Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Assessing Tucson's Modern Streetcar

Today I rode the new Tucson streetcar for the first time. I boarded downtown on Congress, rode up to University, and got off and on a couple of times before taking the bus back home. There were some problems with my fare -- I had a SunGo card with $4 on it, and I couldn’t really get a clear answer about whether or not the system would recognize that as a day pass or give me two transfers per fare or what -- but all in all, it was a pleasant smooth ride. The streetcar is an addition that makes Tucson seem more like a 21st century city, but it’s important to remember the reasons why building it was controversial.

While glancing at the SunLink supplement in the Arizona Daily Star that appeared the weekend before the streetcar opened, I noticed more emphasis  on businesses and how they will be affected than on on transit users per se. The tone was very self-congratulatory, and under “We Did This… Together” it says, “As you ride our Modern Streetcar today, and admire the more than $1 billion in new development and thousands of new jobs within three blocks of the four-mile route, imagine where we can go next if we do it together.” Such descriptions of this $197 million project focus more on the community development/ business partnership aspects of the streetcar than on the larger transit system it is a part of. (One ad, as an example, encourages you to “show your Wildcat spirit all along the streetcar route with an exclusive UA debit card.”)

I was at the opening ceremony on the 25th, and there were about 15 Bus Riders Union members there. Two of them held a banner that said, “No Bus Money for the Streetcar,” which is one of the BRU’s five main demands. The Daily Star quoted BRU member Jim Thomas: “We just want to make sure that the bus money stays with buses and they do the trolley on their own budget,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of public transportation in this town is done on buses.”

Another transit advocacy group, Transit Talks, passed out flyers that said, “If you like the streetcar, you’ll love the bus," and I hope riding the streetcar encourages people to start using the bus system. At the Transit Talks site, you can see a video of Jarrett Walker’s talk in Tucson, and you can also answer a poll that says, “We think bus riders = eco heroes. What do you think?” I think yes.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jarrett Walker Comes to Tucson

Though the origins of the phrase “Think globally, act locally” are disputed,  and it has been used in so many different contexts it sometimes seems like a cliché, in regard to an issue like climate change, it’s very apropos. Climate change affects our whole world, but anything I can do about it has to start where I live right now.

So in the past two weeks, on the “think globally” side of things, I signed up for a MOOC called “Climate Change in Four Dimensions,” which is an eight-week course from UC San Diego.  The course views climate change from the point of view of natural sciences, technology, social sciences, and humanities -- the four dimensions cited in the title -- and so far lectures have addressed the history of climate change science and the scientific consensus on climate change.

On the “act locally” side of things, there’s actually a lot going on in Tucson right now, especially in relation to public transit. On Wednesday evening I attended the Bus Riders Union monthly meeting where I spent time with 25 dedicated and energetic supporters of the bus system here in Tucson. We talked about the fact that our so-called modern streetcar will begin running on July 25, and though Bus Riders Union members do plan to use the streetcar, they also want people to remember that the group has as one of its five goals: Keep bus dollars on the buses -- do not use bus funds for streetcar expenses. The streetcar, which has as its end points the University of Arizona campus and downtown Tucson, is an important adjunct to public transit in our city, but buses are the main people movers in the SunTran system.

Then on Friday evening I attended a presentation by Jarrett Walker, whose appearance in Tucson was sponsored by a range of groups from Bus Riders Union to the City of Tucson Department of Transportation. Walker  is a consultant on transit network design and policy and is also a blogger whose take on the event can be found at http://www.humantransit.org/2014/07/tucson-a-frequent-network-map.html. Walker rarely mentioned green aspects of using transit but focused on the factors that encourage people to ride buses and trains. At the beginning of the talk, he said that everything is changing and there is no status quo any more. He went on to talk about the VMT inflection point and the changing role of cars here in the U.S. (VMT is jargon for vehicular miles traveled, a number which rose steadily between the end of World War II and the mid-2000s and then leveled off -- see “The Case forModerate Growth in Vehicle Miles of Travel: a Critical Juncture in U.S. TravelBehavior Trends.”) 

Walker also said that “the market wants transit-friendly places.” Many people, especially young people, want to live in places where they don’t need cars. They are concerned about the environment, and they want diverse and affordable urban neighborhoods, the type of neighborhoods transit facilitates. Walker also cautioned against binary thinking – for example, it’s wrong to think that some people are “choice riders” and some people  are “captive riders” or that some people want only to ride trains and others buses. He showed us a map of the small but functional high-speed grid here in Tucson where people can travel without having to wait for more than fifteen minutes. He reminded us that some people will choose to live in areas well-served by transit, including low-income people. But low-income people's choices are important. In fact people in the Bus Riders Union who chose a transit-centered lifestyle are pioneers. Hopefully, more people will soon follow their lead.

A Fifth and Final Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: the Prairie and the Dust Bowl

  Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexandre Hogue When Greg and I were planning our 2022 road trip, our goal was to visit friends a...