Yesterday I had my only trip on American public transportation in recent memory and it was even more disappointing than I expected. I love trains, I love cities built around trains, I love being able to go places without having to lug around a huge metal box, but now that I’ve bothered paying attention to it, Bay Area Rapid Transit does not run a metro. It’s not a heavy rail system. It’s not even a light rail system. It will never be a heavy or a light rail system. Comparing my experience riding BART to the one riding Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway and it became instantly obvious that BART is just a glorified parking lot shuttle that just happens to run on the rubberless kind of wheels.
But this isn’t only the BART’s fault. Even if by some hand of god all the people in the administration on down were removed and replaced with perfect candidates to fill every conceivable need, including the contracted union construction workers who are the mafia in all but name and the Department of Transportation guys who are all bought out, BART would still be garbage – because it doesn’t go anywhere by itself. If your destination is Oakland, Berkeley, or San Francisco, fine. If you’re going anywhere else, you take BART, you get off at your final station and then what?
Walk the rest of the way?
“But the population density is too low! We’re not crowded like Hong Kong!” is the common response and until now I grudingly accepted it as the truth, the reason why everything is shitty. If only we had more people in the San Francisco Bay Area, if only more people wanted to come to Silicon Valley, home to the most valuable companies in the world, everything would be fixed!
Then I realized that it’s exactly backwards. Low density isn’t the reason for lack of results, low density is itself the intended result – among a bunch of other intended results. Sure, the people want a fast high quality public transportation system. They probably want it to be free too. But god have mercy if it comes at the cost of their backyard, or if it causes buildings with more than 3 stories to pop up anywhere before the horizon. If someone really wants something they know they can’t have everything and can usually come to some sort of compromise. But the public, uneducated on little and sold on everything, compromises for nothing. So, as a result, we pay a few billion dollars every few years to keep it afloat, and otherwise keep it out of sight out of mind, ignoring that the system was outdated when it was introduced almost half a century ago, and with all the money poured into it has essentially never updated since.
Everyone who’s gotten to highschool has this figured out, even if they only believe it’s true of people they disagree with. This is all fairly common knowledge:
The people will accept politicians being stupid and wasting billions of dollars on pork barrel projects, so long as the people get to sit comfortably in their sofas at home calling politicians stupid for wasting billions of dollars on pork barrel projects.
Now what’s not common knowledge is that it’s wrong – specifically, it’s not “the people”. It’s not a function of homo sapiens, it’s somewhat a function of masses and democracy, but there’s something more accurate we can say, that no one will ever say:
The American people will accept politicians being stupid and wasting billions of dollars on pork barrel projects, so long as the American people get to sit comfortably in their sofas at home calling politicians stupid for wasting billions of dollars on pork barrel projects.
BART sucks because Americans suck.
I don’t mean this in the ‘you allow people in power to screw you!!!’ sense; democracy is a sham, and it’s unreasonable to say that unorganized masses are “allowing” organized interests to do whatever they want. I mean this in the sense that the American pasttime of schadenfreude against their political leaders is an attitude they take everywhere. There are the big problems which, fairly, only a very select few with power can do anything about this moment. Then there’s ten thousand little ones which everyone can do something about. Things which add up and eventually make the world a better place.
Things which Americans won’t do, and will defend to the death not only are they right in not doing it, but that you’re wrong and weak in wanting it done to begin with. It’s not important if you’re actually wrong or weak. It’s not important if they’re wrong either.
What’s important is they get to call you the names, and being comfortable while doing it.
This is what one of my rides on BART looked like. I don’t have pictures of the other ride, but there were a bunch of really dirty
people “teens” in really dirty clothes each taking up a whole bench, and empty boxes and bottles here and there.
Two doors per side per car, seats are arranged front/back except for doors, which have one side-bench per. Not shown in picture is the map of the system, which is either once per side or once per car.
This is what an older MTR car looks like.
4 doors per side, all seats are arranged as sides, no padding, bunch of things to hold onto.
All these differences aren’t so important. Lower density system, you can afford put in wider comfier seats. Comfy is good. Makes sense. What is important is that BART had a paper printout of the system occurring 1 or 2 times per car, while MTR had 8 of these:
Does Silicon Valley not have that because of lower population density too? We can’t scrounge up enough money because lower ridership, and who cares it’s just an unnecessarily fancy display that only has one purpose anyways?
