Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What is...and isn't...a trolley?

This article in Monday's Bee on the ongoing plans to build a streetcar line between Sacramento and West Sacramento prompted quite a few comments. One thing I notice is that, for many people, it isn't at all what a streetcar, or a trolley, is.

The term "streetcar" refers to fixed-rail transit that is run on city streets, rather than on separated grades like a railroad. The term was originally used to describe horse-drawn cars operating on rails, but can also cover cable cars, steam dummies (small steam locomotives intended to pull cars on city streets) and electric trolleys. Because horse cars, cable cars and steam dummies were all supplanted by electric trolley cars, the terms "streetcar" and "trolley" are pretty much identical.

The term "trolley" comes from the pole used to connect an elevated high-voltage power line to an electric vehicle. One of the earliest prototype electric streetcars had a four-wheel device that hung from the overhead wire, connected via a cable to the car, referred to as a "troller," is probably the origin of the term. Trolley poles came in various forms, using either a wheel or a shoe at the end of the pole to ensure good connection to the wire.

Trolley vehicles normally run between 24 to 50 feet: about the size of a modern bus, but generally wider. Speeds vary, but for the most part trolleys run at 20-40 miles per hour.

That being said, what ISN'T a trolley?

This is not a trolley. This is a bus. People have frequently suggested a "test run" of a trolley system by trotting out one of these instead, or they argue that a trolley system won't work because the RT bus-that-looks-like-a-trolley is seldom crowded.

The problem is, this ISN'T A TROLLEY. It is intended to look like a certan type of trolley, if you kind of squint, but it fails for several reasons. For starters, it's still a smoky, noisy bus. Second, it runs on wheels instead of rails, and therefore doesn't run as smoothly. Third, because it has no fixed path, its schedule and route can change at the whim of the operating company, thus it gives little security to land developers who want to encourage transit-oriented growth that the transit won't vanish in the next fiscal wind.

Finally, this isn't a trolley because "quaintness" is not a required feature of a streetcar. Modern streetcars (and even some historic ones) aren't necessarily long on charm, wood paneling or quaint design (even though many of them are.) They're a vehicle built for a purpose, and the purpose isn't to look cute (even though many of them do): they exist to move people.

However, in the other direction:

This isn't a trolley either. This is a light rail vehicle. Many people assume that LRVs were the modern version of trolleys/streetcars. They are wrong. LRVs are intended to run primarily on private right-of-way rather than city streets, are typically 60-80 feet long and intended to run as multi-unit vehicles, are capable of higher speeds (up to 50-70 mph) and are intended for inter-city and suburban service. They are the historical replacement for the interurban, which is a type of transportation virtually unknown in modern society. Interurbans operated like LRVs do now: they run on streets in cities, but their real strength is in open country and private ROW where their larger size and faster speeds aid commuters. But a city trolley isn't intended to do that.

The classic example people think of when you refer to trolleys is the Pacific Electric (aka the "Red Car") of Los Angeles and Orange County, but that was an interurban system. Streetcar service in Los Angeles was covered by the Los Angeles Railway (aka the "Yellow Car"), a physically separate system (originally a cable car system, they operated on 3'6" cable car gauge instead of standard 4'8/5" gauge) owned by the same person (Henry Huntington.) Why would Huntington, a financial wizard on a par with his uncle Collis P., operate two "redundant" electric railroad systems in the same area? Because he realized that they served two distinct and separate roles! LARY streetcars moved people around in downtown Los Angeles and adjacent neighborhoods: PE interurbans moved people around throughout the greater Los Angeles area, in between cities.

Incidentally, this is what an interurban looks like:

(The SN's COMET with parlor car in Marysville, on its way between Chico and Sacramento and then on to Oakland.)

So, some of you might be asking: What DOES a streetcar look like?

Well, they can look like this:

Or like this:

Or like this:

Or even like this:

But this....

