Monday, December 20, 2010

Car-Sharing: How it works, why it's awesome

I've mentioned the wonders of ZipCar car sharing a few times in this space, but the idea is still one of the most potent conversation-starters I have when talking about cars and transit. A lot of people want to know just what car-sharing is, how it works, and whether or not it's right for them. So here's a brief on how car-sharing works, where you can find it, what it costs and why it's a great complement to your bike and transit ways.

Essentially, car-sharing is a way for many people to share an automobile. Simpler forms include a few roommates or neighbours pooling funds to purchase and share one vehicle, but most of the time we're talking about larger services or cooperatives who make their membership available to the general public, subject to a fee and usually a check of their driving record. In California, there are basically three organizations that provide such services: ZipCar, the 800lb gorilla of car-sharing worldwide; CityCarShare, a cooperative with cars in San Francisco and LAXCarShare, a local company providing cars in Los Angeles. From here on out I'll refer to ZipCar specifically (because that's what we've got here in Riverside), but most large car-share services work similarly. Car-sharing services have fleets of cars parked around cities, often at University campuses or transit stations, that any member can reserve for use by the hour. They generally charge a small annual fee and a flat hourly rate, which includes gasoline and insurance. If you live near a car-share car, it can provide you the convenience of a car parked nearby without the exorbitant cost of owning a car, especially if you don't use your car every day. It's great for transit users who have to make an occasional trip that requires driving, or as a replacement for a seldom-used second car.

To join ZipCar, you fill out an application on their web site (see the referral link in the sidebar) and give them your driver's license and credit card information. After a week or so, you'll get a ZipCard in the mail. This card has an RFID chip in it, similar to LA's TAP card or the proximity access cards at many workplaces. Once you have this card, you link it to your account on their web site and you're ready to start making reservations. You can make reservations over the phone, through the web site (which is smartphone-accessible) or via their iPhone app, in half-hour increments. Once you've reserved your car, you go find the car at the start of your reservation, tap your ZipCard to the reader in the windshield, and the car will unlock. The keys are generally on a cord next to the steering column. During the trip, you lock and unlock the car with your ZipCard on the windshield-mounted reader. When you're done you simply return the car to where you got it, lock it and walk away. If it needs gas, there's a gas card in the car which you can use at most gas stations at no cost to you- and if you can't find a gas station that'll take it, ZipCar will reimburse you.

One great thing about ZipCar is that they're worldwide. They have cars in dozens of cities and college towns across the country, as well as fleets in Canadian cities and in the UK. If you're over 21, you can reserve and use any ZipCar anywhere in the world. (18-year-olds can join, but only on college campuses and are limited to the cars available on that campus.) On vacation this spring I was able to quickly pick up a ZipCar in San Francisco for a time-sensitive situation that Muni couldn't handle.

So, why am I promoting expanded access to the world of automobility? Because car-sharing is a fantastic addition to a car-free (or car-lite) household. ZipCar finds that 40% of members reduce the number of cars in their household because of access to car-sharing. It can provide that safety net for somebody to be able to get by without owning a car, and therefore allow them to take transit, walk or cycle for the majority of their trips- knowing that, if they ever need to drive, there's a car around the corner. Furthermore, car-sharing reduces carbon emissions and congestion. The per-hour pricing model provides incentives for members to drive less, chain trips together, and only use a car when they *really* need it. And the ability of people to share cars reduces the number of cars on the road- by approximately 25 per ZipCar, according to the company.

So, where is car-sharing available in SoCal? Right now, there are three ZipCars on the UC Riverside campus- the only ones in the Inland Empire. For my OC readers, cars are available at Chapman University and UC Irvine. In LA County, you can find them at CSU Long Beach, the Claremont Colleges, CalTech in Pasadena, at USC, at UCLA, and (according to the ZipCar Facebook page) throughout Hollywood. San Diegans can find ZipCars at UCSD, San Diego State, San Diego University and Point Loma Nazarene University. Local upstart LAXCarShare also has cars throughout Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Note that, although SoCal cars tend to live near universities, you don't have to be affiliated with the university to use them.

