November 29, 2010

Department of Pipe Dreams: Highway 680 Bus Rapid Transit, Pt I

Making fantasy transit maps is a favored pastime of at least a few urban planning bloggers, but I must confess this pipe dream was dreamed well before I read about Transbay's dream Bus Rapid Transit plans, mega MTA, or a Boston with an MBTA urban ring. Goes to show that fantasy is a standard, and seductive, business.

In this post I'll give a general overview of why a BRT line linking West Dublin/Pleasanton BART and Walnut Creek BART in the Highway 680 right of way would be a good idea, if wishes were horses. In Part II, I'll go into more detail about Bus Rapid Transit particulars, individual station locations and treatments, what kind of feeder bus networks would be needed, and what incentives and enhancements could boost hypothetical ridership.

The Pitch

Interstate 680, north of 580 and south of 24, is clogged with traffic, especially during commuter rush hour. Large sections of it are built out, making expansion difficult. The Walnut Creek BART Station in the north and Dublin/Pleasanton Station in the south take commuters into Oakland and San Francisco, but full parking lots and underused buses limit station capacity. The area in between the stations is a transit desert, served only by a scattering of County Connection bus lines. These bus lines already use the two BART stations as convenient route termini, but rely on the anonymous, tucked away, San Ramon Transit Center for their origin. Housing developments and sprawl continue at the edges of existing development, further impacting 680. Cities and towns surround 680, yet the corridor lacks density or sheer population to justify a BART connection. (BART is already in trouble for expensive boondoggles, landing on the wrong side of violent and financial civil rights disputes, and being politically obligated to build out to inefficient locations because those locations happen to contribute revenue to it.) 680 is the principal artery for the region, a necessity to get to either BART station, anywhere else in the Bay Area, and many local trips.

BRT on 680 would fill in the gap between D/P and Walnut Creek

Note how developments are concentrated around 680, but spreading eastward in San Ramon/Danville. BART Stations are located where 680 and 24 intersect in Walnut Creek, and 680 and 580 intersect in Dublin.

The Overview

Bus Rapid Transit for the 680 corridor would link the under-construction West Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station to the Walnut Creek Station. It would have its own dedicated right of way for the duration of the route, off board fare collection, and triple-door low floor buses (or raised platforms) to facilitate minimal holding times at stations. To cater to business commuters, the buses could offer wireless internet. Stations will be built around intersections where 680 crosses over or under major suburban arterials.

Like this, Transmilenio style (Bogotá, Colombia)

Investing in the highway right of way would centralize and reorient bus operations into a main trunk route fed by feeder buses. Feeder buses would run along the high-volume arterials that traverse the region--streets like Crow Canyon, Bollinger Canyon, Ygnacio Valley, and Stone Valley Roads. Users would need to get to the nearest arterial, and from there, using the system would intuitively mimic how they already move around the region: accessing and exiting 680.

While BRT could certainly be used for a variety of daily trips, its largest value-add will be for commuters traveling out to Oakland and San Francisco, or commuters coming in to the office parks in San Ramon and Pleasanton. BRT's guaranteed traffic-free ride to BART will reduce incentive to both a) drive to BART, and b) drive to the final workplace destination, taking cars off the road and diminishing rush hour traffic.

Stay tuned for the list of stations and locations of feeder routes!

November 26, 2010

Transportation Planning, Teaching, and the Importance of Objectives

Last Thursday I attended one of the West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Council's Technical Advisory Committee meetings. Add that all up, and you get a WCCTAC TAC, pronounced "wicktactac." Which is exactly what they call it, beautifully enough.

Anyway, I took the 72R from El Cerrito Del Norte, and got off just north of Church and San Pablo Ave, where the City of San Pablo offices are. The complex has a low profile from the street, but opens up onto a pleasantly lush Spanish-style courtyard. I found the room with help from a friendly janitor, introduced myself to John Rudolf, my contact from the Berkeley Planning open house, and took a seat for the meeting.

A representative from Caltrans opened the meeting by reviewing implementation plans for installing traffic cameras along the Interstate 80 corridor. The closed circuit cameras would be placed at intersections between on ramps and local streets to monitor traffic before it gets to the highway. 23 cameras already dot local streets along I-80; this project would add 54 more to monitor local traffic at specific highway access points.

Everything seemed pretty open and shut: Caltrans was improving infrastructure to enable it to better monitor local conditions at access points to the critical highway in the area. There were packets of information with lists of proposed intersections, maps, and bullet-pointed lists of official things. From what the Caltrans rep reported, I gathered that Caltrans had approached cities about potential CCTV camera locations, and had asked the relevant contacts if their respective cities would like cameras where indicated. The response: yes. So Caltrans moved forward with the project, but failed to adequately communicate the objective.

