October 31, 2010

Further Reasons to Mess With Texas

For those keeping track of symbolic cultural clashes, the current World Series between the Giants and the Rangers just keeps getting juicier. First there was Proposition 23, the Texas oil-fueled attack on CA's greenhouse gas reduction bill*, then there were Josh Hamilton and other Texans waxing incredulous about omnipresent weed scents. Now comes the news that Arlington is the largest U.S. city without transit.

*Partial text of Gov. Schwarzenegger's epic take-down of Prop 23 in the comments.

Not that SF is the very bestest, transit-wise, but at least fans have options for getting to the ballpark. Either way, the Giants now carry the hopes of the environmentalists, the stoners, and the transit advocates, each looking for vicarious victory over the forces of evil.

Though traditional auto-dependent land use is certainly an obstacle for transit in Arlington, funding is also a substantial problem: Texas sales taxes are capped at 8.25%, of which the state receives 6.25% and cities receive the remaining 2% to use locally. Because the Rangers and the Cowboys have recently completed ambitious new stadiums, all of Arlington's sales tax gets funneled toward paying off debt. Which lead SFWeekly to the following insight:

San Francisco has earned its reputation as a place that throws money around. But in this case, the truth is counter-intuitive. Here you ride a publicly financed bus or train to a privately financed stadium. In Arlington, you ride in a privately financed car to a publicly financed stadium. 


October 29, 2010

CA Redevelopment Law: Can a Powerful Tool be Repurposed?

Caveat Emptor: this is a wonkier post, so read at own peril.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending the Berkeley Dept of City and Regional Planning (DCRP) open house, where I sat in on a class titled "Sustainable Redevelopment." Professor Cecilia Estolano, the recent former Executive Director of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA/LA), taught the class.

The class outlined the system of redevelopment in California. Briefly, and hopefully without too many mischaracterizations, let me set the three main redevelopment tools in CA law: 1) Community Redevelopment Agencies, which have authority to buy and assemble land, 2) Tax increment financing, which provides the strong profit motive for the CRAs, and 3) eminent domain, which among other things, also keeps costs down for redevelopers.


California state law provides for the existence of locally derived Community Redevelopment Agencies. They are not centrally administered, and though there is a central body, the federalist structure retains significant independence for each CRA. According to Estolano, a lot of cities that are too small for a city council and a CRA will fuse the two bodies, such that a copy of the meeting minutes might read "Move to close City Council meeting. Motion appoved. Motion to Open CRA meeting. Motion approved" or something similar. The decentralization can also create a situation where smaller CRAs lack legal, real estate, and economic expertise sufficient to combat pressure from external developers. But onward:

CRAs were originally tasked with reducing blight. The definition of blight, however, was/is problematic: to be blighted, an area had to show physical and economic blight. Criteria included overcrowding, unsafe, unhealthy, or poorly maintained building stock, low property values, even irregular lots with under multiple ownership. (Picture Boston's North End, which thankfully weathered a redevelopment storm of its own, or any other district with "European" narrow/angular street patterns and residential/retail mixed use.) Redevelopment Agencies had to establish a relationship wherein blight caused a lack of utilization, that without public-private redevelopment, would lead to further stagnation.

Such a liberal definition of blight gave Redevelopment Agencies (in my notes as RDAs, not sure if these are technically identical to, or different from CRAs) the authority to declare a project site "blighted." Sidenote: not sure what the accountability structure is here, ie, who or what evaluates RDA blight designations. In practice, the law gave redevelopers the ability to take control of low-income areas for the purposes of redevelopment.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF)

With the land assembled, CRAs needed funds to fuel the projects intended to better utilize the blighted zones. Enter TIF, which allows the CRA to accumulate funding by leveraging future increases in property values in the project sight as collateral. The first step is to assess existing property values in the project area--these revenues, pursuant to state law, are divvied up among local bodies like the schools, libraries, etc. But above this baseline, all growth in tax revenue accrues to the CRA. Needless to say, this arrangement creates incentives for projects that will boost property values the fastest: skyscrapers, big box stores, and luxury this's and thats's. Any regard for previous residents of the project site is notably absent, as is any eye for social justice, social services, or even any doubt that boosted property values are one and the same as economic development. A subsequent law required that increases in tax revenue be subject to the same redistribution formulas as the baseline tax revenue, but the incentives are the same regardless of whether local institutions do or do not get to share the windfall.

