To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

No, Americans Are (Still) Not Driving More


By Shane Phillips, September 1, 2014

The U.S. Department of Transportation is reporting that driving is at a six-year high, but beware the hype. As James Brasuell at Planetizen notes, these numbers are not adjusted for population and thus don't account for the growing number of residents living in the country. As always, the better question to ask is how much the average American is driving, and the answer to that is the same as it's been for years: less and less.

Here's what vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) look like when adjusted for population growth, zoomed in to start in 2005 when VMT plateaued, and eventually began to fall:

See website for a chart.

Suddenly the surge in driving doesn't look so impressive.

The DOT is reporting these numbers in order to justify President Obama's new transportation bill, the GROW AMERICA Act, but their motivations are misguided. Although the bill is a positive step forward in the national transportation policy debate – emphasizing highway repair, transit investment, and increased local control of transportation funds – Americans should be skeptical of any suggestion that spending more money on accommodating cars will do anything to ease their commutes. We've been doing that for decades, and even though VMT has been stagnant and per-capita VMT has steadily and consistently declined, we've got virtually nothing to show for it.

Suddenly the surge in driving doesn't look so impressive.

The DOT is reporting these numbers in order to justify President Obama's new transportation bill, the GROW AMERICA Act, but their motivations are misguided. Although the bill is a positive step forward in the national transportation policy debate – emphasizing highway repair, transit investment, and increased local control of transportation funds – Americans should be skeptical of any suggestion that spending more money on accommodating cars will do anything to ease their commutes. We've been doing that for decades, and even though VMT has been stagnant and per-capita VMT has steadily and consistently declined, we've got virtually nothing to show for it.

Infrastructure Cracks as Los Angeles Defers Repairs


By Adam Nagourney, September 1, 2014

 The site of a water main rupture last month in Echo Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood.

LOS ANGELES — The scene was apocalyptic: a torrent of water from a ruptured pipe valve bursting through Sunset Boulevard, hurling chunks of asphalt 40 feet into the air as it closed down the celebrated thoroughfare and inundated the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. By the time emergency crews patched the pipe, 20 million gallons of water had cascaded across the college grounds.

The failure of this 90-year-old water main, which happened in July in the midst of a historic drought, no less, was hardly an isolated episode for Los Angeles. Instead, it was the latest sign of what officials here described as a continuing breakdown of the public works skeleton of the second-largest city in the nation: its roads, sidewalks and water system.

With each day, it seems, another accident illustrates the cost of deferred maintenance on public works, while offering a frustrating reminder to this cash-strained municipality of the daunting task it faces in dealing with the estimated $8.1 billion it would take to do the necessary repairs. The city’s total annual budget is about $26 billion.
Severely broken sidewalks are common in Los Angeles. 
Los Angeles’s problems reflect the challenges many American cities face after years of recession-era belt-tightening prompted them to delay basic maintenance. But the sheer size of Los Angeles, its reliance on the automobile and, perhaps most important, the stringent voter-imposed restrictions on the government’s ability to raise taxes have turned the region into a symbol of the nation’s infrastructure woes.

“It’s part of a pattern of failing to provide for the future,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at U.C.L.A. “Our roads used to be better than the East Coast; now they are worse. I grew up here. Things are dramatically different now than they used to be.”

There are constant reminders of the day-to-day burdens that the dilapidating infrastructure poses here.
The city is battling a class-action lawsuit from advocates for disabled people because of broken sidewalks that are almost impossible to navigate in a wheelchair, and challenging for all pedestrians trying simply to make it home. The average car owner here spends $832 a year for repairs related to the bad roads, the highest in the nation, according to a study by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington. Families here routinely spring for expensive strollers to handle treacherous sidewalks.

City officials estimate that it would cost at least $3.6 billion to fix the worst roads, $1.5 billion to repair the sidewalks and $3 billion to replace aging water pipes.

“From a ratepayer’s point of view, it can appear overwhelming,” said H. David Nahai, an environmental lawyer and the former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We need increases for the streets and the sidewalks. We need increases for the water structure. Pretty much right now we are in a time of transition. That can be frightening.”

The problem is exacerbated by cutbacks in federal spending on public works. “The sense is that more and more, we are going to be doing things alone,” said the mayor, Eric Garcetti.
Close to 40 percent of the region’s 6,500 miles of roads and highways are graded D or F, meaning they are in such bad shape that for now city officials are concentrating maintenance efforts on roads that are in better shape, and thus less costly to fix. More than 4,000 of the 10,750 miles of sidewalks are in severe disrepair, according to Los Angeles city officials.

More than 10 percent of the 7,200 miles of water pipes were built 90 years ago. The average age of a city pipe is 58, compared with an optimal life span of 100 years. While that may not sound so bad, at the current level of funding it would take the Department of Water and Power 315 years to replace them.

Marcie L. Edwards, the general manager of the department, said that the pipes were not in as dire shape as those in some other cities, and that the department had spent more on replacing pipes. Even with more money, she said, there are limits on how fast her department can move.

