Public Transportation: From the Tom Thumb Rail Road to Hyperloop and Beyond

Review by Steve Schaefer

This 2020 children’s book by Paul Comfort presents a charming and informative history of public transportation, from its origins almost 200 years ago to a look into the future.

Public transportation interests me, too. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by cars, but also by buses and trains. My sons were, too. I rode on the Santa Fe Super Chief at six years old and had my first bumpy airplane ride at around the same time on a propeller DC3. I rode the old Muni streetcars in San Francisco on the way to college and took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when it first opened in 1972. I’ve taken a long Greyhound Bus trip, flown across the world on giant jetliners, ridden the trams in Amsterdam, and climbed the hills of San Francisco on the historic cable cars. More recently, I rented scooters and mopeds in San Francisco. Kids need to learn about this stuff.

Written by transportation writer Paul Comfort and crisply illustrated by Sudeep KP, Public Transportation keeps it simple, displaying a bright, colorful image of one transport method on each page with a one- or two-sentence description. The quality of light expertly mimics a sunny day and makes the images come alive, and cute, smiling children and happy adults appear in most of the images.

Balloons with “Did You Know?” and “Fun Facts” add interesting details for older children—and adults—to learn from. You could look at the pictures and point with a one-year-old or use it as a stepping-off point for a teenager.

The book engages children from page 1 with a bus to color. The Tom Thumb Steam Train, part of the B&O Railroad in Baltimore, Maryland, is the first character and dates back to 1830. It’s an enormous steam boiler in a rustic cart pulling men in top hats, but it loses a race to a horse when it breaks down. Transit has become much more reliable since.

Horses are the mode of transport itself on the next page, pulling multi-rider carriages. The book then moves on to a massive steamship, subways, and the historic transcontinental railroad in the U.S. with its famous golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. Hard to believe that subways go back even further, to the London Tube in 1863!

Then, cable cars, trains, and trolleys take center stage, with unusual projects like monorails showing a future that hasn’t panned out (except at amusement parks). After checking out city and school buses, Comfort introduces a global positioning satellite—the beginning of today’s high-tech transportation options.

Children get an introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which explains why buses they may encounter have wheelchair ramps or lifts to allow everyone to ride.

Moving into environmentally friendly transport, we see racks of rentable bikes and learn about electric buses. A page discusses mobility apps and high-tech ways to pay our fares, such as mobile phone apps and wearables. There’s even a nod to autonomous vehicles, featuring the first AV in regular service—Switzerland’s Trapizio.

Futuristic Maglev high speed trains would likely not be seen by American children unless they vacationed in Japan, China, or Europe, but they appear here, followed by a look ahead with the Hyperloop train and electric vertical takeoff and Landing (VTOL) passenger drones.

Before you know it, the book’s over, but reading it is a fun ride in itself and helps prepare kids for a future full of public transportation options.

For more information, see: www.futureofpublictransportation.com and www.paulcomfort.org.

Is Public Transit Safe? BART Prepares for a Gradual Reopening

By Steve Schaefer

Bart Cleanup

During the COVID-19 shutdown, public transportation ridership has plummeted, both because offices are closed and because people are afraid to ride it. BART, the San Francisco Bay Area’s multi-county train system, normally carries something like 400,000 people a day, but now are offering a severely curtailed schedule to a small fraction of that ridership.

I know what it’s like because before the shutdown, I rode BART every day into San Francisco from my suburban community.  There were many times when we were pressed together so closely that our bodies were touching and our faces were a foot apart. That’s definitely not safe during a pandemic (or desirable anytime)!

I received a detailed email from BART a few days ago outlining 15 things they are doing to prepare for the return of riders as businesses begin to reopen. I’ve summarized them here, but you can learn more on their website.

BART’s 15-Step Plan

BART is:

  1. Disinfecting the trains and cleaning station touchpoints with hospital-grade disinfectant.
  2. Running longer trains to enable social distancing. They estimate 30 people to a train is the limit.
  3. Running trains on a 30-minute weekday schedule and closing at 9 p.m., but they will monitor it and increase frequency as demand increases.
  4. Changing seat configurations on the new trains to create more space for social distancing.
  5. Requiring face masks at all times for riders 13 and older. They will keep this requirement regardless of changes in county mandates. Some free masks will be available at the station at first, and they are planning to install vending machines.
  6. Enforcing the face mask policy with Bart Police presence.
  7. Posting decals, posters, and banners to inform riders of the new requirements and changes.
  8. Offering hand sanitizer.
  9. Encouraging the use of contactless Clipper Card payment and online loading of funds to the cards. The Clipper Card method is much better than paper tickets, which the system was phasing out already at the time of the outbreak.
  10. Offering personal hand straps–free at first and later for sale.
  11. Posting daily ridership numbers and train car loading data at http://www.bart.gov/covid. This is intended to reassure riders with concerns about crowding.
  12. Exploring new technologies, such as ultraviolet disinfecting, and figuring out how to implement them safely and in a way that won’t cause damage.
  13. Encouraging businesses to offer staggered work hours to spread out the commute. BART is also participating in virtual town halls to answer questions.
  14. Supplying its workers with personal protection equipment (PPE) and giving COVID-19 testing.
  15. Using time of low ridership to accelerate infrastructure rebuilding projects.

Bart distance logo

I don’t know when I will be riding BART again, but this sounds like a comprehensive list, which is reassuring. It will have to be carried out effectively, of course, and over time, riders will return. If more people find themselves working from home more often or permanently that will help solve the crowding issue for BART. Then it will remain a profit/loss issue, which has been an ongoing problem. We need our public transit systems, so I am hoping this can be solved.