Because the CRA is a public agency, it can get sweet rates on the bonds it purchases. And it can only use the money inside the project zone, giving rise to disparities of community investment. And CRAs are chartered for 45 years, which allows them to reap the TIF driven money tree for a substantial amount of time.

Eminent Domain

Enough has been said about this already without me needing to add much. The ability to requisition property from private owners for a larger project, be it a highway or a stadium. Eminent domainers have been historically required to pay only fair market value for the property, which, because it is frequently in a designated blighted area, is frequently inconveniently low for the property owner.

Overall, a powerful framework for redevelopment. Needless to say, incentives are aligned in favor of the monied few, and against the non-monied multitude, but the essential question to be asking is what provisions can be added or subtracted from this framework to create redevelopment projects that value context, value social and environmental justice, and value reduced carbon footprints?

A Unified Theory of Urban Living

An article in a recent issue of Nature (hat tip to KH) makes the case for quantifying, or at least systematizing, our understandings of how cities and urban spaces operate. Citing past mistakes in urban planning, the authors argue that "the need is urgent for an integrated, quantitative, predictive, science-based understanding of the dynamics, growth and organization of cities. To combat the multiple threats facing humanity, a ‘grand unified theory of sustainability’ with cities and urbanization at its core must be developed."

An ambitious undertaking to say the least, but they point out a few interesting findings as evidence that such an effort might be possible. To wit:

Three main characteristics vary systematically with population. One, the space required per capita shrinks, thanks to denser settlement and a more intense use of infrastructure. Two, the pace of all socioeconomic activity accelerates, leading to higher productivity. And three, economic and social activities diversify and become more interdependent, resulting in new forms of economic specialization and cultural expression.
We have recently shown that these general trends can be expressed as simple mathematical ‘laws’. For example, doubling the population of any city requires only about an 85% increase in infrastructure, whether that be total road surface, length of electrical cables, water pipes or number of petrol stations. This systematic 15% savings happens because, in general, creating and operating the same infrastructure at higher densities is more efficient, more economically viable, and often leads to higher-quality services and solutions that are impossible in smaller places.

So far, pretty common sense. A friend once remarked to me that New York's density subsidizes US Postal Service deliveries to rural towns with populations in the 100s--dropping mail to addresses with dozens of residents is certainly more cost efficient than dropping mail to single resident addresses several miles apart.

What gave me pause was the mathematical regularity the researchers found:

Now, the friend who alerted me to this article assures me that a statistical relationships this iron clad are a rare sight in the world of real world data. Because I know little about groovy tactics like taking the log of each axis, I'll let his judgment and the commanding visual speak for itself (the line looks like a backslash, for goodness sake).

The bigger the city, the more the average citizen owns, produces and consumes, whether goods, resources or ideas. On average, as city size increases, per capita socioeconomic quantities such as wages, GDP, number of patents produced and number of educational and research institutions all increase by approximately 15% more than the expected linear growth. There is, however, a dark side: negative metrics including crime, traffic conges- tion and incidence of certain diseases all increase following the same 15% rule. The good, the bad and the ugly come as an integrated, predictable, package.

The article eventually reasons that the most useful application of this data will be to evaluate policy successes and failures--slightly more modest than a "Unified Theory", but a chance, nonetheless, at a concrete metric in a field where data can be diffuse, difficult to capture, or subject to all sorts of faulty assumptions (see the discussion about the problems with density here).

So ideally, a city manager in x city would be able to look at a model predicting incidences of crime, patents, or Vehicle Miles Traveled, or whatever, and be able to see if his/her city is under or overperforming its expected tally. And then use this as evidence to help guide new policy initiatives.

Transportation Projects, Mapped

Someone over at Transportation for America, a really sweet site that you all should check out, had the mega-user friendly idea of mapping all recent TIGER I and TIGER II grant recipients on a google map, complete with detailed descriptions about what each will accomplish.