“Our system is by no means falling apart,” Ms. Edwards said. “We live in a very densely populated environment. These are big jobs that are incredibly impactful on neighborhoods and congested streets.”

A rupture in July on Sunset Boulevard. City officials estimate that it would cost at least $3 billion to replace Los Angeles’s aging water pipes. 
Still, the water main break was unsettling because, unlike the war-zone-like patches of streets and sidewalks that have been cast asunder by tree roots in some neighborhoods here, this was a hidden problem until it was revealed in a geyser to motorists waiting at a traffic light. As such, it has become a symbol of the larger problem.

“People don’t think about the fact that there are pipes under the ground that are 100 years old until one blows,” said Mike Eveloff, a leader of Fix the City, a civic group pushing for repairs. “You don’t hear a politician say, ‘I’m going to make your pipes work.’ ”

And here, as in other cities, the demand for public works comes as the costs of municipal pension plans are shooting up — a confluence that has alarmed business leaders.

“Once those payments are made, there’s not much money left, if any, to invest in infrastructure,” said Gary L. Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The challenge also coincides with a push by city leaders to move Los Angeles away from its historic reliance on cars, with heavy investment in its expanding mass-transit system and bicycle lanes. In an interview, Mayor Garcetti said that any public works campaign would have to factor in that change.
“We have to build a city that people can be happy to walk in and drive in, but we also have to account for the transit revolution that’s coming,” he said. “If we spend billions and billions on car-only infrastructure — ignoring pedestrian, bicycle and transit users — we may look back 10 years from now and say, ‘Whoops, maybe we should have tied all those things together.’ ”

California is also known for being averse to taxes. Earlier this year, city officials debated asking voters to approve a plan to add half a cent to the 9-cent city sales tax. That would raise enough for the $3.6 billion in road reconstruction but just $640 million of the $1.5 billion needed for sidewalk repairs.

City Council leaders and Mr. Garcetti decided against putting anything before voters, probably until November 2016, to give the city more time to come up with a plan that has a chance of winning.
“I think people quite frankly are paying enough taxes right now,” said Mitchell Englander, a Republican councilman and leader of the repair effort. “We’ve got to do things differently. They don’t trust politicians.”

Kevin James, a conservative talk-show host who ran for mayor last year and was appointed by Mr. Garcetti to lead the Board of Public Works, said a sales-tax increase was needed to deal with a serious threat to the city’s well-being.

“A lot of people are going to say they feel overtaxed,” Mr. James said. “I’m not saying we’re not. But it means going to the voters, as I am prepared to do on behalf of Mayor Garcetti, to make the economic argument that $26 a year, which is what you would spend on a half-cent sales tax increase, is a lot better than $830 a year to fix your car.”

Funds to replace water pipes would come, presumably, if the Department of Water and Power gained approval from the City Council to increase water rates. Because of the drought, the typical city resident’s monthly bill for water has risen to $60, from $34.85 in the fall of 2011, reflecting the higher cost the department had to pay to purchase water.

“The longer we wait, the more expensive it’s all going to be.” said Mr. Nahai, the former head of the Department of Water and Power.

Putting Rail Lines in Highway Median


September 1, 2014

North Americans are in love with trains that go in highway medians. A large fraction of urban rail construction since World War Two, both light rail and full metro, has used highway medians as cheap at-grade rights-of-way to extend train service, often deep into the suburbs. Some proposed longer-range lines are supposed to go in medians as well: Florida had reserved space in the I-4 median for Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail, and Xpress West planned to go from Las Vegas to the outskirts of the Los Angeles area in the I-15 median. The Texas Central Railway, a private group backed by JR Central planning high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston, is considering several alignments, but markets the route as following I-45 (no mention of median) in some public discussions. In nearly all cases, both urban and intercity, it borders on incompetent to design rail lines in highway medians; intercity lines frequently follow highways on one side, but even that tends to be overrated in American discussions in my experience.

Urban Rail

For urban rail, the reason to use highways is that, in most of North America, they’re everywhere, and they’re usually equipped with generous medians and shoulders, allowing relatively cheap placement of rail tracks. Of note, this is generally not the cheapest option: construction on extant (often disused) rail rights-of-way tends to be cheaper. However, in many cases, a rail right-of-way is unavailable, hosts heavy freight traffic, has been permanently turned into a trail, or has commuter trains without integration into the rest of the urban transit network. Examples include the Dan Ryan half of the Red Line and both halves of the Blue Line in Chicago, the Orange and Silver Lines in Washington, the outer ends of BART, the Spadina line in Toronto, and several light rail lines. Often they run on one side of the road, but more frequently they’re in the median, which was often reserved for it when the road was built (as in Chicago and Calgary).

