28 October 2007

Planning transit around a ballpark: Part I

First off, I have to admit that the title above is quite disconcerting. The preferred set of actions for a new ballpark would include siting it in close proximity to multiple modes of existing transit or at worst, future transit. Should Cisco Field get approved and built there will be challenges getting fans via public transportation to the ballpark. The 18% of fans that currently take transit or walk (i.e. BART) will likely drop precipitously, despite some overly rosy predictions.

To paraphrase FSU from the
last comments thread, just because a transit solution can be built doesn't mean it will. That's the rub. There are numerous factors that come into play when considering how to service an area. Budget constraints are always a reality. Operators want to ensure that the most people get the best available service, and running routes that don't have much ridership is wasteful. At the same time, there needs to be a populace or potential user base already in place to utilize transit solutions, since the car-oriented often don't switch to transit quickly or easily.

Unfortunately, south Fremont is a no-man's land transit-wise. The oft-mentioned 5 miles from Fremont BART to Pacific Commons is already bad. It's another 4 miles south to the county line. Most of that area, especially along the Nimitz, is industrially zoned. AC Transit services the area, and there are certain bus routes that get a fair amount of usage, but for the most part the riders aren't there thanks to sprawling campuses. Driving around the area, one gets the sense transit use drops off exponentially the further one moves away from the BART station. That isn't really anyone's fault. When BART was built Fremont was a relatively new city and was sparsely populated. Much of south Fremont was still farmland or otherwise undeveloped. It made sense to terminate BART at the city center since the greatest ridership potential would be there. In hindsight, it may have been advantageous to bring the line 5 miles south to Warm Springs, to better serve all of Fremont and South Bay riders. There weren't many residents there at the time, but there were jobs at NUMMI. Ultimately, the best solution would have to involve major consideration of users north and south of Warm Springs. The immediate surrounding area doesn't have much density.

The following map (click for a much larger, 800 kb version) is a highlighted version of AC Transit's Tri-Cities local service map. Current and future rail lines and immediate areas surrounding current transit hubs are featured.

What a big disjointed mess. There are 4 current transit centers, all north of Stevenson Blvd, which are supposed to service about 330,000 residents, spread over an area larger than Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville combined. One of these, the Centerville train station (Amtrak/ACE), gets far less usage than the true transit hubs (the BART stations). NewPark Mall's transit center is bus only. ACE and Amtrak take a serpentine route through Fremont that has to be speed-limited because it runs at grade right through residential areas. And to simplify things, I haven't included the high speed rail routes, the optional Irvington BART station, or the Ardenwood Park-n-Ride in Newark, which is for transbay commuter use. This is suburbia in nearly its least transit-friendly form. There is no unifying thoroughfare linking all three cities (880 does not count because people don't hang out on a freeway). All three cities are naturally in competition with one another for residents, businesses, and sales taxes, making joint efforts potentially difficult.

Why focus on this? It's simple. A transit solution for Cisco Field cannot be considered outside the greater context of south Fremont and the Tri-Cities area as a whole. No white elephant solution can work unless it were totally financed and operated privately. Any solutions will require partnerships among the MTC, AC Transit, BART, Amtrak, ACE, VTA, WHEELS, and even Caltrain. So let's start with options that could provide the most benefit:
  • Warm Springs BART Extension (WSX). Okay, I know you're saying "duh" but hear me out. It's not that simple. It's not just the fact that even with the extension riders would still be 1.25 miles away from Cisco Field. For AC Transit, WSX would solve a host of problems. Bus routes are usually a hub-and-spoke operation in this area, and since in Fremont they have to start at Fremont BART, any route to south Fremont would run at least 10 miles with sparse ridership. Move the hub down to Warm Springs and routing becomes far easier, tighter, and as a result more efficient. VTA would get the same benefit because it would be a much shorter haul from the county line to Warm Springs. More regular VTA service could run to BART instead of expensive Express bus service. Once that's done, time-sensitive bus and/or carpool lanes could be designated in the corridors between Warm Springs and Pacific Commons. Most of the surface streets in the area are already sufficiently wide or could be widened to accommodate this kind of service. Most importantly, a shuttle from Warm Springs would be a ton cheaper to operate than a shuttle from the Fremont station. Now it's understood that the WSX extension can't be done without the San Jose extension, which is facing an uphill battle. However, there is one change to BART that for some reason has not really been considered, that could push a San Jose extension over the top...
  • Dublin-Pleasanton to Fremont-and-beyond BART service. Regular BART riders already know that the system has an all-roads-lead-to-Oakland approach. BART also doesn't run Express or Limited service, and its lack of track siding or alternate routes makes single points of failure potentially catastrophic. Then there are the political issues that make BART difficult to expand (which would require a separate post to cover in even rudimentary detail). Despite all of this, BART is a clean, efficient system that counts 100 million boardings annually. In all of the hubbub about the Warm Springs and San Jose extensions, there has been a vocal outcry from Livermore users and others east of the current Dublin/Pleasanton terminus about an extension east along 580. IMO they're absolutely right. It should've been done a decade ago. For some reason, the Livermore extension supporters and San Jose backers have decided to oppose each other. If they truly want to get their extensions built they should band together. On some websites and in the San Jose extension documents, there is not a single mention of a Dublin-Pleasanton to Fremont-San Jose line. (There is talk of a 680-based BART line but south of 580 - why? Sunol is not a population center, and that median space would be much better suited to carpool or toll lanes.) Back to the new line - from a construction standpoint, this would require one additional set of connectors between the 238/580 extension and the Fremont line, equating to a couple of miles of aerial or submerged track. Currently, the only connectors send trains from westbound 238 towards Oakland/Richmond/SF. The only way to get to Fremont is to transfer at Bay Fair. It would be a challenge because of the lack of available space and the acute angle that would be used, but it would be worth it. Users would finally be able to directly go from Pleasanton and Livermore to Fremont and once the San Jose extension is built, down to the job centers. Yes, there is ACE and buses already run along the Sunol Grade, but if there were a faster, cheaper way to go wouldn't you take it? Proponents would suddenly have increased justification thanks to higher ridership estimates. And for once BART would show signs of flexibility, since the line would dispense with the decades-old Oakland-as-Appian Way approach. ACE might suffer a bit but their riders come largely from the Central Valley anyway. The easily forgotten WHEELS wouldn't have to run a ballpark service bus, which is a big deal because they don't currently have any kind of service between the Tri-Valley area and Fremont. Politically, this kind of project would have to be led by three Alameda County supervisors whose districts would be affected. Scott Haggerty has long been a proponent of both the Livermore and San Jose extensions, and Tri-Valley is in his district. Gail Steele's district contains Pacific Commons, which stands to get more business from this kind of plan. Alice Lai-Bitker, whose husband, Steve Bitker, filled in at times on A's radio broadcasts and was passed over for the similar-sounding Vince Cotroneo (hmmm), would be the linchpin since the connector would be built in her district. The MTC would have to give its thumbs up, and current projects would have to be restructured or amended such as WSX. In the end that tiny connector would be a win-win for Tri-Valley commuters, both extension proponents, BART, and last but not least the A's.

Before some of you start on the "BART is never coming to San Jose" rants in the comments, let me just say that yes, it is going to be difficult to get BART to the South Bay because of the rising costs. Funny thing is, I've talked to a few officials who consider it a fait accompli, sooner or later. It is looking at this project from a regional standpoint, not just as a series of smaller projects, that will give rise to a better transit vision, one that all Bay Area residents can agree upon. One that, with a little savvy and patience, will have positive cascading effects for the A's and A's fans at Cisco Field.

Tomorrow I'll go over that crazy yellow line on the map.