employee!), but there's a lot of folks out there who have to work for a living, and often this "working" happens between 8 and 5 or so, maybe even later. This makes it kind of hard for them to make it in to City Hall for a bus pass. If I need an RTA pass, any day of the year, I can stop by Campus Shop-n-Go on Iowa and get one. If I'm using your program, the online ordering helps quite a bit, but getting that initial registration done is going to be a hurdle. Maybe you should consider moving the registration process out to a different government agency that's closer to the people, perhaps one that's already experienced at determining whether somebody's a City resident or not... Hey, I know, how about the Riverside Public Library?! 7 branches in the City, longer hours, it just might work.
Of course, if you're dead set on keeping this in the Public Works department, how about the Public Utilities payment locations? There's two of them, one downtown and one in Casa Blanca, and they have longer hours than 8-4. Hell, they could look up people on utility bills right there at the counter.

Second, and I've already raised this point with the City webmaster (or whoever answers webmaster at riversideca dot gov, I'm sure their title is "Web Developer" by now)- the FAQ on the program's web site currently lists a "Valid California Drivers License with an Address in the City of Riverside" as a requirement for eligibility. Now, I know that this isn't a requirement (and my readers should note that as well), because under "Program Guidelines", a longer and more formal explication of the program also lists "California Identification Card[s]" or other "acceptable forms of identification" as complying with the program, but not many folks are going to read that. Transit riders are often without driver's licenses, for whatever reason, and if this error is not corrected, people will get the impression that they are ineligible for the lack of one.

Last, but certainly not least, call RTA and tell them to include this program in their Ride Guide. There's a new one coming out in January, and this information is currently not in it. City Hall isn't even listed as a pass sales outlet. One of the few reliable sources for RTA information is the Ride Guide, and riders would certainly find this information interesting. At least put it on the RTA web site. Not everyone knows about this little blog (though I do appreciate the City sending me this press release, thanks!), and you could get a lot more response from one of these other media.

For reference purposes, here's the City's full press release, as posted on a comment to this blog:
December 16, 2009

‘Riverside Go Transit’ Offers Significant Savings to Ride Bus
Savings of up to 30% off retail price of Riverside Transit Agency tickets

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Recent City Council action is giving Riverside residents extra incentive to leave their cars in the garage and use public transportation, thanks to a new program dubbed ‘Riverside Go Transit.’ The goal of the program is to help take cars off the road and increase use of public transportation.

This program offers all Riverside residents the opportunity to purchase Riverside Transit Agency bus passes from the City at substantial savings: 30 day passes will be discounted by 30% and 7 day passes at 25%. This will drop the price of the 30 day general use pass from $50 to $35, and the 7 day pass from $16 to $12. The program will officially begin on Monday December 14th.

“Reducing air pollution and helping relieve traffic congestion is what this program is all about,” said Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge. “Recently named California’s first Emerald City by the Department of Conservation, this program is further evidence of Riverside’s clean and green focus.”

The program will be funded with resources provided to Riverside by Assembly Bill 2766 (AB 2766), which was adopted by the State of California to provide a revenue source to jurisdictions to reduce air pollution from motor vehicles. Previous uses of these funds in Riverside includes the synchronization of traffic lights along major arterials to limit idling, and the Citywide Alternate Fuel Vehicle Rebate which encourages the purchase of hybrid and natural gas vehicles by city residents.

"Not only is this program a great way to encourage public transportation, it also comes during a time of high gas prices and economic challenges for many families," said Riverside Transit Agency Chairman of the Board Karen Spiegel. "We are pleased to work with the City of Riverside to make this important program a reality."

Passes can be purchased online by visiting, or in person at the 4th floor Public Works counter in City Hall at 3900 Main St., Riverside, CA 92522.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why can't we build public infrastructure anymore?

The California High-Speed Rail Authority today released their updated Business Plan for 2009 (via CHSR Blog). There are two major highlights- first, due to an accounting difference that now requires the HSRA to include inflation, the costs of the project have moved up from $35bn to $42bn. The actual budget hasn't changed at all, just the way we count it. This won't stop anti-HSR folks from railing against it, but we can try.

The second, though, is more worrying. The estimated fares have gone up as well- from 50% of airfare to 83% of airfare. And the rationale for doing this? They want to provide a good return-on-investment for private investors in the project, and they would do this by reducing "operating costs" (demand, and therefore the level of service provided) and extracting more revenue from those who chose to ride it. It's not because 50% of airfare isn't profitable- it is. It's because it's not profitable ENOUGH to attract bankers' attention.

