When I started asking people about their dream transit system for the Bay Area, a lot of people said they want transit to be more convenient. My friend Chris Quines – everyone calls him Burd – plays in punk bands.
“I think about all my punk friends,” he says. “They take public transit.”
For musicians, getting all your gear on a bus is next to impossible.
“Forget it,” says Quines.
In his public transit future, this wouldn’t be a problem. He imagines a flying train swooping up to his house to take him to a gig. He would take his amp and put it outside, where a claw would grab it. He would hop into the train, and when he got to the club, the train would release his equipment. How?
“Parachute it down, baby,” he says. “You parachute it down.”
Transit for a flooded city
A lot of people imagine that we’re going to be flying around, but my friend Alex Ghenis tells me that the future is in water travel.
Ghenis gets around the Bay by driving a power wheelchair and riding public transit. He’s a researcher with the World Institute on Disability, where he writes about the impact that climate change could have on people with disabilities.
He’s worried about what will happen if rising sea levels flood the BART system.
“If transit breaks down,” he says, “then I’m stuck at home.”
Ghenis imagines a world where Pier 41 and Jack London Square are long under water.
He suggests building these big ferries – he calls them “boat motherships” – that can dock anywhere. The shore line could be “halfway up a city block,” but these boat motherships would be able to slide forward from water to land.
Ghenis is kind of joking, but he has personal experience with the challenge of getting around on difficult terrain.
“I was going down the hills of San Francisco today, and I tilted my chair back 45 degrees to get down some of these hills,” says Ghenis. “I’m just thinking, my god, if I didn’t have this wheelchair with this tilt function, I wouldn’t be able to get around this city in the first place.”
He says it’s the same with public transit. When sea levels rise, we’ll have to adapt.
Ghenis says, “doing things like changing the tilt function on his chair, we could change the tilt function on the entire transit system.”
Transit dreams for the next generation
Eleven-year-old David Goldstein is also thinking about environmental consequences.
He hopes when the transportation of the future gets built, that “they don't destroy anything that may help us in the future or anything that's a forest or a wide meadow, because something like that is really beautiful and if we keep on destroying things like that it will be gone from our world.”
David has a twin sister named Miriam, and they give me several demands for their public transit future.
“There would be like a kids' bus for kids who like excitement and it would be like a rollercoaster,” says Miriam. “Then there would be one for adults, or other people who like smooth rides.” On the kids’ bus, kids would be in charge, obviously.
I ask David what would happen if his sister Miriam was in charge of the bus.
“She’s crazy,” he says, “She would cover everyone with stickers and then drown them in confetti.”
Another request – the twins would like if they got served food on the bus. Good food, on a china platter.
A fork in the road for transit planners
Next, I talk to transit project expert Lauren Isaac. Isaac works for the big consulting firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. I thought she might give the most mundane answers of anyone I talked to. I was wrong.
Isaac suggests driverless pods that could take people from their homes and bring them to BART stations. That way more people would be able to access the transit network.
This is Isaac’s dream transit scenario, and she thinks the impact of driverless cars on public transit could be huge. Isaac says driverless cars and public transit don’t have to be mutually exclusive — for example, “buses without drivers would be safer and cheaper to run. So you could totally re-imagine what the inside of a bus looks like.”
Isaac likes to take spinning classes. So she imagines a driverless vehicle that has occupancy for a few dozen people.
“Instead of seats,” she says, “you have stationary bikes, and you could take a class while the vehicle is taking you into work.”
If Isaac’s vision sounds crazy fancy, her point is that public transit should be appealing, or else people won’t want to use it. She describes an alternate scenario for driverless cars, where everyone would have their own individual car. Traffic could be even more congested than now because commuters may not mind staying in their car for a longer period of time. They could work, or watch TV. But that’s not an ideal outcome.
Isaac says that governments have a big choice ahead of them: we could end up in a driverless dystopia, or we could really invest in shared vehicles and transit.
“In the end, people are going to choose what's easiest for them,” says Isaac. “Whether it's the cheapest thing, the most reliable thing, the most convenient thing. And so if public transit doesn't meet one or more of those needs, they're not going to choose it.”
Probably nothing in the modern world moves more slowly than a transportation infrastructure project. But transportation technology is changing, and that technology is being developed right here, in the Bay Area. The question is whether our transit will keep up.