Wednesday, September 24, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: VTA's New 30-Foot Hybrid Bus; How I Got There; The Experience

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) debuted their bus earlier on September 24, 2014. If you remembered VTA's post on social media about the new 30-foot Gillig hybrid bus, VTA wanted followers to see who has the photos to share to followers on VTA's social media. So the question is to what route VTA's bus was on and who can prove it visually and share it on social media. In my exclusive blog, you'll find out that there was one person out there that has the capability to do that, and that one came from a fan of VTA, as well as the only San Jose State University's Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) student...

So the question pertains to how my adventure began by finding that lone 30-foot bus.  It actually began like a typical day, and I was getting ready for a class at SJSU. Although I ended up coming in late, I did manage to get some lecture time from one of my imstructors before attempting to solve the problem. At the end of my class, I went to go get my lunch at a downtown San Jose Chinese fast food eatery. I then went inside the garage and drove my hybrid to Ohlone-Chynoweth light rail (LR) station. I sat on a bench for about 20 minutes eating my lunch to find out if VTA line 13 was the one with that 30-foot bus - which it turned out to be only an older community bus. 

And Ohlone-Chynoweth was just my starting point of what turned out to be a timed scavenger hunt for that new 30-foot bus that was numbered 4101. I took an Alum Rock-bound light rail to Convention Center Station and almost immediately transferred to the free DASH shuttle, which was three minutes later. I kept an eye on line 65 to see if they were the ones that appeared with that new 30-foot bus. But it turned out that it was not true, and so is my scavenger hunt. 

I decided to quickly dash myself to the Winchester LR platform to wait for that train to take me to the end of the line, and my new iPad Air was part of the marathon with pictures to show proof that I was there. However, it took me over 20 minutes to get the next Winchester-bound train to appear. But it turns out that the train was my very lucky lead-in. I witnessed two community buses going to Los Gatos. But neither of those buses were that 30-foot bus that I was looking for. 

So my chances were running out quickly and fast as the afternoon progressed. I tried to make guesses of all the possible community bus routes. Lines 13 and 65 were out of the question. Lines 14, 17, 18, and 19 are all located in Gilroy (line 18 goes to Gavilan College), and line 16 serves Morgan Hill's Live Oak and Sobrato High Schools only in the morning and mid-afternoons on weekdays; for those routes, I would have travelled 20-35 miles on the freeway from Ohlone-Chynoweth station. Lines 32 and 34 were possible to get to, but that was far from Ohlone-Chynoweth. Line 39 only goes from Eastrdge to The Villages, a residential neighborhood in the Evergreen District of San Jose, but I would be wasting 10 miles of fuel driving to the east side of San Jose. Line 42 only goes from Santa Teresa LR and Evergreen Valley College, which would have been another time-waster. I also looked at line 45, but that route goes through the north-east side of San Jose between Alum Rock and Penetencia Creek LR stations serving the Alum Rock neighborhood. Line 88 with all variants was not even feasible at all to go to as it serves Palo Alto, and no LR stations serve Palo Alto. 

I remained vigilant until the miracle happened. Route 37 was likely the only choice since I needed to get back to Ohlone-Chynoweth and prep for my other assignment requested by my instructor. The route in the West Valley College direction was not the one that I wanted, and not the 30-foot bus. Five minutes later, at 1:24pm, the 30-foot bus pulled up to the Winchester LR station and it was headed in the Capitol LR direction. Taking advantage of both the transfer at Capitol LR station and the 30-foot bus, I quickly pulled out my iPad to take a quick picture. My first ever ride on VTA's new Gillig 30-foot bus was a success, which my only fare that I paid was an SJSU EcoPass (that, along with Clipper card fare, translates into a valid pass as defined by VTA, which in turn translates into "no cash fare needed").

Most of the riders on the new bus were riding home from West Valley College, but VTA was for the most part unaware that there was an SJSU student as well. To show proof that I was actually on the bus, I decided to take a few timelapse videos and a couple more regular videos (all 15-seconds; timelapse video was 3 minutes long, but fast forwarded to make it 15-seconds long; all in HD format) from my iPad showing that I was on the scene and on the bus between Winchester and Capitol LR stations.