The problem is that nobody wants to live, work, or hang out next to a busy grade-separated road. Living or working a kilometer or two away, with easy access by car, is great for the driver, but within close walking distance, there is just too much noise, pollution, and blight, and the pedestrian environment is unwelcoming. The transit-oriented development in Metrotown and Arlington could not have happened next to a freeway. Christof Spieler frames this as a decision of spending more money on routing trains near where people live versus staying on the easy rights-of-way. But this isn’t quite right: the Expo Line in Vancouver was assembled out of an interurban right-of-way and a city center tunnel, both out of service; the line’s high ridership comes from subsequent development next to Metrotown and other stations.

Other times, the routing comes from a deliberate decision to integrate the trains with cars, with large park-and-rides at the ends. This is common on newer light rail systems in the US (though not Canada, as Calgary prefers integration with connecting buses) and in the Washington and San Francisco suburbs. This makes things even worse, by extending the radius within which the environment is built for cars rather than for people, and by encouraging the same park-and-ride construction elsewhere, along abandoned railroads and greenfield routes, where the preexisting environment is not car-oriented.

I do not want to categorically say that cities should never build urban rail alongside highways. But I cannot think of a single example in which this was done right. Calgary is a marginal case: it did build light rail along highways, and had some success with transit-oriented development, but those highways are arterials rather than freeways, and this makes the pedestrian environment somewhat better.

The situation is somewhat different for suburban rail, but usually the scale of suburban rail is such that there’s not much new construction, only reappropriation of old lines. These lines are long and the environments low-density, making it hard justify the costs of new lines in most cases. Where new suburban rail is built, for examples the Grand Paris Express, and various airport connectors, it is typically in environments with such expected traffic density that the rules for urban rail apply, and we tend to see more underground construction or usage of extant rights-of-way.

Intercity Rail

The reasons favoring highway alignments intercity rail in the US are somewhat different. Tellingly, HSR in Europe is frequently twinned with motorways. It is not about integration with cars, since those alignments are rarely if ever meant to have major stops in their middle. Instead, it’s about picking a pre-impacted alignment, where there are fewer property takings and fewer NIMBYs. This logic is sound, but I often see Americans take it to extremes when discussing HSR.

The first problem is that roads are almost never as straight as HSR needs to be. The design standards I have seen after briefly Googling give the radius of a motorway capable of about 120 km/h as, at a minimum, 500-700 meters. With these curves, trains, too, are capable of achieving about 120 km/h – less at 500 meters without tilting, more at 700 meters with tilting. The most recent high-speed lines are built with a minimum curve radius of 7 km; about the absolute minimum that can be done, with design compromises and tilting trains, is 4 km. This implies that the trains have to deviate from the motorway alignment whenever it curves. In flat regions the road curves are much gentler than the minimum, but still too sharp for full-speed running. Both Florida HSR and Xpress West noted that the trains would have to slow down whenever the Interstate curved, because the need to run in the median would prevent them from curving gently enough to maintain full speed.

Of note, the European examples of HSR running in motorway alignments have it running alongside the roads, not in the medians. I invite the reader to spend a few minutes following French LGVs on Google Maps and seeing this. This is because there invariably have to be small deviations from the road, which in a rural area are trivial when one runs next to the road but require viaducts when one runs between the road’s two carriages.

There may also be an issue regarding reusing the Interstates. To transit supporters who view HSR as a replacement for freeways, this has an element of poetic justice, or just plain practical reuse of infrastructure they think is obsolete. I chanced upon this while looking up Interstate design standards, but I’ve seen similar proposals elsewhere, as well as dissimilar proposals making use of interstate terminology, as a reminder of past national greatness. It comes from the same place as proposals to reuse auto factories to produce rolling stock: there’s a romantic aspect in addition to or instead of an economic one.

But the most fundamental problem is that the contentious experiences of the freeway revolts and modern-day NIMBYism have soured Americans on any process that involves brazen takings. What I mean by brazen is that carving a new right-of-way, especially through a populated area, looks obvious on a map. In contrast, sticking to a preexisting right-of-way and incrementally widening it or straightening curves is less controversial, even when it involves eminent domain as well, and opposition remains much more local, based on the specific properties being taken, rather than stated in general principles. I am not completely sure why this is so; my suspicion is that widening and straightening are more easily justified as things that must be done, whereas a new right-of-way looks gratuitous.

In either way, Americans have convinced themselves that NIMBYs are a major obstacle to infrastructure construction. While zoning is a notoriously NIMBY-prone process, infrastructure often isn’t. In the English common law world, expropriations are if anything easier than in France, where farmers are especially powerful, or Japan, where rioters threatened to block the construction of Narita Airport. NIMBYs are good at getting their names out in the media, but when it comes to blocking construction, they are relatively powerless; California HSR is facing NIMBYs in the Central Valley, many of whom are conservative and politically opposed to the project regardless of local impact, but so far they have not managed to delay construction.

However, NIMBYs are a convenient bogeyman for public projects, as their motives are openly selfish. They give charismatic, authoritarian leaders the opportunity to portray their infrastructure projects as battles between the common good and backward-looking parochial interests. As I’ve noted multiple times before, New York’s livable streets community (which is similar politically to the set of HSR supporters in the US) tends to overblow the importance of NIMBYs to the point of seeing NIMBYs even when the concerns have nothing to do with NIMBYism: see, for example, the reaction to the opposition of two Harlem politicians to a plan to speed up only the whitest bus route through the neighborhood.