The evidence I have to substantiate the lack of a communicated objective is only what I witnessed at the meeting. Christina Atienza, Executive Director of WCCTAC, asked whether any data existed re how often the 23 existing CCTV cameras were used. There wasn't, yet. A representative from another city asked what the new cameras would be used for. To identify traffic conditions on local streets was one answer, but no one could describe what functionality this would add, especially since no one was sure whether the existing cameras were being used. Would Caltrans respond to camera-ID'd situations? How? Caltrans is responsible for I-80; local streets are in the purview of local cities. How would video be stored? Who would review the video? Do the police want it for law enforcement? Did anyone ask the police about this project? Another proffered purpose was to ascertain the cause of accidents on local streets. But if Caltrans' task is to keep I-80 flowing smoothly, then knowing about accidents on local streets is relevant ... in ways the presentation did not make clear.

My lasting impression from the meeting is not the relevance of CCTV to local streets along the I-80 corridor, but rather the relevance of my years in urban education to transportation planning. From my years at the MATCH Charter Public High School and Prospect Hill Academy, I learned that student progress happens when lessons have concrete objectives framed in relevant ways. Both elements are critical: I realized too late that just being clear lead to uninspired students ... i.e., "I know exactly what I need to do, but don't really get why we're doing this." Breaking a skill down into easy-peasy step-by-step doesn't (by itself) make a student want to practice that skill, far from it. And pursuing relevance without clarity amounts to pandering: like using popular lyrics for analysis without actually teaching how to link diction and imagery to themes and main points. Maybe it's "relevant" to a student, but what is she being asked to do with it, and can she practice and perform that skill? Creating relevance in your classroom is difficult, and can come in many different packages. It could mean framing a lesson in a larger context before diving into skills, or it could mean whispering encouraging words to a struggling student, and letting the knowledge that the teacher cares create its own relevance. Point is, the teacher needs to define the destination and establish why getting there matters, by (almost) any means necessary. Clarity and relevance.

Judging by the reaction she received, the Caltrans rep did not make the purpose of the CCTV proposal clear or relevant. Now, I already stated my lack of knowledge behind the run-up to this meeting, but I sense that a better presentation would have more clearly laid out what functionality an expanded CCTV system would accomplish, and how it would benefit both Caltrans and surrounding cities. Done effectively, this would address who would monitor the video feed, what tools they would have to respond to traffic conditions, how much a city would need to increase its operations budget and where that money would come from, and why the proposed cameras would be better than what is already in place. None of those questions were answered in the discussion at the meeting.

Another reality I discovered while teaching is that a lesson plan can always be more specific. For example, maybe the rep was thinking the CCTV objective was to monitor traffic, and the relevance was that each city could have better traffic information. Sounds good, but in the same way that "Students will be able to learn the causes of the Civil War" also sounds good. Both objectives fail when put into practice. What should students be able to do at the end of the lesson? List 5 causes? Rank 5 causes? Evaluate whether the causes were worth the bloodshed? Similarly: Monitor traffic? And then do what about it? etc. An objective needs to be actionable to be legit, and neither "learn causes" or "monitor traffic" cut it.

Interestingly, the second element in the Caltrans presentation fared much better. The project was to install technology in stoplight-regulated I-80 on ramps to determine when the lines of waiting cars gets too long. The objective was precise, and clearly presented: to install back-of-queue detectors to insure that no on ramps backed up onto local streets. And its relevance: whenever the detector is triggered, the stoplight regulating access to the highway will automatically stay green for longer intervals to allow faster traffic flow, preventing back-ups, and no one wants back ups. The only issue remained how to decide where to put the sensors--it was decided that Caltrans needed to confer a second time with each city office. Compare that process to the ambiguously open-ended CCTV cameras and you start to get a sense of why some plans founder, while others unfold predictably toward completion.

November 23, 2010

Bikes and Cars: Framing the Debate

The NYTimes reports that New York City is soliciting proposals from companies to implement a bikeshare program.

The City has already completed a thorough documentation of how such a plan might work, and Transportation Commissioner Janet Sadik-Khan has busily invested in infrastructure necessary to making the bicycle a safer and more convenient choice for millions of Manhattanites. And now the rubber is hitting the proverbial road.

I don't always blog about non-Bay Area projects, but the article paraphrased a common critique of bike sharing specifically, and biking more generally, without refuting it:

The city first floated the idea of a bike-sharing program in 2008, but some officials were said to have expressed reservations about giving over city streets and sidewalks to a program that would require a sizable footprint.
In Paris, for instance, parking spaces were removed to make way for hundreds of rental kiosks.
Sizable footprint? Sizable footprint!?!? The amount of space a bike sharing kiosk needs to operate is tiny, infinitesimal compared to the amount of space needed for car storage or public transit storage.