Which leads me to my point. Why is it, exactly, that we're trying to build a massive bit of public infrastructure with private money? Why do we expect our trains to be a good return-on-investment? I'm all for setting fares at a level that require no operating subsidy- with the recent STA debacle, that's just good politics, and doable for a system like this. But to cater to the whims of Wall Street when we build public goods like HSR? This is simply ridiculous.

More to the point, when was the last time you heard anyone calling for a freeway to be profitable? (Or, for that matter, even unsubsidized?) When did we build our airports and overpasses to provide the best ROI? No, we build all these other transportation projects to provide the most public benefit possible. According to the CA-HSRA's own Business Plan, the way to do that is to set fares at 50% of airfare, producing nearly double the ridership in the first year, and around 30% more by 2035. This gets the most people off our roads and out of our airports as possible, and moves more people by clean, renewable electricity than any other option studied. Fares at 50% of airfare keeps the train operations sustainable while providing the most return-on-investment for the taxpayers, the citizens of California, who asked for this thing to be built. As far as I'm concerned, that ought to be the only criteria evaluated, and Wall Street can suck it.

Fortunately for advocates, this battle is far from over. We've yet to even break ground on this project, let alone start setting fare policies. Write the CA-HSRA and tell them to build a public project for the public good.

Transit Centre Purchase Approved

The City Council, during their Dec. 8th meeting, approved resolution no. 21949, appropriating funds for and directing the City Manager to purchase land at 4015 Vine Street for the purposes of constructing the Riverside Multi-Modal Transit Centre.

Of course, the parcel that the Corona Transit Center will sit on next year was purchased back in 2004... but we do have federal funding for this one. Here's hoping for haste.

Here's a satellite view of the site of the new transit centre. This should be a very, very good development for Riverside riders.

View Larger Map

Monday, December 14, 2009

I've said it before...

...but roads are at least as subsidized as transit, and a new report from the Pew subsidiary Subsidyscope today demonstrates it nicely. At their height, highways were paid for by around 71% user fees (gas taxes, registration fees, etc.), and today these fees account for less than half of all highway spending. This is a level of subsidy slightly higher than Metrolink (as Metrolink users pay for ~50% of the service through fares, but ~10% of costs are covered by miscellaneous income such as trackage rights).

And let's make sure this is clear- this report is talking only about HIGHWAYS. Most of that gas tax that you (or your less enlightened friends, if you're car-free) pay goes into highways, which leaves surface streets to be taken care of by sales taxes, property taxes, and other outlays from the local government's general fund. The Victoria Transportation Policy Institute estimates that user fees account for less than 4% of local street expenditures. Remember, RTA riders pay a state-mandated 20% of the cost of their ride.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Transit Fallacies, Part 2- "Metrolink Syndrome"

For those of you who missed it, you can find the first part of my "Transit Fallacies" series here.

This second bit I'm calling "Metrolink Syndrome", because Metrolink is one of the most egregious offenders, but it can be applied to nearly any express transit service. The Victor Valley Commuter had a particularly bad case of Metrolink Syndrome. The idea is that express services and local services serve different ridership bases, and so don't necessarily need to be connected, especially in the outlying areas they serve.

When Metrolink and RCTC built the Riverside-Downtown (Marketplace) Metrolink station in 1993, it stood the same six blocks away from the Downtown Terminal that it does now. Yet only now, in 2009, is RTA even considering a move into the vicinity of the station. Metrolink and RCTC, in their infinite wisdom, built 2 bus bays and 710 parking spaces. There is no reason that they should not have constructed a large transit center on the site, immediately in front of the train station, except for the fact that they did not think that local riders would seek to connect to the Metrolink station in large numbers. Even today, only two lines serve the station, and mostly only during weekday peak hours.

The Riverside Metrolink is not the only example. See the Green Line and Metrolink Norwalk stations, separated by several miles, or the El Monte Metrolink and El Monte bus stations. The latter is one of the busiest bus stations in the nation, but Metrolink felt no need to connect the two. At the very least, a frequent, direct shuttle route ought to connect these places, but no such route exists. (RTA tried to implement such a route in Riverside, the 52 Trolley Green Line, but it was weekday peak-only and failed miserably.)

And Metrolink, of course, is not the only example. I mentioned the Victor Valley Commuter. How about the CommuterLink routes at the Promenade Mall in Temecula? Only a half-mile from the main local bus transfer point at County Center Drive, but there's no connection between them except on the rare local routes that serve both destinations. Why? Because it's assumed that commuters will drive to the park-and-ride facility at the mall, rather than ride their local bus.