How about the audio announcement then? I could never make out what the operator was saying on BART, partly because half the time riding BART is louder than flying turboprop, but also because the PA system was trash and the operator didn’t enunciate. MTR I could hear everything just fine, even if I had to wait for the English version of it. It was also all prerecorded. I guess the population density isn’t high enough to justify prerecording. It isn’t high enough to justify the operator saying the name of the station before the train arrives either. Or sometimes, saying the name of the station at all!
Man low population density causes a lot of problems.
This was at the Kam Sheung Road MTR station, effectively about as backwater as you can get in Hong Kong. It is on the inside door of the restroom. The restroom at the time had the janitor chilling in his utility closet; in Hong Kong public areas in general you can often see janitors and other custodials doing their work.
I’d show you a picture of what the inside door of a restroom in a BART station looks like, but there are no restrooms in BART. Apparently though the janitors which I’ve never seen and which think trash littered cars are fine are paid 270k a year (USD not HKD). Because they deserve a living wage. Or something. Overworked understaffed? Maybe throw a little bit of higher cost of living in there too.
Now, on the BART website, they claim certain stations actually do have bathrooms. Supposing they bathrooms do physically exist in the stations as they say, they don’t fit the definition of public. What kind of restroom is it if a member of the public who wants to use it can’t find it?
Someone who alighted at my station on a train before mine asked where the exit was. I can’t blame him, because this is what an aboveground BART deck looks like:
This is what the Tin Shui Wai deck looks like. I specify because they’re all obviously visibly different in some way. If you memorize the colors on the walls or pillars, you can tell where you are in the line. BART is the same concrete wherever you go.
Both of the above depicted stations have their exits below their current floor. One of them is significantly easier to find than the other. Are exits easier to find if it’s higher population density? An inch of glass is more expensive than another foot (thick!) of concrete? I’ll admit the sign isn’t particularly helpful but that’s one error out of a hundred corrections. Why are there two decks instead of one, anyways? If someone mistakenly missed their stop and got off at the next one, one of these stations would fuck them if the return train arrived at the same time, and the other wouldn’t.
Obviously, the American one is the better one.
Am I just salty? Y I Mad Doe? No, it’s impossible that I might be right on top of that. Everyone claims debates and discussions are about truth but most people jump to pointing and laughing at the other guy the first chance they get and declare victory after that. Sorry – most Americans. Call someone salty or anti-American or any number of names and it doesn’t matter what they say anymore. Am I anti-kid if I don’t give a fat kid candy? These are the same kind of people who will recoil and put their hands up if you start calling them imbeciles, but we’ll get into that topic another time.
American attitudes toward everything is can be summarized in
- “Fuck you got mine” and
- “I’m/We’re the best“.
To begin with the state of public transportation is mostly an afterthought because when it’s brought up it’s simply written off. Who cares about public transportation? I have a car. I can get where I want to when I want to. What, too poor to have a car? None of my business. Don’t ask me to pay taxes to fund someone else’s life. Then they’ll turn around and complain about how traffic is so bad lately and they have to get up earlier and earlier so the freeway moves at the actual speed limit rather than at 10mph.
It simply doesn’t occur to them that everyone else thinks the same thing and cars have geometries and physics which cause certain effects. It isn’t some economist rational actors model where everyone’s carefully and quantitatively measured out how much they value each thing and voila, now we have a shitty public transportation system as well as a shitty private transportation, but all of this is okay because we value detached single family homes so much. None of that goes through their head. It’s literally just “I don’t care, I don’t see a problem, why are you yelling at me? I was promised owning my own home in the American Dream! If you say I shouldn’t have one then fuck you!”
Why do aboveground BART stations have two decks instead of one?
Because if you miss your stop then it’s your fault you’re an idiot.
Why aren’t there bathrooms in BART stations, or if they exist, why can’t they be found?
Because you didn’t look hard enough, or if they don’t exist, why didn’t you just take care of business before leaving the house?
Why doesn’t BART have a clear announcement system or a display that shows where in the system you are at all times?