Americans Don't Walk Much, and I Don't Blame Them


By F. Kaid Benfield, September 2, 2014

 south of Atlanta (courtesy of Stephen Lee Davis)

 (Today’s article is excerpted and adapted from the 2014 book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, distributed by Island Press.)

This won’t be breaking news to most readers, but Americans don’t walk very much.  Periodically, National Geographic publishes a 17-nation “Greendex” study on, among many other things, transit use and walking.  In 2012 we Americans came in dead last on both indices, and it wasn’t close.
In particular, only 34 percent of Americans reported walking to destinations (jobs, shopping, school, and so forth) “often” or “all of the time.”  Spaniards and Germans walk about twice as much.  The rates for Britain and even notoriously cold and dark Sweden were substantially higher than those for the US.  Speaking of cold, even the Canadians walk more than we do.  We are also dead last in bicycling.

According to census data, the share of workers who commute to work by walking in the US is a measly 6.5 percent; bicycling adds another 1.3 percent.  A slim majority of Americans drive alone to work, which also isn’t exactly breaking news.  (Transit comes in second at 26.5 percent.)  Yet research out of Portland State University on “commute well-being” finds that bicycle commuters enjoy their trips to work the most, and those who drive alone enjoy their commute the least.

Inconvenient and dangerous

I suppose there are a number of reasons why we don’t walk very much, particularly compared to residents of other countries.  But surely a big one is that, for most Americans in most places, walking – that most basic and human method of movement, and the one most important to our health – is all but impossible.  Maybe not literally impossible, but inconvenient at best, and tragically dangerous way too often.  Except for traditional downtowns, few American communities even have things to walk to within safe and easy walking distance.

Walking is downright dangerous along many suburban commercial roads.  Indeed, it should come as no surprise that sprawling, Sun Belt metro regions built completely around the automobile are statistically the nation’s most unsafe places to walk.  A report released by the nonprofit National Complete Streets Coalition earlier this year analyzed traffic fatality data over a ten-year period; the report found that the country’s top four “most dangerous” metro regions for pedestrians are all in the state of Florida.  Rounding out the top ten are regions in Texas, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama and Arizona.  (The National Complete Streets Coalition is a program of Smart Growth America; I am a board member of SGA but had no connection with the report.)

Here are the ten most unsafe metro areas in which to walk, according to the report:
  1. Orlando-Kissimmee, FL
  2. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL
  3. Jacksonville, FL
  4. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL
  5. Memphis, TN-MS-AR
  6. Birmingham-Hoover, AL
  7. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX
  8. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA
  9. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
  10. Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC
The organization also reports that more than 47,000 pedestrians were killed in the United States from 2003 through 2012, the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly every month.  On top of that, more than 676,000 pedestrians were injured over the decade, a number equivalent to a car or truck striking a pedestrian every 8 minutes.

The effect of roadway design 

While pedestrian deaths are usually labeled as accidents by local authorities, the Complete Streets Coalition believes many are, in fact, attributable to poor roadway design that fails to safely accommodate walkers.  Because walking is proven to be good for our health, lowering obesity rates, many people in these unsafe areas are forced to choose between an unhealthy lifestyle and an unsafe one.  Children, older adults, and racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in pedestrian fatalities.

For example, consider Woodbridge, Virginia, about 25 miles south of downtown Washington, DC.  The Google Earth satellite image below shows a section of the area’s main drag, the US Route 1 corridor.

  the Route 1 corridor in Woodbridge, VA (image via Google Earth)

Home to the Potomac Mills discount mega-mall and not far from the Quantico Marine Corps base, Woodbridge is a diverse “census-designated place and magisterial district” whose population is 42 percent white, 28 percent black, and 32 percent Hispanic.  It consisted mostly of farms and light industrial complexes until the 1980s, when it began to attract more suburban development.  What you see in the satellite view are, among other things, several auto dealerships and automobile service facilities, some single-family homes, some apartments, a trailer park, and a self-storage facility.  All seem sort of plopped down by happenstance.

What you don’t see are any but the crudest accommodations for walking.  No sidewalks, no crosswalks other than at long-distance intervals; this part of Woodbridge is a place for being either indoors or in a motor vehicle.  (There’s not much transit, either.)  If you were, say, an employee at the Pep Boys auto parts store on the west side of Route 1, your spouse had dropped you off and kept the car for the day, and you wanted to grab a sandwich for lunch at Wendy’s right across the street, you’d have to walk nearly a mile, round trip, to cross the road with the benefit of a traffic signal.  You would lose at least half your lunch hour getting there and back.  Even then, half your trip would have no sidewalk.

  the view on the road (image via Google Earth)

What many people with limited time would understandably do in that situation, instead, is attempt to cross the road using the shortest and most direct route between Pep Boys and Wendy’s, despite intermittent traffic, and hope their instincts, quickness and powers of observation would enable them to do so without getting hit.  Some people do exactly that, without consequence.

