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By Paul Bendix

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About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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Do We Really Need Public Transportation?

Uploaded: Oct 15, 2013
It's a provocative question – and in this, our entrepreneurial Bay Area, we have to answer it. The startup mentality is a major force in the region, and it affects attitudes toward public transportation. An old guy like me can learn a lot about the Bay Area's fast-changing political culture by reading Nathan Heller's article in the 14 October New Yorker.

Be patient, for this long feature focuses mostly on startup funding and culture. Near the end, Heller briefly touches on public transit. He contrasts a notoriously crowded San Francisco bus route, the 30X Marina Express, with its entrepreneurial competitor Leap. To ride Leap, all you need is a smart phone and six dollars. You get leather seats, a guaranteed place on board – and less contact with the public. The latter is part of its attraction, for better or for worse.

For me, all this raises questions, serious ones, about a generation – reared in suburbs like mine, Menlo Park – with little patience for the abrasions of urban life. This includes general contempt for the inefficiencies of public process. And it embodies the widening chasm in our society. Still, the entrepreneurial culture is full of vital ideas – that need to be harnessed.

Do you use public transportation? Either way, how important is it to you? I'd love to hear from everyone.


Posted by David Meuel, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Oct 16, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Recently, I had to be in San Jose at about 6:00 in the evening when all the freeways are congested and traffic just crawls. Instead of stressing myself out on the road, I did something I don't often do -- I took the train. It was easy (I live fairly near the Menlo depot) and quite relaxing. I could do what I needed to do in San Jose without using buses or other forms of public transportation, and everything worked out well. I wish I could do this more often, but with few good public transportation choices, it's a challenge. Public transportation is a worthwhile issue to discuss. I wish we had a better system here.

Posted by parent, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 8:38 am

We never ever drive to San Francisco. Too much traffic. Too much gas. Too little parking. We always catch the train (either Caltrain or BART).

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 10:59 am

I don't understand why you are asking this question. Just look at the near-gridlock on many freeways and bridges now that BART workers are on strike, which has deprived more than 400,000 people in the Bay Area of the Bay Area's most important and biggest transit option. How are people going be able to get to their destinations without this essential public transit operation?

Again, I am completely baffled as to what would prompt you to ask this question. Are you seriously suggesting that there is even the remotest chance that we do not need public transit?

Posted by Kathryn Diamond, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Hello Louise 68, Paul asks the question,
"Do you use public transportation? Either way, how important is it to you? I'd love to hear from everyone."
Many governmental agencies and tax payers assume that public transportation is an urban "city" issue or a "suburban to city" worker/commute issue.
Public transportation,like many government services need our support and attention to continue current funding or expand funding.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Paul actually asked two different questions. I was replying to the question he asked as the titled of his blog.

To his other question -- do you use public transit? My answer is: No longer. I am retired, and no longer drive. I used to commute regularly via public transit, and sorta enjoyed it. Using public transit allowed me to relax, and not to clog up the road with yet another car -- mine. Yes, I could have managed without it (that was some years ago), but driving is tiring and dangerous. I took Caltrain, which is much safer than driving.

I trust Caltrain engineers far, far more than I will ever trust the average automobile driver. Locomotive engineers are trained (pun intended!) and certified, and must pass pre-employment drug testing, which is not required before one gets a Class C drivers license in California. Locomotive engineers (and conductors) must also pass yearly rules tests, and can be pulled off the job for serious rules violations. They are watched over much more than auto drivers ever are.

I actually chose to take public transit to and from work because I am a public transit advocate and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was. I am glad I did. Almost all of my commute was on trains, whether Caltrain or BART, and I never had to worry about traffic jams.

We need much, much more public transit. Lives are lost and people are injured in auto collisions, and enormous amounts of time are wasted in traffic jams -- and thta costs money, billions of dollars worth, according to one study I read about.

On a positive note: people who commute regularly meet other people and sometimes make new friends. Informal groups of riders get to know each other after a while. That was one thing I found very enjoyable about riding Caltrain.

Yes, we DO need public transit. LOST of it!

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 8:51 pm

The question really isn't whether public transit, it's where. Subways are necessary in a place like Manhattan - it's needed for traffic relief, and it's a key reason why people there burn far less fossils fuels than suburbanites. However, in places with lower population density, it's been shown that mostly empty buses are significantly less efficient than people driving themselves - and it's far less convenient. In such places, the need for mass transit is as a social program - to provide transportation to elderly, disabled, and others who may not have access to a car. Cities are often enamored with mass transit systems that do not provide a good return on investment ... you can make that case for light rail in San Jose (which I took regularly for a couple years, and liked for certain purposes). Some mass transit systems could be replaced by providing private chauffeurs for those needing transportation - and be more cost effective.

I'm not sure if I'd want live in the crowded conditions, but Hong Kong the mass transit was unbelievable ... typically, you'd see a bus go by once a minute or less. Why would people want a car there?

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