Transit planners, please learn this lesson, because it's not a difficult one. In fact, it should be obvious. Transit riders are transit riders. Somebody who's willing to ride a bus to work is probably willing to ride a bus all the way to work. It's admirable to try to attract choice riders at the park-and-ride lot, but when doing so, don't forget about the steady base of ridership on the local bus system. When car-free riders want to get somewhere further than their neighbourhood, they need connections to express routes, because they will use those routes. "Choice riders" may desert you, but others won't. To ignore your ridership, when it would be so easy to serve them, is puzzling and inexcusable.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Metrolink Punts, IEOC Weekends Still Vulnerable

The Metrolink Board of Directors met today (and I was sadly unable to attend) and... did nothing. Well, they did a number of important things, awarding contracts for various bits of kit that keep the trains running every day, but they took no action on the fare hikes or service cuts. That's been postponed until January 8th, and by then I'll be able to afford the train ticket in to LA to give them a piece of my mind.

Reading through the meeting documents, it seems that all of the service cuts are still on the table. Especially, apparently, the IE-OC and OC line weekend cuts. Metrolink staff is adamant that all weekend service on these lines be suspended, apparently due to construction for the 30-minute Metrolink service that's been promised in the OC for years. Of course, they promise to bring back the Beach train for Summer 2010. (All well and good, but I'm not a big beach person. I'm a big go-somewhere-other-than-Riverside-on-the-weekend person, but you're not really helping with that.) Metrolink has never before instituted service cuts, and I hope we still don't have to see them, but apparently the overwhelming balance of public comment was against fare hikes at all costs.

Which brings me to the next point. It looks like a 3% fare hike is also probably coming in February 2010. It's still a rather minor increase, but I find myself looking back longingly at the old fare system, which went for several years without a fare increase. We've had one yearly pretty much ever since. After a while, it does get pretty ridiculous. I'd like to note here that Metrolink has an absurdly high farebox recovery ratio, which approaches 50% and is among the highest in the nation. Staff appears poised to ask the member agencies for more in subsidies, and I hope they ask for a lot more. Even a 30% recovery ratio is phenomenal for American transport operators, and think of the kind of system Metrolink could be for that extra 20%.

One last thing... if Metrolink does insist upon cutting IE-OC service, is there any way they could do something to mitigate the loss? I'd love to see the SB line officially extended to Riverside for either most or all runs on weekends, and increased service on the 149 as well. It'd go a long way towards making up for all that lost weekend mobility. Or maybe a Metrolink bus to replace the train? It has to be cheaper, and probably time-competitive on the weekends.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Trouble with the Victor Valley Commuter

The Victor Valley Transit Authority used to run a bus line up and down the I-15 between various points in the Victor Valley and San Bernardino and Rancho Cucamonga/Ontario. The line provided timed transfers to Metrolink, as well as connections to Omnitrans at Ontario Mills and San Bernardino (and MARTA at San Bernardino, and RTA at Ontario Mills). The agency started the service in 2002, and provided generous schedules on both lines, and fares that were reasonable ($75/month, though a single round trip ran $9) and provided a half-off discount for Metrolink riders. The buses were large, comfortable Neoplan Metroliners with on-board restrooms and 110V AC outlets for laptops or other electronic devices. The service was funded on a two-year federal exploratory grant to study the feasability of such services.

Despite all of the advantages I listed above, especially when compared to a daily drive down the I-15 through Cajon Pass (seriously, I don't know how those people do it every day), the service didn't garner enough ridership to balance VVTA's budget and it suffered drastic cuts when the federal grant ran out in 2004. The service was finally discontinued entirely in 2005. So what went wrong? I leave that up to you.

Just kidding. This is a blog, of course, and so you know I must have an opinion on the matter.

The major problem with the Commuter was the routing on the High Desert side. The VVTA apparently conceived of this service as a sort of Metrolink Victor Valley Line, a transit service that was apt to attract what planners often call "choice riders"- the folks who have a car and can choose whether to drive or not. They were so certain of this aspect of their service, in fact, that the connections between the Commuter lines and the local bus system in the Victor Valley were few and far between. The primary stops for the bus line were the Park-And-Ride facilities at the Victor Valley Transportation Center (the Greyhound/Amtrak station, but mostly devoid of local bus service), Bear Valley Rd. and 395/Joshua Tree. When I rode the bus (as I was stuck up in Wrightwood for much of the summer of 2004), I would have my father drop me off at the Joshua Tree park-and-ride in the morning, and in the evening I would get off at the Bear Valley park-and-ride and walk the mile between there and VVTA's major transfer point at the Victor Valley Mall, where I could catch the 21 back home. A few off-peak services, mostly heading down the hill in the early afternoon, stopped at the transfer point at Victor Valley College, but they were the exception rather than the rule. The monthly passes sold on the Commuter were good on the local buses, and Commuter riders were entitled to free transfers on the local system even if they didn't have passes, but the actual buses rarely allowed transfers.