I blogged earlier about East Bay bike trail improvements, but spend some qt with this map, there are lots of innovative happenings. Some traditional highways and roadways stuff,* yes, some safety upgrades/maintenance, and important but un-glamorous freight projects. But also sexier things like $47 million for light rail in Atlanta, Bus Rapid Transit in Orlando, and Complete Streets in Dubuque, Iowa, etc, etc.

So I guess "sexier" is a relative term.

*Charleston SC gets $10 million "to include a storm water runoff system that would quickly shunt water into the nearby river, helping to alleviate flooding in downtown Charleston in the area of the US-17 and I- 26 intersection during moderate to heavy rains." Looks like USDOT is still thinking transportation first, context second. I think this called for a more creative solution than "shunting" water from streets (mm, heavy metals, oil, brake pad and tire particles!) into the nearest body of water.

October 26, 2010

San Ramon Schools Turn Parking into Solar Power

Local high schools will soon see their parking lots shaded by solar arrays, thanks to a $23 million dollar contract the SRVUSD recently signed with SunPower, a San Jose-based company. Though the agreement was singed over the summer, the final design meetings are happening this week.

The district has posted (pdf) projections of future energy savings and general fund benefits: under the conservative estimates, it expects to save $27 million in energy costs over the first seventeen years. Estimates also peg the debt incurred (via low interest Qualified School Construction Bonds*) to be payed off in 17 years, bringing the low-ball, 25 year boost to the district's general fund to $11 million. The optimistic projection tallies that number at $30 million, based on higher assumed increases in PG&E rates and a lighter debt load.

*QSCBs are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which authorizes these special low-interest bonds for schools seeking to improve infrastructure. Fascinating to see how that stimulus is trickling down.

Investing in infrastructure that cuts fixed costs seems like a no-brainer, but especially for any landowner not expecting to relocate. Colleges, universities, and high schools spring immediately to mind. I wonder if anyone has a model for installing solar arrays in commercial parking lots, like those at regional shopping malls. What I don't know is what incentives the developer/owner would need to make such a retrofit attractive--if each individual tenant pays its own utility bill, then the incentive is small, spread thinly across all stakeholder, and probably stymied by the unusually deliberate coordination and mobilization the task would require. This is conjecture, because I do not know how such arrangements would work ... if a central body pays collective utilities, the incentive to go solar would appear to be much stronger.

Diablo Valley Community College already has photovoltaic arrays on all surface parking lots at its Concord campus. Chevron Energy Solutions, a unit of local business and energy juggernaut Chevron Corporation, partnered with DVC, Los Medanos Community College, and Contra Costa Community College to complete installation in 2008.

Parking lot arrays near the DVC football field

The Chevron press release detailed additional services provided:
  1. a 3.2-megawatt solar power generation system comprising photovoltaic panels mounted on 34 parking canopies in six parking lots at Contra Costa College, Diablo Valley College and Los Medanos College;
  2. high-efficiency lighting and energy management systems installed at CCCCD's three colleges and District Office, as well as high-efficiency heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment at CCCCD's District Office; and
  3. high-voltage electrical system replacements installed at Diablo Valley College and Los Medanos College.

The Athenian School, a private college-prep partial boarding school in Danville has also installed a solar array (in the shape of an A, natch) with a slightly different approach. It partnered with Tioga Energy in what appears to be some sort of subcontractor-esque agreement--the solar power purchase agreement (PPA) signed states that Tioga Energy owns, operates, and maintains the system. Tioga sells the solar electricity generated to the school at fixed rates over a 20-year period.

Since PG&E rates will surely increase, and since the arrangement does not require Athenian to invest in a massive capital outlay, using middlemen might make modifications more manageable (alliteration, ftw). I'm assuming that Athenian's monthly savings would be less than if they owned the array, given that Tioga needs to turn a profit somehow, but Athenian is already getting about 50% of its electricity from the investment.

A little further research reveals that Tioga has signed PPAs with the Lafayette School District, five New Jersey school districts, and SoCal's Irvine Unified School District.

October 24, 2010

Gentrification Thread

Megan McArdle, of The Atlantic, has a great post (with a messy, awesome wall of comments) about gentrification. A must read about the many and myriad attempts and failures to tame gentrification.

