Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A parking garage, by any other name...

Since we're on the topic of California's planning and development processes, I think I'll take the time to talk about another pet peeve of mine: the misappropriation of transit and air-quality improvement funds to fund automobile projects. This problem is endemic throughout suburban America, and a great number of recent projects in Riverside highlight the issue. The Magnolia Ave. grade separation, for example, was paid for in part by funding received by the city for air quality improvement. (The City of Riverside portion is CMAQ funds.) The Colton Crossing project was sold in part by referring to the benefits it would bring to transit users, although only 7 passenger trains a day (compared to hundreds of freight trains) use that particular section of rail. While funding documents for the upcoming SR-91 HOV project are not yet easily accessible on the Internet, the benefits to transit customers are already being touted by project boosters- despite the fact that only 5 buses a day in each direction will use the lanes. The entire SR-91 Improvement Project, which will cost several hundred million dollars, will be used by only 10 buses in each direction per weekday, and only 4 on weekends. Making it easier to drive will, of course, only lead to increased congestion and the withering of alternative transportation.

The project that prompted this post, however, is a particularly egregious example. It's not located here in Riverside, but in Baldwin Park. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports on the City of Baldwin Park's plans to build a "transit center" adjacent to the present Metrolink station. (I should mention that, as a station on the San Bernardino line, the Baldwin Park Metrolink enjoys some of the most frequent service in the system.) After reading the article, however, I got the impression that this new "transit center" was only tangentially related to transit. The article gushed over the brand new, 500-stall parking structure that would be linked to the train station, and lamented the plight of commuters who currently have to walk two whole blocks to park their personal vehicles (for free!) and access the train. I thought that this might have simply been local media bias, however, so I checked out the project documents. Perhaps there would be an improved bus terminal, or some other improvement worthy of the "transit center" name.

As I feared, the project will add very little in the way of actual improvements to transit service in the area, besides train-adjacent parking. A few bike racks and a possible bus driver's restroom, as well as a transit information kiosk, will be added. Bus riders will still be dropped off on the street, and those unlucky enough to be heading westbound will have to find somewhere to cross the street to access the new pedestrian bridge. (No pedestrian traffic signal is indicated in the project documents.) Also, of the six levels of parking, the project documents suggest that only two will actually be dedicated to transit users.

I don't have anything against park-and-ride facilities per se, and they do serve a purpose in getting regular work commuters on to specialized commuter transit. However, funding for our transit systems is scarce. Park-and-ride facilities actually undermine the goals of local transit agencies, as they allow commuters to take advantage of the benefits of transit for their work trip, while incentivizing their auto use for all other trips they make. Our cities should be focusing on transit projects that reduce automobile dependence, rather than cementing it.

This project is being paid for by a Federal Transit Administration grant, but it is a lot more about getting a sparkly new downtown parking garage for the City of Baldwin Park than it is about transit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vehicular Cycling and the Suburbs

Brown Girl in the Lane has a scathing critique up about vehicular cycling advocates. While I'm not about to say a word about her concern for the diversity of cycling, and the overwhelming white-male-ness of long-time vehicular cycling advocates, I want to push back against some of what she is saying. It's true that, in a perfect world (or Denmark), we'd have plentiful, grade-separated bicycle paths along every major road, and that bikes would be treated with respect by cars on the low-speed roads where they mix. Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and bicycle infrastructure is often severely lacking, especially out in the suburbs. (Riverside is actually on better footing than many surrounding cities, but this is still the case here, especially outside of downtown and the University area.) Vehicular cycling is a valuable tool for maintaining a cyclist's safety under specific infrastructural conditions, when a road leaves provision for cars and nothing else. Our right to the road, codified in CVC 22201(a) 21202(a), is an important tool to be used when city planners have neglected our right to safe passage in the public right-of-way.