The fact of the matter is that transit-dependent riders are just that: transit-dependent. If you offer them a service, they will ride it. When the Commuter service did connect to the local bus system, there were plenty of eager riders to take advantage of it. Even Metrolink, which does attract choice riders, still sees approximately 17% of their ridership from the transit-dependent. That may not sound like a lot, but an extra 20% to a given route's ridership can make a very big budgetary difference. The sad bit is that it would not have been terribly difficult to make these connections. Instead of routing the bus up I-15 between the Transportation Center and the Bear Valley Park-and-Ride, it could have run up 7th street and stopped at the major Victorville transfer point at Lorene. At Bear Valley, the bus could have made a short loop around to the bus loop at the mall. These simple changes would connect the Commuter service directly to 10 of the 18 bus routes in the VVTA system, and put it within one transfer of every single bus stop in the Victor Valley. Suddenly, the car-free denizens of the area have a real opportunity to access jobs and services down the hill, and the VV Commuter has a loyal and productive ridership base.

The second problem with the Victor Valley Commuter was its practice of deadheading up the hill after morning service. On several of the evening runs, it stopped at Victor Valley College (just a few blocks from VVTA's yard) before barreling down the I-15 to pick up returning commuters. However, after dropping them off in the morning, on most runs the bus went out of service for the entire 60 miles back up to the desert. Want to go visit family in Victorville or Hesperia without driving I-15? Tough. After such a substantial drive, there is no reason that a vehicle shouldn't even be given the opportunity to haul some passengers in revenue service. Combine this with the fact that two of VVTA's transfer points, the Victor Valley Mall and Victor Valley College, are both on the way back to the yard, and you get a policy that is nothing short of ridiculous. An opportunity to haul passengers in revenue service shouldn't be denied, especially when the vehicle is traveling such a long way. Could it have saved the service? It couldn't have made it any worse.

Finally, when the service was cut in 2004, the cuts were made in a poor way. VVTA chose to preserve the earliest trips in the morning, and the latest trips at night, in an admirable attempt to ensure access to jobs in the L.A. area. The thinking was that, if you were taking the bus in to get to work at 8am, you could take the bus an hour earlier and still be able to keep your job, and likewise with the bus an hour later at night. Obviously, the agency forgot that they were trying to cater to "choice" riders, and that those riders were happy to exercise their choice when the service became inconvenient for them. Add two extra hours to my commute every day, and I'll be looking very carefully at my options as well. And, of course, these cuts made it even more difficult for transit-dependent riders to access the Commuter- you had to get up even earlier to make that long walk to the park-and-ride, and for some trips, there simply was no local bus service. In making these cuts, VVTA managed to alienate both choice riders and transit-dependent riders all at once, and the service predictably failed a few months later.

They did do one smart thing when they made the 2004 service changes, however. They added a stop at CSU San Bernardino. Not only is this a major trip generator in and of itself, as CSUSB is the nearest public university to the high desert, but it's also a major bus hub for Omnitrans routes in northern San Bernardino.

Anyway, I bring this up now because VVTA, SANBAG and the various desert cities are studying new I-15 transit service options. I plan on sending all of these observations to them, along with my thoughts on what that corridor needs. What we don't need is another Victor Valley Commuter. The residents and transit riders of the Victor Valley deserve better.

Transit Fallacies, Part 1- The "Commuter" fallacy

I want to do a series of posts on how we think about public transit, especially in Southern California. Of course, most of this applies to pretty much everywhere in the country aside from New York City. J.H. Crawford, author of the book Carfree Cities, says on his web site that most Americans think of public transit as a "second-class service for second-class citizens." I think that most I.E. residents expect second-class citizens to buy cheap cars. So I've got my work cut out for me.