So what was the ride like inside and outside the bus from my vantage point? The bus is 30 feet long, manufactured by the Gillig Corporation based near one of three AC Transit's bus yards in Hayward. The inside of the bus seats 26 passengers, plus 12 "hand holders" and several poles to let riders hold on to in case all the seats are taken. There is only one door for entry and exit, plus windows in case of emergencies, which is similar to the current 40-foot express buses manufactured by the same company (VTA's express buses have more seats, however). On the outside, the 30-foot buses are designed in a similar way to what SamTrans currently employs on their hybrid buses by comparing the front of the bus, through their "Hybrid Power" labeling instead of "Hybrid". It anyone really wanted to know how VTA purchased most of their buses, my only hint is that I've learned for myself that they really only need to travel 25 miles from their main headquarters! 

And finally, what did I think of the driver that drove the new VTA 30-foot bus? I thought that she was very patient on the roads, and well-knowledgeable driver. While on the bus, I did see another bus in the same route headed to Capitol LR that had to drop off a wheelchair passenger at Almaden Expressway and Foxworthy Avenue. That bus may have been a bit behind schedule due to their bus specifications. At the end of my ride, I did give a thumbs up to thank her for inviting me on board the new 30-foot bus! So therefore, I do happily look forward to riding more of the 30-foot hybrid buses whenever the ride on transit requires riding on one. 

Original Work: Kyle Chak 
Twitter/Instagram: @KyleSChak

Note on Pictures: The pictures in this blog contains exclusive photos taken from me that users can download for private use. However, if reposting the photos, please make sure to cite where the photos came from. Thank you for your cooperation.

Note on Commenting: I personally want to hear your thoughts on this blog and my experience on the new smaller 30-foot bus and I do welcome your comments on this post or on Twitter. When commenting, please be considerate and avoid offensive language; comments will be removed if offensive language is detected. Thank you for your understanding. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Revisiting the Issue - Extended Version: Why Should VTA Run Their Light Rail Every 20 Minutes When BART Opens Milpitas and Berryessa Stations? And what about VTA's buses?

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has plans for the future, including Levi's Stadium, Mountain View double-tracking, extended express trains on the Alum Rock-Santa Teresa Line, and so on. Yes, I have definitely saw all the activity on VTA's website and on social media, which I generally follow. But my review of the project looks to be somewhat promising apart from some major hiccups in the project, so I gave my extended take on what VTA could improve on as they are in progress that I originally posted on social media, including what VTA said about the future plans on the light rail.

When I originally suggested every 20 minutes instead of every 30 minutes on nights, weekends, and major holidays, the 20-minute headways at those times (when the Berryessa BART extension is complete) are designed to allow BART riders to easily transfer between trains in 8-10 minutes between the future Milpitas BART station and the current Montague station. Weekday headways would still run every 15 minutes on all light rail lines to allow enough time (5-7.5 minutes) for Clipper card users to easily transfer between BART and VTA's light rail. VTA would still maintain it's regular service even if regular service would be adjusted. During major events at Levi's Stadium, VTA would maintain unaltered service after the new alignment begins. However, until that new alignment begins, the current alignment does not allow Winchester-bound trains to go directly to Mountain View during events at Levi's Stadium and instead turns around at Baypointe and would instead become "Winchester-Baypointe" line (and for Mountain View, the "Mountain View-Baypointe" line).

Here is what is behind the reasons of using 20-minute headways on light rail on nights, weekends, and holidays - recall back in 2012, The Investigative Unit's Tony Kovaleski questioned then-VTA general manager Michael Burns about the management of the use of money while implementing new systems on ticket vending machines to allow riders to pay with a credit/debit card. Kovaleski then asked Burns on the issue of fare evasions. But now with Nuria Fernandez heading up VTA as general manager, the public has yet to see the latest ridership data ever since she took office. VTA has been losing at least a million dollars for fare evasions, delays of getting the ticket vending machines updated to include both credit/debit card functionality, and the upgrade to also include Clipper card capabilities, the latter of which Kovaleski was unaware of in his investigation. Some unknown sources also were saying that VTA's change of pattern in the light rail system would need an additional $3 to 5 million annually to operate.

Speaking of the change of pattern and the cost, the same would probably also go for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects as well. For the BRT project in it's entirety between Alum Rock and Palo Alto Transit Centers, VTA would need to run the same headways as what SamTrans does (from Palo Alto to Daly City), as VTA's priority is to manage their money, which is something that they would do in the long term.

