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A visitor from Sweden, or the cornerstone of my anti-car ranting

I was biking home from work. Behind me, two other cyclists were helping a third one, who was a bit lost and trying to get to Santa Clara, one town over. So, eventually, I offered to ride with her to get her un-lost and closer to her destination.. because it was pretty much on the way home for me.

She mentioned she was visiting from Sweden and had purchased a bike here so she could get around. So I asked her about what she thought about biking around the US. I mean, clearly she'd hate biking in many places in middle America where there is no bike infrastructure nor enough cyclists to make the drivers think that they needed to look out for cyclists. Apparently we've got a bit more signage than they do. And, also, she was impressed by the bike racks here. Buses have racks for two bikes on front. VTA light rail has space for 8 bikes inside the train car. And the CalTrain has up to 80 spaces per train. And so she had already taken pictures of the racks here to send them to the people back in Sweden as something that we do that they should imitate.

I suppose at least half of my anti-car rants don't make nearly the same level of sense if you've never seen the CalTrain bike car.

One of the common critiques of trying to apply the Japanese or European model of transportation to America is that we're much less dense than they are, which limits the ability of transportation systems to provide adequate service. Thus, people tell me that my anti-car rants are a pipe dream.

Now, there's a huge amount of research on the subject of Personal Mass Transit and electric cars. The second one is obvious as to how it would work. The first one requires explanation. Through various machinations, they try to come up with ways to offer you the efficiency and density advantages of mass transit while also providing you with the car experience. Trains that automatically break apart. Cars that have a special undercarriage to turn into monorails. Complex webs of rails that have no chance of working. Things like that.

To me, this looks like the machinations the earth-centric people created with layers of circles before they figured out that the planets revolved around the sun in ellipses instead. Until you see the bike + rail hybrid system that was accidentally created out here, you won't necessarily get it. CalTrain runs up and down a pair of tracks right down the central axis between San Jose and San Francisco. This puts most of the population of the valley within, at most, a five mile bike ride, such that you've got a fairly good chance of finding both housing and employment within the service area. The CalTrain, while not high speed rail, still cruises along at 80mph. And it has express trains that skip a bunch of stations, in several patterns, such that you actually have a pretty good chance of being able to cruise along at 80mph for most of your ride.

The more I've looked into this, I realize that you can draw a fairly small number of transit lines through most cities in America that will give you decent coverage for this hybrid system. Perhaps even use existing rail infrastructure. And it looks achievable in ways that personal mass transit or a fully functional Europe-style transit system doesn't.

Now, yes, there are examples of European infrastructure that we can still borrow. For example, in America we still time and sensor our traffic signals with the illusion that somehow a 'smart' system is anything other than magical thinking that prevents us from accepting the fact that the car is no longer the practical form of transportation we thought it was in the 50s. But, at least out here, it can go both ways.

Oh, and she wasn't even dressed that differently from the rest of us. Except that in Europe everybody thinks that wearing a helmet is silly unless you are trying to race.