The first misunderstanding about transit service, and this is a worryingly common one, is that transit service exists for people traveling to work and back. Essentially all transit service is often referred to as "commuter" service. Here's an example from the Press-Enterprise, calling the upcoming E St. BRT a "commuter line". And here's the Los Angeles Times calling the Metro Blue Line passengers "commuters", and they should know better. Now, granted, many people who do use transit are commuters. Work trips are a significant portion of the trips that any of us make on a day-to-day basis. However, they're not the only trips we make. In fact, I rarely make my commute trips on transit. I bike the two miles to school, where I also work. I use transit for other trips entirely. And think about it- We would never say that the only people who use our streets are commuters, nor our freeways. Even cycling doesn't have this problem- nobody calls the Santa Ana River Trail a "commuter" facility, even though many do use it to commute.

You might think that I'm getting worked up about a slight difference in nomenclature. That is the sort of thing that I'm famous for- ask my family and friends. However, this actually makes a difference. If we think that transit service is only for commuters, we tend to provision transit service only for commuters. This means express buses that run only during rush hour, or that run out in one direction and then go out-of-service, only to repeat the same route to pick up more passengers at their origin. (RTA keeps this to a minimum, but still manages to do it on the 210 to Banning/Beaumont. VVTA was really bad at this.) It means that local bus systems shut down at 8 pm because most people are home from work by then. It means limited weekend service, and no weekend express service at all. It means no weekend service at all in some areas. It means Metrolink can justify providing a skeleton network on the weekends, and then cut that when it becomes monetarily inconvenient.

The fact of the matter is that people ride transit for all sorts of trips, not just work-related ones. And they would ride it more often for non-work-related trips if the systems were not designed around 9-5 jobs, Monday-Friday. Even worse, many jobs these days aren't 9-5 Monday-Friday, and so those who have odd work schedules end up going to great lengths to get to their jobs without a car. I met a man one night on one of the last Omni 90 buses (now 215). He was going to his job in San Bernardino. His shift started at 8 or 9 pm, and ended at 2 in the morning. He brought his bike, because he had to ride it the 20 miles back home. He did this 5 days a week.

No, transit passengers aren't always commuters. And commuters aren't always who you think they are. Our transit system should be designed for everybody.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Metrolink Proposes Slashing Pretty Much Everything

Metrolink has apparently been in pretty dire financial straits- the drop in oil prices and the continued increase in fares has led many to conclude that driving is a better choice for their commute. (It still isn't, but they're *just* thinking about gas prices.) The decline in ridership means a decline in fare revenue, and the spiral continues.

Anyway, the board recently proposed another 6% fare increase, which would be the second this year alone. After angry protests from the ridership, they postponed action on the matter- and came back with this. The board has proposed cuts to over 50 trains, most of them of the preciously rare off-peak, reverse-peak and weekend variety. Here in the IE, the most major cut would be the suspension of ALL Inland Empire-Orange County Line service on Saturday and Sunday. This would mean that the only trains to serve Riverside on weekends would be the random San Bernardino Line trains that extend south one stop to Downtown. There are two of these in each direction on Saturday and Sunday, and they are peak-direction only- into LA in the morning, out of LA at night. There would be no service in Corona or at Riverside-La Sierra. Also, if you think you can just take the 149 through the canyon and pick up the Orange County Line? Yeah, that's being cut too. All weekend service on the OC line will also be suspended. Essentially, if you're car-free in the IE, you're staying out here for the weekend.

My constant critique on this blog of Metrolink's service and value in connecting this region is its rush-hour peak-direction focus. Metrolink offers quick, reliable, safe service all over its service area, but it offers very little of that if you're not working a regular, 9-5 job. The car-free people of Southern California are very much in need of a way to get around our freeway-centric region that's faster than local buses, and Metrolink often falls short of doing that. Budget crises are understandable, but Metrolink's Board needs to get beyond the paradigm of "cut service or raise fares" for funding troubles. There has to be another way.

Incidentally, I hope that all of you will write to the Metrolink Board and tell them that a 6% fare hike is better than losing all of our weekend train service. In the short-term, if that's what the Board feels they have to do, it's better than these draconian service reductions. In the long term, however, Metrolink needs to find more sustainable sources of funding, and the Board should be expected to approve this fare hike with the understanding that it ought to be the last one for a long while. (For my idea for Metrolink funding, see here.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

High Desert Call to Action

I'm not sure if I have any readers that are even remotely associated with the Victor Valley. (Perhaps if my wife ever starts reading this blog, that'd be one.) However, if any of you know anybody up there, especially anyone who commutes over the disaster that is the I-15 every morning, SANBAG and VVTA are conducting a study on commuter alternatives for that corridor, and they want people to take their survey. So, if you're part of the intended audience, visit and let them know that you support public transit between the Victor Valley and the rest of the world.

I also plan on writing them a letter with thoughts on their proposals, and I'll detail that in a later blog post. Promise.