Transit issues and projects around the Bay Area (including VTA) have been a top priority when I asked Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese after the start of the BRT construction, who is currently in the running for San Jose Mayor while still maintaining position at the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). I also encountered Chris Lepe, who is the community planner for TransForm and transit advocate for riders in the South Bay. Lepe had no comment at that time, although I most recently encountered him on the main campus at San Jose State University (SJSU). Lepe's office is less than a block from SJSU.

As VTA said on the major projects including both the Integration Study and on the light rail projects, VTA plans a major overhaul of the light rail system, which may also include permanently closing the existing Evelyn station. I have saw what is going on in terms of all the light rail projects that VTA was posting on social media and on their website. VTA plans to extend the light rail express line to an all-day service from mornings to evenings (maybe late nights as well), but I still questioned whether VTA will continue to expand service to also include weekends and holidays while including the same headway alignment as BART currently does at all times. I have long known that VTA is making changes to also change the southernmost final destination from Winchester to Almaden, while the Winchester line will then become the "Winchester-St. James" line. That change is one major component in VTA's big "Levi's Stadium" and "BART Integration Study" plan. But to make the plan work correctly, trains headed to/from Almaden will have to time the LR trains a few minutes behind express trains to/from Santa Teresa. This means that the northbound pattern would start with Alum Rock express line, followed by Mountain View and then St. James, while southbound trains would start with the Santa Teresa express line, followed by Almaden and Winchester (based on train times from Convention Center station).

The Integration Study plans has also caught my attention to not only ask VTA, but also AC Transit as well. In early 2014, while I quietly predicted that AC Transit's line 217 (which also runs from Fremont to Milpitas) would remain unchanged for the most part, I also questioned the future of AC Transit's line 801 as VTA's study was in progress, which was at the same time that I also investigated and questioned AC Transit, VTA, Caltrain, SamTrans, and Marin Transit, which took me about a couple of years to figure out my findings and write up my blog on that issue. In a e-mail statement sent to me in early May 2014, AC Transit said,

"We are currently working with VTA on our service integration plan for when the Warm Springs BART Station opens. As of yet, we do not have a plan in place as to whether the 801 will be extended to Warm Springs. It is already a very long route and extending it may be a challenge but we are looking into it."

As for the Caltrain side, VTA was only given a small time frame to complete the light rail extension double-track from Mountain View to Whisman stations so that Caltrain can commence building their electrification project. As of so far, I have yet to hear any news on the progress for both phase one and two. VTA has completed the tracks for storage near Levi's Stadium, but I have heard nothing in regards to if VTA plans to build a pocket track in addition to the second track located next to Mountain View Station, which could supplement regular services to both commuters and special events at Levi's Stadium (see visual figure on this page). The current alignment does not allow 15-minute headways except during weekday commute time. Part of the reason is that the single track would act as a bottleneck, which if one train is moving, the other train waiting at Whisman station in the Mountain View direction would need to wait until the other train has passed by.

The removal of the Evelyn station, despite the closure, would allow light rail trains to move back up to 55 MPH (89 kph) between crossing Central Expressway and the Mountain View Station, something that can barely be achieved between Evelyn and Mountain View. In the current scenario, light rail trains has barely any capability to run 15-minute headways, which as of now, makes transit connections to/from Caltrain very weak at this point.

So the bottom line? The reason why 20-minute headways during evenings and on weekends and holidays have two purposes: first, those are meant only to help with managing VTA's management of funds and to better manage their time on buses. Second, the 20 minutes allow for trains to run up to three or four trains between normal headways during special events at Levi's Stadium. Without those important points for VTA to remember those two basic reasons, combined with Tony Kovaleski's investigation on VTA, VTA's deficit could be in serious jeopardy and who knows when it may happen.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If anyone has something to say, please comment below, send me a tweet, or e-mail me. Offensive language use in any method may result in a removal of your message or comment - therefore, please be considerate.

Original Work: Kyle Chak
Twitter: @KyleSChak

Thursday, September 11, 2014

MOSAIC: Flashbacks of the Past

As the first few weeks of school at San Jose State University are in the books, I recalled some of the events that happened at SJSU. If anyone did recall, you may have heard an event that shocked many SJSU students - recalling that a black male student was chained using a bicycle "U" lock. Four white males converged on the black student and purposely assaulted the victim.