A picture makes my point most efficiently:

Moving people efficiently, adding capacity efficiently, reducing pollution, increasing exercise, I could go on: does not come with cars. Complaining that bikes have a sizable footprint while cars are somehow so unquestioned, so taken for granted as permanent fixtures that their impact goes unmentioned is willfully ignorant.

Redevelopment vs. Preservation in SF

Writing SoMa history | San Francisco Examiner

Interesting snapshot of the investment that may/will unfold with the arrival of HSR and the Transbay Terminal. Proponents of HSR argue that areas adjacent to planned stations will receive this attention up and down the state-long route, and with it come concerns about preserving the character of the existing space. Preservation is a tricky beast to tame, and a glance at the comments will tell you why:

Planning tends to do a really mixed-up choc-a-bloc pastiche when they get into this micr0 management mode. It the Mission they arbitrarily took whole blocks that had been mixed use, and locked them down under "industrial preservation." Now many of those buildings sit empty because the "industry" has long since moved out and there is no flexibility to re-purpose the buildings.

Meanwhile individual neighbors are jammed up against industrial space that is neglected.

Sixth Street Lodging District?!?!? Are you f-ing kidding me? Let's make sure we preserve the homeless and criminals that do with it and that live in these "historical" buildings. Better yet, in order to preserve the true character of the neighborhood, let's dress all the homeless like 1930 bums and call is Skid Row again. We can sell tickets!
Preservation can be a powerful tool to prevent slash and burn redevelopment that makes every place look like noplace, and whether these commenters are right or wrong, it can also hamstring economic growth, and result in arbitrarily preserved eyesores. It is also selectively wielded, and though Examiner reporter Kamala Kelkar doesn't come right out and say it, bias is implied. SoMa and the Mission have been targeted for preservation against overzealous developers, while (the last historically black neighborhood left) Hunters Point was not. Nor, in decades past, was the Fillmore area, known as "The Harlem of the West."

I've given my snapshot of California Redevelopment Laws in an earlier post, and it is safe to say that the system favors the monied and powerful in their quest to remain monied and powerful. It accomplishes this by creating powerful incentives to replace underperforming/poor areas with uses that generate more impressive revenues: luxury condos and big box regional retail being perhaps the foremost. Preservation needs a place at the table, as I think it's usually best to regard redevelopment skeptically until proven otherwise.

November 22, 2010

Funding for Central Subway?

The Chronicle reports that Newsom has come through with guarantees for $106 million in state bond money, and the remainder from savings. On paper, the San Francisco central subway is looking better.

November 19, 2010

Thursday November 18th

Well, it was going to be a triple threat day: 9-12 West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Committee meetings, 12:30-1:30 SPUR lunch meeting, 5-6:30 guest lecture at UC Berkeley. But SPUR rescheduled their event to Wednesday December 1st, so it was just a double header.

Nonetheless, today marked my maiden voyage on AC Transit! Clipper card worked like a charm, and the El Cerrito del Norte bus station even had live bus arrival times posted. It was a little hard to tell if it was indicating at what time the bus would arrive, or how long until the bus would arrive. Like,

72R bus
:31 and :51

At first I resigned myself to waiting 30 minutes, so I was happily surprised when the bus arrived shortly after 8:30.

On a semi-related note: with the exception of the few times where I have been caught sitting at County Connection stops, and unceremoniously skipped over, my bus experiences in the East Bay have been excellent. Even though the County Connection headways are always greater than 30 minutes, and easily an hour or more on the weekend, they are always on time for both origin and destination.

And the Clipper was awesome for mode switching: no worries about dollars, quarters, passes, or if I had enough. Automatic recharges let me just tag my wallet and go. Lovin it.

More on the events themselves to follow.

November 17, 2010

Sprawl Repair

I wouldn't mind being Daniel Jarrett ... for a day ... or more ...

Because this is excellent.

Transit's Role in Sprawl Repair

" ... since government has much more direct control over the street than over the development parcels, we might move faster on sprawl repair if we focused on the arterial first, or at least at the same time."

He takes Fresno as an example--it has a massive road network largely dominated by arterials, and it does not face significant congestion challenges. Here's a sample pitch that he would deliver to local officials:

" 'What if we learned from Los Angeles's path?  Instead of waiting until it's really expensive, as Los Angeles did, what if we take early, gradual, inexpensive steps to make our arterials safe and attractive for transit?  That doesn't mean ripping up our single-family neighborhoods, but it does mean rethinking our arterials so that they're safe and attractive places for pedestrians, and so that they provide appropriate levels of priority to transit.  We don't need transit to be attractive to everyone, we're not 'forcing' people to use it, but it could attract people who already want alternatives to driving.  Let's face it, a lot of our citizens are struggling on low incomes, and cars are expensive.  Many families would experience sudden improvements in wealth if they could get rid of one or more of their cars.'