Because you should know which stop you’re stopping at anyways.
Why does BART allow trash on its trains?
Are you saying you saw trash and didn’t clean it up? Why aren’t you doing your part? If you did, why are you complaining? The problem got solved, didn’t it?
If you’ve heard the line “You didn’t get the job because you just weren’t passionate enough”, this is the same thing. Every systemic problem that’s brought up turns out to be the result of a lack of individual responsibility, effort, and faith – until they also happen to have a problem with it, then it’s always a call for somebody to do something, as long as it doesn’t turn out that “somebody” includes them. Not my tax money. Not my car. Not my backyard.
Or in case of BART employees, Not my job.
Whose job was it to put this label up? Did it need to be put up?
Do you think he was paid more or less than 270k a year (USD not HKD)?
Considering it’s some text on laminated paper secured by tape, it was probably decided and put up by someone lower down the chain than whoever put up this other one:
These little things put life into what’s otherwise an environment that just happens to have other people in it and is just somewhere you have to be in order to get to the next place. It’s not just some path, it’s a paved path with clean railings and cleaned plates that have a contact number on them indicating someone is involved in maintaining it and they care about their work. It’s not just an elevator to the library, it’s one whose surfaces are cleaned every hour and someone decided it was important to let people know it’s clean – clearly not someone at the top but someone much further down.
Meanwhile, BART operators could care less if you heard them or if you know where you are. BART police could care less if you’re getting robbed by 50 “teens”. Or murder, which I won’t bother linking because it happens so often none of them are worth noting anymore. Everywhere you go in America you feel that people are basically just showing up for the paycheck. Nothing is improved, nothing gets better over time, and if really terrible things happen as a result of ten thousand little things not having been done and not building up to anything larger, hey, I was just collecting my check. That wasn’t in the job description. Hell if I’m going to let you add things to it. Better pay me more next year though. I have a union.
And this attitude goes all the way up.
A high-speed railway connecting Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, railway was brought up in the late 1990s by the Government of Hong Kong. This Regional Express Railway (RER) proposal was developed in the 1994 “Railway Development Study”(RDS); it foresaw a continual growth of Hong Kong’s population over the next two decades and strong demand for cross-border passenger traffic. The Hong Kong (SAR) Government commissioned a second Railway Development Study in March 1998. The Study went further on the British proposal of connecting Hong Kong and China from Kowloon. […] Since the typical timeframe for rail projects, from conception to completion phase, would take eight or nine years, the Railway Development Study recommended that the Hong Kong (SAR) Government should commence as soon as possible, so that the new express railway could be constructed in time to meet capacity demands.
This sort of talk of foresight seems fairly common among public planners.
But you look at the past 20 years and for BART it’s taken 15 years to still not completely build a single new station 5 miles away from the current terminal. They’ve been using the same train cars since the system was built in the 1970s, and the technology was outdated even back then, and they have the gall to talk about 20 years in the future.
America has the best people in the world though right? Immigration land of opportunity diversity is strength blah blah blah wow, train stations must be the hardest thing ever to build if it takes them 15 years. Maybe we should get Elon Musk to build them.
Meanwhile in China:
“But Chinese stuff always breaks and they always break regulations” Should I compare how often MTR or Shanghai trains are delayed or broken down, to how often BART trains are delayed or have murders? I’ll be the first to preach mainlanders are terrible but there’s things that are objectively better and things which are objectively worse.
“But China is communist and uses eminent domain” what’s wrong with eminent domain?
Let me repeat that: What’s wrong with eminent domain?
In broader terms and different words:
Why do cities exist, and what would an ideal city look like?
This is the BART station in Walnut Creek. Out of all the stations, this is probably the one where most Americans would ideally want to live next to. San Francisco has rent out the nose for a tiny box, Berkeley same idea, Oakland has “teens”… This, on the other hand, is perfect. Single family homes, short distance to highway, to public transit, to shopping malls, to DMV, and if there’s parties or events in the bigger cities, there’s no need to haul a car there to find or pay ridiculous prices for parking. All you’d need to do is
The problem is Walnut Creek can only be true for a very small number of people. Works fine for people who already lives there, Fuck you, got mine, doesn’t work for everyone else. And unless some Lee Kuan Yew appears, the land divisions set in that image will always remain. There will never be any development into higher density housing on the left side of the freeway because people will always hold onto their house, and if they let go they aren’t going to let go at the same time. And the city planners will never go against The Will Of The People because democracy.
