Saturday, October 15, 2016

Rail-Volution Reflections: Opening Weekend (Part 1)

By Anthony Nachor
Contributing Staff Writer and Photographer

Obtaining a scholarship for this year's Rail-Volution Conference in San Francisco was, by far, one of the most intriguing things I have ever received. With a grant to attend the conference, I committed myself to attending each and every single day of it, which consisted of dozens of workshops–at the hotel and on the field–to choose from, many social events, and a bountiful of opportunities to meet transportation professionals from around the United States, and beyond. I even made quite a lot of new friends too, for which I am grateful that a wonderful group of transportation planners and staff members from Salt Lake City adopted me as "Utah."
In this series of reflections, I will break it down into multiple parts, in which I will do it on a chronological (day-by-day) basis, full of images I took throughout the conference. Heck, I might throw in transit photography as well, for good measure!
Since this was my first time attending a major conference dealing with transportation planning, I decided to dive deep into the realms of how transportation ties hand-in-hand with various issues, including land-use, urban planning, governance, the environment, and social justice. I then chose to do two mobile workshops and attended seven different in-house workshops with different themes, ranging from Bus Rapid Transit to Campaign Building to Transit Oriented Development.

Saturday at SoMa's StrEat Food Park

Saturday's event was interesting, in that it was held by the Young Professionals in Transportation, the same group that holds regular gatherings of both professionals and students in San Francisco and Oakland, with invitations through LinkedIn and Facebook.  It was held at South of Market's hidden food gem - the StrEat Food Park - on 11th & Division Streets. When I came there, I saw a very familiar Filipino theme to the event: lumpia, that delicious, crispy fried roll filled with either meat or veggies, was sold at nearly every food truck.  I told myself, go for ones that have interesting toppings on it. I trotted out to the one that was purportedly selling bacon-filled lumpia, waiting patiently in line.  Sadly, they ran out of that deliciously-sounding spring roll, so I settled with chicken lumpia instead.

When I got to the reserved section of the Food Park, which consisted of a covered dining area and a retired Gillig school bus, I immediately noticed one of Rail-Volution's main staffers; they greeted me and let me in the private dining area.  Andrea was a great host, in which I expressed my gratitude for the local scholarship I got from the local host committee, and that I will definitely use it to learn from the conferences and mobile workshops I booked weeks before.  I met quite a lot of young professionals in the event, many of which came from outside San Francisco, like New York, Washington DC, and Charlotte.  Sadly, that day, the San Francisco Giants lost to the Chicago Cubs; they were ultimately defeated on Tuesday and eliminated from playoff contention.  However, I got to know what to expect from the conference and discussed how I want to grow in the profession of transportation planning.  It was the first of five straight nights where I came home so late - after 22:00; when I got home, I immediately went to bed, so that I would not miss out on any commitments I made.
Very tempting, greasy food choices at a food truck.
Inside a refurbished and repurposed Gillig school bus at StrEat Food Park.
Chicken Lumpia: where is the rice when I need some?

Richmond Mobile Workshop

Prior to the opening festivities at the historic Fox Theater in Oakland Sunday night, I, along with around 20 other individuals, signed up for an excellent tour of Richmond in western Contra Costa County.  Given that I know many parts of this working-class community, it seemed to me that this tour will include a visit to Richmond Amtrak/BART Station.  It felt like I was heading home, since we got to see the Richmond Bridge that links the city with San Rafael.  I explained to a few folks that the bridge carries a transit line with Golden Gate Transit, operating bus services between San Rafael Transit Center in Marin County, and El Cerrito Del Norte BART, just east of Richmond.
Richmond-San Rafael Bridge
Graffiti, Richmond Greenway
Marina Bay
The former Winehaven Castle, Point Molate
The AC Transit bus that brought participants around Richmond
I originally intended to go straight to Richmond, as I know the city quite well.  I met the group of other attendees at Marina Bay - close to AC Transit's Route 74.  However, given that I love ferry rides and thought about it one last time the night before, I chose to go to San Francisco, got myself checked in for the conference, and went to the registration desk for this tour.  The group walked from the Hyatt Regency to Pier 15 - right next to the Exploratorium, and boarded a private boat bringing us to Marina Bay in Richmond.  The local host was Chris Whitmore, an aide to Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who, coincidentally, showed up and co-led the group around the city.  They were also multiple representatives from the city and AC Transit staff were in attendance, as well. We toured through several spots around Richmond on board a brand new AC Transit Gillig Advantage Hybrid 40-footer bus, in which we went to the following locations:
  • Ford Point - future ferry terminal for the Richmond-San Francisco ferry service, plus Rosie the Riveter Museum.
  • Richmond Greenway - includes Pogo Park, between 8th Street and Harbour Way.
  • Richmond Amtrak/BART Station - a "What can you do with $2,000?" wall was showcased at the plaza.
  • Richmond Civic Center - includes City Hall and Auditorium. 
Mayor Butt and his team were very pleased to answer so many questions from the participants on this wonderful tour, in which he has been insightful on the challenges and changes his city has endured over the past several years. I even got the opportunity to talk to the Chair of the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, asking him about his insights on how the Richmond-SF Ferry can impact operations with AC Transit once passengers start going to and from the ferry terminal.

