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Watching the wheels of progress in Tri-Valley transit



When I applied to work at the Pleasanton Weekly while living across the bay in San Francisco, I was quick to note that I would be willing to move to the Tri-Valley and get a car — and quick to ask for more money than the company had budgeted.

My then-future employers were candid about the company’s small budget, but they added that work would be primarily remote, and that a move and a car wouldn’t be necessary.

While I happily accepted that tradeoff, the “remote” part of remote work hit me hard. Even as a Bay Area native, the Tri-Valley and my beat area in particular, the San Ramon Valley, were unfamiliar territory to me. In the evenings after my initial shifts, I reviewed public transit options to the communities I was covering while planning trips, during which time it became very clear that some were more accessible than others.

The main areas of San Ramon and Danville, the primary fare for my coverage, were possible to get to by transit thanks to County Connection buses. But other areas, such as Blackhawk, Diablo, and portions of Alamo and Danville, continue to be out of reach on regular bus routes.

As I learned more about the affluent San Ramon Valley and its more remote outskirts, the context of public transit options and locations became clearer, as did what the availability of and demand for public transit say about a region and subregions.

To fast forward to the present day, while remote work remains an option — generally a more practical one — the return of in-person meetings and events and the lowered risk of COVID-19 has meant more opportunities for live coverage since my initial months on the job in 2021, and in turn, opportunities for firsthand experience with public transit throughout the Tri-Valley.

I took a trip to Pleasanton the weekend following my job offer, spending the majority of an early autumn day exploring Main Street and venturing through residential neighborhoods to Shadow Cliffs and back, taking some relief in the mostly empty, air-conditioned Wheels bus to downtown and the minimal BART traffic during the ride from San Francisco’s Mission District.

While having an on-the-ground experience in the Tri-Valley ahead of starting work was important to me, I quickly realized more trips would be in order upon my first days on the job, during which I found myself immersed in council and commission agendas for Danville and San Ramon, with a day in Pleasanton offering little in the way of preparation or orientation to the San Ramon Valley.

I made trips to downtown Danville and City Center Bishop Ranch subsequently, suppressing outward giddiness at seeing landmarks such as the Village Theatre and Art Gallery, the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, the Iron Horse Regional Trail and City Center, plus the sites of several proposed housing projects throughout San Ramon.

Getting familiar with the BART-to-bus routine throughout Pleasanton and the San Ramon Valley would prove to come in handy for some stories in my early months, including a trip to Pleasanton for “A Fair in the Fall” — which, however, required me to use a rideshare app to make my way back to BART as the rainstorm that would force the fair to temporarily shutter the following day began on my trip home.

I would also find myself relying on a rideshare to make it to San Ramon in time for the seasonal opening of the Kristi Yamaguchi Ice Rink at City Center, where I was just as in awe of seeing the Alamo celebrity in person as I was local city officials and figures such as Mayor Dave Hudson and poet laureate Jenyth Jo Gearhart-Utchen. Meanwhile, a trip to Iceland in Dublin to cover Chanukah on Ice for the same story was a breeze — just a short walk from BART.

With overall positive experiences with County Connection through the San Ramon Valley though, plus experience on the ground, I was excited to dive into an interview with the agency’s then-outgoing General Manager Rick Ramacier when news broke of his retirement — and to thank him personally for decades of work that had resulted in me being able to access at least parts of the area I was covering without a car.

But there were also more somber things to reflect on as I continued to cover the area and consider it from the perspective of County Connection riders. Tyrell Wilson, the second man fatally shot in Danville by now-former sheriff’s deputy Andrew Hall, was a regular rider on the County Connection routes between Danville and Walnut Creek, which I learned upon discussing the commute with Conscious Contra Costa founder Veronica Benjamin after a vigil I covered live in honor of Laudemer Arboleda, the first man Hall killed on duty in Danville.

Benjamin told me that she’d seen Wilson regularly during her bus commute from Danville to her job in Walnut Creek, and that the news of his death hit close to home — enough to spur her into action by kickstarting the activist organization into gear following the shooting in the spring before I came onto the beat.

While Wilson’s death and the charges brought against Hall for Arboleda’s death had both occurred months before I came onto the scene, sitting on the bus on the way home from the first conversation with Benjamin, and subsequent trips to Danville, led to some reflection.

As a lifelong public transit rider in San Francisco, there’s not much that fazes me. I had seen a body on a pedestrian bridge on the way to Glen Park BART, then a stabbing on a Muni bus in the same month as a child during the high crime rates of the early 1990s. While violence is no longer rampant, in my experience, public transit in San Francisco has remained consistently chaotic in the present day.

But while riding the bus in the Tri-Valley is relatively serene in comparison, there’s a foreboding sense of anxiety that comes with relying on public transit in the area on a tight budget — namely, the possibility of being stranded without recourse in areas that aren’t always welcoming to outsiders, especially those who aren’t earning enough to live or visit comfortably there.

While the cultural and economic forces behind this atmosphere don’t necessarily seem to change much throughout the Tri-Valley, proximity and access to public transit do. The southern portions of Dublin and northern portions of Pleasanton, for instance, feel like hubs open to the rest of the Bay Area via the two BART stations. Even Las Positas College, the most far-flung location I’ve visited in the region yet, feels open to the rest of the area thanks to regular access between the campus and BART via Wheels.