But, also because of democracy, they do want to create more business and more jobs so they can make more money, which means more people will have to come from elsewhere to do the work or at least be customers and pay the bills, and they will come via… cars. There’s only so much BART parking space, which at most stations is always full, and it’s not like it’s that close anyways once you get there. A train that’s louder than a plane, doesn’t run on time, only comes every once in a while, has trash lying around like it belongs there, and when I get there I have to see this?
I have to walk through parking lots where I as a pedestrian am clearly an afterthought? You want me to use this train, which means leaving my car, but at the destination I have to wait 10~30 minutes for a bus, there’s no taxis, no light rail no pedestrian paths with any nice scenery, all of which put me right next to with no barriers inbetween, one or two ton cars going by at 30+mph? I have to deal with this as I walk 10~30 minutes just to see how many shops? And I have to carry everything with me the whole time because coin and baggage lockers don’t exist, because it’s just expected everyone has a car?
Might as well just take my own car the whole way then.
So then we have clogged freeways. And the attitude towards this is “oh well”.
The average person can’t do anything about traffic or how cities are set up. They want their own things, live their own life, and that’s about it. Having a place to live, being able to get to work, being able to shop at nice places, and being able to visit a lot of friends, without a lot of time – these are all things I think everyone wants.
In other words, these things are why cities exist.
This is the equivalent of Walnut Creek
station in Hong Kong:
Ignoring the cost: How many people live in those buildings? How many people can get basically whatever they want, see the sights, go to work, without ever having to leave this complex?
One article estimates that there’s 70,000 residents, hotel guests, and office workers occupying this space: about 0.14 square kilometers.
The population of Walnut Creek in 2014 was 67,673 and its square kilometers is 51.
Imagine how much parking/road space 70,000 cars takes.
Kowloon Station/Elements/Union Square is a really nice place and I’m sure a lot of people around HK come here for various reasons. And they get there by… train. Buses are frequent, pedestrians get elevated and undeground walkways to not have to walk on sidewalks all the time, where there are sidewalks there’s rails so it feels safer, light rail connects to heavy rail, heavy rail comes so frequently they don’t print schedules, and, even though there are backwater places in Hong Kong, new developments aren’t spread out single property divisions anymore. The MTR corporation with the assistance of the Hong Kong government gets land and develops it as a single vision, Kowloon Station being the current newest and largest one completed.What we currently see wasn’t even developed all at once; the station was done 94~98, the current mall opened in 07, and the buildings on top opened in years from 00~10. But it was all done under one architect, one corporation, one government.
This isn’t the only way to do things, the Japanese do it much more organically, but in both cases there is no “NIMBYism”. The Japanese accept it when someone decides the land is worth enough to start building higher than all the surrounding buildings. The Hong Kong government opens up or claims lands and decides that certain things need to happen, and is generally effective at it. I’m sure HK and Japanese residents more informed on the details will have their valid complaints, but overall, the major desires are met for a very large number of people.
Compared to what BART did over about the same period (1997~2011):
The invisible station in the center under the highways, a parking lot north and south. Maybe a few of the apartment blocks starting with the inverted triangle? I don’t know where exactly BART-owned land begins or ends here but it doesn’t really matter. No matter how you cut it this 15 years had, to say the least, a lot less accomplished.
It’s not so much that there’s not a Kowloon Walled City v2: 2 American Boogaloo popping up near/in Silicon Valley (though it should).
It’s that there’s nothing.
You built a dinky station… and like a building or three?
Are you serious?
What have these fuckers done with 15 years of their life? Remember when you were still in diapers and daddy showed you a highway and a field and said there’d be a train station? Well now that you’ve finished highschool and college degrees are worthless, daddy can get you a job at that station! Nevermind that its floorspace is about 3 minutes long. It was really hard! Kids these days don’t understand hard work.