'So we need to gradually repair our sprawl.  That doesn't have to mean big increases in density.  We'd build some denser centers for people who want a more urban life, but we're not going to build townhouses in your back yard -- or at least not until you and your neighbors want us to.  Mostly, we just need to stitch things together so that people can walk and cycle more safely, both to complete local trips and to get to transit stops.  It means making sure that at every transit stop, there's a protected way to cross the street, because you can't use transit for a round trip unless you can use stops on both sides of the street.  It means adding pedestrian links to cul-de-sac neighborhoods, so that they are through-routes for bicycles and pedestrians while remaining cul-de-sacs for cars.  And it means making sure that the design of bus stops and transit priority conveys a clear message that transit riders are valued as citizens, and appreciated for the contribution they make to a sustainable and functional city.' "

Tolls! In SF and LA

People hate tolls.

SJ Mercury News covers the congestion pricing scheme, and lays it on thick:

Welcome to San Francisco. That'll be three bucks to enter, and three more bucks to leave.
Sound nuts? Not to the San Francisco Transportation Authority. The agency is considering a proposal to turn the line with San Mateo County into a virtual toll plaza, charging rush-hour commuters up to $6 each weekday to cross into -- and out of -- the city by the bay.

Buried at the bottom:

Tilly Chang, a deputy director at the agency, argued that the toll would decrease traffic because people would alter their commute times and take transit to save money. The authority predicts that with tolls, traffic at the city's southern border would drop 20 percent during commute times.
"The cost of anything needs to be taken in context," Chang said. "It's not free right now. People are paying in time and having to pad their trip."

Battle lines!

And in LA, the MTA has received a grant for a demonstration project to test the expansion of HOT lanes. If it works--if traffic is reduced and vehicle throughput increased--any number of five additional locations could see a permanent addition. The locations are currently being vetted in more detail.

November 16, 2010

SF Pulling Out All Stops

Two proposed underground subway lines into downtown.

Congestion pricing for SF's northeast quadrant.

Parking lot in the Mission slated to become a park.

MTA proposes 250 miles of bus only lanes, 100 miles of dedicated bike lanes.

And a month ago, SF Bike Coalition's plan for major, city-wide bicycle infrastructure, striping, and safety improvements.

Topsy-turvy up in here. Exciting to think about how these projects could transform the city--if any of them come to pass.

(Duplicate?) Underground Rail Galore Planned in SOMA, South Beach

The San Francisco MTA is looking a few million short for their planned central subway. The subway would connect the existing Caltrain terminal at King and 4th with light rail service above ground to Bryant and 4th (by the looks of the map) and then underground to Chinatown.

The proposed additions

What is unclear is how this plan will connect with the Transbay Terminal, a project that is much more likely to move forward, since the previous Terminal has been demolished--buses are currently using a temporary structure. According to the Transbay Terminal project map (also below) on the website, the new Terminal will be bounded by Mission and Howard, and 2nd and Beale. So, far enough away from the black line on the above map that the central subway will not pass through the Transbay Terminal.

Additionally, the Transbay Terminal proposes building an underground right of way from King and 4th to the 2nd and Howard/Mission. This would serve as the SF terminus for high speed rail.

"The rail line will be extended 1.3 miles underground from its current terminus at Fourth and King streets into the new Transbay Transit Center, providing a seamless connection between the Peninsula, the South Bay, Southern California and San Francisco’s Financial District."

So to pull this together: HSR and Caltrains will come through the 4th and King station, and continue underground to the Transbay Terminal (blue line above). The 4th and King station will also have a branch northwest along 4th street, taking Muni light rail aboveground to Bryant, then underground to Chinatown.

I wonder how the underground subway would connect with existing Muni subway running along Market Street ... (update: commenter lmz informs that the Union Square Central Subway stop would have an underground ped connection to the Powell St station)

Also, can a high speed rail train execute a 90 degree turn? Maybe the right angle is an exaggeration of the publicity map; these are obviously not engineering specs, and it will be underground in any case (and thus not constrained by street grids).

Both of these projects are "actively searching for funding." Especially the central subway, which is more tenuous. If rail service is already being extended from 4th and King to 2nd and Mission, does it also need to go up to Chinatown along a separate route? Wouldn't it be better to extend, later, northward from the Transbay Terminal? I must be missing something here.

November 14, 2010

Building Coalitions for Better Streets, One School at a Time

Spaces that need improvements for bicycle and pedestrian users face a number of obstacles.

First: the land use patterns that make walking and biking more difficult than driving. This is the foundation, and it both politely and actively discourages users from reimagining the space as anything but autocentric.