For example, I'm going to go back to a long-standing pet peeve of mine in Riverside's bike infrastructure: Arlington Ave. between Indiana and Magnolia. Vehicular travel lanes are 10 feet wide, two in each direction. There is no shoulder, and no parking lane. Sidewalk cycling is illegal in Riverside, and is in any case rather dangerous due to driveway traffic. There are no alternate routes along side streets, as every street ends at the 91 freeway except the major arterials. (Central Ave. is even worse.) Oh, and did I mention that this is a City-designated bike route?

View Larger Map
(A quick map, so you can see that there really are no good cycling routes through here.)

View Larger Map
(And a street-level view. This passes for a "class III" bike route in Riverside.)

So I've recently taken up climbing at the Hangar 18 climbing gym, which is right next to the airport on Arlington. My choices are either to travel through this area or go several miles out of my way. I chose today to take the lane- and yes, it's not fun. Cars speed by you, honk, yell at you, etc. But if I were to ride at the far right-hand side of the lane, they would speed by much closer, and put me in greater danger than I currently am. The skill of vehicular cycling allows me to navigate sub-par infrastructure safely, while I continue to advocate for safer cycle routes.

Wherein I Agree with New Geography

New Geography is a blog that I occasionally read, mostly because it's on Straight Outta Suburbia's excellent blogroll. They're a conservative blog, and their narratives often run counter to the urbanist paradigm. (It goes without saying that our interpretations of empirical data often are in disagreement as well.) Suburban booster Joel Kotkin, frequent columnist at Reason, is the blog's founder. Thus, it's odd that I find myself in agreement with one of their recent posts, although for slightly different reasons.

In "California: Codes, Corruption and Consensus," blogger Bill Watkins asserts that the California planning and environmental review process is profoundly broken. The long list of "stakeholders" that must be consulted to get damned near anything built, he says, allows for corruption and introduces uncertainty for developers and businesses. Furthermore, the effective veto held by a long list of groups makes it very difficult to build even the most uncontroversial of projects.

The current system for development is undoubtedly an impediment to a great many goals. Watkins wants to streamline the process in order to reduce cost and uncertainty for business. I'd like to see the corruption that results from the process-- visible in the way many megacorporations can get municipalities to waive taxes, fees, and environmental reviews, while small businesses and residents have to pick up the slack in revenue-- significantly reduced. Furthermore, the effective veto held by any "stakeholder" in the area over major projects is a significant impediment to much-needed density and transit improvements. (See, for example, the effect the University Neighborhood Association's opposition has had on the Perris Valley Line, or Beverly Hills School District's opposition to the urgently-needed Subway to the Sea.)

Fortunately, the solution Watkins proposes is amenable to urbanism as well, if done carefully. He proposes that projects that substantially conform to regional and community plans be assured rapid completion. The time for community input (read: opposition) would be during the development of the plan, rather than during the development of a specific project. Not only would this reduce the overall cost and delay of opposition and lawsuits, as NIMBYs would have only one process to disrupt rather than several, but such a review would also allow for the complete reassessment of a community's character and development at a single point in time. Such an opportunity could allow a coherent, urbanist vision of a community to prevail over the present, sprawl-creating zoning systems (which currently continue largely out of institutional inertia, rather than merit.)

Of course, streamlined development review would not singlehandedly allow the accomplishment of urbanist objectives, and I have no doubt that the usual suspects would struggle against the proposal of any increase in density or shift towards sustainable transportation in their community. However, I am convinced that such an idea would at least give advocates of smart growth an even playing field on which to fight, and a meaningful prize worth attaining.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Upcoming Service Changes

RTA has put out a brochure on their new service changes. There's nothing here that should be cause for alarm-- it looks like service hours will not be cut. However, if you're planning on riding the bus after 8 January, do be sure to get the new Ride Guide. Guides are available on all buses (but are often scarce during a service change), at most libraries, at City Hall, and at the UC Riverside bookstore.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Connecting California

... in more ways than one. California's state-supported Amtrak routes, which I've mentioned before, provide a fantastic, hassle-free way to get around our state. Combined with their dedicated, guaranteed bus connections, there is pretty much nowhere of any significance in California that is out of the reach of the Amtrak California system. (And yes, the bus connections are *very* good. They generally use clean, comfortable coaches, and they will wait for the train if it's late. The train will also wait for a late bus.) Few people that I talk to in daily life know about this system, and I'm always asked "Did you drive or fly?" when I'm in the Bay Area, but it is a great way to move about the state.

