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Davis Amtrak Survey?

SurveyI just took the Davis Amtrak station transit survey and I have some questions of my own.

By Colin Walsh

The City spent $250,000 on a User Survey about the Davis Amtrak station. The funding came from a state of California grant and not the City of Davis, but that is still a pretty good chunk of CA taxpayer change.

I am a frequent train commuter, so I was interested to take the survey. Having grown up in Davis I am a native bike rider, having lived in New York I am an adaptive strap hanger, and having lived in LA I have certainly done my share of driving.

First, the survey is a little inflexible. I answered with what I do 80% of the time, but not with what I do the other 20%. I imagine others have some variation to their routing as well, information about that is not being captured.

The survey asks if I drive to the station, but it does not ask where I park. I haven’t parked in the Amtrak lot after 6:30 am probably ever. The lot fills with early morning commuters. Lately I have been taking a later train and I know a good free spot to park a few blocks away that I am not going to tell you about for fear you might want to park there too.

But not asking where people are parking if they drive misses a big opportunity to gather information on drivers. Do they pay to park in the G St. garage? Do they park in the Amtrak lot? Do they have a secret spot? How are people dealing with the inadequate parking at the Davis station? We may never know.

The survey also doesn’t ask if I visit any other downtown businesses when I visit the station. Generally speaking, I visit at least 1 downtown business on days I take the train, sometimes 3-4. The Village Bakery or Posh Bagels are frequent pit stops in the morning, the Co-op or a bakery are frequent stops on the way home. There certainly is something nice about getting off the train and grabbing a fresh loaf of bread to serve with dinner. Asking a simple question or two about other economic activities of train commuters would help better understand the impacts of the station on the downtown economy. Do people like to grab a drink after work? Do they go right to ArtAbout from the train?

Do people from out of town spend money in Davis because they take the train from the Davis station? This survey provides no clue. This $250,000 survey misses an opportunity.

The third page of the survey is terrible.

It asks what prevents me from walking, biking or taking public transportation, but none of the answers fit. They want to know if it is too far to walk or bike. No. It is not too far to walk, but I don’t have the extra time in my day to walk to the station and I almost never go directly home, instead picking up groceries, etc. My days are full. Being a sandwich generation single dad with a full-time job keeps me busy. There was no check box for anything close to that. I expect many others have similar situations and outlooks. The data from this question is likely not going to be that helpful.

And public transportation? Well there are no direct routes from my house to the station, but I could transfer at the MU, or I could take a bus and walk the rest of the way, but see above about time constraints. There is no question that captures the idea that the routes are inadequate, although you can choose that it takes too much time. Strange that they didn’t include time as an option for walking or biking, but they did here. It also lets you choose that “Transit doesn’t serve the places I need to go,” but nothing about the transit not getting you were you want to go efficiently.

It does allow you to choose that you don’t take a bus to the train station because “parking at work is cheap or free.” Wait a sec, what does free parking at work have to do with not taking the bus to the train station when you go to the train station? I mean really? How ridiculous is that? It is like they took another survey and repurposed it for the Davis Train Station and no one proofed their work. It was when I hit this question that I reached my limit and decided this survey was probably a colossal waste of time and money.

It is just a survey monkey survey that just about anyone could put together. 2019-06-14 00_35_47-Does the Davis Amtrak Station_

You can even take the highly scientific survey I created here. (Click to launch survey)

I mean who designed the Davis Amtrak survey? Okay, maybe that's a little harsh, but there is something really inadequate about this survey, and yet overly specific at the same time. Surveys can be designed to push results. Or a bad survey can unintentionally skew findings. 

On the fourth page toward the end of the survey it wants me to rank improvements I would want to see at the station. Here it asks if I would like to rent an office at the station or if I want housing on the property. That is a pretty surprising breadth to a transportation survey. What exactly does the council have in mind? I don’t begrudge them wanting more information, but it seems like there are other questions that did not get asked that are actually about transportation.

The survey asked if I thought there should be more electric vehicle charging stations at the station. That is an interesting question considering the weird situation. There are EV charging spots at the station now. The charging spots are 4 hours only. This restriction likely precludes 99% of train riders. So as a train rider who aspires to having an electric vehicle yeah, it would be great if I could charge while out of town on the train, but a 4-hour limit means any additional spot for EV charging, is one less spot for a train commuter to park. So, adding an EV spot would convert a train commuter parking space to a parking space a train commuter could no longer use.

