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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

LAX FlyAway Bus Adds Hollywood Route


September 2, 2014


The FlyAway bus system will launch a shuttle service tomorrow morning that connects Los Angeles International Airport with Hollywood.

The shuttle will run every 15 minutes, between 5:15 a.m. to 10:15 p.m., and stop at the southeast corner of Argyle Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from Metro's Hollywood and Vine rail station and the Pantages Theater.

The one-way fare is $8 for adults and free for children five years old and younger.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, area council members and other local leaders will gather at the shuttle stop tomorrow morning to celebrate the new route, which will join existing FlyAway service between LAX and Santa Monica, Union Station, Van Nuys and Westwood.

Airport officials estimate that more than 100,000 people will ride the shuttle in its first year of operation.

The Growth Ponzi Scheme in L.A.


September 2, 2014

Strong Towns advocate Charles Marohn maintains that “our post-World War II pattern of development operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”
… government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure.  This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure. … In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion — but that’s just for major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes.

The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. The engineering profession will argue, as ASCE does, that we’re simply not making the investments necessary to maintain this infrastructure. This is nonsense. We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.
Every so often, an article comes along that pretty much proves his point.  For example, in the New York Times of Sep 1: Infrastructure Cracks as Los Angeles Defers Repairs.

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.

… 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.
Even fiscal conservatives eventually see the problem:
Kevin James, a conservative talk-show host who ran for mayor last year and was appointed by (LA mayor) 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.”
Unfortunately, they’re still missing Marohn’s point: it’s not failing to make the investment; it’s failing to build the right kind of community that can pay its way in the long run – maintenance costs included.

Downtown L.A. streetcar line cost estimate is shaved by $55 million


By Laura J. Nelson, September 2, 2014

Proposed downtown L.A. streetcar line
 An artist's rendering shows the proposed streetcar line near 6th and Hill streets.

Building a streetcar line in downtown Los Angeles may cost about $55 million less than officials had previously said — an estimate that has buoyed the spirits of the project's boosters, including City Councilman Jose Huizar.

But the lower price tag of about $270 million could still complicate the city's bid for a $75-million construction grant, a crucial portion of the streetcar funding plan. Projects that cost more than $250 million must compete for federal dollars alongside the nation's most expensive and sophisticated transit proposals, including subway lines.

Last fall, the initial cost for the transit loop more than doubled to $327 million. Consulting firm URS Corp., hired by the city to draw up a new estimate, says the four-mile route could be built for about $270 million, according to a final draft of the analysis obtained by The Times.

Sources familiar with the cost-estimate process who spoke on the condition of anonymity said it's unlikely that the numbers will change significantly before the Los Angeles City Council receives a formal report.

A spokesman for the city's Transportation Department said it would be "inappropriate to comment on a draft document." Officials will have a final cost estimate in two to three weeks, said James Lefton, the department's executive officer of transit services.

The streetcar line still faces a significant funding gap: A tax district approved two years ago by downtown voters would raise as much as $85 million. If the Federal Transit Administration gives the project the full $75-million grant it seeks, that would still leave a funding gap of more than $100 million. To make up the difference, Huizar spokesman Rick Coca said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the city plans to arrange a public-private partnership.

The new cost estimate is "excellent news," Coca said. He added that he expects expenses to fall as engineers begin their work.

The downtown trolley has been publicly discussed for nearly a decade, since L.A.'s Community Redevelopment Agency began pushing for a partial rebirth of the streetcar network that once crisscrossed Southern California. Streetcar supporters, including Huizar, hoped tracks in the ground could accelerate what was, at that point, downtown's nascent renaissance.

The route approved by local officials would start on 1st Street and run south on Broadway, west on 11th Street, north on Figueroa Street, east on 7th Street and north on Hill Street. Then the tracks would proceed north to Grand Avenue, turning around near the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The Grand Avenue segment will probably be put on hold, Coca said, cutting about $15 million from the immediate project cost. Deferring construction could reduce ridership and add to the city's long-term costs, analysts wrote, because more environmental study might be needed later on.

