Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is Podcar another false promise?

Since the concept of a people mover at San Jose Airport was approved with Measure A ten years ago, the project eventually proved to be too expensive to build and operate, not very useful, and ineffective. Nowadays, the city is hosting a Personal Rapid Transit conference, in which PRT proponents are saying that San Jose Airport could have a people mover-like system without the price tag.

PRT, or pod car is a concept that has existed for decades, with the promise of fast, frequent, and non-stop service. Renderings of such systems often feature small cars hanging off a slim elevated track. What PRT doesn't have is a track record of daily revenue service. The PRT proponents are desperately looking for sponsoring cities, along with funding, to prove their concepts.

San Jose politicians are trying to look for a "creative" solution to a superficial problem and while dismissing realistic solutions. The simple way to bring rail to San Jose airport is to extend the light rail system from 1st Street into the airport. Light rail only needs to extend a mile to serve both terminals A and B. Light rail already serves Downtown San Jose and connects with Caltrain, Amtrak, ACE (and possibly BART in Milpitas and high speed rail at Diridon Station). Unlike peoplemover or pod car, no separate maintenance facility is needed for light rail.

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One has to wonder why San Jose is pretending to be progressive on transportation by promoting PRT while actually moving backwards by ignoring light rail. Cities like Portland and Baltimore have light rail located directly at the terminal. Sacramento and Los Angeles are planning to extend their light rail systems to airport as well.

VTA light rail is drawing fewer riders than similar systems in other cities because the light rail lacks destinations that are not convenient to drive. If the light rail can directly serve the airport, it will change how the system is used and perceived. While many people have brought up the idea for many years, it was repeatedly ignored by the City of San Jose and VTA (which the City has a controlling stake on).

While the PRT proponents welcome the attention received in San Jose, it is another loss of opportunity for a more cost effective transportation. Even if the PRT has proven to be a reliable technology, it will still be slower and less convenient for riders than extending light rail directly to the airport. Even if PRT has applications beyond the airport, its proclaimed advantages can easily be met by automobile and bike sharing, along with better bike and ped infrastructures.

Monday, October 04, 2010

First day of express light rail

With little fanfare and limited press coverage (compared to Caltrain's Baby Bullet a few years ago), VTA rolled off its express light rail trips. The new trips go from Santa Teresa to Baypointe and do not stop between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Convention Center stations. The cars used for the express trips have special blue and orange wrap and also have free wifi.

VTA Boardmember Sam Liccardo and general manager Michael Burns were on the platform at Ohlone/Chynoweth waiting for the first train to arrive from Santa Teresa. Other VTA top brass were there as well. There were no speeches nor ribbon cutting. However some riders were treated with free Red Bulls and newspapers. Liccardo boarded the first northbound express train presumably heading to the City Hall.

When a northbound express train arrives, another one deadheads to Santa Teresa.

At other stations, signs are in place to warn others about express trains that won't stop.

VTA is not accepting Clipper... yet.

The express light rail is an experiment whether operational changes can bring in additional riders, similar to how the Baby Bullet has transformed Caltrain. MTC is conducting a regional study of transit sustainability and recently found that Caltrain has raised ridership and improved cost effectiveness compared to most transit agencies (including VTA) because of the Baby Bullet. Caltrain is now considering providing weekend Baby Bullet service, despite deficit, to draw more riders.

The light rail system however is very different from Caltrain, so the opportunities to speed up service are limited. Let's see whether skipping stops and having onboard wifi will help draw riders.