Friday, April 29, 2011

San Bernardino = Yucca Valley?

You might as well put this thing in Yucca Valley.

That was one San Bernardino resident's reaction to the soon-to-be-built sbX bus rapid transit system along the E St. corridor. The man's other statements included calling the project a "boondoggle"-- which seems to be a word that means "non-automobile transportation" in Angry Old White Man-ese-- and saying that we need to "fix our freeways and the problems we have now," leaving open the possibility of constructing "this thing" later.
Most of the complaints in this article from the PE's ever-excellent Dug Begley are familiar-- businesses along the line are convinced that the change in traffic patterns along E street, making turning left more difficult, will mean that customers won't drive to their businesses-- and, of course, nobody who rides the bus has ever purchased anything in their lives. But Mr. Ott's assertion that the system will fail for lack of ridership is laughable. First of all, I highly doubt that the project would be underway if credible ridership projections didn't show a significant ridership base for the system. As-is, the #2 bus that serves the corridor sees nearly 5,000 boardings a day, or roughly 1/3rd of the population of Yucca Valley. Improved amenities and travel times along the corridor, as well as service realignments to feed the BRT stations, will send that skyrocketing.

Second, though, is that these comments point out how Riverside and San Bernardino see themselves as cities. I've often said on this blog that Riverside is the 12th-largest city in the state, and that it needs to start acting like it. However, much of what I hear when talking to people about our city is a suburban mentality. Here's a comparison for you:

Riverside is a city of 300,430 people, the 61st most populous city in the nation. It is the principal city of an urban area that contains 1.5 million people. Pittsburgh, PA is a city of 305,704, the 59th most populous in the nation. It is the principal city of an urban area that contains 1.7 million people.

Being situated as we are near the second-largest city in the nation, it is hard to remember at times that the Inland Empire, and its two largest cities in particular, would be dominant urban entities if they were located pretty much anywhere else in the country. We are in the same class of city as places like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati, at least in terms of population. (We're similar to Cincinnati in terms of density as well, though less dense than the other two.) Our city was once a place in its own right, before the land around the 10, 60 and 91 freeways filled in with suburban sprawl. When we are talking about building place and transit out here, we need to realize that we are not simply Los Angeles' sleepy bedroom communities-- we have here cities that are deserving not only of their own identities, but of all the amenities of city life, and the sooner our City leaders realize that, the better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

That's "Commissioner" To You

Quite some time ago I noticed a vacancy on the City Parking, Traffic and Streets Commission in Ward 2- my part of the City. This Commission is an advisory board, composed of citizen volunteers and intended to inform the City Council on matters relating to parking, traffic regulations and street design and to provide a public forum for such issues- a perfect place for a transportation geek like myself to make my voice heard. Not thinking that much would come of it, I put in an application.

I didn't want to make an announcement on the blog until things were all official and legal-like, but they are now, so here goes:

Earlier this week I learned that Mayor Loveridge and Councilman Melendrez had nominated me for the vacant Ward 2 seat on the Parking, Traffic and Streets Commission. That nomination was forwarded to the City Council at this evening's meeting, and was approved by the full Council. I start a four-year term on the Commission next Wednesday. I look forward to representing, not only the citizens of Ward 2, but also Riversiders who use alternative transportation either by choice or necessity in matters relating to the design and regulation of our city streets. If you'd like to come down and express your support (or dismay), the next meeting is on Wednesday, May 4th at 5:30 in the Orange Square Board Room, 3901 Orange Street downtown.

Please note that this blog will continue to operate as usual, and that all opinions are my own and do not reflect those of the City of Riverside or any organizational units thereof.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The State Department, Passports and Driver's Licenses

Apparently, the U.S. State Department has proposed a new Biographical Questionnaire form for some passport applicants, form DS-5513. The blogosphere is quite upset about the proposed new form, which asks details such as your lifetime history of places of residence and employment, all the details on your family that you can scrounge up, and any "religious ceremonies" that could have accompanied your birth.

Of course, what few blog posts have noted is that this is simply an update to an existing form. How do I know this? Well, when my wife applied for a passport several years ago, her application was subjected to extra scrutiny- including a copy of the Biographical Questionnaire that is going about the intertubes. She was also asked to provide copies of things like student ID cards, utility bills and high school yearbook photographs. (Actually, the new form is more multicultural- the old one asked simply about "baptism.")

You're probably wondering what this has to do with alternative transportation. I'll get there. See, at the time, I had an expired passport and driver's license as my proof of identity. My wife had her birth certificate and a non-driving California ID card. That last item is supposed to be equivalent to a DL for identity purposes, right?

Wrong. We called up the State Department when we got the massive, invasive questionnaire packet, and we asked them why they needed all this information from my wife and not myself. The answer? "Oh, it looks like she applied with a state ID card. That's usually a red flag."