Buying land for a maintenance facility for the streetcars could cost $28 million, analysts said in the draft report. Coca said the city is considering a joint development on that property to offset some costs. "The city is highly unlikely to purchase a piece of prime real estate in the middle of downtown and do nothing with it except build our maintenance facility," Coca said. The contingency budget of 30% will probably shrink, he said.

The city could also save nearly $19 million by running the streetcar along 9th Street, rather than 7th Street, because utility lines are sparser there and relocating them would cost less, the report said. But analysts say moving tracks away from 7th Street's restaurant row and the nearby subway stop could reduce trolley ridership.

In federal filings, city officials said the streetcar line's environmental review documents will be finished next spring, a year later than expected. They hope the $75-million grant will be awarded in the summer of 2016.

The draft report says the project could start service by the end of 2019.

How Car Companies Are Trying to Win Back Millennials

Get ready for the dashboard selfie.


By David Zax, September 2, 2014


 Volkswagen's Ewald Goessmann and Chuhee Lee line up a selfie at the carmaker's Electronics Research Laboratory.

 BELMONT, Calif.—"Smile!" says Korina Loumidi, snapping a selfie of the two of us on her iPhone. In the past hour, I've wandered through a Silicon Valley office building with all the trappings of one of the hot tech companies in the neighborhood: Google, Facebook, Apple. I've seen whiteboard walls scribbled on with marker, pool tables and ping-pong tables, a cluster of 3D printers, and an Xbox-equipped TV. Each room throngs with young employees, who like Loumidi are mostly in their late 20s, exhaling the entrepreneurial energy that hangs in the Northern Californian air.

Only I'm not at a tech company—and certainly not one that was recently a scrappy startup. I'm at a research outpost of Volkswagen, the 77-year-old German car company, and the iPhone on which Loumidi has just snapped our selfie is mounted to the dashboard of an "iBeetle," a new VW model that was designed in collaboration with Apple. The iBeetle app she's demonstrating—which, on top of a specialized selfie feature, integrates with the owner's Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter accounts—represents the latest attempt of a major car company to win back the attention of the next generation of would-be car buyers, many of whom are far more interested in the specs of the next iPhone than those of the next VW.

Research bears out the suspicion that Millennials, the generation born between the late 80s and the early 2000s, are less interested in cars than their parents were. People between the ages of 16 and 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001—"a greater decline in driving than any other age group," per U.S. PIRG. According to the New York Times, the Federal Highway Administration has further found that only about 46 percent of potential drivers 19 and younger had driver's licenses in 2008, down from about 64 percent in 1998. Trend pieces trot out variations of these statistics every few months, but the upshot for car makers is always the same. "We have to face the growing reality that today young people don't seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations," Toyota USA President Jim Lentz has said. Or, as U.S. PIRG's Phineas Baxandall has put it, starkly: "Millennials aren't driving cars."

There are all sorts of reasons why Millennials might be less interested in driving. Most simply, the recent recession dampened the purchasing power of many young people and their parents, and cars are expensive. It's also true that Millennials have a growing affinity for cities, where alternative transportation options are rife.

But a third trend underlying Millennial disenchantment with cars, according to many, has to do with the rise of online life. One recent study noted that Internet users, in particular, were less likely to have driver's licenses. A Zipcar-funded study found that about 40 percent of Millennials would rather lose access to a car than to their smartphone or laptop. Young people today are more excited by the latest product announcement from Apple than from Ford. The gleam is off the car and on the iPhone, which has automakers scrambling to get it back.

•       •       •       •       •

If Millennials are too busy taking selfies to care about cars, then perhaps an ability to snap selfies in cars could lure them back? That's the insight of Loumidi's app, and it's this third trend—tech obsession—that the VW Electronics Research Laboratory I'm touring is meant to address. Based in Belmont, California, ERL is just a 20-minute drive up Route 101 from the campuses of Facebook, Google, and Apple. VW has decided that if it can't beat the smartphone set, it will join them; indeed, it works hand-in-hand with several nearby companies, even having one employee embedded full-time with the chipmaker Nvidia.

