Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Observing Intra-City Bus Service, Up Close

Inter-city transit systems, such as BART, Golden Gate Transit, or AC Transit, fill a very different niche than intra-city bus systems, such as Santa Rosa CityBus or Petaluma Transit.  But the growth of urbanism will be tied to both, so it’s worth taking a look at the intra-city systems.

For the past year, a group has been meeting in Petaluma on a monthly basis to talk about this blog and whatever else seemed interesting in the world of urbanism.  Last week, we had our best meeting yet, with sparkling conversation from a variety of perspectives.

Fresh from that success, Petaluma Urban Chat is going to expand its scope.  On Saturday, January 26, we’ll take our second field trip.  (You may recall that we spent an evening on the Petaluma River last fall.)  Petaluma Transit will play a key role in this outing.

We’ll meet at the Flamez restaurant, in the G&G shopping center on Sonoma Mountain Parkway, for a casual chat about urban transportation.  We’ll convene shortly after noon.  But there will be a catch.  No one may arrive by car.  (Okay, if you show up in a car, we can’t bar you from the restaurant, but we can ask you to sit at a different table.)

We’re guessing that most people will arrive via Petaluma Transit (PT).  Although you’re also welcome to join us by bike or by foot.

On Saturdays, PT Bus Route #3 stops at the corner of Sonoma Mountain Parkway and Riesling Road at noon.  It’s only a short distance from Flamez, hence our start time of shortly after noon.

The PT #3 runs on one-hour headways on Saturdays and we don’t want to rush either lunch or the conversation, so we’ll plan on catching the 2:00 bus, giving us almost two hours to talk.

I’m pleased that there the group has enthusiasm about lunch and about using Petaluma Transit.  But I hope that one topic over lunch will be what it would be like to use PT to meet the obligations of daily life.

If PT holds schedule, which is virtual certainty on a weekend, it'll be about 30 minutes each way from westside to the restaurant and back.  Which is really pretty good.

But the difficulty with 21st century intra-city bus systems often isn't travel time.  More frequently, it's proximity and headway.  From where I live, it's a mile walk to the bus stop.  And I live in what is considered a walkable neighborhood.  Also, if I miss the bus by a minute, I’ll wait an hour for the next bus.  That's a real constraint on folks who must use the bus for daily tasks rather than for the occasional lark.

For many of us, if someone in the front of the checkout line fumbles for change, we’re two minutes slower getting back to our car.  But for someone who relies on PT, it might mean an hour sitting at a chilly bus stop.

We have built a world in which anyone who is able to drive will drive, at least for in-town destinations, because the other options are too inconvenient.  So intra-city bus systems mostly exist to serve people who are too young, too old, too poor, or too disabled to drive.  I hope we can talk about that reality over lunch.  Including the possibility that Petaluma Transit can expand its niche by serving as a feeder to SMART.  (Note:  This assessment doesn’t consider the folks whose environmental concerns cause them to ride PT.  They’re worthy of our thanks.)

This comment on PT’s ridership isn’t meant as a criticism of PT.  It's a comment on how we've constructed the places where we live.  PT has done a great job of using the limited state and federal dollars to build a working system.  Ridership has more than doubled in the last few years.  (Acknowledgement: I sit on the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  We may have provided the occasional bit of good advice, but the bulk of the credit for improved ridership goes to the transit manager and his staff.)

I hope to see many of you on January 26 to talk about intra-city transit and the full panoply of urbanism issues,  Everyone is welcome to join us, whether they’ve participated in past Urban Chats or not.  If you have questions or need help understanding the Petaluma Transit schedule, my email address is below.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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