If a pedestrian does get hit by a motor vehicle, though, under Virginia law the pedestrian is at fault.  In this place, cars come first in the eyes of the law, and anyone who fails to respect that axiom takes chances in more ways than one.
I mention all this because it’s more
 or less what actually happens on this stretch of Route 1.  Indeed, in late 2012 two men were hit by motor vehicles while trying to cross the road in separate incidents near the section of Route 1 that I marked.  Both pedestrians were evacuated to the hospital, and both were charged by police with “interfering with traffic.”  The drivers were not charged.

A tragic case

A working single mother in suburban Atlanta named Raquel Nelson wasn’t so lucky.  In April of 2010, Nelson was charged and convicted of homicide after losing her four-year-old son while trying to cross a busy road after getting off a bus.  My friend David Goldberg, who works for the national nonprofit Transportation for America (also a program of SGA), described the facts in a Washington Post opinion article:
“After a long bus trip with her three young children in April 2010, Raquel Nelson did what other bus passengers did that day, and had done so many days before:  She attempted to cross the road from the bus stop, which is directly opposite her apartment complex, rather than walk a third of a mile to a traffic light, cross five lanes and walk a third of a mile back, lugging tired children and groceries.

“The family walked without incident to the three-foot median in the road. As they waited on the median for a break in traffic, Nelson’s son A.J. followed other adults who crossed ahead of them. He was hit by a motorist who fled and later admitted to having been drinking and taking painkillers. The driver spent six months in jail and is serving the remainder of his five-year sentence on probation. Nelson was sentenced last week to 12 months’ probation, fines and community service.”
Wow.  I haven’t studied the details of Georgia law or all of the facts, but Nelson’s conviction is stunning.   Whatever her legal culpability, I find it shocking that Cobb County (northwest of Atlanta) officials chose to exercise their discretion to prosecute her for homicide.  Goldberg continues:
“Nelson was found guilty of killing her son by crossing the road in the 'wrong' place. But what about the highway designers, traffic engineers, transit planners and land-use regulators who placed a bus stop across from apartments but made no provision whatsoever for a safe crossing? Those who ignored the fact that pedestrians always take the shortest possible route but somehow expected them to walk six-tenths of a mile out of their way to cross the street? Those who designed this road — which they allowed to be flanked by apartments and houses — for speeds of 50 mph and more? And those who designed the entire landscape to be hostile to people trying to get to work or carrying groceries despite having no access to a car? Are they not culpable?”
(Nelson was granted a retrial and, after further legal proceedings, prosecutors dropped the charge of homicide in 2013.  She agreed to pay a $200 fine for jaywalking. )

What’s the remedy?

For someone who cares about safe and healthy communities, what’s the remedy?  Jeff Speck’s excellent 2012 book Walkable City provides terrific answers for some places, but they work best in downtowns and established cities.  His “ten steps of walkability” to create urban environments that are more conducive to foot travel include such contextually effective measures as placing more housing downtown, restricting free parking, and running transit through dense urban corridors.  If we do these things in downtown Boise or Houston or Greensboro or even Bakersfield, it is likely that we will, indeed, make the city more walkable.

  walking to the bus stop in Cobb County, GA (courtesy of Stephen Lee Davis)

But what the heck can putting a price on downtown parking do for people like Nelson in residential Cobb County or anyone in Woodbridge?  Can we have a walkable city where we don’t have a city in the first place?  What if the location is just a “census-designated place” with a bunch of uncoordinated and unplanned properties that somehow ended up near each other along a high-speed road?  The stretch of Route 1 in Woodbridge, in particular, is not remotely ready for more urban measures.  The tragedy is that it’s “urbanized” enough to have some foot traffic, but not urban enough to protect it.

I suppose one answer is that, as the economy allows new businesses and homes to be built in and around the bad stuff, we can gradually make the newer land uses better and more “walk-ready” over time, so that the place can function better for pedestrians when the good stuff reaches critical mass. Meaningful transformation might take a while, though, because many of these places are not the kind of prosperous communities where change is likely to occur rapidly and with the degree of investment necessary to do it right.

Back to Orlando, the region found most dangerous in the country, local officials told New York Times reporter Lizette Alvarez in 2011 that “the data is [sic] somewhat skewed by the number of tourists who visit the state, which inflates traffic.”  Nevertheless, Alvarez reported that local officials were taking the matter seriously, building sidewalks, installing audible pedestrian signals, increasing traffic calming, modifying bus stops, creating overpasses, and improving lighting.

Whatever the approach, it matters:  a lot of places in America are like Cobb County and Woodbridge.  And, if we don’t start exercising more, including by walking, the prospects for our collective health are daunting.  The single most alarming public health trend in the United States today is the dramatic rise in overweight and obesity, bringing serious risks of heart disease, diabetes and other consequences leading to life impairment and premature death.