Though overrun by twenty-somethings like Loumidi, at ERL my main tour guides are Ewald Goessmann, the lab's executive director, and Chuhee Lee, its deputy director. At 49 and 38 respectively, Goessmann and Lee are uncharacteristically old as far as ERL employees go, and there's something of the feeling of a pair of college professors wandering among their students as we progress through the lab. Both have a youthful energy, though, and wear stylish fitted shirts that would make them at home among startup founders. Goessmann has only recently assumed this position, after years working for Audi (a VW-owned brand) in his native Germany. "Even two months here have been inspiring to me," he says of the move to Silicon Valley. "Every week you get new ideas."

Volkswagen has decided that if it can't beat the smartphone set, it will join them; above, the Goessmann and Lee selfie is finished.
There is a decades-long tradition of car companies having design studios in Southern California, where the strong driving culture has proved fertile for automotive innovation. It's only in the last 15 or 20 years, though, that car companies have increasingly spun off outposts here in Northern California, to capitalize on and connect with the tech industry. In 1998, VW became the second to open a research arm hereMercedes was first, in 1994and ERL, with its 140 employees, remains the second-largest after the Mercedes lab.

A Wonka-esque energy infuses ERL. On one floor, a group of young researchers contemplate new ways to connect drivers to events in their area, scribbling notes on panels of frosted glass that double as a whiteboard. On another, a roomful of 3D printers hum, ready for rapid prototyping of ideas as they come to engineers. On another, social scientists tool around on a pair of driving simulators—one made from the sawed-off front half of an Audi A7, propped in front of a triptych of widescreen TVs—preparing to test a new in-car interface they hope could reduce distracted driving among Millennials. They won't show it to me, alas, since car companies are notoriously secretive about products in the near horizon.

In a ground-floor garage, though, a 31-year-old engineer named Michael Buthut shows me a more distant-horizon ideas, something more research than development. Buthut is tasked with responding to trends in technology; one of these, he notes, is the fact that we are all generating increasing amounts of data, more than we know what to do with. We have less trouble recording moments of our lives, but more trouble sifting through them and retrieving the important ones.

This may seem unrelated to driving, but in fact we generate data everywhere—and sometimes unsafely. If you've given in to the temptation of snapping a photo while on a particularly scenic drive, you're not alone (and distracted driving is particularly prevalent among Millennials). But what if there was a way to focus on the road, Buthut asked, while your car took your pictures for you?

A Wonka-esque energy infuses ERL. On one floor, a driving simulator made from a sawed-off Audi A7 helps test a new in-car interface to reduce distracted driving among Millennials.
Next to Buthut is a VW Golf with four GoPro cameras mounted to the roof. The GoPros are rigged to take pictures every five seconds, generating 32 GB of data during a two-hour drive, a daunting number of photos for any human to sift through. But VW collaborated with the startup wise.io to create an algorithm that trains a computer (based on a set of human-rated pictures) to know which photographs are most likely to appeal to you. Buthut showed me how the algorithm pored over reams of photos from a recent drive, discarding bland, blurry street views and distilling the set to a handful of postcard-ready shots of gorgeous, hilly landscape. It's the sort of thing to make an art photographer squirm, but it may work well enough to discourage young drivers from clicking-and-driving.

Another idea Buthut and his team are working on is called "smart accessories," which envisions a future where your valuables are embedded with Bluetooth chips that communicate with your car to prevent theft (among other uses). In true Silicon Valley fashion, Buthut wasn't entirely sure what would come of this idea; he just knew that it was cool. Nevertheless, he did show me one "use case," in the tech world's jargon: handing me his Pebble smartwatch, he grabbed a chip-embedded surfboard from the Golf's roof rack and made off with it like a bandit. Once he reached a certain distance, the car's lights began to flash, and the Pebble watch pushed me a message: "Alert! Your surfboard is missing!"

•       •       •       •       •

Volkswagen isn't the only car company worried about Millennials' dwindling affection for cars. Various brands have been responding to the trend in different ways. Some seem to feel that better outreach is just as important as design; GM hired a "youth emissary" named John McFarland some years ago (though GM says his role has since changed); it also retained a consultant from MTV to figure out what kids today were into. Ford, a latecomer to the Silicon Valley R&D game (it only moved to create its own lab there in 2012), nonetheless teamed up with Zipcar to popularize its vehicles among college students. And though Honda did redesign the Fit mini-car partly to appeal to Millennials, its strongest pitch came in the form of internet-friendly videos featuring a BuzzFeed-ready meerkat.