At this point, you're probably wondering what it costs. The prices change based on what market you live in, and many larger ZipCar cities have plans with higher annual fees that allow a certain amount of free hours a month. However, here in Riverside, the cost structure is rather simple. If you're UCR-affiliated, there's no application fee and a $35/year/driver annual fee. If you're not, then there is a $25 one-time application fee, and your annual fee is $50/year/driver. Either way, the cost is minimal. As for actually renting a car, the rate is set on a per-car basis throughout the system, but all three cars in Riverside have the same rates. Weekdays cost $8/hr or $66/day, and weekends $9/hr or $72/day.

So that's car-sharing: an alternative to vehicle ownership that allows mostly-alt-transport people to borrow a car on a whim when they need to. If you live near (read: within walking/biking distance) one of the locations listed above, I encourage you to give it a try- and there's no better way to do so than by clicking on my referral link in this blog's right sidebar. For more information, browse ZipCar's helpful web site.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The MUTCD, California, and why you should care

The MUTCD, or Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, is the book that sets the standard for pavement markings, signs, speed bumps and basically anything else that determines how traffic flows in public rights of way. Traffic in this case is broadly defined- pedestrians, equestrians, cyclists, bus and rail transit, and automobiles all have specific regulations in the MUTCD. Bikes even get their own chapter- Part 9. The Manual is published by the Federal Highway Administration, and most states simply adopt it as their own standard. Some adopt it with state "Amendments,' which usually specify unique markings that are used in that state, such as specific state highway signs. Seven states, including California, have their own MUTCD; though this is required by law to be "substantially in conformance" with the federal MUTCD, it is sometimes the little differences that'll trip you up.

Why does the MUTCD matter? Well, any markings on pavement or road signs have to be in compliance with it. The standards dictate everything from where the signs should be placed, to how high off the ground they need to be, to what colour and text are on them and how shiny they are. (This is called "minimum retroreflectivity," but I think "shininess" sounds better.) If you want to make a stretch of road different in any way, you have to check the MUTCD first.

Now, as I said, California has their own MUTCD, which is different from the federal one. Sometimes this works in our favour- we were the first state who could use sharrows without special federal permission, because we included them in the 2004 California MUTCD. Right now, though, this is working against us. The new 2009 Federal MUTCD has some very cool bike-related stuff in it, but these changes have yet to migrate into the California MUTCD. Also, while we were the first to allow sharrows generally in our roads, the California MUTCD limits their placement and use in a way that the federal does not.

Specifically, here in Riverside, I want to do something about the atrocious Arlington Avenue, the Central/Magnolia intersection, and now the badly-redesigned University/I-215 eastbound segment. I'd love to see sharrows installed on these streets, along with a sign that warns drivers that bicycles can use a full car lane. Under the federal MUTCD, sharrows would be just fine for all of these situations, and a "Bicycles allowed full use of lane" is included (Sign R4-11). However, the California MUTCD does NOT include a "Full use of lane" sign, just the terribly ineffective "Share the road" sign. (Most motorists think "Share the road" means "Bikes get a tiny bit of it at the right, cars get the rest- sharing!") As for sharrows, the California MUTCD only permits them on streets with on-street parallel parking, restricting them from being used on University, Arlington or Central.

There is, however, good news! The 2011 California MUTCD is currently in draft form, and incorporates the more progressive federal bicycle markings. While I doubt very much that these are in danger of not being present in the final Manual (due out mid-2011), you should still comment in support of the new bike stuff. Also, if you find it useful, I suggested that a sentence in their sharrows section be slightly modified, so as to permit sharrows being used on roads that are unsafe for bikes yet signed with a speed limit above 35. Currently, there is "Guidance" that suggests otherwise, and while I think this is non-binding, traffic engineers will probably follow it anyway.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What happened to my bike lane?

Anyone who cycles near UCR will have noticed that University Avenue was "improved" recently, widening the two eastbound lanes to three- two through lanes and a right-hand turn lane- between the UV shopping centre's stoplight and I-215/CA-60. This new street configuration completely removes the bicycle lane, and does not replace it with anything else. While I'm entirely comfortable taking a lane through this one-block section, many, many other student cyclists are not. They end up either riding on the sidewalk or riding against traffic in the bicycle lane on the other side of the street.