While doing a bit more research on dates I found this image on wikipedia. It’s the newest station, which started construction in 2009, currently in 2017 is half operational, and was supposed to open in 2014. This is what it looked like in 2014
It took five (5) (V) (五) years to build the amount shown in the above image.
Okay whatever no use shedding tears over lost idioms. Now that it’s built, next to old NUMMI new Tesla factory. Great! Finally BART serves a purpose other than being a glorified parking lot shuttle for San Francisco. People all over
SF Bay Silicon Valley can now work for Tesla and not have to drive! Saving the planet is awesome! Insert more boomer marketing taglines here. Maybe we have to drive to a BART station first, but BART… and we’re there! Just hop off the train and walk the rest of the way to work!
All 2 miles of it. Pop quiz, what’s the average human walking speed?
Given that number, would you spend that amount of time walking to work? After spending the probably 10 minutes or so to drive to the station, assuming you can find parking and get on the train just as it arrives (trains are every 15 minutes during rush hour) the probably 30 minutes on the BART ride itself, after all that – would you walk the amount of time you calculated on a path that looks like this?
“But Tesla looks good on a resume”
Yes… Tesla’s the best. If you’re really passionate about helping mother Earth, you’d do it. America’s the best, if you really treasure your freedom, you’ll put up with 60 minutes every day each way to go 20 miles, a distance which might as well be in the middle of nowhere because it’s all single family detached residential around here. Stop complaining already. Everyone else has to deal with it too. If you don’t like it why don’t you leave? I just suck it up like a real man. I’m proud of my country. I don’t like it either,
but look at me,
I don’t complain.
This attitude is why I hate Americans. “My country, right or wrong” – except worse, because it’s not about foreign vs domestic, it’s about “Fuck you, got mine“. There’s no reasoning going on, there’s no considering of alternatives, there’s no constant seeking for improvement, it’s “eh, who cares, fuck you, got mine”. American gamers say those who are better than them “have no life”, and say those who are worse than them “casuals”. Americans who are more successful than them are “lucky or “talented”, but when they taste success themselves it’s because they have “passion” and achieved it through “hard work”. It’s so prevalent everywhere it’s would almost be funny, except they get really serious when the shit hits the fan and still refuse to believe that any of this is related.
People want housing to be close to jobs and shopping. Higher population density means more people are closer to the same amount of things. Metro systems, which have guaranteed right-of-way on their rails, connect speedily and reliably even more people to the same amount of things. This speed simultaneously connects those people to more areas than before, meaning there’s more areas competing with each other, driving the price down of, among other things, rent. All of these things are objectively desirable. All of these things are required in an ideal city.
But the people don’t care. And the city planners don’t care. The public transportation workers don’t care. The public transportation leaders don’t care. No one cares, until it looks like it might be time for them to get their cut. Then it’s not in my backyard, not my job, sorry the project was more complicated than expected, it’ll cost twice as much and take three times as long, man that janitor worked really hard this year, he deserves a raise. And then it’s back to not caring. Maybe once every five years we’ll do a week’s worth of work. Maybe once every four years they’ll pay attention. And we’re the world police superpower anyways, it’s always going to be better to live here. If those slanty eyed chinks start getting uppity we’ll just nuke them. Time for a nap.
“That’s just how America works, you have to learn how to play politics”
Americans are so far up their own ass in marketing they can’t see what’s real anymore.
I say “they” because I don’t identify with any of what I described. I say “Americans” because that’s the largest and most accurate group for which I can see these traits. They appear in idiots everywhere, but in America they appear in general from bottom to top.
I also know, from bottom to top, it’s not true in Hong Kong, and from what I’ve heard it’s also not true in Japan. It’s not a “people” thing, it’s not genetic or inherent in human nature. It can be changed, it can be fixed. Hong Kong has problems with their attitude toward society, and so does Japan, but there are always imperfections, and the attitude towards that is “we will fix them“. Whatever the actual distribution, the rule of culture is to do your part. Society there naturally pushes people to contribute more and more.
What does society in America tell its people? How do Americans treat each other? Not just the hello how are you nice weather today, but the actual systemic results?
What does America think about anything that happens outside of America?
What do Americans think of anyone who has ideas about how the world could be?