But if most brands seem to be focusing on Millennial marketing for now, there’s still no shortage of eye-popping, futuristic design ideas like the kind VW is playing with. The question, though, is how many of these ideas will actually make it to market. Back in 2011, Toyota presented a car at the Tokyo Motor Show that it called the "Fun Vii." If other car companies were interested in integrating vehicles with iPhones, Toyota's design, originating at its Calty design lab in Newport Beach, California, seemed more like an attempt to turn your car into an iPhone.

The Fun Vii is a vision of a sleek car that has all the design appeal of your smartphone. The exterior and interior of the car itself are composed of giant, illuminated display panels; you can actually change the color of the car with the press of a button. The Fun Vii excited wide swaths of the press, garnering coverage in outlets that usually overlook car news. "It struck a pretty cool chord with the general public," says Alex Shen, Calty's studio chief designer.
The only problem? You can't buy it. There was one copy made
for the auto show, but it wasn't even designed to be driven safely on public streets. It was what the auto industry calls a concept vehicle, which Calty's Andrew MacLachlan loosely defines as a car company's "dream of what could be." Any given concept vehicle is typically a suggestion of what could be on the market in 10 or 15 years. Though that time horizon may seem distant, that's actually when many Millennials may come into their own financially and be more willing to buy cars.

Toyota's Fun Vii concept car has all the design appeal of your smartphone.
This time lag underscores one of the challenges of designing cars for Millennials, whose tastes can change with the weather. It's tough, says MacLachlan, but while there are "fashions and trends, there are values as well, and values change very slowly." Toyota has conducted some of its own research to try to identify what these values are, particularly for the younger half of Millennials, sometimes called Generation Z. Calty concluded that three features of Generation Z are most salient when projecting what they'll like in the future: this generation is digitally native, assertive about its green lifestyle, and a "creator generation" that wants to craft and customize both their digital and physical spaces. This, at least, is the moving target Toyota thinks it sees in the distance.

"It's kind of guesswork," says MacLachlan. "No one can tell five years from now what events will alter who we are, or our culture. But there are elements you can look at that don't change so much."

•       •       •       •       •

I think about this balancing act of timescales—juggling what's possible now with what the market may be in the future—at VW's ERL, as Chuhee Lee walks me through a kind of prototyping graveyard. He reaches up to a shelf, showing me a black robotic device resembling the head of Pixar's Wall-E. "AIDA," or the Affective Intelligent Driving Agent, was created in conjunction with MIT to "explore new vehicle-driver relationships." But as VW continued to work on iterations of this and other physical avatars, smartphones took off, Siri was born, and the company eventually decided a dashboard-mounted robo-head wasn't such a great idea after all.

In fact, it seems that one of the smartest things car companies can do when trying to appeal to Millennial tech habit is simply to design their cars in a way that makes them accommodating to the innovations of other companies. The lifecycle of a car design is five years, but Tim Cook takes the stage every year or so to tell us about the new iPhone.

Years back, VW developed a black robotic device resembling Pixar's Wall-E, but the company abandoned the dashboard-mounted robo-head after Siri took off. (David Zax)
You can hardly blame car companies for lagging. Facebook can take up the rallying cry "move fast and break things," but VW can never have that luxury. With cars, "you want to go fast, but never break!" says Lee. A software company can rush out a program, then have customers download an update when glitches are found. Car companies can't do this. If they try anything similar, their customers die, and they face Congressional inquiry.

With this underlying reality, I found myself most impressed by the innovations that enabled VW to simply accommodate the rapid waves of the consumer electronics industry. Lee and Goessmann explained, for instance, how VW is designing its next wave of cars with the on-board computer as a separate module, making it easier to introduce new hardware through the five-year span of a particular car model. Previously, car and computer were so intertwined that someone buying a car in 2010, say, might be stuck with the same in-car electronics as someone buying in 2006.