Relying on public transit has provided some insight I wouldn’t have gained otherwise, but it has also meant missing other opportunities — such as an invitation to visit the Blackhawk Museum following an interview I did for a story there in my early days on the job. However, looking into the museum and its famed classic car collection from afar, along with seeing classic cars on display during weekend cruises through Danville, has given me some sense of the ubiquity of car culture in the area historically and into the present day.

While it’s been pervasive throughout the country, the suburbs of Contra Costa County and the Tri-Valley in general have historically been developed by and for those seeking an alternative to metropolitan life and crowded conditions that make public transit popular in European and East Coast cities such as London and New York, and even San Francisco, according to U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) who’s been watching and facilitating the evolution of public transit in the area since the start of his political career on the Concord City Council in 1991.

“It was probably 15 to 20 million fewer people in the state, and probably even more than that in the Bay Area, all of that in the context of people like me, who came from somewhere else,” DeSaulnier told me during an interview last week.

With a burgeoning population of residents seeking single family homes outside of the city, DeSaulnier said that Contra Costa County and other suburban areas in the Tri-Valley developed with sprawling, low-density housing in mind, leading to a lack of demand and challenges facilitating development of public transit in the area — plus a cultural atmosphere in which driving is the norm.

“The car culture is a wonderful thing if you ask me, and it still is in California, but the current infrastructure model doesn’t fit the way people can use (their) cars for benefit, because it’s still stuck in decades ago,” DeSaulnier said.

Specifically, he noted that the model transit agencies were relying on was from the mid-20th century, in a culture that assumed single-income households were the norm and in which the average commute time was 20 minutes.

“You’re still trying to cram in an old model from the 1950s and ’60s in a world where it doesn’t work anymore,” DeSaulnier said.

A major factor that’s changed since that model was introduced, DeSaulnier noted, was the number of women in the workforce, which alone increased from 14% in 1974 to 74% in 1994.

“That’s an unbelievable change, and it’s a wonderful change in terms of the independence and the talent we get in the workforce, but we haven’t adapted to it,” DeSaulnier said.

Even in places such as the Bay Area, where the social model has been on the forefront of adapting to changes like these, DeSaulnier said that it was a challenge to get models for infrastructure and transit specifically to keep up with the times.

In the Bay Area in particular, DeSaulnier noted that efficiency and functionality have been challenges for the multiple transit agencies, as well as lack of oversight, an issue he said he was seeking to contend with in congress.

“Unfortunately in the Bay Area, we have a long history of throwing money at transit but not demanding performance from operators,” DeSaulnier said. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

But with increased housing density becoming common throughout the Tri-Valley in the present day, and set to be increasingly common in the future amid recent affordable housing legislation from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, changes for public transit options in the area could be on the horizon too – not to mention the financial struggles BART has experienced because of the pandemic.

“Just in terms of context this isn’t easy, and the research shows one of the key things is higher density, so I’m actually quite hopeful because we’ve done a number of things in the Tri-Valley and East Bay in general,” DeSaulnier said.

The result so far has been higher-density housing surrounding transit hubs and downtown areas rather than big cities, which DeSaulnier said he was hopeful to see more of.

“That doesn’t happen all at once, but if you look (at) places like Walnut Creek, Livermore, Dublin, 30 years ago there were not three- to four- to five-story buildings, there were single-family homes,” DeSaulnier said.

“I think it’s changing for the better — pedestrian, bike infrastructure. I’ve had a lot of involvement with that (and) you can see it changing in urban areas and suburban areas,” he added. “Those combined, and getting more jobs out of the urban core, not just big places like Bishop Ranch and Hacienda, but within those downtowns with mixed-use, so smaller businesses and retail.”

In the near future then, I might be less of an anomaly, with DeSaulnier and other officials locally and nationally envisioning a future with more demand for public transit to accommodate workers coming to jobs at small businesses with local offices in suburban locations — and perhaps I’ll get few strange looks for living in an urban area and working for a company with an office on the edge of a suburban city, such as the Pleasanton Weekly’s small Sunol Boulevard newsroom.

As it stands, I have watched the general public’s perception of public transit change as the changing climate and warnings of pending catastrophes — plus high gas prices — have led to rapidly growing environmental awareness.

One tangible example I experienced recently was the ease of my trip to and from Las Positas College, as well as advertisements throughout the campus for the college’s free bus pass for students — a significant improvement from my days of expensive commutes to Skyline College in San Bruno, sometimes at the expense of food or class material. While the trip still clocked in at about an hour and a half from Downtown Oakland, the $6.75 price tag each way was within my budget, and less than gas would have cost in some vehicles.

However, I can’t help but wonder if this will change the inconsistency with which transit routes are distributed throughout the Tri-Valley. Will I ever be able to stay in Danville or the outskirts of Pleasanton past 9 p.m., or set foot in Blackhawk via a bus route outside of work hours?

Even in places like San Ramon, where there is the political and cultural will for increased transit options, when will leaders’ vision of a transit and commuter-friendly city with easy access to BART come to fruition, rather than a reality in which I depend on rideshare apps for most trips within the sprawling city?

These are questions that will continue to be on my mind as I keep watch for the latest developments in transit and other sectors of the Tri-Valley.

While existing transit options give me some opportunity to overcome the “remote” feeling brought on by remote work, the tangible impact of public transit in particular for me is another factor that makes the discussions of a transit-friendly future in portions of the Tri-Valley feel closer to home — even when bus delays and failed transfers mean my beat is sometimes hours away.

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