Monday, November 10, 2014

Rush Hour: Silicon Valley vs Tokyo

I'm back from a week in Tokyo. It's often strange to visit there, being so wired and so off-the-grid at the same time. With internet access and mobile phones, it's easy to remain connected and yet, with the timezone differences and the language disconnect from the TV and news media, "current events" in the US seem like trivial pursuit facts. Life is those moments that you are immersed in.

For me though, the great inescapable reality driven home by time in Japan is how much our transportation system sucks. Imagine trying to explain our lack of trains to someone from Japan whose never been here. We have one that goes up and down the Peninsula, we have BART that connects points in the east bay to San Francisco, and we have a light rail connecting a few points in San Jose, Muni connecting a few areas in San Francisco... oh, and Amtrak running a line in from the central valley. And that's it. Else bus. Or car.

Millions of people live and work in the Tokyo area. Rush hour in Tokyo is this crazy sea of people moving through trains and their metro subway system. Train cars get so crowded that people literally squeeze into them. Lines and lines of people flow through stations, up and down escalators, flood over stairs. Wide hallways and tunnels that are virtually empty during off-hours flow packed with people during rush hour. Millions of people go from their residence to their place of work and back each day.

Contrast that with our rush hour. Thousands and thousands of cars crawling through stop and go traffic, sometimes three or four lanes wide. Mistakes -- trying to shift direction too quickly or move a little faster than a less rushed portion of the crowd -- result in crumpled steel and plastic, thousands of dollars in damage. It's not like bumping into a human in a crowd.

Pedestrian crowds do a much better job of coordinated navigation that car crowds. Even as they study pedestrian crowd dynamics, they could probably benefit from the amazing dance that is the crowd flow in rush hour Tokyo. There are no horns, no yelling. It's a mostly quiet shuffle, complemented by the background noise of various train announcements. While most might find rush hour Tokyo very stressful, for me it was a relaxing break from what rush hour has become here in the bay area. It was also a strong reminder of how totally screwed up our transportation infrastructure is here.

An Innocent Question
When you're abroad, it's not unusual for you to find yourself answering questions about home. One night during dinner, we were asked a question that was so simple on the surface -- and yet, provided a telling story of the underlying mess. The question was simply, "does the magnet strip on your train ticket work on all of the trains in California?"

For most of us here in the bay area, this question doesn't touch on our commute. For many, we may not even have the experience to provide an accurate answer. But the question and the underlying assumption is actually a more interesting story than an accurate answer. Put simply, if you live in a world filled with trains, can you imagine a virtually trainless world like the San Francisco Bay Area?

Before we could answer the train ticket interoperability question, we really needed to frame the world that we live in, a world with one train running up the Peninsula, one up and down the East Bay, and a couple of rounds of municipal light right connecting a few parts of San Francisco or San Jose. Oh, and the ACE train. That's it. You can't imitate the week I spent in Tokyo, traversing the city from one side to the other, on a combinations of municipal trains and metro subways. 

In the bay area, any attempt to go anywhere other than one end or the other on a line will probably leave you waiting at a station for a long time, riding for a while, then walking, taking a bus, or just not going anywhere further than a few blocks from the station. Our trains are not interwoven into our transportation fabric. Instead, we now suffer under the traffic of a transportation infrastructure crafted by the same geniuses that brought you LA traffic. You know what we need? More houses, more people, and more freeway lanes. Bah.

If nothing else, experiencing Tokyo rush hour that we really need to transform our transportation infrastructure, and that's not exactly a high-speed train line to LA. Most of us might be satisfied if we could get on VTA light rail and make it from one side of San Jose to the other in less than two hours. Or if Baby Bullet trains ran up and down the peninsula line all day long, supplemented by local routes that could pick up stops along the overall route. Express lines running parallel to local lines. Imagine trains running along Lawrence, Page Mill, Sand Hill, and everywhere.

Of course, even as I write this, I know it's a crazy pipe dream. All you have to do is look back to the BART extension into SFO and the great BART versus Caltrain battle over which could best service the airport. After years and years of construction, they managed to build a train that charges a surcharge, delivers poor service (who wants to go to Daily City in order to go to downtown San Francisco -- it's nearly an hour on BART), and makes it nearly impossible to connect with Caltrain. Why couldn't we have both connections? Or a master plan that made it easier to bridge the two?

No, instead of the infrastructure we need, we must live in the ad hoc transportation network we've got -- the world's "most brilliant people", left to rot away in gridlocked automobiles, shaking their fists at one another and while trying to understand the lane change logic of the people in front of them. We're doomed.

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