The expansion of automobile space on this street is contrary to the University Avenue Specific Plan for this area. Section 5.2.3 of the Specific Plan, "From Iowa Avenue to I-215 (Subdistricts 3 and 4)", reads in part:
The current pavement width and striping for four lanes shall be maintained in order to utilize the remaining pavement area for bicycle lanes and a future shuttle.

This document was ratified when the pavement striping had only two lanes eastbound from the UV, and so the City has gone against their own planning in removing a bike lane that literally hundreds of students use daily.

While I don't expect the cash-strapped city to do much of anything anytime soon, please consider writing your councilman to urge them to re-stripe this roadway when next it is required in order to be safe for the hundreds of student cyclists that traverse the area daily.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why the initial HSR segment isn't a "Train to Nowhere"

So many opinion pages have been decrying the California High-Speed Rail Authority's choice of a stretch of the Central Valley from Borden to Corcoran (now extended to Bakersfield- thanks Ohio and Wisconsin!) as the first constructed segment. Many are calling the project a "train to nowhere" that will never attract riders.

They're wrong, and this is why.

First of all, this is the initial construction segment. Nobody anywhere actually expects to run a modern, profitable high-speed rail operation from Bakersfield to not-quite-Madera. We're going to start building the train here, and while we're building it we'll keep designing and planning the rest of the system, and then when we're done in the Central Valley we'll build the rest. The idea that we would spend several billion dollars on new track for the already-quick San Joaquins is laughable, and is plainly not going to happen. I fully expect that California will figure out the funding issues with this project and will build it, all $43bn of it.

However, I might be wrong. We might run out of money, and resistance to the rail in populated areas might never be overcome. Even if that's the case, a substantial investment in high speed tracks in the Central Valley is still more than warranted, though we will need to build something more like Palmdale-Stockton, not just Bakersfield-Madera.

Let me paint you a scenario. It's 2018, and you want to go visit your family in the Bay Area from Riverside. You grab a morning Metrolink into Union Station. Once there, you pick up your HSR ticket and walk to Platform 14. Up into the light of day you go, and there before you sits a shiny, sleek, hideously blue-and-gold high speed train. Overhead, though, you notice no electrical wires, and at the front of a train is a road-weary diesel engine. You board the train anyway, and soon you are on your way. The train follows the Metrolink Antelope Valley Line, making no stops between LA and Palmdale. You look out the window at the 5 and 14 freeways and laugh. Even though you're not riding on high speed track, you're still managing a consistent 79 M/h. 1:45 later (just 15m faster than the current 2hr Metrolink run time), you're in Palmdale, and the train is stopped at the station for quite some time. You look out the window, and you notice that electric wires have appeared overhead. The diesel locomotive has pulled away onto a siding, and as your train leaves the station it transitions to the new California High Speed Rail track.

The train smoothly accelerates up to 250M/h, and in just over two hours (that's a hair under 4 since leaving Los Angeles) you're in Modesto. You notice a rather long stop here as well. A new diesel engine has hooked up to your train, and you're being pulled back onto conventional rail. Your train still clips along at 79M/h as you cross the Altamont Pass and pull in to San Jose. 5:45 after you've left Los Angeles, you've been treated to views of the San Francisco Bay. From Diridon station, you can take a VTA light rail train all over the Santa Clara Valley, catch Caltrain to the Peninsula, or (hopefully) ride BART to anywhere in the East Bay. However, you bought a ticket to San Francisco, and that's exactly where you're going. A 45-minute ride up the existing Caltrain alignment and you're at the new Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco, 6 and a half hours after leaving LA.

Now, 6:30 isn't exactly record timing, and you could probably fly it faster if you get through security quickly. You could also probably drive it faster if you do the drive overnight, but you won't manage it in traffic. I believe that such a time would pull many folks from the roads and skies to the rails- not as many as the 3 hour time, of course, but enough. The point of this sort of system would be to demonstrate that Californians will, in fact, ride trains. Once you build up ridership and show the public that rail can work here, you can gain support to complete the system all the way to LA and SF. Oh, and by the way, it's not unrealistic. The times I gave are slightly shorter than the schedules for Metrolink, ACE and Caltrain on existing rail (because they make all stops, while HSR wouldn't), plus the time that CHSRA gives for travel between Palmdale and Stockton. Also, French national rail operator SNCF regularly hauls TGV trains past the reach of electric wires using diesel locomotives. TGV trains also run on conventional electrified track at conventional speeds, and such a strategy would also make this scheme possible.

