Praying for Mass Transit Won't Bring It Back

Becky O'Malley
Friday December 14, 2018 - 04:19:00 PM

l When I was a child in St. Louis in the late 1940s and early 1950s we lived two or three blocks from two streetcar lines to the north and south of our house and a bus line to the east. When we needed to shop for essentials like school shoes my mother took my sister and me downtown on the streetcar, wearing our white cotton gloves to make sure we didn’t contract polio by touching unclean surfaces. On a couple of very special occasions when I was about 10 I took the streetcar downtown all by myself to have lunch with my father near his office. No one worried about safety, since each streetcar had both a driver and conductor.  

Our family had a car, but it was seldom used during the week. There was only one limited access thoroughfare, called “The Superhighway”. 

I have never lived in the real suburbs. Mostly, I’ve lived in the trailing edge of what were called streetcar suburbs, houses built in the early 20th century to be served by the proliferating streetcars. When an aunt’s family moved into to a brand-new house in the real suburbs in the 50s, they were considered eccentric within our extended family, all the rest of whom lived within a few blocks of each other in “The West End”. 

When my nuclear family moved to Pasadena in 1953, my mother, my sister and I, plus a dog and at least one cat and I think a parakeet got on the train at the St. Louis Union Station to share a sleeping compartment. 

Three or four days later we arrived at the Southern Pacific station in Pasadena, close to our new home in another transit-shaped community, this one with rail lines to downtown Los Angeles. 

But things were starting to change. The train schedule was shrinking, so my father bought a station wagon to drive to work in L.A. on the Pasadena Freeway. My mother needed to chauffeur us to many destinations in the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis not served by transit, so she happily acquired a beloved used Mercury convertible. By the end of my high school days, most of my peers had their drivers’ licenses, and some had their own cars.  

My college transportation was feet and bicycles. I seem to remember that Cal undergraduates were not allowed to have cars, though how that was enforced I can’t imagine. 

In Berkeley by that time the Key System train line had been removed. If we needed to go to San Francisco, which we seldom did, the F bus ran often, day and night.  

After I got married and graduated (in that order) I moved to Ann Arbor, where we lived without a car until we had two children, when I won a camper van in a 25-words-or-less contest. Twelve years later we moved back to Berkeley with three kids, who were conveniently bussed to school for integration purposes. When they got to Berkeley High, the 65 bus stopped in front of our door, 

Their grandparents were in Santa Cruz. Greyhound had several direct Oakland-to-Santa-Cruz busses every day, staffed by friendly drivers who kept an eye on kids travelling alone, so they could visit frequently in the summer. This was a big plus for busy me—at that point I was going into San Francisco for night classes on the E bus, which ran many times, day and night, just a block from my house,.  

By this point readers might be wondering why I’m sharing all this personal transportation history. Cue Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi: You don’t know what you got till it’s gone. 

What’s gone, sadly, is the extensive and effective public transportation network that we used to enjoy, which has largely disappeared. BART is not a patch on what the Key System plus frequent AC transit buses used to offer—it’s dirty, over-crowded and unreliable. There’s just one early morning Greyhound run to Santa Cruz, and it’s sketchy. 

Concurrently, a myth has grown up around the existence of public transit, one part nostalgia and one part fairy tale. It’s become a cult which resembles the cargo cults beloved of island dwellers. 

(Wikipedia: “A cargo cult is a belief system among members of a relatively undeveloped society in which adherents practice superstitious rituals hoping to bring modern goods supplied by a more technologically advanced society.” ) 

The idea is that if you create the need, technology to fill it will follow. If you’d like to have a really great transit system, just build housing and Tinker Bell will provide one that works.  

There’s just one problem: Today’s transit infrastructure is orders of magnitude worse than the one of my youth, or of my children’s youth.  

Exhibit A: The next time one of those huge exhaust-spewing busses passes you, count how many people are riding in it. Just let me know any time you see more than six passengers. I live on Ashby Avenue, and the infrequent 80 busses which pass my front door never have more than two passengers, any hour of the day or night.  

These runs are meeting an unfelt need, yet at the same time the E line now makes only four East Bay stops for just five morning-only runs daily. If you have an evening event or meeting in San Francisco, forget it. 

Or maybe you might like to try to ride BART from San Francisco to Berkeley in the rush hour. The cars are jammed, despite frequent promises that improvement is just around the corner. 

What we currently have just doesn’t work. But proximity to dysfunctional transit is being used by the real estate development industry to promote land speculation in neighborhoods unlucky enough to be located near supposed transit. 

There’s now an unholy alliance between real estate developers and the politicians they pay for (think Scott Wiener, Nancy Skinner, and now, from a destination near you, Buffy Wicks) that is trying to take over small communities’ ability to plan how local development takes place.  

This massive push by developers and their lackeys to revamp the Bay Area for maximum profits has culminated in a new organization with the homey sobriquet of CASA. 

There was a cream-puff description of what they’re up to in a recent SF Chronicle article: 

Bay Area leaders propose aggressive housing fix, and new agency to get it done 

Here’s the lede: 

“A panel of mayors, developers and transit officials has an aggressive plan to stanch the Bay Area’s housing crisis by combining a regional rent cap, new property taxes, laws against arbitrary evictions and loose zoning near transit centers. 

‘The group, named the Committee to House the Bay Area but called CASA, also recommends creating a new agency with taxing authority to implement region-wide housing solutions.” 

If only it were that simple.  

Note, there’s no mention of transit users, or would-be same, participating in the planning. It’s mostly taken place behind closed doors, in groups exempt from the Brown Act’s open meeting requirements. 

Luckily, independent scholar and journalist Zelda Bronstein has been unobtrusively attending the group’s unpublicized organizing gatherings and has a good idea of what the plans are. She gave an impromptu lecture on the topic recently to the Save Marinwood organization which was recorded by an audience member and forwarded to the Planet by a reader with this comment: 

“If you enjoyed Roman Polanski's Chinatown for its nuanced exploration of California land use policy corruption, you'll love this talk. It describes a situation that will require some organized resistance.” 


Bronstein has a written analysis in the works of what’s happening, which we’ll publish when it’s done, but in the meantime it is worth your 20 minute investment to see her describe what’s happening in real time. Be aware that this is an amateur recording by an unidentified camera-person—you’ll have to run up your sound to hear what she’s saying, but it’s revelatory: 


It’s reminiscent of the recent court decision which says that you can’t arrest people for being homeless: for sleeping on the street if you can’t offer them another place to sleep. It would seem that unless and until the transit options actually work as promised, you shouldn’t be cramming residents into areas where reliable transportation just might eventually materialize. 

Noteworthy: Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin seems to have been participating in some of these CASA sessions. He should be asked to report what’s going on to Berkeleyans, especially to the Berkeley City Council, now however on winter recess until January 22.