McArdle frames this entry as a mega-rebuttal to a critique of one of her previous posts. And because McArdle is responding to criticism from someone less experienced and less prominent (the person in question is a college senior and intern at Greater Greater Washington), she takes pains to put the college intern back in her place. What happened to the intern is probably every aspiring idealist's worst nightmare--be a little too flip in putting down a noted writer's opinions; get publicly dismantled. McArdle's rebuttal is spot on, but yowza, did she have to make it burn?

McArdle's original post--the one that prompted the collegian's critique--is also worth a read. She quotes at length from an essay by Benjamin Schwartz, an essay that outlines the only substantive rebuttal to Jane Jacobs that I've read in my (rather limited) experience with planning literature.

Here's the teaser:

Thanks to the profound influence that The Death and Life of Great American Cities has exerted, the West Village circa 1960 has come to epitomize--really to be the blueprint for--the urban good life. But in its mix of the new and the left over, in its alchemy of authenticity, grit, seedy glamour, and intellectual and cultural sophistication, this was a neighborhood in a transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment. Which meant that it was about to lose its soul.

October 21, 2010

That's one way to use a law degree ...

StreetsblogLA chronicles an interesting response to the anxieties that prop 19--legalizing marijuana--will make driving less safe, endangering drivers, bikers, and peds. Enter the LA City Attorney to shine the spotlight of empirical science on the situation:

Recently, Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has launched a strange public relations campaign to try and “discover” the impact of smoking marijuana on driving.  Instead of using a scientific method and having a control group; Trutanich and the California Highway Patrol are basically giving marijuana to media personalities, letting them smoke it and putting them behind the wheel.

Amongst the media personalities that have taken Trutanich’s bait is L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez who wrote a recent column on his adventures with controlled marijuana use.  Under the supervision of a couple of amused CHP officers, Lopez smoked a joint of something called “Train Wreck” before being taken to a testing course and put behind the wheel of a Crown Vic.  Lopez reports that neither himself or ABC Radio personality Peter Tilden passed the test with flying colors.

Nice work if you can get it.

(NB: I'd like to file a pedantic complaint to Streetsblog re awkward/redundant use of "Recently," improper semi-colon use, the British "amongst," and the missing comma after "Lopez.")

More Bike Updates, East Bay Style

First, the East Bay Regional Park District has been awarded a $10 million grant to connect gaps in its bicycle and ped path network. Funding comes from the Federal Tiger grant program. Iron Horse trail, my local standby, gets some southern extensions to link up with the Dublin/Pleasanton BART and the new developments around there. The map of the planned improvements was a little lo-res even before I took a screen capture, so your best bet is to follow the link above.

Second, Oakland has some plans of its own: a bikeway that will flow, mas o menos, along the 53rd street corridor from Emeryville to the Rockridge BART station. It will add capacity as an east-west connector that complements existing bikeways: 65th/Ashby BART/Woolsey to the North, and 40th Street/MacArthur BART to the south.

The area under evaluation is between those little orange boxes. Oakland's study proposed a number of alignments, which are visible on the map below:

The final alignment selected, near as I can tell from the city report (Scribd doc @ the end), is #3.

I was pleasantly reading the careful thought the planners had invested in the project--finding funding, sending mailers to residents of 53rd street, compiling feedback from myriad sources, discussing the +/-'s of the 6 different alignments--when I realized that this is all just to paint sharrows. Wtf? Do they really need all that work just to paint some white bike stencils+chevrons? There will be bike-signage as well, with little bike symbols and city and BART directionals, but yeesh.

I also wonder if the addition of sharrows actually does anything--I'd be hard pressed to describe biking on a street with sharrows as any more inviting than biking on a street without them.

The real reason why more significant bike infrastructure (a proper bike lane) is MIA is probably that the streets are too narrow to stripe two five-foot bike lanes while retaining a lane of parking on both sides AND two way travel lanes. Since I'm not intimately familiar with the streets in question, I can't speak to the kind of traffic they get, or the speed. On many residential streets a bike lane is redundant; its principal use is for carving a safe travelway out of busier, car-heavier roads.

So maybe a full bike lane would be overkill after all, but the question about whether public meetings and planning documents and alignment examinations are necessary for sharrow painting remains. It seems the City needs to cover its bases, make sure the residents know to expect some increases in bike traffic, and make sure it has documentation showing careful deliberations were made. No wonder funding is an issue.