  Who should yield to whom? (image by and courtesy of Dhiru Thadani)

While these health challenges are complex, with many factors at play, our country’s sedentary lifestyle is an important one.  In a massive study of half a million residents of Salt Lake County, researchers at the University of Utah found that an average-sized man weighed 10 pounds less if he lived in a walkable neighborhood – “those that are more densely populated, designed to be more friendly to pedestrians and have a range of destinations for pedestrians” – versus a less walkable one.

 A woman of average size weighed six pounds less.  Other research has found that men and women age 50–71 who take a brisk walk nearly every day have a 27 percent reduced death rate compared to non-exercisers.

I have some hope for places like Orlando and even suburban Atlanta.  As sprawling as they are, there is enough critical mass of residences and businesses to build upon, at least over time.  Bus stops and businesses can be much better coordinated with crosswalks at reasonable intervals, for example, and measures such as those cited for Orlando can be put into place.

But I have a hard time seeing a near-term healthy solution for the Woodbridges of the country.  In the meantime, I don’t blame people outside of downtowns and larger, more conscientious cities who choose to get around on wheels rather than their feet.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media.  Kaid’s latest book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, is available from booksellers nationwide.

Metrolink Ridership Update – June 2014

September 2014

Note: the graphs in the previous Metrolink ridership update post contained a data entry error on my part. The trends and conclusions are the same; however, please do not use or compare with that data.
I’m updating my look at Metrolink ridership every three months, as they update ridership data published on their website. Here’s the breakdown of data by stations.

Here’s the update of the rolling 12-month averages, broken down by line.Ventura-20140901 AV-20140901 BG-20140901 SB-20140901 Riverside-20140901 91-20140901 OC-20140901 91OC-20140901 AC-20140901

These numbers are bad any way you look at it. The lines that had been performing decently well and even gaining ridership (Orange County, Orange County – Inland Empire, and 91 Lines) have slipped a little recently. The lines that were already struggling (Riverside, San Bernardino, Antelope Valley, and Ventura Lines) have gotten worse, if anything.

Here’s a look at the top 10 and bottom 10 stations for ridership gained (or lost) over the period from June 2010 to June 2014 (all based on rolling 12-month averages).

abstop-20140901 absbottom-20140901

Since June 2010, 42 of the 54 stations (excluding LA Union Station) have lost ridership. Twelve stations have lost more than 20% of their ridership in the last 4 years. With the exception of Pomona Downtown, every station that’s gained ridership is either in Orange County or on the 91/OC-IE Lines.

The drop in ridership is troubling, as is the seeming lack of concern about it. I haven’t seen it mentioned in the media. I don’t know the cause, though the steady stream of equipment failures and missed trains that you read about in the @MetrolinkDiary Twitter feed can’t be helping – the first step to running any transit service is to run reliably. If the region is going to invest more money in regional rail, we need to understand what’s going wrong, and how the service can be improved to better serve riders.

The Problem With “Infrastructurism”


By Angie Schmitt, September 2, 2014

Have you ever heard someone say that building a new transit line will increase ridership by so many thousands of riders?

An ad for DC's new Silver Line shows riders dancing into the train. Photo: WMATA
An ad for DC’s new Silver Line shows riders dancing into the train.

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit calls folks who subscribe to that idea “infrastructurists,” and he says it’s a mistake to attribute too much importance to physical infrastructure. In the end, it’s service — which can be facilitated by new infrastructure — that influences ridership.

The “infrastructurist” mentality was on display, Walker says, in a recent study published by the Transportation Research Board, which Streetsblog covered in July. The authors examined why some transit lines attract more riders than others.

Based on the transit lines they studied, the authors did not find that speed, frequency, and reliability “individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership.” But Walker says there’s plenty of evidence demonstrating the effect of service quality on ridership:
While this dataset of new infrastructure projects is too small and noisy to capture the relationship of speed, frequency, and reliability to ridership, the vastly larger dataset of the experience of transit service knows these factors to be overwhelming. What’s more, we can describe the mechanism of the relationship, instead of just observing correlations: Speed, frequency, and reliability are the main measures of whether you reach your destination on time. Given this, the burden of proof should certainly be on those who suggest that ridership is possibly unrelated to whether a service is useful for that purpose.

Note the word choice: To the infrastructurist, speed, frequency and reliability are dismissed as operational, whereas I would call them fundamental. To the transit customer who wants to get where she’s going, these “operational” variables are the ones that determine whether, or when, she’ll get there. It doesn’t matter whether the line is at-grade or underground; it matters whether the service achieves a certain speed and reliability, and those design features are one small element in what determines that.
Walker has some additional critiques of the study that he says arise from the “infrastructurist” point of view. It’s an easy trap to fall into, he says.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Political Environment explains the psychology behind Wisconsin’s rush to spend big money to reduce the “rush minute” — the suburban Milwaukee car commuter’s version of rush hour. Pedestrian Observations discusses the pluses and minuses of locating rail alongside a road right-of-way. And Better Institutions says U.S. DOT’s pronunciations about recovering driving levels are misleading.