Amazingly there are zero questions about if I am willing to pay for parking, or how much I would pay for parking. I guess the City Council wouldn’t want to find out that 99% of the people who took the survey want the parking to be free considering the Council already voted to charge for parking there.

That’s my quick take on the survey. I am sure others will spot flaws I have missed.

This survey certainly left me questioning why I bothered to take it in the first place.





Robert D Canning

I also took the survey - rather hurriedly - and didn’t think of some of these things until I talked to someone else about it. I didn’t like that only one choice was allowed for many of the multiple choice questions. For instance, why would “we” add a food outlet at the station when we have several within a block? And yes, what about the parking garage and it’s relationship to the station lot? After reading Colin’s good comments I feel like there should be a second survey that asks some the of questions the questions that the first survey didn’t ask.

This is not the first time this kind of survey has been frustrating. The biases and assumptions of those who commission them often steer the user in a particular direction. In this case maybe toward adding more bells and whistles to the station when it seems just about right the way it is. I am an infrequent train rider but walk through the plaza several times a week and don’t see the need to make big changes.

Roberta L. Millstein

Robert, my reaction was similar to yours -- a lot of the questions seemed odd to me and I had a sense that some questions that should have been asked were missing, but Colin put his finger on exactly what those were.

On the former, yes, why would we want to add bells and whistles to the train station? Shopping? Museums? Activities? Is there some reason that we just want people to go to the train station? Seems to me that it would just make the parking at the station worse and hurt the rest of downtown. Does someone think that if you make the station a destination, people will take the train more often? I have a hard time imagining that.

I'd take the train more often if it ran more often, if it were on time more often, and if it were easier to get to where you wanted to go once you got to the end station. E.g., at the Santa Clara station, you're in the middle of nowhere. Now, Davis probably can't fix most of this stuff on its own, but maybe it could work with other municipalities to fix things.

Daniel Cornford

Great comments on the survey by Colin!!! I think it indisputable that lack of parking is a major deterrent to using Amtrak/Capitol Corridor. Parking is a real challenge, and the city has made it harder by restricting parking further south on 3rd and 4th streets and surrounding side streets where I always used to park. Totally unproven is the frequent and very dubious assertion that people from Sacramento think it worth driving to Davis to get free parking. I don't believe it, and see this as just one more false argument to get the city off the hook.

But to cast things still more broadly: Some time in the early 2000s when I was taking the Capitol Corridor more regularly, the city embarked on a total remodel of the area surrounding the station. I thought great now they can create a lot more parking spaces there. Now no-one loves green space and parks more than I do, but in some instances even I have my limits. The City used most of its funds and station space to do a lavish landscaping job and thereby lost an opportunity to more than double the number of parking spaces at the station. I am sorry but who in Davis is going to say to themselves: "Mi I need to commune with nature, I think I'll go down to the small park by the Amtrak station." Not infrequently I drop people off there and pick them up (due of course to the parking issue). Perhaps I have done so on the wrong days, and I stand to be corrected, but I hardly ever see people basking in this mini park. The vast majority are hustling to their trains, sitting on the amply provided benches, or sitting inside the station for long waits in hot, cold, or rainy weather.

Nancy Price

So many good points made in the article and comments. Seems to me, if not already, we need a task force to take up and discuss the issues raised and make recommendations, before we are confronted with a project proposed by city staff and fast-tracked by the City Council before we can blow the whistle.