So remember- drivers are Americans, non-drivers are suspicious.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Interstate Orange System

I wrote a comment on Matt Yglesias' blog, but I thought the point was good enough to share here.

A commenter, doubting the existence of "induced demand" on freeways, likens highways to oranges:
I've never really understood the "traffic expands to fill supply" argument. I have driven on roads in a number of different cities in the United States. Some were faster than others. Demand does not actually increases without limit, so it is possible to have enough capacity. And proper freeway design makes an enormous difference, so there's that, too. It's like if we gave away free oranges, eventually people would get as many oranges as they wanted and we wouldn't have to give away any more. That's not how people get oranges because we've chosen to have a market for them instead. But it's not impossible to do. Even if the roads are empty, I'm not just going to drive around randomly. And my speed is limited by the speed limit, so if I'm only willing to tolerate a 60 min commute, I can only live 60 miles from work. I'm not going to drive 200 miles to and from work just to use the available roads.

The biggest cities need to manage traffic coming into the city core because building enough capacity to feed a dense grid of skyscrapers full of people would simply take up too much space. And so you need to limit access through tolls and public transit. Or if your travelling to Manhattan, bridges are damn expensive to build so we make the users pay. But there is plenty of space in most of the DFW area and no geographic restrictions such that I don't think congestion is unavoidable on most of their roads.

I take the orange argument and run with it:
The question, though, is whether we should be providing free oranges to everyone. Imagine if oranges were given out as freely as roads- every street corner has a government employee with a box of oranges, handing them out to anyone who asks. You can imagine that, suddenly, your intake of oranges is going to increase dramatically. Looking for a quick snack? Grab an orange. Making dinner tonight? Orange chicken, duck l'orange, orange slices on a salad. You're going to have fresh-squeezed orange juice every day for breakfast, aren't you? In fact, I bet in this society it would be as "required" for people to own an orange juicer and peeler as it is in our present society to own a car.

Now, to enact this policy, it's going to take spending billions on orange production, which in turn is going to crowd out a lot of other crops in agriculture (much like corn does today, but worse). And what about people who don't like oranges? Their tax dollars go to pay for the Interstate Orange System just like everyone else.

Of course, demand patterns shift. Some orange guys on some street corners are going to run out, while others are going to have so many oranges that a lot spoil. But what happens when you decide to provide a good free- be it oranges or highway infrastructure- is that you encourage overconsumption of that good. Could we build enough highways to satisfy demand? Almost certainly yes, just as we could probably farm enough oranges so that everyone in the country had as much as they wanted. Could we do so without sacrificing a lot of other priorities- good land-use planning, environmental protection, and whatever's on the land on either side of existing freeways? Nope.

By the way, Happy Earth Day! If you took the bus today, send your day or monthly pass in to RTA for a chance to win free travel.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Washing Machines Teach Us About Cities

I live in an apartment building, like many city dwellers and some suburbanites. I live in an apartment not only because the rent is generally cheaper than a detached home- at least, a detached home in any neighbourhood that my wife would feel safe in- but also because apartments are a more eco-friendly choice. A few shared walls dramatically lowers heating and cooling costs, and smaller spaces both lower utility use and lead to less retail consumption. But this post isn't about my building, it's about my washing machine.

In my building, there are 28 apartments- 14 single bedroom units and 14 two-bedrooms. There is also one laundry room, near the elevator, with three washers and three dryers in it. When I moved into my present building, I was worried that waiting to do my laundry would be a frequent occurrence, especially since I was moving from an apartment with in-unit laundry. My fears were entirely unfounded. Even though I share three washing machines with 27 other households, I rarely need to wait to launder my clothes- and I am usually able to do two loads at once, saving me time and reducing wait times for everyone else in the building. Rather than having to have one machine per home, 28 households are able to do all of their washing with only three machines.

Of course, it isn't just the washing machines. We have a pool and spa on our property, which 112 households have access to. It isn't always empty, but there's always been plenty of space for everyone to use. We have a gym as well, and a basketball court. These are all things that you might expect to find in the garage or backyard of a suburban home- serving one household, laying around underutilized most of the time. On one apartment property, just one of each of these resources is used by 112 people, largely without any problems.