For all of the frantic effort of car companies to reclaim coolness from Apple, they seem at their best—and most Millennial-savvy—when they come to a Zen-like acceptance of the tech world's ascendance. Which is why when Loumidi snaps our selfie in the iBeetle, it's the first time that I (an admittedly old Millennial, at 30) see an innovation that actually stimulates my appetite for car-buying. It's less the selfie feature I find alluring—though that's fun—and more the elegance of the underlying iPhone integration: a basic dash-mounted dock; an app whose elemental features (music, social media, the ability to time my drive) are designed with jumbo icons I can take in easily with the briefest glance from the road.

And it's this innovation that lingers in my brain as I pull out of ERL in my rental car, struggling to hear directions my iPhone barks at me from the cup-holder at my elbow. It now strikes me as barbaric to have a car that doesn't integrate with my iPhone so seamlessly. For VW to have tapped into that hallmark of the tech industry—the ability to create dissatisfaction with products merely a few years old, even if they work passably well—it must be doing something right.

Overall, U.S. Streetcars Just Aren't Meeting the Standards of Good Transit

It's not anti-transit or anti-rail driving the skepticism; it's anti-bad rail transit.


By Eric Jaffe, September 3, 2014


Since the U.S. streetcar revival relies heavily on transportation subsidies, it's only fair to expect the latest wave of streetcar lines to produce benefits related to (wait for it) transportation. But the new systems in operation—ten by the latest tally, with a few dozen more being planned—have left much to be desired on that seemingly essential count. Notwithstanding the legacy system in New Orleans, the best evidence to date places streetcars somewhat outside the transit network, more a tool for tourism than city mobility.

The most commonly cited problem with new streetcars—Matt Yglesias calls it the "original sin"—is that they tend to run in mixed traffic alongside cars. The resulting slow speeds, combined with the relatively short length of the lines (often just a mile or two), means many potential riders could sooner reach their destination by foot. Streetcar advocates say slow speeds are not only beside the point but part of the charm, which might be true, so long as riders don't have somewhere to be.

But the problem goes beyond infrastructure design to service itself. Very few next-generation streetcar lines run with the sort of frequency that might counterbalance slow speeds or short distances. In a very smart post at his Transport Politic blog a couple weeks back, Yonah Freemark lamented that many U.S. streetcar (and, to be fair, light rail) systems built since 2000 fail to meet minimal service standards—often running just a few times an hour.

We pulled the nine streetcar lines from Freemark's service table and charted their frequencies below. (We've included Memphis, though Freemark doesn't identify it as a streetcar, and also Tacoma, which some consider part of the Sound Transit light rail system.) The peak column represents service between 8 and 9 a.m. The midday reflects frequency from noon to 1 p.m. The evening trains were measured from 9 to 10 at night.


As the figures show, few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go transit service that eliminates the need to check a schedule. Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City, and Tampa) never hit that mark. Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of the three travel periods. The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.

And again, that's the minimum standard. Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 or 12 minutes, five or six times an hour. Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark. It's perhaps no coincidence that the brand new Tucson line also met its early ridership projections, even after ending a brief free-ride campaign and even before University of Arizona students were back on campus.

Compare these services to the high standard set by the historic and very functional system in New Orleans, where the St. Charles line runs every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday, and every 10 minutes at night. Frequency matters.

As streetcar skepticism grows louder, even among traditional transit advocates, there's some confusion about its source. Some mistake it for an anti-rail sentiment (a misperception perpetuated when critical pieces quote actual rail opponents, as the Economist recently did). In fact, the true spirit of the concern is not anti-rail or anti-transit but anti-bad rail transit. Here's transit advocate Bruce Nourish, writing at the Seattle Transit Blog, on the odd love affair between urbanists and streetcars (his emphasis):
The primary public policy problem of teeming, traffic-strangled West Coast cities like Seattle is to keep buses moving while we build out fast, high-capacity systems, permanently endowed with their own right-of-way. Streetcars — especially of the short-line, not-very-frequent variety we've built in Seattle — do not meaningfully bear on that goal, and it pains me to tally all the money that is misspent in building them, and the effort misplaced justifying and defending them.
To be clear: there's no inherent reason streetcars can't provide good mobility options for city residents. On the contrary, if they run in dedicated lanes and with high frequencies as part of a wider network, they can perform quite well. It's the way too many new streetcars are being deployed—as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all), even after being constructed with painfully limited transportation funding—that's inspiring much of the criticism.