The Week in Livable Streets Events


By Damien Newton, September 2, 2014

It’s a short week, but the things that are on the calendar are all major events, starting with the Milt Olin advocacy ride.

  • Wednesday – The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC), Yield to Life, and Ghost Bike Foundation will host a ride and vigil for Milt Olin to call on District Attorney Jackie Lacey to revisit the investigation and press charges against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy who killed him. Olin was riding in a bike lane on Mulholland Highway in Calabasas on the afternoon of December 8th, 2013, when he was hit from behind by a sheriff’s deputy who was typing on his mobile computer and drifted into the bike lane. On Wednesday, August 27th, the District Attorney’s office announced that they will not press charges against the deputy due to “lack of sufficient evidence” of the deputy’s negligence, despite department training that specifically warns employees that using a mobile computer while operating a vehicle is “inherently unsafe.” For more information on the ride, click here. For more of Streetsblog’s coverage of the crash and investigation, click here.
  • Thursday – The Metro Board of Directors is going to meet to discuss how awful a job the Sheriff’s Department is doing fulfilling their security contract with the transit agency. Get the bare meeting details here. We are editing a preview of the meeting by Dana for a little later today.
  • Friday – Mobility 21 is holding its annual conference in Orange County. Eric Garcetti and a bunch of heavyweights are going to be there. Registration is closed, but you can get most of the conference information at the Mobility 21 website.
  • Saturday – Train enthusiasts, history buffs and those wanting to learn about Southern California’s railway history are welcome to attend Fall Railroadiana Swap Meet at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris. The open-air fundraising event for the nonprofit museum will feature 180-plus tables of railroad antiques, collectibles, art, books and model and toy trains. Get the details, here.
  • Sunday – The next LACBC Sunday Funday ride will be led by local chapter Carson Bicycle Coalition. The route will be a 13-mile tour through the Carson’s hidden gems of past, present, and future.  More details, here.
  • Sunday - Join CicLAvia Explores for a journey through the historic Broadway Theater District in downtown Los Angeles in anticipation of the October CicLAvia – Heart of LA route. The Explores highlight will be a special screening of David Lynch’s classic “Mulholland Drive” at the Million Dollar Theatre at 6 p.m. with all proceeds going to CicLAvia. Get more details, here.

California Legislation Watch: End-of-Session Update


By Melanie Curry, September 2, 2014

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Here is Streetsblog’s weekly highlight of California legislation related to sustainable transportation.

A substantial crop of bills relating to safe and sustainable streets successfully wended its way through this year’s legislative session. Governor Jerry Brown has until September 30 to sign the following bills so they become law in January 2015. Alternatively, he can veto them–or ignore them. If he lets them languish until after the deadline, they will die on their own.

Hit-and-run crimes:
A.B. 47, Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles): Would create a statewide Yellow Alert system for hit-and-run crimes.

A.B. 1532, also from Gatto: Would require an automatic license suspension for hit-and-run convictions in which a person was hit, no matter how light the injury.

A.B. 2673, Assemblymember Steven Bradford (D-Gardena): A civil compromise with the victim would no longer release a driver from criminal prosecution for hit-and-run crimes.

A.B. 2337, Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona): Would extend license suspension for felony and misdemeanor hit-and-run convictions from one to two years.
AB 1193, Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco): Would require Caltrans to create standards for protected bike lanes and would allow local jurisdictions to follow other standards.
SB 1183, Senator

Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord): Would allow cities, counties, and park districts to submit a ballot measure for a local vehicle registration surcharge to pay for bicycle paths; would require passage by 2/3 of voters.
Pedestrians and cyclists:
A.B. 2398, Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-San Rafael): Would define “vulnerable road users” and raise fines for causing them bodily injury.
Other forms of transportation:
S.B. 1275, Senator Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles): Would add a “mobility option” (public transit or car sharing vouchers) to existing monetary incentives for retiring older polluting vehicles, and addresses the fact that electric vehicle incentive programs largely benefit the rich – by providing higher incentives to low-income buyers of electric vehicles.

A.B. 1646, Assemblymember Jim Frazier (D-Oakley): Would add a question to the driver’s license exam about the dangers of distracted driving associated with cell phones and texting, and assess a point against a driver’s record for cell phone infractions.

A.B. 2293, Assemblymember Susan Bonilla (D-Concord): Would require drivers for rideshare app companies like Uber and Lyft to carry more insurance. The companies raised a stink about the proposed bill but ultimately came to an agreement with the author over the amount of insurance required ($200,000) and when it is required (while logged on and carrying passengers).

S.B. 1077, Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord): Would create a pilot program to test the concept of replacing gasoline taxes with a Road User Charge, which could more closely reflect actual road costs caused by individual drivers than a tax on fuel.