...just ain't a trolley.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Et in Arcadia ego

The book signing for Sacramento's Southside Park at the Avid Reader is this Sunday, and unlike the ones I did at Barnes & Noble, this one will be a little different: instead of just signing books, Paul Trudeau (who helped a great deal with the book) suggested that we invite the people I interviewed (and some who contributed photos) to come join us at the signing. The idea, I suppose, is to make it more of a neighborhood event than just a book signing, and to hear from more people than just me.

The signing is this Sunday, October 28, 1:00 PM at The Avid Reader on Broadway and 16th (the old Tower Books.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Railyards, reality and rhetoric

I posted this over on the Heckasac blog (http://heckasac.blogspot.com/) today, regarding development at the railyards:
I'm of two minds on this. When it comes to the railyards, "leave things the way they are" really isn't an option: leaving the buildings alone just means they will fall down or burn down. They need to be restored.

The thing that concerns me is opposition to a proposed National Register historic district designation for the Railyards and environs. Despite the fears of development fans like Marcos Breton, a National Register designation does not mean that the site has to be left as-is, nor does it mean that only faux-antique buildings can be built there, nor does it mean that building signage has to have an Old West font.

In fact, there are NO federal restrictions on what property owners can do with a National Register property. From their website (http://www.nps.gov/nr/owners.htm):

"Under Federal law, private property owners can do anything they wish with their National Register-listed property, provided that no Federal license, permit, or funding is involved.
Owners have no obligation to open their properties to the public, to restore them, or even to maintain them, if they choose not to do so."

So, why create a National Register district?

Because such a district is eligible for MILLIONS in federal funds, grants, matching funds, and other monies available for restoration of historic buildings that are ONLY available to that sort of district. Once such funds are accepted, of course, you can't just knock over the buildings anymore, but if the whole point (and according to Thomas Enterprises, it is) is to open the Shops buildings to the public, restore and preserve them, then National Register listing is a way to bring in some of that desperately needed money everyone keeps going on about.

So, I went to a presentation at City Hall about the upcoming Railroad Technology Museum. There were a lot of Railroad Museum supporters present, and most of the presentation talked about how the RTM is intended as a technology museum, while the current CSRM is a history museum, and what that means in terms of how the museum is laid out. The RTM was originally specified as part of the Railroad Musuem plan back in 1981, but due to budget cuts it was deferred for decades. A plan was developed for a Museum of Railroad Technology on Front and R Street, current site of the Docks project, and State Parks owns a plot of land in that area that was intended for this plan. At the time, the Shops were still in use by Southern Pacific, although they allowed CSRM to store equipment on spare track and restoration work to be done in the old Unit Shop. All this changed in the 1990s when Union Pacific bought Southern Pacific, and decided to close the Shops for good. The idea for an RTM in the Shops was then born. The city of Sacramento, hoping to spur redevelopment along Front Street (in a project now known as the Docks Project,) formally asked that the MORT be moved to the Shops area.

The RTM plan is designed around two of the seven Shops buildings, the Boiler Shop and the Erecting Shop, and based on this plan, a transfer table (costing about $500,000 in materials, with all volunteer labor) was installed between the two buildings in 2003 to move cars and locomotives between the shop buildings' bays. A letter of intent was included with the sale of the property from UP to Thomas Enterprises, specifying that those two buildings were to be transferred to State Parks for the RTM. Since the sale went through, Thomas Enterprises has decided that the letter of intent doesn't apply, and are now claiming that they want the Erecting Shop, the larger, more intact, and more historic of the two buildings.

Without the Erecting Shop, the museum won't happen and they'll have to switch back to the 1980s plan site on Front and R Street.

Anyhow, plenty of people came out to speak in support, and even more emailed. At the end of public comment Mayor Fargo held up a stack of paper about the size of a ream, indicating emails supporting the RTM from the public, and then another stack of maybe a dozen sheets, indicating emails opposing the RTM.

