Monday, July 31, 2006

Spare the Air free transit experiment

The free transit experiment, probably the largest in this country, is now over, after the first six days of Spare the Air days ended on July 21.

Some of the press reviews of the free transit days are critical. After all, the transit ridership went up by about 10%, and some regular transit riders complained about the crowding. Most of all it carries a heavy price tag of about $14 million.

To some of the transit supporters who advocates for free transit: there's the result.

The problem of providing free transit as a smog-reducing measure is that free transit has to be offered to everybody, not just commuters who regularly drive and take transit on Spare the Air days. Regular transit riders Spare the Air all the time and they pay a share of the transit operating cost. Giving regular transit riders free rides, while it could be justified in other ways, won't spare more air.

Another problem of free transit is that public transit is no longer only a transportation option, rather it becomes a public lounge space used by the homeless and others who have nowhere else to go, which drive away legitimate transit riders. Reports of alleged criminals using free transit is also disturbing.

The 10% increase in ridership can also highlight the relative inelasticity in transit demand in terms of fares as supposed to other factors like transit service improvements. In contrast, during the last two years, Caltrain was able to increase ridership by implementing the Baby Bullet service, despite having two fare increases.

However, regionwide free transit is a great marketing tool, especially in light of the very fragmented fare media in the Bay Area without Translink. Free fare removes the complexity of figuring out the fare, speed up bus service as passengers don't have to slowly feed dollar bills into the fare boxes, and allows low income riders to use more expensive rail service like BART and Caltrain for faster trips instead of local buses. Most importantly, free transit is like a trial offer as a way to increase the number of regular fare-paying transit riders who Spare the Air everyday rather than just on Spare the Air days. BART has reportedly seen an increase in fare paying riders after the free transit days.

Free transit has its values and its downsides. A free transit program should be designed in a way to encourage new transit rides that would translate into more fare paying riders after the program ends, and discourage free transit abuses.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Light rail station reopened for Grand Prix

VTA reopened the Paseo de San Antonio light rail station yesterday in time for the Grand Prix. A small ceremony was held next to the Repertory Theatre to cerebrate the reopening. After speeches made by the VTA Chair Cindy Chavez, as well as representatives from the VTA Committee for Transit Accessibility, San Jose Downtown Association, and San Jose State University, a special light rail train arrived at the platform on 2nd Street, and passengers with a baby stroller, bicycle, and unicycle, along with passengers in wheelchairs, exited the vehicle and the station with having to navigate any steps.

Unlike all other stations, the new platform is actually consisted of three smaller platforms matching the door locations of each car. The Downtown Association strongly advocated this design as a way to maintain pedestrian access in the area. In constrast to the original design of a large platform, there is enough space between the small platforms where the bus stops can be placed back near their original locations, thus the cross-platform access between the bus and the light rail is maintained.

Although the station was reopened early, the station is not yet completed. Granite pavers and benches were installed only on two of the three small platforms at each location. The third small platforms instead have plywood coverings to support three car trains for the anticipated Grand Prix crowd. Also, there was no shelter or any type of overhead covering installed.

Friday, July 07, 2006

San Jose Grand Prix and Light Rail

With the Grand Prix race track crossing the VTA light rail tracks in two different locations, the VTA light rail system will be split in more than two pieces during the Grand Prix weekend.

On Friday, July 28, the lines from Alum Rock and Mountain View both end in downtown San Jose, and the line from Santa Teresa will have through routing to Winchester. Like last year, a bus bridge will connect the two light rail segments in downtown San Jose.

The fun part begins on Saturday, July 29, through Sunday. The line from Mountain View will end at Baypointe, and passengers will have to transfer light rail from Alum Rock to downtown San Jose. Like last year, the line from Santa Teresa will only be partially rerouted to the new Vasona line and end at San Jose Diridon station. Service from Winchester will end at Race station, one stop south of San Jose Diridon. Passengers from the Winchester line will have to transfer to a bus to downtown San Jose and connect with other light rail lines.

Normally a system with two main lines through downtown San Jose will be cut into four pieces and the plan will add a great deal of confusion among all light rail riders. For those from Los Gatos and Campbell, this means that they won't be able to take light rail directly to the race track on the Grand Prix weekend.

In its publicity materials, VTA didn't specify any reason to cut the Mountain View line back to Baypointe or cut the service from Winchester away from downtown San Jose, and VTA also did not explain whether additional light rail service would be provided on the Grand Prix weekend.

According to the plan, it is speculated that three car trains will be used throughout on the Santa Teresa line on the weekend. Along the new Vasona extension, only San Fernando and Diridon stations can accomodate three car trains. All platforms south of the Diridon station are one car length shorter than other stations. By ending the service from Winchester to the Race station, it seems that VTA is planning to isolate the less frequent one/two car-service with the more frequent three-car mainline service from Santa Teresa.

In addition, VTA has indicated in its documents that the Paseo de San Antonio station will be in service for the Grand Prix. When VTA closed the station for construction in February, VTA planned to reopen in October. Due to the criticisms and pressures from local businesses and San Jose State, VTA internally accelerated the construction schedule.