The cost of high-speed track from Palmdale to Modesto will be significantly lower than the cost of track from San Francisco to LA. A lot of the cost of building this project is in right-of-way acquisition, and that is serious money in populated areas. Also, most of the resistance to the project is down here where people live. Of course, the initial segment doesn't quite go where it needs to go- yet. We need to push for the construction of rail between Bakersfield and Palmdale, the biggest present gap in our state's rail system. Currently, the only rail between the two is via winding Union Pacific trackage that includes the Tehachapi Loop. This stretch of track has never hosted passenger traffic, and UP is unlikely to be receptive to passenger trains along it- not to mention that the time to ascend and descend the mountains would be prohibitively long, and the line is presently the busiest single-track freight line in the world. While the long tunnelled stretches of HSR track from Bakersfield to Palmdale may not look to be the most cost-effective investment in the system, they connect a critical gap in our state's present rail network and will be essential for future operations.

In summary, if somebody tells you we're building a train to nowhere, they have no idea what they're talking about. If somebody tells you they need to build track anywhere else, suggest Bakersfield-Palmdale, and explain why.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The "Green" McDonald's

If you find yourself in transit along University Avenue, you've probably noticed the recently-opened "green" McDonald's franchise at Eucalyptus and University. The new building (for which they tore down a perfectly useful old building) incorporates solar panels into the parking lot, along with native landscaping and wood chips rather than traditional grass, and permeable gutters to direct groundwater back into the ground. These are the features that I can see from the outside while biking or bussing by, so they may even have more stuff going on on the inside.

Now, this "green" building also has two lanes of drive-through traffic (up from one at the previous site) and an entrance that faces their solar-shielded parking lot. In between the sidewalk (and frequently-served bus stop) and the street? Drive through lanes, native landscaping, and a permeable gutter. The "green" improvements at the store are literally getting in the way of customers using sustainable transport, shoving them aside for the sake of automobile-driving shoppers. Also, while I can't fully tell from the street (and would never imagine actually *eating* at a McDonald's), I don't see any bicycle parking- which would actually be a substantial asset for the customers and employees in this poor, minority-dominated bike-heavy neighbourhood.

Of course, this is a transport blog, so I won't get in to the horrible environmental impacts of the sort of factory-farmed agriculture that makes McDonald's profitable. I will, however, note that without provision for transit, cyclists and pedestrians, no amount of solar panels and permeable gutters will ever make a building green. Riverside's green Mickey D's is nothing but a shameless attempt at corporate greenwashing.

Oh, and by the way, the lack of pedestrian access is completely out of line with the University Avenue Specific Plan, which requires that buildings face the street and have entrances that are sidewalk-adjacent. Apparently if you're a megacorporation, you can get around those sorts of things.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Guardian Fleet Review

So, last week I posted that I was going to get back into the habit of blogging. Finals week caught up with me and knocked that idea straight out of my head for a while, but with all that behind us, let me return with the post I intended to write: A review of the new Metrolink Guardian Fleet.

Last week, Metrolink took the new Hyundai-Rotem-made cars on a tour about the southland, and I joined them for the Monday leg of the tour in the San Fernando Valley.

First off, these cars are quite a sight to behold. The stainless steel cars, painted in the new aqua-wave colour scheme, stand out among the white Bombardier coaches at Union Station. The aesthetic is almost like one of Amtrak's Superliner consists, and I've always thought those were quite sleek and shiny. (Never mind the fact that many are nearly 40 years old.) The crash energy management bit of the cab car is a touch ugly, but another railfan suggested that it was designed to look like a locomotive in order to discourage the clueless from thinking the train was moving away from them.