The truth of the matter is that the Thomas Enterprises redevelopment of the railyards is profoundly important to the execution and success of the RTM. The RTM will become a fantastic anchor tenant, giving Sacramento a cultural destination equal to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Combined with the planned arts center, Yee Fow museum, science museum in the old PG&E building, and the other museums already downtown, we would have a serious critical mass of cultural/historical destinations. Thomas Enterprises' plan to build retail, restaurants, nightlife, etcetera, in the remaining Shops buildings, plus new construction throughout the rest of the Railyards area, give the RTM city context and nearby amenities for museum visitors. And, personally, I'm just fine with development in the remaining Railyards to a density that Thomas sees fit: they have already planned a transition zone that effectively is identical to a Sacramento historic preservation district in regulatory intensity, with height limits.

The two projects need each other. Historic preservation and economic development work TOGETHER, not at odds, and Sacramento can be a beacon for this principle. This is a site which is significant not just to Sacramento history, but to American history, from many, many perspectives (from the Pacific railroad to the Pullman strike to immigrant and cultural and womens' and labor and social history) and it can still be part of our future without giving up its roots in our past.

This is now way longer than a blog post has any right to be. But more needs to be said.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sic transit gloria

My spot on "Insight" was moved to Friday, October 12 instead of yesterday: here's the link for anyone who might be interested in hearing me pontificate about Southside Park.

Riding the bus and light rail is still pretty fun. I haven't gotten caught in the rain yet. After hearing some other folks' less positive experiences from riding public transit, I wonder how much my past experience on transit affects how I view it now.

As I mentioned a while back, I didn't have a car in high school, or in college. For me, getting around on my own outside walking/biking radius meant taking the bus. The first time I did this a lot was when I was 14-15 years old, taking summer classes at Sac State. For me, the bus represented escape and independence, and being able to daydream and read and stare out the window while I enjoyed that island of reverie. The same bus took me downtown to visit my aunt (who lived in midtown and inspired me to move down here) and let me explore a place that was far unlike Citrus Heights. On the return trip, I could pore over whatever weird swag (typically comic books or records, or used SF novel from one of downtown's many used bookstores) I had picked up on my brief transit-based adventure. So that association with freedom is still there.

Cars, on the other hand, don't give me that feeling. It's work. Other drivers piss me off almost immediately. I may rankle at some other bus rider's behaviors, but somehow it's less infuriating than the people who don't use turn signals while they cut me off, burn through red lights, talk on their cell phone, eat pizza, have bumper stickers I don't agree with, etcetera. People on the bus are encountered at the human scale, and the tendency is to treat other people like humans. When you're driving, you're dealing with other cars, not with people, and interacting with machines is necessarily less civil than with people.

For many people that's a bad thing. I suppose I am fortunate in that I guess I look kind of intimidating, or have some subconscious "I could kill you at any time" vibe, because nobody ever messes with me on the bus. I hear fearful tales of the threatening glares of gangster thugs and the unwanted advances of the homeless all the time, but somehow they're not on my car. I suppose I'm a little more used to interacting with street folks than most, and I imagine that can be unnerving if you're not used to it.

So while the cynical part of myself still awaits that moment when my transit honeymoon ends, the 14 year old part of me that really dug the freedom and independence of taking the bus gets to have his good time, and maybe enjoy a comic book.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A brief transitarian pause

For the past month or so I have been inspired by a few different sources to drive my car less, and either walk or take public transit more.

The background: I live in midtown and work downtown. Both work and home are within two blocks of light rail and bus routes, and about a half-hour walk from each other. Since I moved there I have walked a lot more in the evenings and days off, but aside from a couple of days when my car was in the shop I still drove to work. The main reason I drive to work is because I use the car as part of my job sometimes, running errands and transporting people.

The inspiration: The writings of RT Rider provided some encouragement in the efforts of someone who lived a lot farther from work than I do to take public transit. The argument to decouple cars as a requirement for transportation, while leaving them as an option, was encouraging. The other inspiration was my first day as a graduate student at Sacramento State, wending my way around the parking lot.

Y'see, parking at Sac State is $5 a day now. A semester permit costs $108. But if you have a current semester sticker, you can ride bus and light rail for free. And, in my experience, you get wetter walking in the rain from your car through the parking lot to the CSUS campus than you do walking from the bus drop-off point.