Second: the lack of a visible group of beneficiaries. In the suburbs, people see cars, trucks, and more cars--why divert precious funds from what is clearly the dominant mode? Thus, projects for bikes and peds catch flak for wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous expenditures. See anti Measure O arguments, short-sighted local business owners, and recent shift toward Republican leadership.

Third, is the lack of an organized group of beneficiaries. In most communities, stakeholders with significant buy-in to status quo arrangements--auto commuters in traffic, businesses with limited parking--will be the most vocal in calling for remedies. Conservative Taxpayer groups, business associations, and people fed up with commutes exert pressure on elected and appointed officials to keep expanding and improving roads and parking. There's a mobilized constituency for officials to work with. Outside of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and a handful of other places, Bike Coalitions are small players, and organizations angling for ped improvements are usually regional, national, or of the observational nature, like this blog. (This is from my limited experience, i.e., Complete Streets, Streetsblog, etc). In other words, they are less effective at building local constituencies.

In order to create demand for improved bike and ped infrastructure, one would need a constituency that cuts across economic and social class, is present in communities across the nation, and is intensely concerned about how local transportation networks serve pedestrians and bicyclists. A tall order--but the constituency exists: elementary and middle school students, their parents, and their teachers.

The Safe Routes to School (SRTS) initiative first popped up on the radar in the 1970s in the US and in the Netherlands. It only gathered momentum after 1997, when a local project in the Bronx gave rise to two nationally funded pilot programs. In 2005 and 2006, SAFETEA-LU, the massive federal transportation omnibus, appropriated $600 million to create the National Safe Routes to School Program, which has an excellent online guide for bringing a SRTS program to your school.

Since then, some 10,000 schools have received SRTS funding to improve the safety and convenience of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. The comprehensive online guide facilitates grass roots organizing by outlining sequential best practices for SRTS success--everything from how to build a coalition, to how to look for funding, to what a bump out and a chicane are, to how to improve street connectivity with retrofitted pedestrian access paths.
Suburban culs de-sac create inefficiencies and concentrate traffic on arterials

Now, I'm not suggesting that folks like myself pose as concerned parents and infiltrate PTAs to set up SRTS coalitions--though that would be fun--but there are organizations doing excellent work to organize communities of parents and educators, and link them with the funding and impetus to invest in reclaiming streets for school children. One of these is TransForm, based in Oakland. In 2008, it partnered with the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority to bring $1 million in SRTS funding to four Oakland schools:

This project is designed to remedy concerns frequently raised by parents, principals and students that speeding traffic poses safety issues and discourages walking and bicycling.  The project will include ADA-compliant pedestrian “bulb-outs” and ramps, crosswalks, pushbuttons and countdown signals, closes gaps and widens sidewalks at identified locations. Bicycling safety will be improved by adding new bike lanes on Alcatraz Avenue from Dover Street to College Avenue. The project also realigns traffic lanes on Hopkins Place to improve safety for vehicular traffic, as well as students walking or bicycling to school. Hopkins Place connects MacArthur Boulevard bicycle lanes with the front of Bret Harte Middle School.
The byproduct of mobilized school communities is a better infrastructure for the entire city, and ingrained good habits in its youth. Just like the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated curb cuts that are more frequently used by parents pushing strollers, or seniors pulling groceries, SRTS infrastructure improvements will all users to move around their environment in more ways, more safely and conveiently. I don't have the space here to elaborate on the multitudinous benefits of biking and walking to school (or anywhere else) from a social justice standpoint, so I'll just say that any reduction of automobile dependence anywhere will save money and lives. And that can only be a good thing.


SRTS projects in CA that received funding in the '10-11 funding year
TransForm info sheet for SRTS services they coordinate
SRTS program brief for 2010 (pdf)
More detailed ways to improve the school zone, the school route, street crossings, and traffic conditions.

November 13, 2010

Cars --> Bike Paths --> Greenways

Great new video up on StreetFilms about the work Portland has done to make city streets more bike friendly, and the work Portland is doing to move beyond bike paths and sharrows to a more holistic "greenway."

Design touches of note are the way city planners have used curb extensions and road medians to create stormwater treatments sites. The idea is to prevent rainwater--which carries oil residues and particles from brake pads, tires, etc--from draining directly into creeks and streams. Instead, a median has a planted bed flush with the asphalt surrounding it, and the curb border has strategic cuts to allow in the rainwater. A mix of hardy native plants able to withstand some heavy metals, and layers of soil, sand, and gravel filter the water as it re-enters aquifers and groundwater supplies--rather than flow directly into the local creek or stream. Depending on the watershed, aquifers will recharge streams, or streams will recharge aquifers, though usually there's some sort of dynamic equilibrium.