October 20, 2010

San Francisco Bike Plan

Wow. Streetsblog has the details, I'm just going to post some pictures for visual pizazz. Dedicated bike lanes, solid green lanes, mode split goal of 20%, making biking safe for ages "8 to 80", a new waterfront bike path, even neato Scandinavian tools for scaling hills. All from the San Francisco Bike Coalition, priced at $100 million. No funding or official SFMTA sign-ons yet.

Connecting the City's proposed three priority crosstown routes. Map: Jack Reinick for SFBC.

A draft network of 128 miles of bikeways in the city. Image: SFBC. (Click to enlarge).

Real time bus arrivals

Straight Outta the Suburbs throws a spotlight on the Long Beach Transit Authority's work to install real-time bus arrival screens at its bus stops. 44 stops and counting now have digital screens that display when the next bus will actually arrive, thank to GPS technology.

What jumped out at me was the production quality of the LBTA's promo-video for the technology, which it calls "TranSmart System". While I think the video doesn't provide quite enough information about what users can expect from the TranSmart, it's an envelope-pushing attempt to brand bus-riding. This matters a lot, and is rarely done right. (See the Contra Costa County Connection's youth video in the uh-oh column, and Boulder, Colorado in the ace column.) At the same time, it also screams the LA stereotype that image is everything.

In any case, all self-respecting, well-used (sorry, CCCC) bus systems should aggressively pursue real-time technology.

October 19, 2010

the car is a kind of shield that deflects empathy

So reads a line in the NYTimes write up of photographer Lee Friedlander's exhibit at the Whitney Museum, and accompanying coffee table book. I've wanted to write about this for a while, but since it's less directly an urban planning topic, and more broadly car-cultural, I hemmed and hawed. No more.

Friedlander's work draws upon photographs taken during roadtrips across the continental US in the past 15 years. Unlike most roadtrippers, he took all of his pictures from inside his car.

This innovation puts Mr. Friedlander in the company of all those who turn the landscape of our automotive consumer culture into art--the article links to Ed Ruscha, but anyone who ever dug Warhol's Campbell Soup cans probably gets Friedlander. They find their are by inverting and questioning the connotations we typically associate with familiar iconography. (This is fine art! This too!)

Friedlander's particular inversion questions the iconography of an American Landscape associated with scenic scenery, majestic vistas, and even the banalities/nostalgia of highway signage and roadside commerce, because these familiar portraits tell narratives that selectively omit the auto. Each image is a story, and the story told when a traveler steps out of a parked car to capture the Grand Canyon is a different story than taking the same picture inside the car. (Exhibit A.)

As the article notes:
[Friedlander] knows that cars are essentially illusion factories — to wit: “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”
Illusion factories--I think this gets to the heart of how Friedlander wants to portray the automobile: as a machine that enables much portraiture of things that are America, but simultaneously engineers its own absence from the story the picture tells. The picture, then, is an illusion, fictive, and in Friedlander's vision, courtesy of the automobile. So he unwinds the narrative, exposes the machinery, and leaves the car in the picture.

And this is why Friedlander belongs on a blog about urban planning: because cars create illusions beyond the photographs that chronicle our identities and our tourism. Relying exclusively on cars for our transportation grid creates unrealities where far things are closer (SF --> LA in 6 hours!), and close things are farther (corner store Supermarket behind a quarter mile of parking). Car accidents killed 37,000 people in 2008, yet <<insert demonized phenomena here>>. Cars seal us off from passed-through environments, and detach us from other drivers who become less demonstrably human, and more demonstrably an inconvenience preventing me from going as fast as I'd like to go. Crash weighed in on the phenomena, and I would argue car-centric environments help explain the decline in civic participation noted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Back in August, I posted my own reflections about how the car warps expectations.

But it took until reading the Friedlander article to read the line that bundled and explained these frustrations in one swoop: "the car is a kind of shield that deflects empathy." It's an illusion factory.

October 14, 2010

Suburban Biking

Cool scoop from Cyclelicio.us: East Bay City Experiments with traffic light radar detection for bicycles.

