Contending with cars, at the polls and on vacation - Page 2

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Bike touring is a fun and eco-friendly vacation option that state policies could better facilitate.
PHOTOS BY JASON HENDERSON

But Amtrak has some bad aspects. The coffee needs immediate mitigation! It's an easy problem to solve, and I've had delicious coffee on German and Swiss trains, even in ceramic mugs.

Getting a bicycle on many Amtrak trains is annoying. Unlike the Capitol Corridor or San Joaquin trains, on which you can simply roll the bicycle on board, Amtrak's long-distance trains require boxing the bicycle as checked baggage. This means additional charges, and you must arrive and disembark at a station that handles baggage, so many stops are not bicycle-accessible. And the cardboard bike box is not reused by Amtrak but put in recycling, which is rather silly and wasteful.

Fortunately, Amtrak is starting to get it, and soon will be introducing bicycle roll-on service on many trains on the East Coast. Let's hope Amtrak does the same for the Coast Starlight. There's plenty of room on the multilevel rail cars to squeeze in a few bikes, and that would probably attract more people to use the system while making it more flexible.

Now for the ugly. The trip to Portland takes more than 17 hours on a good day. I'm not necessarily arguing for high-speed rail, but this length of time is a big problem for Amtrak. It's not a technology problem — it's politics.

Amtrak is caged by the timetable of freight railways that own the tracks. This often results in delays since the freight railroads have eliminated double tracks and rationalized their routes to maximize profit while having little concern about passenger rail.

Over 100 years ago, Edward Harriman, who merged Southern Pacific with Union Pacific into a continent-wide system, had it right on running a railroad. Instead of focusing on shareholder wealth, Harriman argued that profits from railroads should be shoveled back into reducing grades, strengthening bridges, improving curves, double-tracking trunk routes, and building new bridges, cutoffs, sidings, tunnels, stations, yards, cars, and terminals. Harriman even proposed a rail tunnel under San Francisco Bay, which as I've written about before and which should be a priority in the region today.

Rail is critical infrastructure and key to our national energy and climate policy. It should not be left to the whims of freight haulers and private profit. It's time for the political will to coordinate the right-of-way to improve travel times as well as increase frequency of passenger trains.

Six years ago, improving Amtrak was a signature platform of the Obama Administration. But Republicans — many filled with racist vitriol — have fought anything he stands for. And they hate Amtrak almost as much as they hate Obama.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans vowed to gut Amtrak and mocked Obama's pro-Amtrak policies. In Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, the hate ran so deep that funding for rail was simply sent back to Washington, even as cities in all of those states pined for rail as an economic development strategy. This kind of zombie-like Republican hate towards Obama and Amtrak is remarkably similar to the posturing of the anti-transit, car-firsters pushing Prop L.

 

THE PORTLAND COMPARISON

But I'm on vacation, and problems of Amtrak's ugly politics aside, once in Portland it all got beautiful. Cycling around Portland is fantastic. With excellent, well-connected bicycle facilities coupled with attentive and polite drivers, bicycle-oriented innovation and businesses flourish in Portland. I've never seen so many cargo bikes and families with children out shopping, cycling to school, and making other utilitarian trips by bicycle.

Sure, it's flatter, but more important is the traffic density and allocation of street space. Compared to San Francisco, Portland has lower residential density, a low density of automobiles, and more capacity to reallocate road space for bicycling.

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