That was part of the topic at MOSAIC's event, which was nearly two hours long which also involved Spartan Daily reporter Lauren Hernandez. I asked her on her thoughts of the presentation and she thought that it was informative. And yes it was. In a two-hour presentation, Yesi Ramos and Latu Tapaatoutai sparked a long discussion on Colorblind, as well as racism and how it affects SJSU. In one of the slides, an official report was released soon after the hate crime attack, but left out the identity of the victim in order to minimize the chances of another hate crime. 

Many news reports were aggressive and trying to find answers on what was happening inside the one of the dorm rooms at SJSU. many comments were poured into social media and on news' websites. Most students were not so happy, feeling that more action was needed to protect students from hate crime. SJSU is not free from victim attacks, ranging from a student being a victim of an attack by someone that is not an SJSU student to hate crime in the dorms. 

The most devastating crime so far in my SJSU school years is some kind of shooting in one of the garages, which SJSU's Update News was reporting for about three minutes of the crime inside 10th Street Garage, which happened a few years ago. 

My interview with Lauren Hernandez also sparked some fun that we both interviewed each other! And it was definitely great since I do get a chance to participate in voicing my opinions, just like Lauren is doing so for my blog. Well, I give Lauren some cheers for her great work, despite that I'm an English major.

Original Work: Kyle Chak
Twitter: @KyleSChak

Monday, September 8, 2014

INVESTIGATION - Mobile Website For Transit Agencies in the Bay Area?

If you have attempted to get accurate information from anywhere in the Bay Area near the "city by the bay", chances are that the website that you may be trying to access on your mobile device may not be as mobile as you think. Instead, your transit agency may be showing the full website while you are on your mobile device. Only in my blog tells why some transit agencies have their website still not capable for your mobile device.

So what is the deal? Some transit agencies in the Bay Area have not yet developed a mobile version of their website, but on some transit agencies, when I asked the tough question about the use of the transit agencies' mobile website, they often said that it is in the process of creating their mobile website. When I went to several transit agencies' website in early 2014, not all of them were "mobile-friendly". The transit agencies that were not mobile friendly prior to my checkup in August 2014 are described as follows...

For the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) I asked them about the lack of a mobile website in early 2014 at the same time that I also wrote an inquiry within the same letter about the future of line 801 in regards to the BART extension to Santa Clara County. AC Transit sent me an e-mail on March 5 that AC Transit is in "the development of a mobile version of our website". AC Transit has since launched it's mobile version of their website only a couple of months after my inquiry.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) was also one of the major transit agencies that were not mobile prior to this checkup. I have asked twice on the time frame of when the VTA will have a mobile website of their own, but did not give a specific time frame. However, VTA did launch their mobile website in a surprising announcement July 29 and has encouraged mobile users, including those on iPads and other tablets, to send some feedback of what users thought of VTA's mobile site, four days ahead of the Levi's Stadium grand opening soccer match between the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders.

SamTrans, which also administrates for Caltrain, has yet to develop a mobile site, which my findings have included years of development, but no mention of a mobile website on both SamTrans and Caltrain until I asked the tough questions directly to SamTrans on social media, including of an estimated time (ETA) of when the mobile websites on both SamTrans and Caltrain will be running. My findings began on the heels of a report that SamTrans has been under scrutiny for various possible violations when NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit interviewed former SamTrans employees of possible miscalculations. When I tried to visit the SamTrans and Caltrain websites on my mobile device, it was still running on the normal website instead of the mobile site, which seemed to me that the mobile site did not exist in the first place.

Golden Gate Transit and Ferry services and Marin Transit also may be having some difficulty for mobile users, despite one link from Golden Gate Transit claiming that mobile users can go mobile. Golden Gate Transit does have a mobile section under the link called "Go Mobile", but I discovered that it can be difficult to access the actual version of the Golden Gate Transit's webpage. There is no direct re-link to the actual mobile website when attempting to type the website. Marin Transit, however, has a problem of going mobile, and attempting to use the mobile website is difficult, as there has been no estimated time of when Marin Transit will have a mobile website.