When we got to the Richmond Greenway, the head of the Pogo Park Association was our guide, and he described how it is a vital connection for Richmond residents, calling the Greenway - the east-west connector - and 8th Street - the north-south connector, parallel with Harbour Way - the two components of what he calls the "Yellow Brick Road."  Taken from the Wizard of Oz, the road is a safe place for residents to walk and cycle where they need to go in the city, with lighted paths, less automobile traffic, and the "eyes on the street" concept in play.  Eighth Street contains many churches, schools, medical clinics, and other social functions; Richmond Greenway, on the other hand, contains mini-parks and provides an essential connection between the city and El Cerrito Del Norte BART.
The ferry that brought us to Richmond and back to San Francisco was operated by a private startup called Prop SF, which manages one small ferry, carry up to 48 passengers.  Chris explained that it would be used in the interim prior to San Francisco Bay Ferries using their larger, 450-seater catamaran boats to Richmond, in which it will operate like Chariot, the shuttle van service serving San Francisco.
  • Passengers will book their ride using their smartphones, alleviating the hassle of being bumped out from their ride due to heavier demand.
  • The fare for the initial service is at $9, up to $3 more expensive than comparable AC Transit and BART service between Richmond and San Francisco.
  • On board, passengers get AC power plugs, foldable tables, and an outdoor deck at the back of the boat, allowing passengers to stand out and stretch for the 30- to 40-minute crossing.
  • Sadly, this boat is not ADA compliant, given that the aisles are narrow and passengers have to stand up and walk to their seats.  Hopefully, though, it will find funds to reconfigure the boat and allow a wheelchair to be on board.
A wonderful bonus came about when we returned to San Francisco: since I asked Chris about the state of Point Molate, he instructed the crew of Prop SF to showcase that area and was pleasantly surprised that the area was home to the world's largest winery way before Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley became one of the world's leading wine regions.  Wine Haven Castle, located on the shores of Point Molate, used to be a hub for wine production in the Bay Area, in which seeds and plants from Napa Valley would be planted, grown, and exported from Richmond to the rest of the world.  It now hosts to three small winery companies that provide regular tours and tastings, and its location is the last undeveloped headland in the entire San Francisco Bay Area.  A few years ago, however, at least two casino companies wanted to develop the land and build a mega-casino on that property, which the voters ultimately rejected.

I met a lot of people, including sizable contingents from Honolulu and Salt Lake City, and an urban planner from Calgary.  Perhaps the person I would see the most for the next four days would be one of Hawaii's State Senators, Breene Harimoto (D, District 16), in which we got to connect multiple times throughout the conference.

Once we returned to San Francisco, I had a quick lunch at one of my favorite burger joints, Super Duper Burger.  I hopped on BART and went to Rail-Volution's opening party in Oakland. Once there, there were two pre-opening night parties taking place at, and close to the Fox Theater: one for distinguished guests and industry leaders, the other for everyone else.  I did not partake any alcoholic drinks at all during the entire conference, giving me the mental strength I need to stay focused. 

Opening Party

The gates of the historic Fox Theater in Oakland opened at 17:45 for the opening party, though it  started a little later than usual at 18:30.  I ran into one of my professors at San Jose State University, Dr. Richard Lee, and asked him what he was doing at the Fox Theater.  He explained that he was volunteering during the welcome reception, guiding Rail-Volution attendees from 19th Street BART to the theater.  When I got into the historic FOX, I was a stunned at how many people were inside the main hall; I got myself a seat and started talking to those in attendance.  I admired the intricate designs and architecture the theater offers guests, with a band performing live as the guests flowed in.  I became enthusiastic talking to even more professionals and government officials, handing out my calling cards, as I reached out to them.

The real party began at around 20:00, when the stage was opened up to the audience for Karaoke Night with the live band.  At first, it was rousing; over time, I got bored from all the singing renditions, so I stepped out at around 21:15 and had dinner at a nearby ramen restaurant.  I was enthralled at what Itani had to offer: I tried their recommended ramen with miso and pork, along with their signature spicy sauce on the side.  The ramen and soup tasted great, while the sauce was a bit meh to me; it could have been better.  More interesting was the fact that I made even more friends at that restaurant - non-attendees, however, and that I felt that the vibe of the restaurant was wonderful. Perhaps, though, Itani should offer more ramen choices to suit a diverse taste palette and needs. 

Bonus: What Did I Get Once I Checked In?

Aside from the usual Rail-Volution Conference Guide showing all the possible conferences and workshops I can attend, I also got:
  • Two green fanny packs to remind volunteers that I was part of their tour group (in Richmond and Fremont), complete with water and a snack.
  • A limited-use Clipper card that allowed me to ride almost all transit services in the San Francisco Bay Area for free for the duration of the conference (09-12 October 2016).
  • A reusable bag.
  • Exhibitors Guide and Trade Show Map.
  • Stationery items (papers, ballpen).
And later on, I got dozens of business and calling cards, which I will discuss at a later post.


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