Now: I think Oakland should be taking notes. The residential blocks for lots of Oakland look similar to areas in the Portland video above, additionally, Oakland has a large population segment that would benefit from a reduction in automobile dependency. From a social justice point of view, biking would mitigate pollution, obesity, and the cost of transit and car ownership. Granted, much pollution comes from trucks and boats bound for the port, and from highways precariously close to dwellings, but still--a move in the right direction. The median project would be a great way to add more green into a chronically gray city. Medians also create pedestrian refuges, which would make MLK Blvd, Shattuck, and Telegraph much easier to cross.

Getting all of this going would require a robust bicycle education component to accompany any infrastructure improvements. K-12 collaboration with parents and city leaders, the works. More on that topic in a future post.

November 12, 2010

San Francisco Proposes Congestion Pricing

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority just got some great press for its proposal to implement congestion pricing. From the Chronicle:

Drivers crossing greater downtown San Francisco and the southern border with San Mateo County could be hit with a new toll costing them as much as $1,560 a year.
Everyone from workers to parents dropping off their kids at school could have to pay the new charge, which is designed to ease congestion and raise revenue for extra bus service, pothole repairs and bike and pedestrian improvements.

811 comments, and counting. SFCTA's got some nerve with the timing of their announcement, what with the general perception that government is overly spendthrift, recession, state debt, etc.

I'm of two minds here.

1) Congestion pricing discourages driving, which is in the long run a win for dense urban spaces with good public transit, like San Francisco.  But these taxes are regressive, in that they hit the poorest the hardest. So I'm curious to see how the name-checked plan to give discounts to "disabled and low-income drivers, residents who live in a toll zone, drivers who also pay bridge tolls and businesses with a fleet of trucks" gets rolled out.

2) The communications team at the SFCTA must be tone deaf, otherwise they would have frontloaded their media campaign with something besides the obvious: you, yes you, will now need to pay for something you used to do for free. Namely, they should have made crystal clear, dollar by dollar, why congestion pricing offsets the unpaid costs that driving always already incurs--the pollution, the amortized cost of parking & roads, the realization that the city's population will grow but its automobile infrastructure is at capacity (barring road widening, etc), and that as such congestion pricing is a necessary response.

Is it? I would say yes, but I don't live there. If I lived there, and drove, I'd be indignant. This whole proposal comes across looking like a bunch of bureaucrats have arbitrarily decided that they want a city with fewer cars, and could also use a bigger budget for their pet projects, thank you very much. No taxation without representation, c'mon, let's go dump some goddamn tea in the water.

You can't just drop a proposal of this type like any other news story; something like this needs set up work, it needs a proper PR campaign. Get out the information about hidden costs of driving, of the time wasted in congested streets, then slap a dollar sign on it to give the issue some context and help us all understand what costs are already being paid, and why something needs to be done about it. Get some economist up there to talk about how when a desirable good is underpriced, demand will always outpace supply and shortages, e.g., congestion, occur. Maybe they tried some PR pump-priming, and this happened anyway. Maybe they have no time and no funding for public relations. Either way, the SFCTA is catching flak like it's going out of style.

In an interesting comment, SFWeekly notes that a congestion pricing plan would likely fall victim to Prop 26, which requires all fees to be approved by a two-thirds majority vote in the state legislature. Good pick-up.

November 11, 2010

SPUR Lunch Talk: CA High Speed Rail and Land Use

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research group (SPUR) hosted a lunch forum today in which it presented 13 recommendations for land use plans around future/hypothetical CA high speed rail stations.

A fully funded network will have 26 stations, serving cities that contain the vast majority of the state's residents

After a general overview of HSR, and some caveats--these recs are "bird's eye view," they won't get into specifics of station design, alignments, etc--Regional Planning Director, and chief powerpoint clicker Egon Terplan got down to business. The recommendations turned out to be fairly unsurprising, at least for anyone familiar with the work that SPUR does, yet certainly good, worthy, and salient. The presentation left me hankering for a longer format presentation, one that would delve into the site-specific details of individual station areas. That's where the real creative/pragmatic alchemy would be, not in a list of general principles--I mean, find me a planner who would disagree with making the area around the station a "destination." Nonetheless, general principles are critical for establishing goals and expectations, so it's worthwhile to lay them out. Rather than reproduce each of the 13 recs, I'm condensing them, because let's face it, I've never been the linear note-taking type.
  • Station Area Plans for each of the 26 HSR station areas. Density minimums, parking maximums, integrated access to intermodal feeder networks.
Station Area Plans are the necessary starting point for generating maximal utility from each station. As SPUR noted, it is perfectly conceivable for HSR to follow the footsteps of BART, or airports, and become functioning transportation hubs surrounded by surface level parking and other low-rise, low-density uses. This would be counterproductive in several ways.