So when will SamTrans, Caltrain, and Marin Transit will actually go mobile? SamTrans says that their ETA for SamTrans going mobile will be up in October, with Caltrain to follow, including a redesign of the Caltrain website. It is unknown whether SamTrans website will be using the same design as what VTA has as both SamTrans and VTA have the same voice over for approaching stops on buses. Marin Transit has not yet disclosed whether their website is undergoing a redesign or if a mobile version is in progress. Meanwhile, Golden Gate Transit has yet to fix the redirect on mobile devices when typing the agency's website so that regular users will see the actual site and mobile users actually is properly redirected to the mobile site. 

Most transit agencies that was not mentioned herein such as San Fransicco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA), Sonoma County Transit, and  Livermore-Almador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA, or more commonly called WHEELS) already have a mobile site of their own. While the Clipper Card is continuing to expand to the far East Bay and Sonoma County, I will continue to watch Bay Area transit agencies grow, including both Clipper card and mobile site development, hoping that transit agencies will get the message.

INVESTIGATION: A Troubling Past for A Tattoo Artist in San Jose; Possible Violations at Club Fiesta?

Some people may have known as the moniker named "Huss Baby", but her actual real name is Stephanie Smith. A tattoo artist herself at a shop known as Ambitious Ink, she is known to have supported people and other organizations like DJ Rick Lee and Go Der Magazine. But my investigative blog which started taking place about a year ago uncovers disturbing evidence of Smith in trouble with law enforcement in the past, as well as her ties with Go Der Magazine and the Club Fiesta nightclub.

Police in San Benito County and Santa Clara County has disputed what Smith does in her downtime, according to several sources on various websites and social media sources. Both KSBW and KION have reported on her arrest publicly. 

The latest arrest came in July 2014 when Smith, who reportedly resides in Milpitas, along with two others, were involved in a home invasion robbery. The other two suspects were also named in the reports; they are Monique Marie Valle of San Jose and David Andrew Hinnen of Sacramento. It is unclear if Smith was the getaway driver of the unnamed vehicle or the relationship that Smith has to both Valle and Hinnen. Smith is known to have a lot of tattoos on her face, body, arm, and hand, which can be seen publicly. Two of her photos that she posted on Facebook are now visible on Crime Voice's website, as well as on various local news webpages.

However, this is not the first time that Smith ran into trouble with the law - the first arrest actually have surfaced of in March 2014 via a message posted on YouTube. Some of her social media pages have since gone private, making the public unable to see her photos in some cases.

It is also unclear whether Smith also had marijuana or illegal drugs in her body system. Social media pages uncovered her ties with festivals that were promoting marijuana and other illegal drugs such as at local "Hempcons" or "Hempfests", which those are shows or festivals related to marijuana. Smith, along with other artists like Baby Bash (Ronnie Rey), also have surfaced on various social media, but particularly Go Der Magazine and Go Der Digital.

I also uncovered that Go Der Magazine itself may also be under the microscope for another YouTube post showing smoking inside Club Fiesta in San Jose. Under current local laws in San Jose, the city prohibits smoking within 25 feet of the entrance to doors or windows of any business. My review of the YouTube video posted by Go Der Magazine shows that Club Fiesta could be facing major violations for allowing patrons to smoke in serious violation of both city and state laws. Many cities and in rural areas of Santa Clara County passed an ordinance regulating e-cigarettes, thanks to in part by Santa Clara County supervisor Dave Cortese and his fellow supervisors, which the ordinance was announced on June 10, 2014.

In comparison to local San Jose city laws and state laws, both Hong Kong and Singaporean law has extremely low tolerance for tobacco and drug use. In Hong Kong, their most severe punishment for drug use and/or drug consumption, including marijuana is a lifetime prison sentence. In Singapore, the punishment does vary from several years in prison (including several strokes of the cane) to the mandatory death penalty (also known in Singapore as "sentenced to death" in their terms).

It is not clear whether Club Fiesta in San Jose has any history of serious violations of local, county, and state laws for not only tobacco use, but also alcohol use as well. Other than Go Der Digital, which also provides YouTube videos to the public, no local media were allowed to enter Club Fiesta due to heavy security. In addition, the Club Fiesta website and on social media did not disclose to the public on the issue of the dress code except for the event posters posted on various social media sites.

NOTE: No photos from any social media sites were posted due to privacy concerns.