The new interior colour scheme is also a refreshing change, from the increasingly drab purple-and-grey coaches to a cabin full of bright blues. Not only do the new seats look better, but they're more comfortable as well- or, at least, they will be. The foam still needs some time to break down. The headrests are high enough that 182cm (6') tall me is finally able to rest my head on them- something not possible in the old cars for me. On-board amenities haven't changed at all- you're still offered drinking water, one restroom per car and electrical outlets. For those of you who want to charge up that phone or get some work done on your laptop, outlets are located at four seats on the lower level (towards the end of the car), as well as at each table on the mezzanine and upper levels. The new restroom is much larger, and the toilet flush no longer sounds as if it is connected to the intake of a small jet engine. One quibble, though- the A/C unit in the cars is rather loud, especially on the upper level.

One of the nicest things about the new cars is the new high-intensity amber directional signs. You'll notice that the signs give train number, origin and destination stations in clear, bright yellow. Metrolink riders will immediately notice the contrast with the current dull, dim green signs that don't provide origin or train numbers. These will be especially helpful at terminal stations like San Bernardino and Riverside-Downtown, where the sheer number of parked trains often confuses infrequent riders. Also in the "better wayfinding for passengers" category, the new trains are equipped with automated announcements in clear, precise English. While the exhortations not to put your feet on the seats every few stops can get old (especially when your train is running express from LA Union to Moorpark), the new automated announcements will most certainly be a welcome antidote to broken or inaudible PA systems, or that one conductor who everybody's had at least once- "Nrmms srmrmmr Rrmrmmrmmrmm Dermmrmrmrm."

The safety aspect of the new cars is what Metrolink and other news outlets are playing up, and that's fine. This is an excellent move to pander to a media and public culture that sees a train crash every few years and thinks "Oh my stars, the train is so very dangerous that I better drive!" Of course, rail travel remains the safest way to travel in the country, by a HUGE margin, but the purchase of these new cars (which are sorely needed on capacity grounds anyway) should go some distance towards assuaging the anxieties of a car-crazed region. Personally, I feel much safer on any given Metrolink car than in my own auto, any time of the day, any day of the week.

As far as the actual trip? It was far too much fun. The train was mostly empty, but those who showed up were either press or fellow railfans. We had some 10 cameras out at Moorpark station recording the northbound Coast Starlight. 'Twas fun. Also, we did get to tour both the crumple zone bit at the front of the cab car, and the cab itself (which is on the upper level rather than the mezzanine in the new cars). Want to know what the engineer's view looks like?

More photos on FlickRiR, and a very brief quote from yours truly at the LA Daily News. I wish she'd tossed in a URL.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

This Week in Transit, 12/12/10

Local events in red, HSRA events in orange.

If you find this feature useful, please don't hesitate to subscribe to either of these calendars.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A triumphant return!

With the impending cessation of UCR's fall term, I find myself suddenly less busy. You all know what that means- more blogging!

My return will be spectacular indeed. Today, I'm aboard the inaugural run of Metrolink's new Guardian Fleet cars (the Hyundai Rotem coaches, for those of you who follow such things). I'll be writing up a full review of my day of train-geekery, complete with photos and video, upon my return to Riverside this evening.

For those of you who want to check out the new cars for yourself, they'll be out in the IE on Wednesday morning, and in the OC on Thursday. You can catch them in San Bernardino at 8:30, and in Riverside (downtown) at 11:30. No guarantees, but those of you who take a look in San Bernardino might be able to talk your way into a ride down to Riverside. Doesn't hurt to ask, right?

(Sadly, I won't be able to attend the Riverside or OC events.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bloggy Absence

Sorry folks, but it's the last week of the quarter here at UCR, and that means papers, grading student work, and more papers. I'll pick up with the blogging sometime soon. In the meantime, I've found something to keep all us transit-lovers busy for a while.

See, we just got a new printer at the homestead here, and it came with a link to Canon's Creative Park web site, a treasure trove of print materials and templates. This includes papercrafts. Some notable transit-related diversions:

Commuter EMU (looks suspiciously like a JR E231): Power & non-power cars

High-speed train (TGV Sud-Est-ish?): Power and non-power cars.

Bus and Bus Stop

And, for the very patient, there is an exquisitely detailed model of a Penn Central GG-1, the same sort that smashed through the floor of DC Union Station back in 1953.

See you all on the other end of Finals Week.