One, it forfeits HSR's unique ability to create incentives for denser developments, essentially giving up the potential for concentrated investment in what will typically be the city's downtown area. Two, denser uses around the station ensure higher station use: more office space, more commercial space, convention centers, high(er) rise residential will make HSR more relevant. Third, using the space around the station intensely, but also with an eye toward public spaces and the unique dimensions of each city will create good urban places. Good urban places will increase the feedback loop of investment and HSR ridership. Fourth, development at each station will help prevent the system from making CA into one big commutershed. Surrounding a station with parking and low-rise residential will only encourage riders to use HSR as a commuter train on steroids, and extend the bedroom communities of SF, SJ, and LA into the central valley. Some movement in that direction will undoubtedly occur, but far better to work toward making those places destinations and job sources in and of themselves.

Not this: North Berkeley BART

Not this either: Oakland Airport. The "A" placemarker is in the middle of a parking lot

Terplan also noted that in France, many cities lacked light rail before TGV stops were built. Presence of TGV spurred investment in local links and feeder routes, dramatically increasing the connectivity of the area as a whole, above and beyond simply getting to and from the station. An HSR station would certainly require re-jiggering local transit routed, and I'm hopeful that this could lead to some new investments and transit ridership.

A problem is that the state of CA lacks either the political will or the legal authority (different opinions were offered on this point) to mandate station plans, which leads to:
  • Financial incentives for local governments to make Station Area Plans: Matching grants, Revolving loans.
Funds are always hard to come by, but plans have the advantage of being relatively cheap. Terplan singled out general obligation bonds like Prop 84 from a few years back as initiatives that could tuck away the $1 million or so necessary for a good plan. Takeaway here is that sans incentives means cities sans resources for far-reaching plans.
  • Incentives for the type of Station Area Plan SPUR favors: TIF for TOD
Little as the state can dictate what a municipality must plan, it has less control over how it should plan. (An interesting comparison here, to Japan, where the company unrolling the HSR there also had a real-estate development arm that got to plan areas around the station just how it wanted. Nice.) Tax Increment Financing (TIF; TOD stands for Transit Oriented Development) is a tool I've already documented, and certainly a way for cities to capture the value of HSR. Read: shake the money tree. Only problem is, in order to establish a TIF zone, you need to show evidence of blight. Terplan mentioned that a few years ago there was a drive to introduce legislation that would classify HSR stations as sufficient grounds to create a TIF zone. Were this to be revived and passed, public and private bodies would have lucrative incentives to make areas around HSR into high yield places. Another obstacle: many areas around stations are already part of an existing TIF zone, and thus their tax revenue is already spoken for. And all this assumes that the best way to use this land is with the uses that will generate the highest property tax revenue ... this would have substantial transformative power, but little power to preserve the existing character of a city. While investment and prosperity are great, it would be a shame to see the homogenization this could unleash if improperly handled. To say nothing of gentrification.

Another potential strategy the presentation mentioned was land banking. This sounds like free market eminent domain, as Terplan described the process as buying up land around the future station site in order to have more direct control over the kind of development that takes place on it. Such a move would likely be a wise investment by whatever party doing the buying, though in the ideal, local towns and cities would have the say.
  • Implementation Program
How would a city move from Station Area Plan to reality? Provisions would be needed for updating local General Plans in accordance with Station Area Plans--zoning laws being perhaps the most relevant. Some streamlining of permit acquisition and Environmental Impact Report requirements was also discussed, provided that a project fit within the recommendations of the Station Area Plan. Additionally, a financing plan and assessment district structure could generate revenue to operate the HSR station.
  • Oversight and preservation
I don't have as much detail on these, but accountability matters, so I thought I'd give it a shout out. My notes shout out the HSR Authority, Caltrains, HCD amd OPR as hypothetical oversight agents, though what they would be empowered to do is entirely unclear. Preservation was mostly framed as preserving agricultural land against potential sprawl. Urban growth boundaries and agricultural easements could mitigate this, though the process of putting those in place would likely fall completely to local governments.

Given that local municipalities exercise control over local planning issues, and the absence of a robust incentive system, HSR seems fated for divergent station outcomes. Some will likely generate sprawl, surface parking, commuting, and bedroom communities, while others will change city centers into places more along the lines of SPUR's vision. Assuming the whole project even gets built, which is still a big assumption.

November 7, 2010

Public/Private Partnerships for Transit

Interesting news coming out of Chicago, courtesy of the Streetsblog network. A few months ago, I noted that the Mayor Daley-privatized parking meters represented a potential of $9 billion dollars in lost revenue.

Now, the revenue is flowing into, not out of the city: Apple has plunked down $4 million to renovate the subway stop near it newest Chicago store. Blair Kamin covers it in his Cityscapes column. Powerwashing, new street level facades, new plaza + fountain and seating.