The point I'm making here is that cities are about economies of scale. When people concentrate themselves in one place, and get comfortable about sharing resources with others (parks, transit vehicles, pools, community centres, etc.), fewer resources are needed to serve a larger community than would be necessary in a place where people are spread out. The fewer resources we consume, the less impact we make on our planet- and ultimately, the more sustainable our civilization will be. Those who see the cities as polluted and the suburbs and rural areas as pure are missing this point entirely. Of course, we should care about pollution in our cities- but the solution to pollution isn't sprawl.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Omnitrans Outreach

Omnitrans wants to know how they're doing, and so they're asking the public. In a series of meetings next week throughout the service area, the agency is soliciting comments on the quality and reach of their service. You can get the details on their blog. (By the way, Omni, serious props on having a blog. Welcome to the blogroll!)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Changes Coming at Metrolink

It hasn't made a huge splash in the blogosphere (likely overshadowed by CicLAvia), but Metrolink has been up to all sorts of stuff lately. There are schedule changes coming May 9th, which bring not only expansion but a few long-awaited express trains. (None serving Riverside, but I've always said that the Riverside Line felt like an express anyway.) The agency has apparently caught both Dodger and Angel Fever, providing special service on several lines to both teams' home games. Lastly, the Board is looking for feedback from customers on a shakeup in fare policy, which would eliminate the 10-Trip pass and enact several measures to improve weekend ridership. Let's take a look, shall we?

Service Changes
On Monday, 9th May, Metrolink will be implementing some service changes. Most of these are minor schedule modifications, and there are (thankfully) no service cuts. Among the items affecting Riverside:
  • Train #408 on the Riverside Line will run 5 minutes earlier, presumably to accommodate one of the new morning express trains at Union Station.
  • Beach Train service, adding an extra round trip on the IE-OC line on weekends, will be published in the schedule. Service will run 2nd July-9th October.

Of course, the big news is the introduction of express service on the Antelope Valley and San Bernardino Lines. On the SB line, one train a day in each direction will run express from San Berdoo, stopping at Rancho Cucamonga, Covina and Los Angeles in the morning- and the same in reverse in the afternoon.

Beyond the express service, there are also two more local-stop round trips being added to the SB Line next month. Of course, schedules have also been re-jiggered extensively, both to accommodate the screaming-fast express trains (60m SB-LA!) and to improve transfers at LA Union. If you ride the SB Line- and you should, it's awesome- you should get a new schedule book or pamphlet.

Fare Policy Changes
Metrolink has been thinking creatively about ways to reduce the costs of providing service- and it shows. One possibility they've come up with is the elimination of the 10-Trip Ticket. You may say that this doesn't sound terribly cost-saving, but if you've seen a Metrolink 10-Trip ticket before you can probably follow this logic. First, the 10-trippers are printed on thick, specially-cut paper stock, which is entirely different from every other ticket they sell. This special (and expensive) ticket stock is then fed into the little validator machines you see on the train platform- each and every train platform. Those machines then have to be maintained, emptied of paper clippings, filled full of ink, repaired, etc. Metrolink estimates that they could save $300,000 a year by eliminating the tickets.

What, then, happens to 10-trip riders? Well, if you're like the majority of riders with a 10-trip, you use it to ride the trains for one (work) week- 5 days x 2 trips daily. In lieu of the 10-trip ticket, Metrolink would offer a 7-day pass, which would not only provide a savings over a weeks' worth of round trips but would also allow riders to enjoy a stress-free weekend getaway at no additional cost. Also, since the 10 tripper is currently the cheapest way to get a student discount ticket, Metrolink would extend student discount fares to all ticket types.

Unfortunately, those who (like me in the past) ride infrequently but still like getting a discount would be left out in the cold, especially if they're not (like me) college students. Metrolink estimates that this is a very small percentage of their ridership, who would take a very small 5% fare increase. In my opinion, it's a pragmatic solution- but Metrolink wants your opinion as well. You can submit comments via the web, or in person at the May 13th board meeting. (Click the link for details.)

Baseball Service
Lastly, Metrolink has caught baseball fever, big time. Special service will be provided for most weeknight Dodger games (excluding Memorial Day and the 4th of July) on the San Bernardino, Antelope Valley and Ventura Lines. Train fare and tickets start at $20. An express bus connection at LA Union Station is free with your Dodger ticket (and charges standard LA Metro fares otherwise.)

If you'd prefer your baseball in the American League, Angels trains will be provided for all weeknight games that start at 19:05. Trains will run along the Orange County Line, from Los Angeles and Laguna Niguel, terminating at Anaheim before the game and reversing the trip afterwards. The Anaheim train station is at Angels Stadium.

Note also that REGULAR METROLINK TICKETS ARE VALID on these special trains- so if you happen to need a late-night ride home from Los Angeles during baseball season, you might get lucky and catch a Dodger train.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Pure Joy"

This is how one participant (riding away from the Bicycle District rest stop) described the scene in Los Angeles yesterday, as the city closed some 7 miles of its streets to car traffic, opening them to pedestrians, cyclists, and a wide variety of other wheeled contraptions. Over 100,000 people were estimated to participate in CicLAvia, which brought community, cameraderie, delicious food and yes, joy, to the people of Los Angeles and the surrounding communities.