Part of me wants to say that radar detection for bikes at intersections seems like readying the cherries for your sundae when maybe you should see about getting a bowl for the ice cream. You know, practical infrastructure: the bike lanes, separated bikeways, and bike parking playing the metaphorical bowl.

The other part of me knows a good thing when I see it. Acknowledging that bikes have a right to be on the road by incorporating them into the system hardware--yes, good, and hopefully this has the positive feedback effect (once/if the Pleasanton project is scaled up) of mainstreaming bike culture, and encouraging new users.

Decentralizing Povery, Jobs

From the WashPo: Suburbs take hit as US poverty climbs in downturn

The article draws its findings from this report by the Brookings Institute.

Increases in suburban poverty increase the need to improve the suburbs by allowing for greater diversity of uses. And because I just took a practice math GRE, I'm in a quantitative mood, so lemme spell (ha) it out:

(People) + (auto-dependent environments) + (poverty) + (Lack of diversity in housing stock) + (Aging/decaying housing stock) = (People) - (mobility) - (quality housing) + (poverty)

= increasingly deep morasses for impoverished folks to climb out of. Le suck.

The data:

The article acknowledges one way in which the suburban built environment poses obstacles to the poor that the city does not: the lack of density makes obtaining social services difficult.
Suburban nonprofit groups were often spread across multiple counties, cities or townships. That made it difficult to coordinate services across sprawling areas or obtain funding, compared to cities where poverty was more concentrated. 
Other than this finding, the article chalks up most of the suburban poverty shift to the recession. The recession, while it may explain why there are more poor people, cannot alone explain why being poor in the suburbs may be worse than being poor in the city. One would need to take the built environment into account--transportation networks, housing stock, and location/availability of social services.

A different report by Brookings suggests that the decentralization of employment opportunities--jobs moving from city centers to edge and edgeless cities--may be driving the suburbanization of poverty (see also here). The poor follow the jobs: the 07-08 housing/easy credit boom must have facilitated the following of said jobs, and/or provided its own independent decentralizing pressure. The report also notes that poor minority groups are less likely to settle in suburbs with good access to jobs. It's a sobering summation, and an effective conclusion for this post:

Together, these findings strongly suggest that employment decentralization is helping to drive the suburbanization of poverty. However, the responsiveness of the poor to job sprawl is not as strong as it is for the population as a whole. Furthermore, when the poor reach the suburbs, they are more likely to live in jobs-poor areas that are frequently lower income and more disadvantaged—and potentially indistinguishable from disadvantaged central city areas. These patterns are sharpest for the black and Latino poor, and they are consistent with prior research documenting that racial and ethnic minorities have driven population growth in lower-income suburban areas characterized by weaker employment growth and lower access to good-paying jobs.

October 10, 2010

Clipper Card Update

From the SF Chronicle, news that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has given the Clipper card an official Chinese subtitle: Lu Lu Tong. Translations vary, but revolve around "the go-anywhere card."

Official subtitles in Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese are forthcoming, they say.

October 8, 2010

Clipper Card Woes

From KALW @ SFgate.com comes a report about the uneven transition from paper passes to the new Clipper Card.

The Clipper Card is the Bay Area's attempt at an all-in-one transit pass solution. The sales pitch writes itself: why have different paper passes for each transit system when you could have 1 card for all of them? No more transfers, no more quarters for Muni, etc. Convenience, ease of use, automatic transfers.

If only it were that simple. I've been following the issues, now it's time to sum them:

  • Presently, Clipper cards are free when you add $2. In the future, a card will cost a flat $5. 
This is baseless supposition here, but I suspect the extra expense comes from the administrative overhead/electronic wiring system required to coordinate fees and transfers so that 1 card can work between BART, Caltrains, Muni, AC Transit, Golden Gate Ferries and Transit. More agencies are lined up for the future. New card-tappable readers need to be added at all entry and egress points. My point of reference is Boston, where the MBTA handles everything for the entire Boston metro area, and then some. This and the established infrastructure might explain why their bus drivers give out Charlie Cards like candy.

  • The new Clipper-compatible Muni faregates have, for now, an operationsfail.