Sure, there's Apple-only (for now, at least?) advertising inside the station, and there's the postmodern specter of corporations owning ever greater parcels of public space and therefore eventually usurping your very consciousness, but ... this doesn't seem like a bad idea to me.

An article in the Chicago Tribune noted the station's context:
Even while the neighborhood took on a high gloss, the CTA station looked the way it had for decades — like the stop closest to the poverty of the Cabrini-Green housing project.
This could be an instance of a private entity moving in to upgrade a low-priority project ... granted, funds are tight for the CTA and transit agencies everywhere, but I wonder whether the projects deterred CTA investment in the station.

There's also talk of selling the station's official naming rights to Apple.

Hmm, maybe Zachary's Pizza could spruce up the Rockridge station ... I'm thinking a ski gondola, or Ooh! a zipline to the storefront would be sweet. And the Zachary's poster contests could be expanded to redecorate the station. Done.

November 4, 2010

Giants Fans Overwhelm BART, Muni, Bay Bridge, Caltrains, Air, Space

I read that Giants fans overwhelmed all forms of transportation in getting to the parade today, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.


This is the line to get BART tickets at the Dublin Pleasanton station at around 9am on November 3rd. Those of you who know the station know that this line stretches at least 100 yards away from the ticketing area. I mean, the station isn't even in the frame! It's another 30-40 yards off to the left! Blows. My. Mind. I've never even seen a line more than 10 people deep, and this looks like 30 times that amount.

Apparently the Bay Bridge was a parking lot, and Muni and BART were standing room only to the point where agents were turning people away from the platform.

Update: grabbed some sweet pics from Flickr.

November 3, 2010

Contra Costa's Measure O Fails

Measure O, a proposal to increase vehicle registration fees by $10 to fund transportation improvements in Contra Costa County, has failed by a margin of 53 - 43%.

Now, no one likes to volunteer to pay more money. But Measure O's failure is disappointing because it represented a chance for greater fiscal conservatism: in the spirit of toll lanes, gas taxes, and the benefits-received principle of taxation, it asked the primary users of our roads to contribute more, and more directly, to maintenance and operating costs.

Most of the opposition to the measure repeated two arguments: the national Republican meme of "it's time for government to live within its means" and the (certainly true) accusation that the measure would fund bus, bike, and pedestrian improvements alongside the road improvements.

And yet, both arguments fail to convince. Let's start with the first one.

Todd Litman, blogging at Planetizen, (via Streetsblog), provides some context, using data from national sources:

According to the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey, in 2008 U.S. motorists spent on average approximately $2,700 per vehicle on ownership expenses (purchase, registration, insurance, etc.) and $1,400 on fuel and oil, about $4,100 in total. That year, governments spent $181 billion to build and maintain roadways (more if you include traffic services such as policing and emergency response), or about $730 annually per registered motor vehicle. Less than half of these roadway expenses are paid by motor vehicle user fees, the rest are borne through general taxes. ... A typical urban parking space costs $5,000 to $25,000 to construct, resulting in $500 to $1,500 in annualized construction and operating costs.
The conclusion here is that, on average, motorist-funded monies like the gas tax and vehicle registration fees only cover a portion of the actual costs of expanding, operating, and maintaining the infrastructure necessary for automobile use in the United States. In this light, Measure O would appear to be an excellent way to fulfill exactly what its detractors are saying: live within your means.

And with regard to using a vehicle tax to fund multi-modal transportation, Measure O's detractors had this to say in their official voter information document:

The 21% [of Contra Costa Transportation Authority's spending plan] allocated to "Transit for Congestion Relief" also funds "rapid bus facilities" and "express and feeder bus service."
Another 8% of Measure O's spending exclusively funds "Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety and Access."

How this became part of the anti-O argument is hard to figure. Road advocates are too often locked into a mentality that sees more roads as the only route to congestion relief. Yet increasing road capacity only provides a greater incentive to drive--a phenomena known as induced demand that has been well documented by prominent sources. More roads encourage more driving.

On the contrary, improving bus, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure is likely to reduce traffic by providing people with other ways of traveling. The issue at hand is incentives, and allocating them to boost and reduce demand as needed in order to ensure an evenly used and fluid transportation network. One local success in this area is Bay Bridge congestion pricing, where tolls are raised during rush hour to encourage discretionary travelers to drive during less trafficked times of day. The incentive has largely worked: the time to reach the toll plaza has halved, and despite a drop in carpoolers, BART ridership has increased. (For a list of Transportation Demand Management strategies, check out the TDM Encyclopedia at the Victoria Policy Institute.)

Opponents of Measure O who are looking for better and less congested roads just missed a chance at having just that. While it may seem counterintuitive, asking drivers to pay for services received, and using portions of that revenue to boost the growth of buses and bike lanes will actually benefit drivers, and everybody in the network.