Todd Edelman

* There is no "free parking": All parking is paid for, mostly not by the user of a space at a particular time.
* The issue is not really "inadequate parking at the Davis station" -- it's inadequate or low-quality "access", and it's the same problem with the "Downtown Parking" debate: We need good questions, but to think more objectively we need have more neutral or adequate language.
* Excellent questions overall about the questions, Colin: These questions - and e.g. the ones during the Downtown process are managed by the same consultant. But there is nothing inherently wrong about a Survey Monkey survey: There is lots of flexibility for ranked choices and whatnot. There might be some industry thing about not asking too many questions at once for the general public, perhaps also in the first survey about something. Then also you seemed to have missed the opportunity towards the end of the survey to write anything you want: This is where I gave my Depot access plan in bullet point form. I am going to ask a statistics professional friend to see what's there to know about leading questions and so on.
* The Depot is hardly in the middle of nowhere, which is good. Services at a train station itself allow a visitor to buy that bread, etc. on the shortest path from the the train door to one's car, bike, bus, TNC vehicle, etc. The journey from train to bicycle at the Depot is amazing, and the one to a car parked there is also great (Compare this to the same at Sacramento Valley Station and other factors and it's easy to see why people drive from e.g. the Natomas to Davis Depot at 6am and why after a long day at work and not the most speedy train ride - which delays mostly totally out of control of Capitol Corridor - they'd rather be their own metal cocoon at 6:30pm, even if there's congestion going back to the Natomas...) So the fresh bread is out of the way, and other stuff more so - and not everyone has your sneaky, anti-social "free" parking spot near the station :-(. This of course begs the question if there was a pleasant walk with social or interesting spaces along the way to the 4th St. garage with similar prices to the Depot lot would more people use it? (Maybe ACE could give a discount to people who ride the train?)
* All the questions about other "destinations" at the station are about transportation as much as anything else. It's not's only about the final destination. Sure, parking is full very early each day, so the question is also about economic productivity: Parking spaces with no fee, full most of the day is crazy. A huge space in Davis Downtown dedicated to people who happen to work 9 to 5 in SF or whatever is an insane waste of potential.
* Having some opportunity for parking for later morning trains on top of current demand would necessitate - in the minds of the "inadequate parking" cult - I won't call it a cult if people put all of this in the context of "access" rather than "car parking" - a multi-story structure, likely ugly, a huge amount of environmentally-problematic concrete, almost no job creation after construction, more traffic Downtown on streets not designed for commute hour car use... at the friendly price of $50,000 minimum per spot for construction... who should pay for that?

Greg Rowe

Colin, I could not agree more. I took the survey and got the distinct impression that it must have been created by a student taking an introductory statistics class. In fact, the professors in the undergrad and grad school stats classes I took would have given this survey a "C" grade at best. I don't know how this survey will produce any meaningful data that will be of use to the City.

I spoke today with a retired attorney friend; a bright guy. He got so frustrated with the survey that he quit half way through.

As other posters have stated, Amtrak will need to greatly improve service before more people are likely to use the Davis station. About 6 years ago, when I was still working, I took the train to Fresno for a business meeting. The trip there was fine, but the return trip was terrible. The train was about an hour late arriving in Fresno, and we had not traveled far before the train stopped and we were put in busses that were engulfed in heavy freeway traffic once we reached Elk Grove. Never again will I use Amtrak; my time is too valuable.

Paul S. Jacobs

Colin Walsh in his commentary on the city’s Amtrak Station on-line survey greatly overstates its cost.
The survey is a very small piece of a $282,390 study to develop plans to improve access to the station, increase train ridership, and improve connections to other forms of transportation, including bikes and buses. Only a small fraction of that money will go to “user surveys,” including this one.
Whatever you think of this particular survey, it’s only a first step in a larger planning effort—one that promises to reach out to Davis residents as well as riders in a variety of way, including multiple public meetings, ridership surveys, and pop-up feedback sessions.
A year ago, the City Council accepted $250,000 from Caltrans for the Amtrak Station study—and gave final approval to an addition $32,9000, the required local match. With that money, the consultants project spending about $14,380 on various “user surveys,” most carried later this year. (For details on how the money will be used check out:
The staff report at the time of the final study approval last July points out many of the problems with the station. The parking lot is often completely full before the first morning train and can stay that way all day; and there aren’t adequate places to secure a bike. The layout creates safety hazards. And in my opinion, the station interior is dreary and unwelcoming. Fixing these problems requires coordination with and approval by a number of state and regional agencies, as well as the Union Pacific. It won’t happen without careful planning.
The consultants will also be looking at how redevelopment in and around the station would fit in the ongoing Downtown Planning effort. As noted by a city Planning Commissioner, the station is a natural epicenter for new housing, offices and retail, a key part of a revitalized downtown core.
I don’t always agree with City Council decisions but planning the future of the station, at relatively little cost to the city budget, was a smart thing to do. I'll be interested in seeing what the consultants can come up with.

Paul S. Jacobs

One correction to the comment I posted last night: no more surveys are planned, but there will be more meetings, etc. before the plan is completed early next year.

Colin Walsh

Sure Paul, the $282,390 is the cost of the whole study that began inauspiciously with a terribly dysfunctional user survey. Have you ever heard the expression garbage in garbage out? The current input from the shoddy survey is essentially garbage. We will see what the consultants do next, but so far what we will be left with at the end is a consultants recommendation without effective or reliable user input.

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