  • Topping up.
Not all BART stations have kiosks yet. Not all Muni stations have them either. I'm unclear whether you would be able to top-up while boarding Muni from a street stop. Downtown SF Muni stations have Clipper kiosks, and I know that SF Walgreens locations sell Clipper Cards and can add value. And you can do it online, though I have heard that it takes 1-2 days for the monies to be applied to the card.

What if you don't have internet access? What if the clerks at Walgreens don't speak Cantonese, let alone Spanish? What if you didn't even know your paper monthly pass would no longer be accepted?

  • Lackluster communications roll-out = disadvantages for young, old, poor, and non-English speakers
Watching the SFMTA's outreach has driven home two points: a) mobility and transportation are universal needs, and b) mobility and transportation are therefore social justice issues. It seems that point has not been taken quite seriously enough. Streetsblog has noted the lack of outreach to community groups, especially Chinatown residents.
According to the Chinatown Community Development Center, there has been little direct outreach to the Chinatown community about the Clipper timeline and almost none of that has been in Chinese.
(MTA Rep) Goodwin admitted the Clipper customer service center didn't have a regular Chinese speaker, and said when a caller spoke Cantonese or Mandarin, they had to utilize an AT&T translation service.
Another concern raised by CCDC was the digital divide for seniors who don't have access to computers and the current lack of physical Clipper vending machines in Chinatown. Even when the Powell Street Muni Metro Station vending machines come online this month, the walk for many Chinatown seniors there would be over a mile, something Chan said was unreasonable.
And now comes the news from KALW that the youth passes needed to get to and from school are Clipper or ... Clipper. AC Transit stopped accepting the old paper passes in August. Right before the school year. In retrospect, that might not have been the best idea. The article does an excellent job detailing the logistical challenges faced by administrators and teachers in low-income, high ESL schools.
KIRK: Lots of Oakland does not pay attention to print media. So if it's not happening on TV and it's not being bombarded on billboards and things like that, they're not getting the message. There are also a lot of people who have very low incomes and rely on something like a student bus pass to get around. So they need it, but they don't get the word until they need it.
With 20/20 hindsight, the SFMTA should have invested more time in coordinated communication. It's hard to believe they did not flood different neighborhoods with pictograph-laden pamphlets in Cantonese and Mandarin, Mam, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Urdu and Hindi, Thai, etc, etc. Corner stores, anywhere people previously bought passes. Bus stops. And phasing out the old youth passes right before the school year? What a trick! Installing kiosks takes time and money before a convenient network of places to top up is established--totally. But communication got lost in the mix. The young, the old, the poor get inconvenienced ... the usual suspects, sadly.

The Bay Area needs Clipper, nonetheless--it's a big step overall toward better transit, and better inter-agency coordination. I hope these are just one-time transition issues.

October 6, 2010

What was that line again ...

About life imitating art?

Quick, which one is which:

Just after noon on Monday, a corner of the sludge reservoir broke, sending the goo into the surrounding countryside, turning four prosperous, picturesque villages into red-tinged towns out of science-fiction horror films. A wave of caustic red sludge had just poured in over the back fence and was descending rapidly over the backyard, smothering chickens and hares as well as a garden of flowers, peppers, grapes and tomatoes. It rose up until it covered the tiled front porch and leached in through the front door, dyeing the pristine white lace curtains red. Mr. Holczer escaped with burns on his feet from the dangerous muck. 

Beneath the cloud of vaporized chemicals, the scene was one of urgency and operatic chaos. Army helicopters hovered at various points, shining additional lights down on the scene. Colored lights from police cruisers crisscrossed these wider beams. The tank car sat solidly on tracks, fumes rising from what appeared to be a hole in one end. The coupling device from a second car had apparently pierced the tank car. Smoke drifted from red beams of light into darkness and then into the breadth of scenic white floods. The men in Mylex suits moved with a lunar caution.

Being in the middle of DeLillo's White Noise created the serendipitous, incredulous experience of reading both of these passages within hours of each other.

October 4, 2010

More on Density

From Human Transit, where I am increasingly impressed by the frequency and quality of the posts.

Can we make density make sense? is the latest post about, well, how to handle density data.

Main conclusion is that density per population--What percentage of the population lives at densities above x? What's the average density at which people in this city live?--may be more useful than density per area--people per square mile, or whathaveyou.