So I figured, with the free ride incentive, I'd give it a try.

The practice: In the interest of leaving my options open, I have spent the last few weeks trying a variety of transit modes. Typically, there are three basic scenarios for transportation:
#1 is on school days. I have my choice of walking or taking light rail to work, but from work it's an easy shot to CSUS via buses 30, 31 or others. Home is either bus or light rail--I find bus is a little easier and doesn't require a transfer.
#2 is on non-school days. That's a maximum choice kind of day: Walking, bus, or light rail? Possibly my favorite is the half & half: walk to L Street and catch the next bus that comes by. It's a good middle ground between exercise and speed.
#3 is the car. I still need to drive in on days when I will need it for work--typically one or two days a week. If something comes up on a day when I didn't drive in, I can hop on the light rail and be back with my car in 20 minutes.

Now, I'm no newcomer to transit use. I grew up in a household that was often one-car, and one of my strongest childhood memories was riding downtown with my mom in RT's old GMC fishbowl buses. When I was 14, I took summer classes for gifted kids at Sacramento State, and took the bus to CSUS--in many ways, taking the bus to the Sac State transit center is a trip down memory lane. When Light Rail opened in 1987, I used to skip school and take the bus & train downtown to hang out at Java City or shop at the record and comic shops.

After college I got around by bike and public transit: it takes a special kind of girl to date a guy who suggests taking the bus downtown for a date, but somehow I did it. I didn't even know how to drive until a bit before my 26th birthday, when I finally got a job that allowed me to afford a car, and also required me to drive it for work.

The intervening decade or so included unlearning a lot of transit habits. While I never stopped walking around midtown, taking the car to work was a job requirement. I'd still take transit for other trips, usually with the regularity of a "regular church-goer" who goes in every Christmas and Easter.

But this past month has been an opportunity to bring back some old transit habits. The nice weather this time of years certainly makes it easier, and the acid test will be how much I use transit when the weather is less friendly.

What this has to do with Sacramento History: One of the nicest things about walking or taking transit vs. driving is being able to focus on things besides traffic. Sacramento's grid pattern streets also allows many different walking paths, which means I can stroll by a different set of my favorite historic buildings each time I take the walk. On the bus, the slightly higher vantage point offers a look at some of the Queen Anne cottages hidden behind "retail blisters" along downtown streets, ones that are often missed at street level. And, of course, there's the opportunity for reading on the bus if I don't want to admire the view.

Monday, October 1, 2007

A bit of self-promotion

Today marks the official release date of my new book, Sacramento's Southside Park. It is part of the Arcadia Publishing "Images of America" series, like my earlier book Sacramento's Streetcars.

A link to Arcadia's page on the book

This book represents a very different approach from the streetcar book, and, in my mind, something of a different approach than most of the Images of America series done on Sacramento neighborhoods.

While I made much use of sources like SAMCC and the Sacramento Room for this book, most of the information was gathered in a series of oral history interviews with neighborhood residents. I interviewed people from many walks of life, but mainly working people: people who worked in canneries and vegetable distribution, clerks and florists, truckers and bartenders. I tried to represent as clearly as I know how the incredible ethnic diversity of Southside Park, including its Mexican, Japanese, Portuguese and Italian neighborhoods. Many of the photos came from family collections rather than archives, although there are plenty of historic archive photographs.

The interviews and personal photos helped make this book more of an exploration of the lives of people in the neighborhood, rather than simply a collection of photos of buildings and unidentified people. While writing the book, I got a great sense of the level of civic pride and community that is present in Southside, and hopefully some of that comes through in the book's text.

I will also be doing a series of signings:
Thursday, October 4, 6:30 PM at Barnes & Noble, 1725 Arden Way, Sacramento
Saturday, October 6, 1:00 PM at Barnes & Noble, 6111 Sunrise Blvd, Citrus Heights
Sunday, October 28, 1:00 PM at The Avid Reader on Broadway and 16th (old Tower Books)

Finally, I will be on the KXJZ Radio program INSIGHT next Wednesday, October 10, at 2:00 PM: