04.20.10

Mass Transit Options

Posted in Environment, Transportation at 12:35 pm by Bill Maginnis

I’ve had this vision in my head about buses, light-rail vehicles (LRVs), electric trolley buses running up and down the streets of Tucson. I expound upon my vision to anyone who will listen. Could that be why I don’t have many friends? Be a witness to my vision…

I lived in San Francisco for almost nine years from 1977 to 1986. I didn’t own a car for almost six years during that time and I loved it! I lived and worked and went to school in San Francisco, taking street cars, light rail, electric buses and diesel buses all over The City. I could stay out late, get home in the middle of the night and still be able to catch a bus. I visited S.F. for a few days this fall and rediscovered how creative San Francisco is, how much of a “can do!” kind of spirit is still alive. This is cool and totally awesome!

I was visiting S.F. and was staying at my brother-in-law’s house in the Bernal Heights area and had taken the public transportation to that area many times in past years. The bus to that part of town was previously a diesel bus that strained to get up the steep hill to that neighborhood after winding its way through other areas such as the Fillmore, Western Addition, the Castro and Noe Valley, and down to Bayshore Blvd. These latter neighborhoods have fairly narrow streets, some steep hills–very tough on fueled buses. Turns out that S.F. decided to convert the diesel bus line to an electric trolley line–no easy task as I will describe.

An electric trolley bus in San Francisco typically has a set of poles attached to the roof of the bus. Each pole is connected to the rear of the bus via a cable on a reel. (I don’t know the terminology, please bear with me.) Both poles connect to a pair of wires running overhead that provide a connection to the electricity necessary to generate the power for the electric bus. The overhead wires are supported by guides and tracks around corners and intersections with other electric vehicles. The electric trolleys are quiet and clean running. They are quiet inside for passengers and quiet outside for residents of the neighborhoods the trolleys pass through. You hear the wires singing as the bus approaches and occasionally the wires rattling and shaking as the bus passes by. No diesel fumes in the air. No loud diesel engine grinding by while straining up a hill. The electric trolley bus is powerful: a bus full of people and it just plows its way up a hill–piece of cake! Can of corn! Easy as pie! More pictures and descriptions of the history of these buses in San Francisco found here and a great article on Wikipedia here.

So, the city of San Francisco decided to retrofit this bus line with electricity and run the trolley through the narrow streets of the neighborhoods. This is sheer gumption! Someone had a huge set of cajones, let me tell you. It is quite a feat of engineering to design the system for this trolley, string up all the wires and support guides, connect all the tracks through the intersections so the bus can pass through and not loose its source of electrical power from the overhead wires. Brilliant! If San Francisco can overcome all of the obstacles in its path and put a clean running, quiet, environmentally sound bus line in place, why the hell can’t a city like Tucson do the same?

Tucson has these ridiculously wide streets for almost all of its arterial surface streets to carry all the cars commuting to work with single passengers. (Look at the lines of cars flying by and count how many of the them have more than one person in the car: 85%? 90%? 95%?) Most of these streets (Broadway, Speedway, 22nd St., Oracle, to name a few) have an existing right lane that is usually marked as a bus lane. How simple it would be to engineer the supports for the wires, string up the electrical system, put a bunch of new, clean buses on those lines. Tucson would have to have the vision of a city with fewer cars on the city streets, a city with a conscience: using less fossil fuels for private citizens to go between home and work. Tucson would have to promote the hell out of a project like this to get an increase in ridership, get people out of their cars for their commute.

So, where is the electrical power coming from? Yeah, Tucson does recover methane gases from the landfills and then uses the methane to be burned and power the turbines that produce electricity. That’s one way. How about passive solar array panels in “fields” around the city or drawing power from the Springerville solar project in the White Mountains that Tucson Electric Power owns.

Of course, there will be the whiners and nay-sayers who state that they will loose their views of the surrounding mountains if all these overhead wires are in place. (Like they ever get out of their cars long enough to look for the mountains!) My response to this is: will you be able to see your mountains in a couple of years when all the smog produced by the increasing hordes of cars obscures the view?

What about the stress of driving in traffic? The wear-and-tear on your car taking you to/from work? The expense of your gassing up the car each week (well, hopefully only once a week–you are driving a car that gets over 30 MPG in the city, aren’t you?)

If enough buses are on the street, you won’t wait long for your connection. I lived on 29th Street, off a street car line (the J Church line–ran past the St. Paul’s Catholic church and school shown in the Whoopie Goldberg movie, “Sister Act”.) I had to wait 4-6 minutes during commute hours in the morning for the next streetcar to come along. The trip home at night was the same. Since I was downtown, other street cars for the other lines distributed throughout the city would come by every 2-3 minutes. Traveling was easy: I could read, look out the window, listen to my headphones. I was never accosted on any ride at any time in the years in which I took mass transit in San Francisco.

I voted for and totally supported Steve Farley, our Arizona state representative, who has had a vision to have light rail vehicles in a few lines around Tucson. I say, that’s not bold enough! Tucson needs more and Tucson can do more! I have faith. The people have to hear about this and they have to want this: they have to understand the benefits, they have to understand how their quality of life will improve with fewer cars on the road, how they will meet more of their neighbors while riding the buses, appreciate their city and all it has to offer.

That’s my vision. I haven’t been locked up for it, yet…

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