I took the bus to San Bernardino and the Metrolink in to Los Angeles, and the train was filled with fellow cyclists. By Rancho Cucamonga, the train had reached its official bicycle capacity- and the conductor unsuccessfully tried to turn others away. By Los Angeles, there were more bikes on the car than I could count, in every conceivable location they could be stored. In LA the scene was even better- tens of thousands of cyclists flooding the streets. In intersections where cross-streets were closed to cars, it was easy to forget that the auto had ever been invented. (In the intersections where cars were permitted to cross, it was easy to observe drivers who wish the bike had never been invented.) Along the route, businesses were putting up temporary bike racks and holding specials for riders. It was truly an amazing experience- and one I highly recommend that every cyclist go experience for themselves. The next event is on July 10th- which I will sadly miss, being in New York City- and a third will be held in October. Grab the train and come ride with us!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Drive to work, work to drive

It's a reality for many Americans, as reported by The Energy Trap:

Jeff Grant is an ER technician and a paramedic. He lives in Waldoboro, Maine. He works two jobs and his wife works one. Last month between them they spent $760 on gasoline, car payments (for two modest used cars) and car insurance. This month the 50 cent increase in the cost of fuel means they’ll spend about $828 for transportation. That means that Jeff is working one job just so he and his wife can get to their other two. This is astonishing, but there is nothing statistically unusual about his situation--and its implications for the American Dream (for lack of a better word) are stark and depressing.

The article is worth a read, though it does devolve into praising Jeff's "spiritual identity" towards the end. (Seriously, if spirituality is the only choice besides materialism, I am so screwed.) I do have to take issue with one of their statements, though: "Most Americans have no transportation options other than owning a car and buying gasoline, and when prices are high this burden imperils their financial stability and it dampens the entire US economy." Perhaps this is true for rural residents like Jeff, but APTA notes that roughly 51% of Americans have access to public transport. Of the remainder, a sizable percentage could probably bicycle to work or telecommute. Even Jeff, who commutes to two towns, 15 and 30 miles away respectively, could probably find freedom by quitting the more distant of his two jobs and bicycling to the other. (15 miles is admittedly a long ride, but many a cyclist plies the river trail between Davis and Sacramento every day, a 12-mile trip. It's possible.) I'd venture to say that most Americans have options other than owning a car and buying gasoline, but most are unwilling to endure the discomfort and inconvenience of pursuing them.

Anyway, I'll wrap this up with commentary from Canadian indie group Metric:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Car Culture Makes a Driver's Paradise

The Long Beach Press-Telegram ran a story about a new parking structure, built at the San Bernardino Metrolink station. The new structure will more than double the number of parking spaces available at the station. The new lot creates what San Bernardino Councilwoman Virginia Marquez called a "commuter's paradise"- because there is now plentiful, free parking. After all, isn't that what every commuter wants?

Or is it possible that the public-transit-riding commuters at the San Bernardino station might want improved transit connections to and from local and regional buses? While both this station and Omnitrans' hub are in downtown San Bernardino, there is a roughly 1 mile walk between them. Only one infrequent local bus line, the #1, serves the station- and free transfers are only available to that one bus, not to any other bus in the downtown area (unlike on RTA). The express bus from Riverside used to stop here, making it an excellent alternative to the often anemic Metrolink service offered in Riverside, but that route has been cut back to the downtown transit mall. This station is, in fact, a prime example of a wasted connection opportunity. Of course, by striping and paving a ton of asphalt, the City of San Bernardino has made it into a "commuter's paradise"- but only for the right sort of commuters. You know, the sort that would never, ever, ever get on a bus.

Friday, April 1, 2011

DesertXpress Final EIR Released

No, this is not an April Fools joke. The Federal Railroad Administration today released the final Environmental Impact Report for the DesertXpress HSR from "southern California" to Las Vegas. It's a huge document, but it describes a pretty timid plan- most of the train is going to be located within the existing envelope of I-15, and most of the land to be acquired is either useless bits of freeway-adjacent desert, or low-intensity industrial use on the Vegas side. Unfortunately, that "useless bits of freeway-adjacent desert" description applies equally well to the preferred Victorville station, to be located off I-15 at Dale Evans Parkway on the fringes of Apple Valley.

View DesertXpress HSR stations in a larger map
I mean, I knew that a station in Victorville wasn't going to be a mixed-use miracle, but I was hoping it'd be at least close to an existing VVTA line. (The nearest is on SR-18, some eight miles south. The Amtrak and Greyhound station is similarly distant.) Lest you protest that nobody is going to ride a bus from Los Angeles to Victorvlle, note that the people who work at the facility (including ticket agents, hotel agents, baggage handlers, maintenance-of-way personnel, and probably train operators, conductors and on-board services staff) will have to get there every day, and might like a way to do that besides driving.