And it just got better. Amtrak has announced that it has deployed free wi-fi across all three state-supported train routes. While business-class passengers on the Pacific Surfliner have long had access to the Internet, now passengers in coach on the Surfliner, as well as riders  in both classes of the Capitol Corridor and aboard the single-class San Joaquins can also enjoy Internet access as well.

The technology used by the system, which Amtrak calls AmtrakConnect, is cellular-based. During my trip this summer, I had the opportunity to use the wi-fi aboard the Cascades and Downeaster (before the latter hit a truck). The service is a bit more reliable than tethering a cell phone, as it will use whichever provider has a stronger signal in that area. (The difference in rural areas between my provider, T-Mobile, and Verizon is pretty significant.) It's not going to win any speed awards, but it's plenty to use for e-mail, Facebook and other general web browsing.

The trend of transportation providers offering free wi-fi is an exciting development. On the East Coast, low-cost bus providers have been offering Internet access for some time. (Also, many Crucero bus routes in the southwest offer such access.) One of the benefits of taking either transit or intercity ground transportation is that your time in transit isn't simply wasted looking out the windshield. Seeing providers recognize and capitalize on that is a hopeful sign for alternative transportation.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Metrolink's Toy Express

Metrolink's Holiday Toy Express will be stopping in Riverside on Saturday. The festively-lit train will be collecting unwrapped toys for low-income families. The train will be at the Riverside-La Sierra station at 5pm (17h00) on Saturday night, collecting unwrapped toys and providing a light show for the other side of Riverside. It won't be stopping at Downtown this season, so if you'd like to make a donation, this is your chance. For other options, see the full Holiday Toy Express schedule.

RTA #15, Metrolink 91 and IE-OC lines.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Auto Industry Bailouts

Daily Kos reports today that the American auto industry is seeing a significant rise in sales. The diarist (Kos-ese for "blogger") reports this as a vindication for President Obama's interventionist economic policies, and a damning criticism of Mitt Romney in particular. Of course, this is also a victory for the auto workers, who will stave off the human misery that is rapidly spreading around this country in the form of long-term unemployment and underemployment.

However, it is not a victory for our fight against climate change, or for those who would like to see our society re-organized to survive the post-petroleum era while we still have enough energy to do so. This is the same problem that plagued the immensely popular Cash-for-Clunkers program. Employment and economic recovery are no doubt good things, and damned near any government spending in the economy could accomplish them (see Keynes' coal mines example), but I would much rather see my tax money going to save our civilization from the coming ravages of peak oil and climate change than perpetuating the continued production of the very products that have so destroyed our nation.

With that observation, I leave you in the capable hands of cartoonist Mike Stanfill:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Bicycle as a Tool

... because any tool, held properly, can be used as a weapon. I wrote my last post on the empowerment of the bicycle, the limitless freedom and independence that the simple machine gives me.

I witnessed Thursday night, however, that the same tool that gives me such transportation independence also gave a very different kind of power to Officer Dillon of the Riverside Police Department. During a march with Occupy Riverside, a few occupiers briefly stepped off the crowded sidewalk. Two police officers came out of nowhere on their Trek mountain bikes (seriously guys? Knobby tires on pavement?), traveling at full tilt, and slammed into the occupiers in order to affect their arrest. They were charged with jaywalking.

The bicycle is a tool that gives its rider great power. Great power, as the saying goes, comes with great responsibility. The same power that I have to take my transportation into my own hands is the power of a police officer to harass, injure and arrest peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.