Uber Service Banned Across Germany by Frankfurt Court


By Mark Scott, September 2, 2014


 The court ruling in Germany is the latest setback that Uber has faced as it expands globally.

LONDON – The ride-hailing service Uber is about to have a head-on collision with Germany’s taxis and legal system.

A court in Frankfurt has banned Uber’s most popular service from operating in the country until a hearing later this year on the legality of the product, which allows people to use their smartphones to book rides with freelance drivers.

The potential countrywide ban in Germany is the latest in a number of legal setbacks that the San Francisco-based company has faced in Europe and North America as it tries to expand its car service globally.

Uber said it would continue operating in Germany and would appeal the decision.

But Uber faces fines in Germany of up to 250,000 euros, or about $330,000, or its local employees could be jailed for up to six months if the company violates the temporary injunction, which was made last week but came to public light only on Tuesday.

The ruling is one of the most severe legal restrictions that the company has faced in any country since it was founded five years ago. A Brussels-based court in April imposed a €10,000 fine on Uber’s drivers for every ride that they accept in the city.

As part of its ruling, the German court said that some of Uber’s drivers did not have the required permits or insurance to operate as taxi drivers. The ban relates to the company’s low-cost “UberPop” product that connects drivers with potential customers. Uber’s premium product — the so-called Uber Black, which uses luxury sedans and chauffeurs — is not affected by the court’s decision.

Until a final ruling, Uber, a start-up that has been valued at $17 billion and operates in more than 100 cities in 45 countries, may be liable for the German fines each time it violates the ban.

To emphasize that point, the Frankfurt-based court said it would be Uber and its employees — not the drivers — who would face the legal penalties of violating the injunction.

Uber in a statement noted that Germany was one of its fastest-growing markets in Europe and said, “You cannot put the brakes on progress.”

“We believe innovation and competition is good for everyone — riders and drivers, everyone wins,” the company said.

A number of other American technology giants, like Amazon and Google, have also faced legal difficulties in Germany related to the country’s labor standards and strict privacy rules.

Some policymakers, including Neelie Kroes, the departing European commissioner in charge of the Continent’s digital agenda, criticized the court’s decision, saying that it could hamper innovation and reduce competition.

Other analysts, however, said they believed that the court was simply addressing a specific legal challenge linked to how Uber must ensure that all of its drivers meet the country’s taxi regulations.

Masan Turun, a 40-year-old taxi driver in Berlin, said he found the ruling fair, given that Uber drivers do not have to meet the standards required of taxi drivers. “They don’t have to learn any street names, hotels or hospitals,” Mr. Turun said.

Another Berlin taxi driver, Brigitte Holzwarth, 60, said the ruling against Uber was a good start. “So far they haven’t harmed us much, but if they expand, it could become problematic for the taxi industry,” she said. “It is expanding, especially among young people.”

The latest challenge was brought by Taxi Deutschland, a German trade body that has regularly criticized Uber for not complying with the regulations.

Dieter Schlenker, the chairman of Taxi Deutschland, referred to Uber’s business model as a “locust,” and took aim at the company’s investors, which include Google’s venture capital unit.

“Uber operates with billions of cash from Goldman Sachs and Google, wraps itself up to look like a start-up and sells itself as the saviour of the new economy,” Mr. Schlenker said.

Other German taxi groups, which have fought Uber’s rise in cities like Berlin and Hamburg, supported the recent ruling, adding that the start-up should operate by the same rules that apply to other German taxi companies.

“We welcome fair competition and a level playing field for all market participants,” Hermann Waldner, chief executive of the rival European taxi app taxi.eu, said in a statement. “The taxi industry is now more in demand than ever before, and this judgment is a step in the right direction.”

Last month, Uber won a reprieve in Berlin when a court there suspended a ban by the city’s authorities, which had previously ruled that Uber did not comply with passenger safety standards.
This summer, more than 10,000 taxi drivers in cities including Madrid and London took to the streets to complain about Uber, which they said did not comply with local rules regulating the industry.

Taxi drivers and customers in several United States cities have also criticized the company’s tactics. Uber has been accused of trying to poach drivers from rival services like Lyft, and some of Uber’s drivers have been arrested for illegal activities.

Uber says it is increasing competition in taxi markets, particularly in Europe, that have a history of limited competition and high prices.

TAP cards can now be used on Pasadena ARTS buses!


Some good news: TAP cards can now be used on the Pasadena ARTS bus. This is the twelfth transit agency to join TAP with more on the way soon.

A few details:
  • The ARTS bus will continue to accept cash fares.
  • Board a Pasadena ARTS bus with TAP Stored Value or an EZ transit pass, which can be purchased at one of nearly 400 TAP sales outlets, at taptogo.net or by calling 866.TAPTOGO.
  • Other agencies that accept TAP include:  Antelope Valley Transit Authority, Culver City, Foothill, Gardena, Long Beach, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Montebello, Norwalk, Santa Clarita, and Torrance Transit (line 4 only).
  • For more information about the ARTS bus, please click here. The bus system map is below.
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