Both this new post and its predecessor have excellent comment threads, for those with greater than average curiosity.

Urban Planning and Safety

First, Straight Outta the Suburbs. In my digi-travels, I've read many an urban planning blog, but ones focusing on the less-sexy hinterlands are harder to come by. Quality stuff.

SOtS posted an interesting nugget from the LAPD's Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design pamphlet: the increased "natural surveillance" and eyes-on-the-street that mixed-use developments generate are in the interest of public safety. SOtS post here, LAPD pamphlet here. (pdf)

I've written here and here about why the need for better suburbs is not merely a matter of taste, and this pamphlet add another dimension: safety. Even though the LAPD pdf could use a little graphic design assistance, it's got some pointed pointers:

  • Provide clear border definition of controlled space (e.g., fences, hedges, paving patterns and low walls). Avoid unassigned space. As much as possible, all space should become the clear responsibility of someone.
By way of example, most mid-century housing projects fail this test, though on a scale vastly more humongous than anything the LAPD pamphlet had in mind. Their aesthetically-driven embrace of unassigned space was a significant part of their failure, and though such projects are unlikely to be repeated (at least on that scale), it's worth reminding ourselves of the essential lessons they provide about the dialog between safety, design, and urban connectivity.
  • Place activities in locations to overcome vulnerability of these activities with natural surveillance and access control of the safe area. For instance, common toilet facilities and laundry rooms should not be located in a remote corner of the site or at the end of a long nameless hallway. Locate these facilities (unsafe) adjacent to the entry or location where there is normally high foot traffic (safe).
This is perhaps more of an architectural detail, one I hadn't considered. Pomona alums, I'm thinking of the Oldenborg laundry rooms right now. Those gave me the creepers in a way that Mudd-Blaisdel's never did.

Though these warnings are useful for planners of suburban spaces (all spaces, really), I think their most urgent applications are found where someone tried to insert suburban/garden city style planning (lots of ambiguous space) into high density, high poverty urban settings. Worst mix.

October 1, 2010

North Camino Ramon Plan: The Vision vs. The Present

The North Camino Ramon Plan has captivated me at least in part because its projected vision is vastly different from its current reality. As the plan states, it:
strives to meet sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction goals as the plan area transforms from an automobile-dominated, low-density commercial area to a transit- and pedestrian- oriented neighborhood that will be a community focal point with a mix of uses.
For all of you who have never been to San Ramon before, I decided to do some quick and dirty photojournalism to give you a sense of exactly how "automobile-dominated, low density" the plan area is. Slideshow @ the end.

One thing I noticed was that if you cleared the parking lots of landscaped curbs, cleared fences between parking lots, and cleared elevation grades, you would have a lot of room to build. As I biked around, I was frequently able to thread different parking lots into an ersatz right-of-way. Removing barriers between the lots would not a street network make, but there would be room for one. I say this without taking any measurements, or thinking about space for the buildings the City would presumably want to build along the new streets.

The blue arrows in the map below mark "parking lot rights of way" that, given either a dose of eminent domain, reform-minded ownership, or vigilante jackhammers, could become streets without bulldozing buildings. The red arrows mark routes that would need ... something more drastic. The blue circle corresponds to the planned center of the park that would itself lie at the middle of the mixed use retail/office/residential neighborhood.

This bears a passing similarity to the official plan:

I wonder if the final plan will insist on perfectly straight streets--a few kinks could avoid a big Planners vs. Community stand-off. But let's be clear, the parking lot right of way, even with street kinks, makes the eventual plan only a smidgen less ambitious. Those businesses all want their parking, and will be loathe to relinquish it. And the parking lot that's planned to replace lost surface parking (#5), looks like it will be built over office buildings that include local insurance agencies, HVAC management software, kiddie hair salons, and local soccer league administration. The other building the lot would replace houses the City of San Ramon offices, but hey, they've got greener grass in mind anyway: plans to build a new city hall complex (pdf) just south of this North Camino Ramon Development.

In any case, check out the slideshow of pictures I took. Here's a rough map of the route, to help you locate yourselves. The first picture starts on the northernmost street, looking west (AKA left, looking at the map), then south, then east, then the route kicks in.

"Automobile-dominated" indeed: