Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Subway, The Earthquake, and the iPhone

I was about 100 feet under downtown Los Angeles, when the earthquake hit.

On Tuesdays I commute from North Hollywood station all the way down to Long Beach to volunteer at the aquarium, using the Red line (L.A.'s only completely subterranean heavy rail) and the Blue line (a light rail that is only underground breifly at its northernmost station).

I think we were somewhere between Vermont/Santa Monica and 7th/Metro (where I disembarked) at the time of the quake. The reason I am unsure exactly where on the route we were at 11:42 am is because I DIDN'T FEEL THE EARTHQUAKE AT ALL. No one in my train car did, as far as I can recall. I do remember that, at one of the red line stops, the train was stopped for longer than usual (maybe 30 seconds), and the conductor said something inaudible over the speaker, but I didn't know what it was, and it didn't seem to matter much since we were moving again pretty quick, so I assumed it was some random delay. No one around me was reacting to anything (several were sleeping), so I think it's not just me on the train that didn't feel it.

(I am actually curious at why I didn't feel the quake on the red line. Was it simply because the regular vibrations felt when riding the train masked the vibrations from the quake? The red line feels (to me) like it has shocks cushioning between the wheel chassis and the car somehow, making it a smooth ride. Did those shocks (if they exist) damp out the jolt of the quake as well? I dunno.)

After disembarking the red line at 7th/Metro, I went up the stairs to wait for the Blue Line. This station is a double-decker subway station, with the red line at the lower level and the blue line at the upper level, but both still underground. After waiting 3 or 4 minutes, someone came on the station loudspeaker and said "(something inaudible) We are running all trains as normal, but (something inaudible) there may be some delays. We appreciate your patience and apologize for any inconvenience."

I was playing a stupid game on my phone, so I wasn't really paying attention, and figured there was some random reason why the trains might be delayed. This didn't seem all that unusual, so I just waited as normal.

The blue line train showed up only a few minutes or so later than expected. I strolled onboard, still blissfully unaware that anything had happened. It was now around 11:55 or so. Once people had mostly sat down and had gotten quiet, the conductor for this train came on the loudspeaker:

"This train will be departing for Long Beach. Because of the earthquake, we will not be traveling faster than 15 miles per hour. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

Earthquake? There was an earthquake? Huh.

I pulled out my shiny new iphone, which of course gets no reception underground, and opened the web browser. As soon as we emerged from underground and were approaching Pico station, I went to On the top of the CNN front page was an alert in big red letters: "5.4 Earthquake rocks Los Angeles. Details soon."

Yeesh, I thought, talk about alarmist reporting! Here CNN is warning the nation of a natural disaster possibly destroying L.A., and here I am coming out from beneath downtown L.A. and I didn't even feel the darn thing. I then browsed over to the USGS web site and found out that it was indeed a 5.4 quake, whose epicenter was near Chino Hills, about 30 miles east-southeast of downtown. I figured, well, maybe it was too far away for us to feel it. Right then I get a text message from my sister in SAN DIEGO. "Did you feel the earthquake?", she asked. I responded that I hadn't, and she immediately replied that the room she was in (a classroom in a larger building) was "rockin' and rollin'". In San Diego. 113 miles from the epicenter! Everyone else I talked to that day definitely felt the earthquake. In a weird way, I feel sort of left out.

The main impact it had on my day was that the blue line was forced to run much slower, I guess as a safety precaution in case of aftershocks. We were going 15 mph most of the 30 or so miles to Long Beach. I could hear chatter on the speakers, which sounded like communications between the conductor and higher authorities. By the time we were street-running in Long Beach, it sounded like the conductor was given approval to take the train up to 45 mph, but at that point it was moot for me, since we were stopping at stoplights and such anyway. The 53 minute scheduled ride between 7th/Metro and the Long Beach Transit Mall instead took about 1 hr 40 minutes. Luckily I could call the aquarium and let them know I would be late so someone could cover for the first part of my volunteer shift.

While I was checking out news sites for more quake info, some guy sat down next to me, having just boarded at Pico. I asked him if he felt the quake. "Oh yeah," he said. Then he noticed that the train was going really slow, and I told him that it was for safety. He realized that, at this rate, he was not going to make to where he was going by using the train, so I used my iPhone and the MTA website to figure out an alternate route for him to take, using a bus that was scheduled to stop at the next blue line station we'd be stopping at in just a few minutes! Worked out kind of well, and he walked off the train saying "I need to get me one of those!". So I guess these things aren't just toys afterall.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mass Transit: California and Los Angeles

EDIT: Thought I'd quickly add a cool link I found with information about metropolitan rail systems around the world. Has info on their history and the present day states of the system. Did you know that the first Metro rail system was the London Tube, which started operation in 1863? (!!)

As a follow up to my last post, I thought I'd talk a bit about transit issues specific to California and Los Angeles, in particular.

As for state-wide service, check this out: A high-speed rail (220 MPH trains!) system that will eventually extend from San Diego through Riverside and Los Angeles and San Francisco all the way to Sacramento. A trip from downtown L.A. to San Diego would cost $35 and take 1 hour and 20 minutes. A trip between L.A. and San Francisco would cost $55 and take 2 hours and 40 minutes. And we can vote to approve it in November's election! I'm glad that California government is taking the lead in trying to make this state more European in dealing with high gas prices and making long-range high speed rail transit more commonplace than it is today. I only hope the rest of the population will see the benefits that such systems can bring to their children and their grandchildren, instead of leaving their descendants to deal with the rising national debt we are incurring, and the environmental impacts we are causing, by continuing to rely on personal transport and fossil fuels.

In Los Angeles, public transit is a challenge. The city is a sprawl, with a huge number of people living in the San Fernando Valley, the west side, Santa Monica, Hollywood, East L.A., Pasadena, South Central, the South Bay, Long Beach, etc. L.A. Metro has a very difficult problem ahead of them: they are trying to expand and improve their network of rail and bus lines across a huge urban and suburban sprawl. Subways and trains are fast, reliable, and can keep to their schedules without having to worry about traffic throughout the day. Everyone would love a train that goes straight from their house to their job, but obviously we can only have so many rail lines. They are expensive to build, especially in areas where the region to be developed into a rail line is privately owned.

The regions that are too far from a rail station (most of the county) are served by buses. I can say from experience that the local versions of these buses are simply not worth it if you have access to a car. You will waste 15 to 20 minutes waiting at the bus stop (they are rarely able to hold to the schedule), and they make so many stops that you could almost always make the trip much faster in your car. And if you are only traveling ~5 miles or so, the distance over which you’d likely want to use a local bus, it’d be much easier to use a car.

Over longer distances, the “rapid” lines become quite useful. These are usually larger, articulating buses that make fewer stops along their route, allowing them to get you from one place to another much faster than a local bus. I use a rapid line to get from UCLA to my condo in Sherman Oaks.

L.A. Metro really is trying to make improvements and expand service. But of course, we only notice the little problems, and take the good things about the service for granted. The fact that the buses are not able to arrive and depart on the scheduled timetable does not really surprise me: the buses are subject to the same traffic fluctuations and stoplights that cars are. We can’t expect the buses to arrive within minutes of the time on the schedule; especially when it’s near the end of that bus’ route.

What I would love to see is something like Chicago has. A way for people to tell how long until the next bus arrives at the bus stop. Something that is accessible by cellphone would be great. Anything accessible online would work as well. If I could know how long before the bus will actually arrive at the bus stop BEFORE I leave my house or office, I could save a lot of time that I am currently wasting waiting at the bus stop, not knowing whether or not I have time to sit down and work on my laptop, or whether there is a bus coming within a couple of minutes.

The rail system in L.A. is actually very effective (see map above), but if you don't live near a rail station, it is useless to you. The entire west side of L.A. is not served by a rail system. The purple line (a subway) currently goes from downtown to Wilshire and Western, and it will eventually be extended all the way to Santa Monica. That will be great when it's finished, as it will take lots of car congestion off of Wilshire, Santa Monica Blvd., and I-10. But that is probably 10-15 years out. . . and I can not imagine having to deal with all the legal issues and property owners underneath and along Wilshire Blvd.

The MTA has a long term plan, and it is moving in the right direction, but I hope that the recent rises in gas cost will inspire some political motivation to inject even more money into the transit system here. This could be an even greater city if public transit were fast, affordable, and efficient. I don't expect that people will be able to live here easily without cars anytime soon, but reducing car usage by a large amount (as in, the ability to commute to work without using your car) would be a significant and attainable goal.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Rising gas prices and public transit

I thought I’d spend a couple of blog posts talking (mainly to myself, I know, but it’s therapeutic) about public transit in general, and mass transit in Los Angeles in particular.

First, in general: It seems to me that one of the major economic problems the U.S. will be facing over the next few decades is the increasing cost of petroleum. I’ve seen many websites (some alarmist, others more reliable and practical) proclaiming that we are nearing the age of global peak oil. That is, within my lifetime (and probably within the next 30 or so years) we will reach a point at which humanity is producing oil for consumption at the highest possible rate, and after which the oil production rate will fall lower and lower. This time, called “Hubbert’s Peak” corresponds to the point at which we have used half of the crude oil that is accessible to humanity.

The fact that Hubbert’s peak exists for oil should not be surprising. It exists for any non-renewable resource. Crude oil is produced by processes of biological decay and geological compression that take thousands to millions of years, and we humans are using the energy from oil in much less time than it takes the Earth to produce more of it. Hence, on the timescale of human society, oil is non-renewable.

In his book “Out of Gas”, Caltech Physicist David Goodstein points out that we don’t have to wait until we are literally out of oil for a crisis to erupt. That’s because, as soon as we’ve hit Hubbert’s peak, and the rate of oil production begins to forever decrease, oil prices will be forced to continuously rise as the supply of oil decreases. In the 1970’s, oil production within the United States hit Hubbert’s Peak. OPEC realized this and, due to a variety of economic and political motivations, reduced the amount of oil they were willing to sell to the U.S.. The result was the Gas Crisis, with people waiting in long lines to get the small amount of gasoline available to them. We weren’t out of oil. . . availability just decreased for a time. And, when our car-based, consumer lifestyle continues to increase (along with our population), a small decrease in the availability of oil can mean real problems for the every day consumer.

Average gas prices in the U.S. have gone from the lowest (adjusted for inflation) real cost per gallon ever in 1999, to the highest real cost per gallon ever, right now. (See the plot above, collected from the U.S. Energy Information Administration) Though some types of governmental incentives and fiscal policies might cause the prices to go down by a few tens of cents at some point (the temporary band-aid of a "gas tax holiday" supported by McCain and Clinton), they will not be decreasing by half. Gradually, our gasoline prices will be increasing for the foreseeable future. Some people, including myself, think this might actually turn out to be a good thing. Check out this op-ed piece in the L.A. Times: The Joy of $8 Gas.

However, though it may be great that rising gas prices will encourage more people to use public transit, there needs to be a useful transit system available for them in order for the switch to work. This is where the U.S. gets hit in its weak spot. Use of trains and public transportation in metropolitan areas was high in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century. But after the economic prosperity that came about after World War 2 and during the Cold War, and with the (temporary) availability of cheap oil, U.S. society changed. People moved away from the centers of big cities, and created the suburbs. This was possible because roads could be built out into suburban or rural areas, and people could afford to drive their own cars to wherever they pleased without the governments having to invest public funds. The federal government began investing much more in the interstate highway system, and much less in the train systems. Even state and city governments put more of their tax revenue into maintaining more and more roads, leaving less money to maintain (let alone expand) public transit systems. The U.S. became a car country.

Now we are finally seeing some of the error in our ways. If gas prices keep going up at the current rates, it will become economically unfeasible for many lower middle class families to use their cars to commute to work. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if our society were used to using a good public transit system. But we are not used to public transit. We are used to the convenience of personal transit. And most U.S. cities do not have a good public transit system, though it is improving.

Robert Reich, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, sometimes gives commentaries on NPR. One of his recent suggestions (on the June 4 podcast) was for the federal government to enact some fiscal policy and inject a real economic stimulus package that amounts to more than giving each American $600 to put in the bank. Instead, Congress should vote to imbue a great deal more money into public transportation. Gasoline is not going to get cheaper, and hybrid cars are great but will only solve the economic problem for the upper middle class people who can afford to buy them.

A better public transit system, one that allows people to conduct their daily lives without having to use their cars as often as they do now, is the right solution. It will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce our production of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming, and give relief to those who find it more difficult to pay for gas.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

ISS animation

My advisor forwarded this animation to me today. It shows the completed and planned construction of the International Space Station in cool 3D animation, along with dates and flight #'s of the completed construction.

It's pretty awesome to see that, after all the criticism and obstacles, this international manned orbiting laboratory is getting close to being finished!